Dubai Marathon is a big name event yet signing up is open even a month before the race. January weather in Dubai is perfect, the race course is flat, fast and with very few turns- all the necessary pre-conditions for a PB to start the year with. January is also the shopping season in Dubai with many shops offering big discounts, so a good time to visit the city.
An added bonus for me personally was that Dubai is located halfway between Bulgaria and Singapore which meant I could meet my parents midway and explore the city together. The company I work for- Wego has an office in Dubai which meant I could add a few days onto my personal trip to work from our MENA office and meet the team in person.
Going to Dubai
Dubai is a major airport hub, so getting to Dubai from anywhere is easy. Getting to Dubai from Singapore is even easier, just not very cheap as only network carriers serve the route. Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Etihad Airlines all fly direct and Qatar Airways offers convenient 1-stop options. (Quick note that should you choose Etihad you would fly in Abu Dhabi and also need to arrange a car ride to Dubai but this is not difficult) I ended up flying with Qatar as I didn’t mind the short stopover in Doha too much, I love Qatar’s service and they happened to be running a special sale just when I was shopping for my tickets allowing me to earn 4X miles on my flights. Bingo! Pro tip: January is low travel season, so rather than buying your flight tickets early, you might be better off if you actually wait for the airlines to run a special promo. Just set your price alert for the dates you want to fly on and wait.
For the work portion of my trip, I shared a room with a colleague who was also on a work trip to our Dubai office. However, for the personal portion of the trip, I booked a whole flat from Airbnb as I wanted a more homey type of accommodation. The apartment was in the Dubai marina area, a location I would highly recommend as it is one of the few places in Dubai that offer nice walking options and is also suitable for short runs (definitely suitable for taper runs before a big race!). The apartment itself ended up being a disappointment though and made me rethink my decision to forgo booking a hotel room. The flattering reviews on Airbnb were quite out of line and I was even spending more money than the hotel room I was previously in costed!
Getting ready for the marathon
Having ran the Singapore marathon in early December meant that there were less than 50 days between the two races. So, not much time for recovery and getting back to my optimal running form! Also, with the Christmas and New Year’s’ holidays in between the two runs, I had to be careful with what and more importantly how much I was eating. Well, with all the sweets that come along the holiday season, this one never really materialised. 😉
In terms of running, I only averaged three runs a week instead of the recommended with the longest training run being just 24km. And on top of that, after my final long run- a 18km affair in East Coast Park, I caught a cold and started coughing fairly badly.
Collection of the race packs was at Meydan Hotel. Meydan Hotel turned out to be this glamorous building that is ideally located for horse racing events. For anything else, it isn’t. Reachable only by car, going to Meydan Hotel with a taxi costs you between $10 and $20 dollars each way depending on where you are in Dubai. Finding the marathon expo was easy enough, however- the hotel porters would point us in the right direction plus this was where most of the visitors were heading to anyway. Once inside the expo, I was quite surprised to see just two people manhandling the distribution of race packets for the full-marathon distance! Luckily, there weren’t a whole lot of visitors at the time I visited, so getting my race pack took literally a minute. Just as strangely, after passing through the collection area there were only two booths with companies merchandising their products! A big difference compared to Singapore marathon where 20-30 people would be handling the race pack collection for each one of the distances and there would be many booths merchandising all kinds of running related products.
The race pack itself was fine. Not too many promos and discounts codes inside, a fact that I actually liked as I rarely find these actual bargains. The race pack also included some electrolytes which is always useful, a sports drink, and two nicely done booklets about the race which I actually read through. Best of all, my BIB was a cool three-digit number which I loved.
Pre-race I had the usual pasta for dinner to fuel up myself with carbs and drank a Nuun electrolyte. Something I didn’t realise ahead of time and came as a pleasant surprise was that I could also have a normal breakfast. The Dubai Marathon starts early but not super early as in Singapore where many races would flag off in the ungodly 4-5am. The start time for the Dubai Marathon was a reasonable 6:30am which meant I had to leave the flat around 5am. However, the time zone difference with Singapore actually played to my favour as Singapore is four hours ahead and I was able to fall asleep nice and early in the evening, get enough rest, then wake up on my own at 4am Dubai time with sufficient time to prepare and eat a healthy breakfast before taking off for the main event.
As my running form wasn’t ideal and my persistent cough was worrying me, my race strategy was to start conservatively and to gradually increase pace as the race progressed. For the actual race, I brought with me a chia drink for before the flag-off, two packs of chews to take one every 5km and two Cliff bars for the 20km and 30km marks. I know most people choose to go for energy gels but my hands get too sweaty and I always struggle opening the gel while running. So, I simply go for chews and bars.
Dubai Marathon 2017
Waking up on race day and getting myself ready went as planned. Such a great feeling to leave apartment at five in the morning and knowing you will be running for 42km yet feeling you had a full-night of sleep and a proper breakfast! Never happened to me in Singapore.
Getting a taxi in Dubai apparently is not a problem even at 5am as there were a few ones readily available as soon as I went outside. I wasn’t sure this is going to be the case though, so I had ordered a Uber ride while still in the apartment. Getting a hooker in Dubai at 5am apparently is not a problem either as one came to me faster than the Uber driver managed to! And that was despite me being in full running gear with a big sports bags hanging on my shoulder. In any case, the Uber driver came quickly enough and I was off to the start point.
Twenty minutes later while already at the baggage drop-off area, I realised why my BIB number was so cool and why there was no mention of starting waves in the race guide. It also explained how come two people were able to handle the race pack collection. The baggage area was divided into just three sections for the different BIB numbers- up to 1,000, 1,000 – 2,000 and 2,000 – 3,000. So, despite the fact that Dubai Marathon advertises itself as having 30,000 competitors and the fact that world record holding athletes such as Kenenisa Bekele were participating in this year’s event, the actual marathon runners were fewer than 3,000 while the majority of the participants have signed up to the shorter 4km and 10km distances. With $250,000 going to each of the first place finishers, Dubai Marathon offers one of the biggest prize funds worldwide plus has the IAAF Gold class label, yet the marathon itself is actually fairly small. Which is actually nice- you get to participate in a “major” marathon, run with superstar runners yet enjoy the intimate feel of a small-scale run with all runners starting together.
In any case, race was about to be flagged off and everybody was lining up. While the flag-off appeared uneventful and in fact, I didn’t experience any of the usual light pushing between bodies and having to slow run for the first few hundred meters, there was in fact a newsworthy event. Bekele, the main favorite to win the marathon, who in pre-race TV interviews was promising to not just win the event but also break the current world record, had been inadvertently tripped and fell to the ground immediately after flag-off. He did get up a couple of seconds later but the fall seemed to have affected his running ability as he never caught up with the leading pack and eventually ended as a DNF shortly after the halfway mark. Not that catching up with the leading pack was an easy task. The pacemakers set out a blistering pace at the start and by the 15km mark, the leading group was going 40 seconds faster than the current world record!
Much further back and with much less drama, I started out running at a 6:10 pace staying comfortably in my easy zone. Following my negative split race strategy, I kept the pace for the first five km, then gradually moved to 6:00 pace for the next five, then 5:50 and finally reaching the 4hr marathon pace of 5:40 around the 15km mark. As my muscles were warming up, my pace was naturally increasing without me feeling that I was exerting an additional effort. Expectedly, a lot of runners passed me up in the first couple of km but I was disciplined enough to stay put. By now, I have started to quickly recognise the unmistakable signs of people running at unsustainable speeds- upper torso moving vigorously, big hand swings, the back leg going high… I wasn’t worried about people like that passing me up- with 40+ km to go there was still a lot of running to be done and I felt confident I would be catching them up soon enough.
There was also the usual mix of runners bringing some diversity and entertainment. A two meter tall man in a full-body Superman suit was perhaps the most noticeable runner among all as his huge red mantle was hard to miss. The guy must have had some true Superman powers since despite the tiny beer belly that was starting to show up, he was running fairly strong. Then there was the lone barefoot runner who would venture sideways every time he saw some grass to run on. There was also the group of runners from Georgia all of whom seemed 60+ yet eager to run. But by far the loudest and most disruptive of all the runners was an african guy who it would seem has decided to run some intervals zigzaging through the (naturally) slower running crowd while also screaming on top of his lungs something unintelligible presumably in his native language. Change from the usual is nice I guess but I was happy to pass the interval runner for good after he had sprinted past me three times only for me to pass him up once he would start walking.
Around the 3rd km, I noticed a lady running close to me and going at a pace similar to mine. I am not really the type of runner who would look for runners to run along with and pace each other but the two of us did seem to be on a similar pacing strategy, so we stayed in proximity. As the km were piling up, both of us were gradually increasing the pace and started catching and passing more and more people. Around the 10th km mark, we became a trio as some guy started running along as well. The three of us kept going for quite a while. By this point, nobody was passing us anymore instead we were catching more and more runners. In fact, as we neared the 5:40 pace, we started passing whole batches of people. My legs continued to feel good and as I kept increasing my pace, I eventually lost my new running-mates around the 17th km.
Regular water stations were located every five km, however, there would also be smaller water stations halfway between the regular ones. In contrast to the cups of water they give you in Singapore, in Dubai we had bottles of water which while probably not the most environmentally-friendly way to go about things, I found much better. You can grab a bottle of water and continue running without the risk of water spilling up. Also, a bottle holds more water than a paper cup which is especially useful for me as I often times would stop at a station and drink 3-4 cups of water in a quick succession. The water stations also offered sponges which many people took advantage of. Gels were occasionally on the offer as well but since I brought my own nutrition, I never took any. Along the way and especially in the second half of the course, many ordinary people would line along the road to cheer and offer extra nutrition. I saw slices of orange, watermelon, chocolate, gummy bears, etc to energize the runners. I must have been really focused on my running at that stage because I passed on the guy offering pieces of chocolate without taking any.
All in all, my race was going quite smoothly with both legs feeling fresh and my HR staying comfortably in zone 2. Then out of the blue, a disaster struck around the 24th km. My cough was suddenly back and I kept on coughing and coughing while continuing to run. I must have been a strange sight from the outside- running at around 5:35 pace I was visibly faster than the runners around me yet my cough sounded like the cough of an old man who has smoked for decades. For about half a km, I kept on coughing and running and wondering how can I keep going if I cough for 18 more kilometres. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared the cough was gone. Not sure what it was but I was just happy that my cough reappeared only well after I had finished the marathon. That episode reminded me of something the famous ultra-marathoner of the recent past- Scott Jurek was describing in his Eat & Run book. In the book, Jurek was saying that one gets baptized as an ultra-marathoner when their body starts vomiting while they just keep on running. I have always thought not stopping when your body is clearly sick is too much and I still think this way but if there was a tough it out moment for me during the race, it was definitely the coughing episode.
Coughing aside, my race was going smooth and I kept on catching and passing a ton of runners. I even passed Superman around the 26th km mark as he seemed to be struggling and was breathing heavily. Not easy to carry the Superman mantle, I guess. I thought I would say something funny as I pass the superhero but just in the 2-3 minutes while I was catching up to him, already two people shout out fun comments at his expense, so I thought I would give the guy a break, pass him quietly and stay merry on my way.
The 30 and 35 km marks came and went with no signs of hitting the wall. My HR was now mostly in the high zone 3/low zone 4 with my pace starting to approach 5:20. It was a bright and sunny day in Dubai but it didn’t feel hot and it certainly wasn’t nearly as humid as in Singapore. A lot of people were struggling to maintain their stride though. I even saw somebody being carted off by a medical team around the 30th km. Mostly flat, the only uphill on the Dubai Marathon is a small bridge on the 21st km that you have to pass again on the way back around the 33rd km. Nothing nearly as bad as the dreaded Sheares bridge in Singapore Marathon- the bridge in Dubai is more like half the size of Marina Barrage climb. It is an uphill nonetheless and at the 33rd mark most people were walking it.
At the 39km my legs finally started to show signs of wearing. Not a pain I couldn’t tolerate for a couple more kilometers and I didn’t slow down my pace but running was no longer a breeze. I was still catching up and passing many runners. In fact, since the 10km mark, I don’t think I was passed by anybody. This is where a slow start pacing strategy really pays off for me at least. Going strong in the later stages of an endurance event, gives me an additional boost of energy and confidence to keep going a tiny bit more. So, I took an extra chew along with my regular one a bit before the 40th km and the finish came soon enough. While it was a bit disappointing to make the final corner and see that I have missed the 4hr mark by a bit, overall I was very happy by how well the whole race went. And luckily I had enough energy in reserve and not too many runners around me to do a final sprint for a nice finish photo too.
Immediately after the finish, I was handed the finisher’s medal with the usual bananas and drinks available shortly after. However, it seems like Dubai Marathon is not giving away finisher t-shirts which a was a bit surprised about.