I’m currently sat at 40,968 feet above an Arabic nation travelling at 562 miles per hour in the double-decker Airbus A380. My Emirates TV screen tells me that I’m 1 hour and 51 minutes away from Dubai.
In the last couple of weeks I have crunched my way through frosty fields and dipped my head into icy water. Everything that you’d expect from a passionate UK obstacle racer in the winter time. However, when I exit the plane I will to be hit by temperatures in excess of 35 degrees and in 36 hours time I will be running the inaugural Spartan Race in the deserts of Dubai.
I know what you’re thinking… “Jeeze Pete, you’ve got it good.” Damn straight I have! I’m going to milk the next few days for everything it’s worth. I may have travelled the length and breadth of the the UK over the last few years, in search mud and adventure, but my overseas ‘holiday time’ has been non-existent… that’s all part and parcel of setting up a new business I guess. Mudstacle has been all-consuming and I’ve been thinking for a while that I should take a holiday.
Two weeks ago I noticed that Spartan Race were planning an event in Dubai and my eyes lit up. It just so happens that my brother lives in Dubai, working for Emirates Airline, and I’ve been meaning to take advantage of some cheap flights to get out to see him for years. I guess Spartan Race is my excuse! I’m not sure whether using obstacle racing as an excuse to take a break from obstacle racing is exactly what a psychiatrist would recommend but heck, it’s a step in the right direction.
I’m excited about competing at this event. A part of me thinks that if I go to a country where there hasn’t been an obstacle race before, there might be fewer “good” racers and I might actually do pretty well… heck, I might even podium! I know that’s unlikely, but you never know. I’m going to switch my competitive dial to 11 and see where it gets me.
Fast forward four days...
It’s Sunday evening and I’m still in Dubai. I had hoped to fly home today but the only downside of taking advantage of my brother’s staff flights is that I have to wait until there’s available space on a plane. I know there could be worse places to be stuck but, to be honest, it hasn't exactly been paradise. For the last couple of days there have been sandstorms, the likes of which my brother has never seen in the twenty years he’s lived in Dubai and today has been cloudy with spots of rain. Yup, rain in a desert. My timing is impressively poor.
The day after my arrival was a complete contrast, it was unseasonably hot. I had left myself one day to adjust to the time zone and heat. Although the four hours difference between Dubai and UK wasn’t too much of an issue, the 35 degree heat was a different story. I went for a short acclimatisation run, with no intention of pushing myself, but decided that I would try race pace for just 1km. I made it to 500 meters before I crumbled, gasping for breath.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to do myself justice in those conditions but I checked the weather to see that the scorching heat was about to be replaced with strong winds and sand storms. With the elite heat due to set off at 7am, my lack of warm weather acclimatisation might not be such an issue.
Sure enough, I woke up the next morning to the beginnings of the storm. It was still fairly warm though, so I made sure I drank lots, and lots… and lots of water. I’m sure those of you who know me (and my pea-sized bladder) can guess where this story is going.
With such an early start, my brother and I set off practically in the middle of the night to get to the “Jebel Ali Racecourse”. To anyone who hasn’t experienced Dubai, it’s a crazy metropolis of huge buildings separated only by a tangled mess of six-lane highways, where supercars and trucks weave in and out of each other at over 100 miles per hour. Driving somewhere you know is stressful enough but driving somewhere you don’t is a nightmare, especially as sat-nav in Dubai doesn’t seem to work. After looping around the surrounding area several times in search of the venue, time ran short and we had to hail a cab to guide us.
I was left with only half an hour to register, warm up and get to the start line, which is not ideal, especially when the registration area was typically mayhem, with long queues at each of the counters. Somehow I managed to skip through and speak to the organiser to get my place sorted.
Within a couple of minutes I ran into McCauley Kraker, a US Spartan pro racer. My heart sank. It was great to meet him and he was a lovely chap, but this wasn’t the way it was meant to be! I was hoping to come here and perform beyond my ability… and there was absolutely no way that I could compete with somebody of his calibre. Worse still, he informed me that there were a lot of racers that had travelled in from Sweden and France, all of which were probably sharing the same idea of scooping up an “easy win”. Oh well, my pipe dreams were good while they lasted.
Let's have a break from words for a couple of minutes. Here's our highlights video:
In the half an hour that followed I rushed around, drank more, went to the toilet at least three times and managed to get myself relatively well warmed up. As 7am approached there was hardly anyone by the start line and I guessed that most competitors were still queuing up at registration. Sure enough an announcement came over the PA saying that the elite wave would be delayed until 7:30. That was okay, it gave me more time to drink and warm up properly. I even remembered to stick a pair of goggles around my neck, just in case the sand storm really started to kick up.
After several more toilet breaks I approached the start line at 7:30, where we were told to wait for the event director to address us before we set off. So we waited. And waited. By 7:45 my bladder started to tickle a bit… I had made my way to the front line and I didn’t want to lose that position, so I held on. Just before 8am I was getting desperate for the toilet and I had completely warmed down. I definitely wasn’t feeling primed for racing anymore and I started to seriously consider running off to the toilet and sacking off the “race”. I had travelled half way around the world for this though, I really wanted to compete, so I held on for a couple more minutes and, thankfully, we were set off at 8:05am.
Within seconds of the start the sandy footing sapped my strength. It really is one of the most tiring terrain types to run on and we were sent straight uphill and over the first of many rolling dunes. Before even reaching the top, my sharp breaths had already completely dried out my mouth. The air was filled with sand, as a result of the intermittent sand storms, which made it feel like I’d eaten a spoonful of salt. It was a great distraction for my aching bladder but it wasn’t helping me to perform to my ability, let alone beyond it.
Thankfully within the first couple of minutes I faced the first of many water stations. I’d never normally drink that early in a race but I needed to get some moister in my mouth. It sorted me out temporarily, allowing my attention to focus completely on my bladder again. I cursed the delayed start. I just didn’t know what to do. In any other race I would begrudgingly stop in some bushes and take the hit of losing a few places, but this was different. Firstly there weren’t any bushes and secondly, with notoriously strict laws about public nudity, I wasn’t sure whether peeing in the open would result in me ending up in a cell.
I kept my pace up and climbed a large scaffolding structure that crossed over the registration queue before running out behind a huge Reebok sign. At that point I knew what had to be done. I had to wet myself. Yeh, I know, that’s a little embarrassing and I shouldn’t really share but heck, Paula Radcliff’s done worse. I didn’t break my stride and hoped that the shelter of the sign would stop anyone from noticing. A few seconds later I ran into another water station, feeling extremely conscious of being the only person with dripping wet shorts… in the middle of the desert… in the scorching heat… Nope, I don’t think anyone would have noticed that.
Anyway, that’s enough of the pee stories, you’ll be pleased to know that my bladder felt great for the remainder of the race, allowing me to focus entirely on heat and exhaustion – JOY!
The obstacles started to come a little more regularly, with a series of over, under and through walls, muddy ditches, a sand bag carry, rope climb, a long barbed wire crawl and a traverse wall. Each one sapped energy and made it a lot harder to breath in the heat.
Everything was bone dry and grippy, which made the rope climb and traverse wall easier than normal. It’s a shame there weren’t any monkey bars, I think even I could have got across them effortlessly with such dry hands.
More than most other obstacle races, Spartan focus on strength based challenges and they didn’t hold back here. There were some huge tyre flips that were just about on the verge of what I could lift and they were followed swiftly by an even more punishing bucket carry. We were instructed to fill a very large bucket up to the brim with shingle and “run” around a circuit. The full bucket was a crazy weight and we were told to carry it in front of us (not on our shoulders), which not many people actually paid attention to. Progress was slow and my arms ached as I attempted to keep grip of such an awkward package. I stumbled up a steep sand dune, struggling to make any forward progress, with my feet dropping backwards in the sand with every footstep. I would have given anything for solid footing; the bucket was too heavy for me to be messing around.
With already tired arms, I faced a beastly tyre drag, where we had to carry a truck tyre out 30 yards and drag it back with a rope. Dragging the tyre alone would be hard enough, but it filled with sand as it dragged, making it twice as difficult.
Even in the elite heat those strength based obstacles were only barely achievable for most and I wondered how the regular runners would fare. However, when I went back to take pictures later, the rules were far less strict. Tyre flips were a combined effort for up to four runners (even then it looked a little difficult) and the bucket carries were half empty.
I kept an eye on my watch. It ticked closer to 5km but I’ve raced enough Spartans to know that it was likely to go way over that. The distance did seem to clock up slower than normal though. I was tiring fast, as the temperatures rose and rose. If my bearings were right though, we began to make our final approach to the event village at close to 6km. I was at the back of a string of five racers who I had been vying for position with throughout the race. I wasn’t sure whether I could overtake them and my only hope was if I were to succeed at the spear throw. To this day I have never managed to get one of those darn spears to stick but I was determined to buck the trend. I balanced the spear in my hand, lined it up perfectly and launched it towards the target successfully, only to see it bounce back out again.
It’s at this point where I would normally start my standard rant about the RIDICULOUSNESS of Spartan’s burpee forfeit. I know some people agree with me but I sometimes get abuse for the points I make, as some people seem to think that I’m moaning about not liking burpees or being lazy. I can assure you that isn’t the case. Seriously, I’ve put my body through hell over the last few years and I’m not afraid of a challenge. I just believe in fairness. So as not to clog up this article with my rantings, please head on over to my sister article “Why Spartan Are Not Competitive Races – And How That Can Be Resolved”. Please please please read and digest that before you challenge my opinion (feel free to be as critical as you like after that). If you happen to work for Spartan PLEASE read it. I’m really trying to help.
Anyway, to cut a long story short. I completed 30 burpees. Others didn’t. From that point onwards my position was meaningless. I had travelled half way around the world to COMPETE. I had worked my butt off for 40 minutes to fight for a position that I could be proud of and now, like every other time I have taken part in Spartan Races, that meant nothing.
Despondently I jogged towards the penultimate obstacles – a muddy ditch followed by a slippery rope-assisted A-frame. My spirits rose as I jumped over the fire and crossed the finish line to collect my medal. I was hot, short of breath and totally knackered.
I then got showered with gifts! As well as getting an awesome double medal (with the chunky Sprint medal and pie-piece ready to be linked up with the Super and Beast segments), I was handed a Spartan Dubai finisher shirt and cap, a banana (individually wrapped!), a protein bar and vitamin drink. What more could you want?… Maybe a beer… hmm… nah, that ain’t happening.
Overall Spartan Race Dubai was an impressive experience. If I were to award an unofficial moto to Dubai, it would be “go hard or go home”. When they decide to do something, they go all out. They are home to the tallest building in the world, at a staggering 1km high. They have a humongous indoor ski slope, hosting a chairlift, zipline, bobsleigh track and real penguins. They have built two huge palm tree shaped peninsulas off their coastline, with a selection of luxury hotels and leisure facilities. Last week they treated their inaugural Spartan Race with the same enthusiasm, filling a wave every half an hour between 7am and 4pm. That’s pretty huge! The sports shops in their epic malls stocked Spartan Race branded clothing and the whole nation seemed to buy in to the Spartan image.
As we’ve seen in the UK, organisationally the event wasn’t without its issues. To be fare though, it would be a big ask to expect an inaugural event with over 3,000 people attending to proceed flawlessly. Delays, registration queues and competitive issues aside though, there were a lot of happy and proud first-time racers enjoying the course that I’m sure will be coming back for more.
For me, this has been, by far, the longest way I have ever travelled for a race and I really enjoyed the experience. Tying races in with holidays is something that I’m sure many of us are aiming to do in future. Bring on the era of the OCR traveller!