Chuckie and I flew from Tucson to Chicago uneventfully and were pleased to have free wi-fi en route. It amazes me that I can make phone calls or check emails from 30,000 feet up and almost every passenger on board was doing so. In Chicago, we switched airlines, from American to Etihad, where we were treated like Sheikhs. Etihad has been ranked the number one airline in the world for a couple of years in a row now and it was obvious why. Although we were assigned to the cheap seats in the very back of the plane, we were fortunate enough to have an entire row to ourselves, so I spread out and slept almost the entire flight: 7,254 miles. Meanwhile, Chuckie watched no less than three full-featured films: The King's Speech, 127 Hours and True Grit. There alone he saved about thirty dollars, which he happily mentioned over and over.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, it was already well past sunset, so we were unable to see much on our way to the hotel. Once there, we checked into our room and quickly realized this was no average hotel. It was the first time I've visited a 5-star inn and again we were treated like royalty. Chuckie kept bouncing on the bed, joking, "I believe I could easily grow accustomed to a life like this!" and "The best is good enough for me!"
The following day I set about finding a turbo-trainer, as we were encouraged not to ride outside on the course itself, especially since part of it was on a Formula One racetrack. The race organizers had lined the devices up for our use and I was soon pedaling away…indoors. It seemed a shame to have traveled all this way and not see the countryside, but the race would provide plenty of opportunities! It was nice to shake out the legs, though I couldn't shake out the cobwebs in the head. Jet-lag is a new experience for me and boy did it hit with a vengeance.
I decided the remainder of my day would be night.
When the new day arrived I ripped open the curtains, only to find that daylight was still many hours away. It was 2am and I felt ready for a run or a swim. Instead, I went back to bed and laid there until the sun finally poked its head over the horizon. As soon as it did, I realized it might have been better to run at night. Talk about HOT! When I finished my run it was 37 degrees (that's nearly 100 degrees for all you Americans). I shortened my run and decided instead to lengthen my swim! Interestingly enough, the Persian Gulf was freezing. But I survived and headed to the hotel's all-you-can-eat buffet that had been provided for the professional athletes, most of who were all there.
A couple hours later I was done experimenting with all the different foods and it was time for bed. It was 1pm.
I awoke thirteen hours later and again ripped open the curtains and saw nothing but a starry sky and the city's enormous skyline. Like the previous night, I was forced to wait until sunrise for the rest of the world to wake-up (although I imagined most the other athletes were also wide-awake in their rooms).
I went through the motions again, then registered for the race and attended the pro meeting. Nearly every big name in the sport was present, but surprisingly everyone was fairly relaxed (except me anyway!). I had never done a race quite this long (3km swim, 200km bike, 20km run) and, to be honest, it scared the living daylights out of me. I tried to portray a quiet calmness but I felt like the eye of a hurricane.
Race day started early. As we had to check our bikes in the day before, I took a taxi to the swim start (a mere kilometer away) then waited nearly an hour for the sun to rise. I shuffled over to the swim start so I could get rid of my jitters, but swimming didn't help. The cold water only made me shiver that much more. I always seem to quiver anyway, from an uncontrollable nervousness. One of the first things I need to learn to do before such long races is to control this behavior. Chuckie reminded me that "it's all a game," and that my best course of action was to look how fortunate I was to be in such a beautiful setting, surrounded by like-minded individuals. I didn't hear a word of it; I was so focused on fear itself!
The swim start was relatively composed and I managed to avoid getting popped in the head. I found a reasonable rhythm soon after the start and hung on for dear life just behind a large pack of women. It was a two-loop course and during the first exit onto land I tried to limit the real estate between those in the pack and myself. But upon re-entering the water I quickly lost more ground (or water, that is!). I exited the Gulf a few minutes further back than I had hoped, but yet I was reasonably happy to hear I was only six minutes or so behind Julie Dibens, the expected swim leader.
It wasn't easy, but I controlled myself at the beginning of the bike and kept telling myself there was 5+ hours to make up for any lost ground. But adrenaline took over and I soon caught nearly all the girls in the pack that I'd lost contact with during the swim. The bike course was a 2.5-lap test that had us on the Formula One racetrack a couple of times. The wind came from all directions the entire time, kicking up the desert sand with its strength. The heat didn't seem to bother me too much for the first 4 hours but when I hit that last half-lap, I was ready to get off the bike. I reached T2 in 4th place after exiting the water in 15th or 16th.
I was delirious but managed to reach the bike rack without mishap. I was 100% certain that my legs would not be able to run but I forced it upon them anyway! As Chuckie had forewarned, the first kilometer or two would be hell, but things would get better from there. This was definitely the case but boy…that first bit had me questioning my love of this sport.
Once I settled into my tempo, I actually yearned for the pain. More pain meant I was working harder. But it was ridiculously hot at this point and I'm not sure I was going any faster in spite of the exertion!
Rachel Joyce and Catriona Morrison drew close to me on the 2nd lap, just as I began closing the gap to my fellow TriSports.com teammate, Leanda (Cave). The race was on for the final podium spot (with Dibens in another time zone ahead and Caroline Steffan somewhere between Julie and the four of us) and I was surrounded by British women! After some shuffling amongst us, I wound up in 5th.
When analyzing the final results, which had been posted almost immediately, I felt I should have pushed harder. But by the next day I knew I'd given my all; I was unbelievably sore. It seemed as though I was the only one limping around the hotel and all I could do the remainder of the day was try and nurse my battle wounds. I attempted an ice bath but that only lasted about 35-seconds. Coach says ice baths aren't always so smart anyhow, especially after a race, when the immune system is wrecked.
That afternoon, those of us sponsored by Shimano (Dirk Bockel, Catriona Morrison, Tim Berkel, Craig Alexander, and myself) headed to the Formula One track, along with Dustin Brady, Shimano's main multisport/everything marketing man (and personal friend). The photographers secured some beautiful shots and it was enjoyable hanging out with such a great group of athletes. If I have a new idol in this sport it would have to be Dirk. He is such a strong athlete (i.e., future Kona champ) and yet so gracious, humble and helpful.
Overall, I was pleased with my first race of 2011 and I'm eager to get back into the ring for another swing!
A special thank you to IMG for your superb race organization, along with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority for hosting this event. This is a race that should be on every hardcore triathlete's calendar. The United Emirates is safe, clean and beautiful. I've posted some pictures below...