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Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Dubai Marathon

The Dubai Marathon is known for its extremes: the extreme heat, the world-class elites, the exorbitant prize money, and now in 2023 there is one more superlative to add … a painfully boring race course.

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The Dubai Marathon has been held since 1998 and has been known for its elite field, fast times and some of the greatest cash prizes in long-distance running history. In 2008, one million dollars were offered for a world record and a quarter million to both the men’s and women’s winners. Haile Gebrselassie took the win in that race with an impressive time of 2:04:53, though not fast enough for a world record and a clean million.

Now that my daughter is living in Dubai (hopefully not permanently), I figured it would be fun to visit her and combine the trip with the marathon, even though the course had the reputation of being relative monotonous with three city loops. But I was excited to run under the skyscrapers, including the iconic Burj Al Arab and the magical Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Plus, running a loop course gave me a chance to check out the elites several times as they fly by in the opposite direction.

But not to worry about three ‘boring city loops’ because just a few days before the marathon was to take place, there was a sudden change in venue. Instead of downtown it was set to be run out by Expo City. Wow! A new course, this must be exciting, I thought (prematurely and incorrectly).

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Pre-race runner's area before dawn

The start was at 6am when the weather was still a bit cool and the sun hadn’t risen yet. It already started off strangely as there was no music at the start, no countdown and I didn’t hear a gun or any other signal that the race began. We just all unceremoniously began moving towards the start arch and the only sound to be heard were the shouts from the spectators who were limited to the runner’s friends and family since we were far removed from any residential area. The first 11 kilometers were comprised of two laps around the expo park (with no spectators, although the race volunteers were really cheery) before heading out onto a 7-lane highway into nothingness. At first I thought it could not be true, that there must be something coming up that would be worth seeing. After all, this was a major international marathon. But as the sun came up and tried futilely to filter its way through the sand and dust-filled air, the only thing that really became clear was that we were on a road to nowhere. Up and down highway bridges, past desolate industrial buildings and the beginnings of construction of hollow residential complexes. It was shocking really. There were speed limit signs with the number 100 in a red circle. Only 100 km/hr on this monstrosity of a highway seemed ridiculously slow compared to the no-speed-limit 2-lane autobahns in Germany. Kilometer 25 marked the turning point and I got to see it all again. People were running like zombies. There was nothing to see and the only motivation were the aid stations every 2.5 kilometers where the volunteers were really friendly and full of energy, so that was all I had to keep me going other than the mantras running through my head. Most aid stations provided only water. Two or three also had isotonic drink, but I found this too little considering we were running through the desert for hours, we needed mineral replenishment. There were only two aid stations that had small amounts of ‘food’: gummy bears, bananas, oranges and chocolate. Thank goodness I brought 6 gels tucked into my waist belt. It was clear the runners were frustrated. One man said told me he was going to ask for his money back. $150 for this?

And as if it couldn’t get much worse, it did. Thinking that the finish would be a highlight under the Al Wasl Dome at the Expo Center, I was shocked to find that spectators were on the last several hundred meters of the course including the chute into the finish. I was exhausted after having just run 42 kilometers and now I was dodging baby strollers just to get it over with. And if that wasn’t enough, once past the finish I was expecting to have a well-earned medal placed over my head, but there was no one there to greet us. We were cajoled to keep moving. I asked a helper where the medals were and I was told to follow the runners. We just kept going, mixed with non-runners, and I saw no end in sight. There were bathroom facilities off to the right so I ducked in to use them and wash up. Then I continued with the flocks of runners moving slowly around the expo walkway. It must have been at least 600 meters till there was a little stand with a sign that said ‘42.2 km marathon medals’ where we were given large plastic bags filled with a bottle of water, a protein bar and a marathon medal wrapped up in a little plastic bag. Another shock moment but at that point I just wanted to get out of there and off my feet, but first I needed to collect my drop bag. After aimlessly looking in the area I asked a helper who told me where to go… another 500 meters. Once collected I needed to figure out how to get to the Metro station to get ‘home’. A conveniently placed information map showed that I had to go the entire distance back to the finish line! I wanted to cry. I couldn’t make it in one shot and had to take a break on a bench and hydrate and eat the protein bar to give me some energy to get myself home.

Why the last-minute course change? I have no idea and couldn’t find anything on the Internet. I suspect licensing? Or maybe to allow all runners to finish without imposing a time restriction as was necessary when closing the main thoroughfares downtown? But hopefully by next year there will be time to rethink it and find a course that accommodates both the city and the runners.

Was it worth it? Hell yeah! I love running. I love the feeling, not only during the race, but especially afterwards when my entire body is expunged from the chaos, stress, little things that don’t really matter and gets me down to the basics of how good my body feels when having been able to prove to me the amazing feats of what it is capable of accomplishing when having the opportunity to be used to its potential.

Plus, I got the quali for Comrades. 

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Well-earned medal at the Burj Khalifa

Attire all in ASICS (of course): Gel-Nimbus 25 super-comfy running shoes in Papaya, Road 3.5-in Short in Black, Ventilate 2.0 Tank in Sage; plus lots of BodyGlide and double-layer Wrightsock with the luck of the Irish

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