Dubai has always been a bucket list item for me. I remember reading Popular Mechanics back in 5th grade and coming across an article on this far-away city that was in the midst of building the world’s tallest tower. It struck a young me as odd that the US didn’t have the world’s tallest building. We were the best at everything, weren’t we? It was my first glimpse at a world unskewed, I guess you could say, by the lenses of American and western superiority that we tend to grow up with here. Needless to say, I’ve been fascinated with the place ever since.
**Don’t care about the back-story? Scroll down until you see bold italicized lettering**
So when I saw a link that David Bohmiller had posted regarding an upcoming race in the Arab Emirates, I knew I had to go.
There was only one problem standing in my way-my fitness. I had a very underwhelming 2014 season, but after getting a couple of stadium sprint victories I was lucky enough to sign with Spartan’s Pro Team in November. I celebrated by immediately getting injured. I broke a toe during a heated beach football game during my west coast road trip in December, and didn’t do any training, cross training or otherwise, while it healed. In fact, if I were to race in Dubai, it would only be my 8th run or workout after almost two months of sitting on my butt.
Racing a 5k in less than ideal fitness is rough; racing an obstacle race in the same circumstances is just plain brutal. But there is an important difference between the two: in a track or road race fitness is the ultimate limiter, while in an obstacle race you can make up for lack of aerobic fitness and in doing so so run “above” your current potential. This can be accomplished by being smarter and cleaner through obstacles as well as being just plain tougher than the other competitors. I raced most of last season in less than ideal shape and eventually became used to gutting races out. In doing so, I beat some guys that I wouldn’t have been within a minute and a half of in a 5k.
2014’s experiences gave me a bit of confidence that I could squeak out a top-3 finish against a sub-standard field. But why I thought that there would be a sub-standard field in Dubai with its close proximity to Europe, I have no idea….
After a couple of hours of late-night waffling, I decided to pull the trigger on the trip. Kevin Donoghue has a quote about “living vicariously through yourself,” and it has stuck with me and to some extent helped influence my travel-oriented lifestyle over the past 6 months. As I saw it, I had two choices: I could sit at home and read through travel blogs while bemoaning my lack of fitness, or I could throw all excuses aside and take a risk. In doing so, I’d be opening myself to new and exciting experiences.
At 4 am I finally booked the earliest flight I could find, a 2:00 pm flight leaving that day (Wednesday). The flight would fly overnight and get into Dubai Thursday at noon. Dubai is 9 hours ahead of us, so it would actually by 9 pm there. The race was Friday morning at 7:00 am. If the delays were minimal, and things worked out perfectly, I could make the race with a few hours to spare. If bad weather kept the plane on the ground in Chicago, I’d probably miss the race.
Of course the first thing that happened in Chicago was a delay while a faulty sensor was checked. This was followed by another de-icing, then another refueling. Finally we took off, about an hour and a half behind schedule. We switched to the larger 777 in Washington, and were once again delayed on the tarmac while sensors were checked, multiple de-icings were had, refueling… you know the drill.
Despite its length (15 hours) the flight went surprisingly well. I was lucky enough to get my favorite seat on an airplane, the aisle seat in the very last row. I know most people hate this spot due to the bathroom traffic, but hear me out- Usually there’s a small storage space directly behind this seat, so you can wedge yourself in and stand without blocking the aisles. If you’re like me and have a bad back, this ends up being a life-saver. My headphones reached all the way behind the seat, so I was able to stay on my feet while watching movies on the monitor (Fury, The Drop, and Gone Girl, all of which were pretty good). Plus, from this seat you have uninterrupted, un-judged access to the bathroom and galley. I tried to get up and stretch and do squats once an hour in the galley. There was also an empty seat next to me so i was able to spread my legs out a little while sitting.
The only negative of sitting in the back of the plane was in meal selection. Both times the dinner cart came by the only meals left were some traditional middle-eastern vegetarian dish. I tried picking at them, but they were essentially inedible (and I can eat anything).
Luckily, my access to the galley made up for this; by the time we landed I’d put down 6 turkey sandwiches, 3 bags of potato chips, 4 Kit-Kats, 5 tomato juices, 3 cups of coffee, 3 apple juices, and about a gallon of water.
It was already midnight when we touched down in the Arab Emirates. After getting through customs it was well after 1 am. I then attempted to rent a car. This proved to be tricky, as the airport was under construction and therefore the rental car companies were all in temporary booths without electricity. They used the old-fashioned credit card swipe machines, and my debit card didn’t have raised numbers, so I was out of luck. It was now after 2. Seeing as I was due to race in less than 5 hours, I decided there was no point getting a hotel for the night. I found a corner by the food court and attempted to get a couple of hours of sleep, feet up against a wall to relieve the plane-induced swelling. I dozed for maybe an hour, ate some Subway, and then went outside into the warm, surprisingly humid Middle-Eastern night to take a walk and shake my legs out.
After some disapproving looks from locals, I decided it would be wise to go back inside and change my mid-thigh khaki shorts for pants.
Dubai isn’t a strict Islamic State like its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, but it still ascribes to Sharia Law. Sharia Law is mainly derived from the Koran and Sunnah (The Sunnah being the supposed compiled statements of Mohammed) so in essence the laws being enforced are directly influenced by 1400 year-old documents.
Ignorance of the law doesn’t count as an excuse, so if visiting it’s probably wise to read up ahead of time to make sure you don’t unknowingly break the law. Of course, while there I unknowingly managed to break a number of laws, including sitting on the female-only section of the train, which usually carries with it a 500 AED fine.
Luckily, there seems to be a sort of sliding scale in place for enforcement. The more westerners in a place, the more lax law enforcement becomes. In the majority of the larger tourist areas I saw girls showing skin and couples being affectionate. (All Americans of course) Drinking in theory is outlawed, but is generally acceptable for foreigners as long as they do it in their own hotel and those hotels are 4 star or higher. The bigger resorts, however, seemed to be more of a free-for-all.
Anyway, back to the race. At 4 am I hailed a cab and instructed him to take me to the Jebel Ali Royal Racecourse, the site of the Spartan Race. He had never heard of the place. The more time I spent in the city the more I realized that this is not surprising at all- the country is a melting pot of ethnicities (the local Emiratis make up only 10-15% of the population) and with the rates of expansion, the city’s roads and skylines are essentially redefining themselves annually.
After making a few calls my driver was finally able to figure out where the race was, and off we went. My first glimpses of the lit-up city were mind-blowing. I’d heard that 1/3 of the world’s cranes were present in Dubai, but I still wasn’t prepared for the sheer amount of construction going on.
The state itself is set up pretty simply. From north to southwest it covers around 35 km between two ports, Rashida (where the main airport is located) and Jebel al Ali (where the race was) Along that route are the majority of tourist destinations, including the Mall of the Emirates, which features a 21-story indoor ski-hill, Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and largest mall, and countless other destinations. The tram starts in Rashida and ends in Jebel Ali, making sight-seeing quite easy and inexpensive.
Most of the drive to Jebel Ali was spent surrounded by massive skyscrapers on either side. And for every finished building there were two more going up. This is incredible when you look at Dubai from a historical perspective. In 1990 there was hardly anything to even define this as, well, anything.
The main strip looked like this:
Now it looks like this:
That’s a staggering amount of growth in 25 years. Led by the visionary Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai has in a short amount of time morphed from nothing more than the site of nomadic tribes to being a global powerhouse of a city. It’s something we’ve never seen in such a short amount of time. Of course, this growth wasn’t accomplished without controversy, something I’ll dip into during part 2 of the recap.
A half hour and $65 later, our taxi dropped me off on a dark, dusty road. The wind had picked up and the venue’s usually overpowering floodlights appeared distantly orange and muted, obscured by the swirling sand. I took my sandals off and walked through the drifting sands of the festival grounds to see if I could get a glimpse of any obstacles. Ahead were the spear man and the slippery wall, but everything else was out of sight, out past the surrounding dunes.
I tied a shirt across my face and sat against a wall of Reebok’s shipping container store, trying to shield myself from the wind and peppering sand while waiting for the sun to rise.
People began to trickle in around 6 am. When at 6:30 the computers for registration were still not out, I realized that the race would not be going off at 7 am. I’ve become used to this, as it seems most obstacle races are highly dis-organized. Come 6:55, I found myself and UK racer Pete Rees of Mudstacle still waiting to be registered. The registration team wanted me to find someone to “vouch” for myself, to confirm the fact that I was in actuality a Pro-Teamer. I didn’t know anyone at the venue and don’t own a phone, so this was a rather difficult process. Eventually things were sorted out and I was registered.
By this time it was 7:30, the sun was up, the sand was blowing like crazy, and it was HOT. I was dehydrated from the flight, hungry, and going on 40-some hours without sleep (sans the nap in the airport). I had also heard rumors that the field was stacked. There were supposedly pros from Sweden and France there, as well as some road racers from Morocco and Abu Dhabi.
This half hour before the race was mentally the lowest point that I’ve had in a long time. I knew the sand would be difficult to run in. Combine that with my fitness, the elements, lack of sleep, heat, sand, competitors, etc, and its no surprise that my self-confidence was shot.
Why had I come here? It seemed certain that I was going to be beaten badly, and I was going to lose a lot of money, and it was going to look bad to everyone following me back home…..
We’ve all been there at some point in our careers, but no matter how much we encounter doubts, the feelings are always paralyzing.
As per my usual, while the racers stood in the corral and waited (almost an hour!) I jogged back and forth off to the side of the corral, desperately trying to get loose and regain some spark of energy.The lazy side of me wanted to sit down and wait for the start, but instead I forced myself to do a 2 minute pick-up. My heart rate was off the charts and my breathing was harsh. This was going to be a rough one.
Spartan’s MC, TC officiated the start, and finally we were off.
*French racer Maximillien de Haro wore a go-pro for the race, and got some good video. Scroll to 3:00 to see the start. I’m wearing the blue Nike Shorts and orange Inov-8 flats.
Despite the unsteady footing, I got out hard and within a hundred meters knew what needed to be done- I had to run away from the field. If I could get a lead heading into obstacles, there was a good chance I could hold on for a podium finish.
My first mile was very quick, too quick actually, but I hadn’t been able to shake anyone. Top Swedish racer Konstantin Granlund was right on my heels, and 15 meters behind him were the Moroccan and Emiratie road racers.
I was already feeling the pace, and strangely enough, there were no obstacles in sight. This was turning out to be a trail race, and if that were the case, I had no chance.
About 1 to 1 1/2 miles in I was overtaken, first by Konstantin, then by the rest of the chase group. Shortly after that we hit our first obstacle, the cargo A-frame. Next came rolling mud, with a quick-sand mixture of sand and mud that led to the heaviest-feeling shoes I’ve ever had in a race. This was followed by a hilly sand-bag carry. My goal was to run people down on this obstacle, but I was so gassed from the hot pace that I wasn’t able to do much.
The sand-bag was followed by what felt like endless running, with hardly an obstacle in sight. Finally we came to the over-under-through walls and a tire flip. I was able to close distance on the tire flips, despite doing 3 flips each way as opposed to the 2 that I found out later most did.
I was in 5th going into the rope climb, and as the terrain leveled out I calculated that I was 38 and 52 seconds down to the 4th and 3rd place runners. The podium was within reach, but I was fading quickly. Moments after the rope I was back in 6th place.
After an easy traverse wall we hit the barbed wire. I assumed we had a mile left, so I knew this was my last chance at making a hard push. I worked the crawl as hard as possible, and caught 2 of the road racers. I also closed to within maybe a minute of the top guys. I could feel the beginnings of adrenaline kicking in; there was a chance I could pull this thing off if I could close hard.
Immediately following the wire was the bucket carry. I filled mine up and took off, but cramping hands forced me to set the bucket down twice. This cost me quite a bit of ground to the top guys. With the finish line quickly approaching, it looked like my race was over.
However, coming around the last downhill of the carry I was treated to a glorious sight at the dump-off: three guys on the ground doing burpees. I dropped my bucket and took off, now in either 1st or 2nd place.
Shortly after, I was run down yet again. This was unreal- the locals were making me feel like I was standing still. He put maybe 40 meters on me pretty quickly. I figured we had 600 to 800 meters to go and made one final surge, catching him on the last sand dune before the festival grounds. We ran in to the spear throw together. I found out later that he’s mid 29’s in a 10k on the roads, so running him down was a big confidence booster and a reminder that fatigued running is very different than road racing.
After the spear there were maybe 80 meters to the finish, with only a slippery wall between the spear and the finish line.
I missed my spear throw, as did he. I knew there were racers right on our tail, so I hustled over to the penalty area and dropped down to do the fastest set of 30 burpees I’ve ever done. As I burpee’d, I watched helplessly as runners entered the spear throw area one by one. At burpee 13 a runner threw and missed. At 22 another runner missed. Then at 26 two runners hit their spears. I worked to get my last four burpees done and took off for the finish. After getting stuck in the mud briefly, I hit the final wall.
I could hear the two runners on my heels, so I jumped from the top of the wall and took off towards the finish.
I didn’t see eventual winner Hallvard during the race, and for a brief moment after crossing the finish line even thought I had won. I’m fairly confident he was clean through obstacles, as was the third place finisher, France’s Maximillien De Haro. Konstantin burpeed twice and ended up in 5th after leading most of the race.
While waiting for awards I hung out with Lhaj Abdelkarim Moussaoui, Konstantin, Brahim Loumari, and Brahim Slimani. Despite the language barrier, we had a blast (well, as much fun as you can have while in the midst of a sandstorm right out of Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol)
X-Dubai teamed up with Spartan to put this race on. They threw their logo on every inch of the festival grounds. It was strange to see someone else’s emblems more prevalent than Reebok or Spartan’s at Spartan’s own Race, but X-Dubai did do a great job with the festival grounds and giveaways.
It was clear that they wanted the day to be a success, but there was no beating the elements. As the winds increased spectators abandoned the festival grounds in increasing amounts in search of places to hide. While waiting for the awards, I spent an hour lying under the stage, face covered, attempting to avoid the stinging sand. Visibility dropped by the hour, and the festival grounds began to empty. Not even the giant Reebok sign could stand up to the weather. One by one the letters were blown over. The last two letters made a valiant stand, but alas, eventually succumbed to the desert.
Overall though, Spartan’s first venture in the Middle-East turned out to be a success, albeit with a few easily fixable snafus. The local turnout was huge, and even the Crown Prince of Dubai Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum competed. It will be exciting to see where Spartan goes from here now that it successfully made the initial jump into new waters.
If finishing spots were based solely on talent, there’s no question that I shouldn’t have been on that podium. But that’s the wonderful thing about obstacle racing- anything can (and will) happen. I spent the rest of the day as content as could be. I had survived a hectic journey, gutted out a great performance, earned a nice paycheck, and could now look forward to a great week in Dubai.
Part 2 coming soon- In it I’ll be covering sightseeing, travel, and the strange experience of being the only non Middle-Eastern attendee at a viewing of American Sniper…