I woke up before 5 a.m., with a sense of anxiety whose locus I couldn’t immediately locate. Aah, this was Abu Dhabi, and I was worried about whether I would be able to complete my first triathlon. I tried to meditate, to rein in my racing pulse. It didn’t work, and my worried heart continued to feed its anxiety back to itself, and roll on at 72 beats per second, way higher than my normal resting rate of 52-54. I figured it would stabilise once I got onto the course, and there was nothing I could do about it, since my body was clearly not ailing in any way.
The water in the Abu Dhabi Corniche is a cool jade, and at 22 degrees in early March, it had me pull on my wet suit for the first leg of the race. At 8:20, to the sound of a hooter, I launched into the water, in a wave of some 100 athletes. The water was astonishingly clear, and seeing the sand at the bottom helped calm me, and settle into an easy stroke, made easier by the unaccustomed buoyancy of salt water and wet-suit. A hundred meters into the course, I slowed, and surveyed the scene - the massive yellow buoys that marked our course out towards the mainland, in the direction of the handsome silver and copper buildings of the business district; the safety kayaks that set up broad channel guidelines, with smiling paddlers to ensure we didn't bypass any buoys. 10 minutes into my swim, I pulled around the outer buoy, hung a left, and headed down the coast, for the long leg. I was stroking strong and clean, my body streamlined; perhaps a trifle too fast? Remember, you have a long way to go. I turned on my back, suspended the race from my mind, and the warm sun and cool air. Just for a bit, then I focused on the buoys again - two more before another hard left, for the home stretch. At the ramp that marks the end of the swim, 4 young men dressed in yellow and red hauled me on to the indigo synthetic carpet that marked the way to the bike racks. I had done the 1.5 km in 36 minutes, well within my target. I unzipped my wetsuit as I walked to my bike, juggled between eating a banana and pulling off my neoprene layer, drank some Electral, then pulled on a t-shirt and shoes, helmet, racing number. The transition took me far too long, and at 9 minutes, the race statistics showed I was by far the slowest in my age group (55-59).
The bike ride is along one channel of the Corniche Road, which was shut off to vehicular traffic. Cool air, occasional gusts of wind, and a warm sun made for excellent biking conditions, with really sweet, encouraging water-boys and girls. 10 k out and back, two loops for the 40km ride that constitutes the Olympic distance. I was slow on my bike, trying to conserve my energy for the run, and took 1:36, with 3 stops. My target was 1:45, but given the excellent surface and traffic-free conditions, I think I could have done it in 1:30. I was also being very careful about the 'Draft Illegal' on the cycle course, so every time someone passed me, I would slow down so they were more than 10 m ahead of me in well under 20 secs - I didn't want to be pulled into a penalty box for something I didn't intend!
The run was 2.5 km out and back, 2 loops for my distance. With the bikes still whizzing up and down the Corniche, the runners were steered onto the broad, tiled sidewalks, our lanes painstakingly marked with traffic cones, with knowledgeable guides at every turn. I had budgeted 1:15 for the 10 k, and 5 m for the transition. I racked my bike and helmet fast, and turned around in 3, but headed for the wrong exit out the bike paddock, so I had to double back, and ended up taking 5 minutes to get back on the track.. By now it was getting warm, but not hot, so the running was not as enervating as I feared. I was loading electrolytes at every aid station, and the conservative cycling must have helped, because I finished strong, with the 10 k in exactly 1 hr. This is just a couple of minutes slower than my Delhi training runs, so clearly I managed my fatigue levels well, and was adequately trained.
Net-net, I did the course in 3:28, well inside my target of 4 hours. I was not in the least bit dismayed that this placed me 14th out of 14 finishers in my age group - much better that than joining the 3 who didn’t finish. At my current level of training, I could have clipped at least 11 minutes off my timing - 4 by cutting the swim-bike transition to the race average of 5; 5 by being slightly less paranoid about the draft penalty; and 2 by making sure I exited the bike paddock from the right corner. This would have still placed me at the bottom of the charts, as the next slowest man in my age group came in at 3:15. Clearly I need to hugely improve my cycling speed - firstly, this is the largest component of the time on the course; secondly, I was 11/14 on the swim, and 10/14 on the run, so the discipline in which I am a huge laggard is the cycling. Given how much I enjoy cycling, revving it up should be great fun, as I fully intend to do the same course in 2016.
The ethnic make-up of the triathlon community was most interesting - the event was clearly an expat job, with all the organisers being the colonials - the ANZ community especially, and some salty Brits. The ‘coolie’ jobs were almost entirely done by Filipinos, with the odd 'desi'. There were 2000 athletes from all over the globe, but again, largely from the 3 nations above. There were a couple of groups of young entrants from Russia and Italy. Quite a few strong young Arabs - from all over the region, but primarily in the Sprint segment - that's 500 m swim, 20 k ride and 5 k run. We were a group of 3 Indians, but other than us, and despite the enormous Indian populace in these parts, NOT ONE other South Asian. Weird.
All extremely energising, and I’m really looking forward to next year, when I will be in the next age category, 60+!!