Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge 2009
By Travis Macy
In 1994, when I was 11 years old, I watched from the support car as my dad, Mark, ran 146 miles from Death Valley, California to the summit of Mt. Whitney, more than 14,000 feet above. The Badwater Ultramarathon is one of the hardest races on earth, and during those two days in the support car a lifelong reverence for the desert grew within me. While I always relished brief forays into the empty, dry spaces of North America, nothing I had done previously compared to what I would experience in Abu Dhabi in December of 2009.
Flying out of Denver International Airport just ahead of a looming snowstorm, I realized that missing a few good powder skiing days in Colorado was a small price to pay for a chance to race in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a six-day multisport race in some of the most inspiring, unique, and unforgiving terrain on earth. For the next week, I would run, bike, paddle, swim, and climb through the vast sand dunes, deserted trails, sprawling seas, steep cliffs, and incredible cities that make Abu Dhabi a true treasure of the Middle East. Although the temperature at my house was well below freezing, I hoped that running through deep snow in the weeks before the race would prepare me for romping up and down sand dunes.
The stakes were high with 40 coed, four-person teams from 20 countries competing for the largest cash purse in adventure racing. Like most international adventure races, the field included a disproportionate number of Kiwis. Race-hardened in the unforgiving climate and steep hills of the Southlands, the experienced athletes of Team Qasr Al Sarab and Team ADCO (who had both gained the support of local sponsors for this race) could be expected to contend for podium positions. The Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge is a distant descendent of the original Raid Galouise and Raid World Championship, and a number of competitive French teams toed the line in an event organized by a French company called Community. Other familiar faces included the Swedes of Team Lundhags Adventure and Spanish/French of Team Buff Thermocool. Strikingly absent were the Americans of Team Nike, the most successful adventure racing team in history, but interestingly present were the Germans of Team Abu Dhabi Triathlon. Led by Faris Al-Sultan, winner of Ironman Hawaii in 2005, this team of uber-triathletes generated whispers across the field and media before the race. Would the fittest triathletes in the world have what it takes to complete a multi-day adventure race? Could they win?
My contingency, Team Salomon/Crested Butte, was fit and ready to go. Although we had not raced together as a foursome, I had competed with each other member of the team in previous races and expected that we would work well together. Jon Brown, 38, team captain, lives in Gunnison, Colorado. A former professional mountain bike racer, Jon owns a small publishing company. He’s consistent and level-headed, the quintessential teammate. Eric “Sully” Sullivan, 28, also lives at altitude in Gunnison. An extremely talented, powerful racer, Sully never complains and does the little things every team needs to go faster. Denise McHale, 35, is a talented athlete and close friend from Canada’s Yukon Territory. In preparation for Abu Dhabi, Denise won the Canadian 100 Kilometer Road Running Championship and logged hours “paddling” on an indoor machine after the water froze outside in September. I have been adventure racing professionally since 2005, and I also teach English, Literature, and Algebra II at Denver Academy High School in Colorado. After months of steady training out of my home at 8200 feet in Evergreen, Colorado, I was feeling strong and excited for a desert adventure!
Day 1: Full Speed Ahead in Abu Dhabi
Adventure Triathlon Prologue, 27km
Sea Kayaking, 33km
Many multi-day adventure races start with a leisurely pace as athletes settle into a sustainable rhythm to hold over the next week. This was not the case at the 2009 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge.
At the gun blast, 160 competitors shot off from the line on mountain bikes. With tires hyper-inflated to speed across 12 kilometers of tarmac (some racers even used aero bars and thin, cyclocross-style tires), we shot down the road in a daring peloton. Each racer depended on the others to hold their lines and maintain composure as we sped down the scenic beachside esplanade, pulled a hairy u-turn, and raced back to a magnificent palace for the first transition.
Ever the competitor, Jon realized moments before the start that we would save precious time—only days later would we know how important every second truly was in this race—by cycling in our running shoes and then enjoying a seamless transition to running. The creativity paid off, and we hit the five-kilometer road running section at the front of the pack. As the field meandered through the palace, across a beach, and then back onto paved roads, teams jockeyed to make their presence known. Qasr Al Sarab shot to the front and led the way to the transition to an open-water swim.
Adventure races rarely require competitors to swim nearly a kilometer, but I was quickly learning that the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge is not the typical adventure race. After hurriedly stripping to our shorts and donning goggles, we dove into a picturesque bay bordering Abu Dhabi City. Race flags signaling the swim’s finish loomed one kilometer away, and for some racers this swim would be a serious test. Assured by the swim training I had done in the weeks leading up to the race, I confidently fell into a rhythm in the water. When I saw the recognizable Ironman Triathlon swim caps of the German squad approaching on my left, I decided to simply slide into their slipstream and draft for the remainder of the swim. Apparently my training was not quite enough, and the Phelpsian squad shot away from me in seconds!
Back on the beach, Team Salomon/Crested Butte regrouped quickly as we transitioned to the first of two three-kilometer paddling sections that would sandwich a quick orienteering section on a sandy island to complete the adventure triathlon. Running in the sand dunes here was a taste-tester for what would come on a much larger scale in two days time, and most teams navigated soundly with map and compass. The Kiwis established dominance in kayaks, with Team Qasr al Sarab taking the Adventure Triathlon Prologue in a decisive victory.
After a quick beach-side shower and rehydration session, racing began again that afternoon with 33 kilometers of sea kayaking from Abu Dhabi City to a small, remote island to the north. At the le mans start from the beach, Jon and I were lucky to take the lead for the first 500 meters of paddling but were shortly overtaken by the Kiwis, who never looked back. Exiting the shelter of an island after a few kilometers, we hit the swells of the open seas. At one checkpoint, swells came together and broke on a sandbar. Most teams beached safely here, but some were not so lucky!
At day’s end, sore muscles enjoyed a night’s reprieve at a tiny island. The scene was spectacular, with stars in the sky and city lights in the distance…a truly memorable evening of camping with friends.
Day 2: Teams Spread Out on the Open Seas
Sea Kayaking, 55km
Pushing off at sunrise from our remote island haven, teams paddled towards four checkpoints that would take us back to Abu Dhabi City over the course of about six hours. The satellite images we used to navigate throughout the race (standard topo maps are not available for the region) depicted sandy islands laced with thick bushes and surrounded by channels ranging from very deep to quite shallow. Finding the deep water proved crucial all day, and teams that were able to move fastest through the shallows by finding slightly deeper sections excelled.
Hydration and nutrition were also paramount on the water. During this section, I drank six liters of water carried in bladders strapped to the boat deck. I also ate constantly, consuming energy bars, gels, nuts, and raisins. As it turns out, salt water-saturated Powerbars don’t taste very good, but they still do the trick!
The Kiwi teams extended their lead on this long paddling section. Those of us from Colorado and Canada, however, had our work cut out for us when we boarded the bus for the desert.
Days 3+4: The Heat is on in the Empty Quarter
Desert Trekking, 120km
Abu Dhabi’s Rub al Khali, or “Empty Quarter,” conjures images of ancient explorers, stranded travelers, and Bedouin caravans. The largest expanse of unbroken sand in the world, the area truly is one-of-a-kind. Sand dunes stretch beyond the horizon, interrupted only by flat, empty salt flats. Nothing grows. There is no water. Even in the winter, temperatures hover above 100°F (38°C). Animal life is limited to a few super-adapted species that thrive under these conditions. Such was the stage for 120 kilometers of trekking on days three and four.
After busing a few hours south from the coastline, we camped in a barren flat surrounded by dunes. Dinner the night before on the island consisted of dehydrated meals and energy bars, so racers attacked the rich buffet of Middle Eastern food presented that evening with ravenous stomachs and smiling faces. Knowing that we would soon face discomfort for up to 36 hours, we took pleasure in an evening of international camaraderie under traditional tents in the desert.
Early the next morning, dressed once again in game faces, we ran into the dunes with sand flying into our eyes and questions dancing in our heads. Would our gaiters and Gore-Tex shoes keep the sand out? Would we get enough water? How hot would it be? Would we, the teams that lost time on the paddling sections, be able to regain precious minutes? What in the world had we gotten ourselves into, anyway?
Eager to capitalize on our running backgrounds and take advantage of fitness gained by training at altitude, Team Salomon/Crested Butte moved quickly to the front of the pack. Following our position closely on the map—I use the term loosely because the “map” was merely a satellite image of the area—I began to gain confidence in navigating the unfamiliar terrain. Things were looking good as we led the way to the first checkpoint.
A few minutes later, however, Jon came to a terrifying realization: “Man, my shoes are too small!” If you think walking around the shoe store in kicks a size too small is uncomfortable, imagine running for almost 20 hours in such shoes. His shoes made ever smaller by sand working its way into every minuscule gap between threads, Jon hung on like a man possessed as his toes smashed and mashed.
Seven hours in, when the top teams took a few hours of our eight required hours of rest at a salt flat checkpoint, we had lost about 20 minutes to the leaders. In hope of alleviating some of the excruciating pressure building under Jon’s big toenail, he and I drilled through it from the top using a knife and safety pin. Moments later, we ran back into the dunes, knowing that that we would not stop again for at least six hours.
As night arrived, teams continued zig-zagging through sand dunes, following compass bearings to nowhere under a vibrant, star-lit sky. When we stopped for our final rest during the middle of the night, we remained almost half an hour behind the lead group, which included the Kiwis and other top teams.
Sunrise brought fire in the sky and timeless panorama: Were we really adventure racers, or stranded travelers from days long ago? On the horizon ahead, what I first thought was another team materialized into a mother camel with its newborn. Slimy and grey with umbilical cord still attached, the baby wobbled on unsure legs while its mother observed us suspiciously. “Oh yeah, this is why I do these races,” I thought silently to myself, too tired for conversation.
Moments later, Jon pushing the pace despite the fact that his toes had become minced-meat, we caught the lead group of six teams. The race was on!
Summiting the final dune, 120 kilometers and 19 hours of running under our belts, we spotted the finish line. To get there, we would have to drop about 50 meters down a near-vertical sand dune and run 200 meters across a salt flat. As seven teams took off in an all-out sprint, I felt like I was finishing a high school track race!
As we flew down in a cloud of sand, the dune came alive, bellowing a sound reminiscent of a twin-propeller airplane, its granules rolling over each other in what grew into a miniature avalanche. Inspired to regain some respect after a subpar showing on the water early in the race, Team Salomon/Crested Butte turned on the after burners and crossed the line first. We had not gained any time on the leaders, but we had, like every effective adventure racing team out there, faced adversity and persevered.
Day 5: Salt in the Eyes, Sand in the Lungs; Time to Hammer!
Mountain Biking, 96km
Refreshed by another night of camping in the desert, racing began anew on Day 5 with two mountain biking sections. After a rip-roaring start that saw Team Qasr Al Sarab take the lead and never look back, most of the top teams traveled in a quick peloton over bumpy but fast dirt roads to the rest point of the day.
Qasr Al Sarab may be a five-star hotel, but it looks like a Medieval compound. Located in the middle of nowhere (truly, one sees nothing but sand dunes in every direction), the hotel is an island of luxury. During our one-hour stay, we snacked on hors d’oeuvres fit for a king, washed in a bathroom larger than my house, and napped in posh sofas.
Getting back on our bikes seemed ridiculous, but we did so anyway. Shortly after the re-start, racing really began as we turned on to a secondary dirt road. Here, the forceful wind we had battled all day had intermittently blown sand across the road. Some of these sandy patches necessitated shifting into a very high gear, spinning like crazy, and hoping for the best. Others, deeper and longer, forced riders to dismount, run their bikes through the sand, and remount—all with speed and without stopping. Those with cyclocross experience excelled, and the pack soon dismantled.
The cycling experts of Team D.O.M.A. coped well with sand and salt in their eyes, lungs, and bikes, and took the stage win. Teams Qasr Al Srab, Salomon/Crested Butte, and ADCO followed closely. After hanging on through unfamiliar racing for four solid days, the uber-triathletes of Team Abu Dhabi Triathlon hung up their jerseys after a cycling crash by one team member.
Day 6: Navigation, Ropes, and a Sprint to the Finish!
Orienteering, Via Cordata, Mountain Biking, Running, 50km
Adventure racing teams generally rely on one person to navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint using map, compass, and, for the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in particular, GPS. For those of us who live and die by the compass, the map becomes our best friend throughout the race. We constantly consult the paper regarding decisions big and small; we relish opportunities to test our navigation skills against competitors. Day 6 set the stage for a navigator’s greatest dream: pinpoint route finding in terrain bereft of any discernable features, in the dark, with the race on the line.
For me, a dream come true morphed into my worst nightmare right before my eyes…
With the top four teams fairly solidified in their positioning, Team Salomon/Crested Butte entered the final day of racing in fifth place, just one minute ahead of Team Abu Dhabi Sports Council/Wilsa, the talented and ever-persistent French squad.
Sprinting away from the starting line towards a series of orienteering checkpoints with visions of putting more time on our closest competitors, I seemed to be running across a lifeless, lightless moonscape. The rolling ground was covered with sharp, misshapen rocks; ankles would pay a high price today.
The darkness of early morning necessitated navigation purely by compass bearing. As we ran hard to the second checkpoint, trying to hold onto the straight line dictated by the compass, Jon noticed our team was suddenly alone. “Hey, I wonder if we over-ran the checkpoint, Trav,” he chimed in. My initial reaction was to hold my course. I had the map and compass, after all.
A few minutes later, an approaching caravan of headlamps confirmed Jon’s intuition and my nightmare: we had, indeed, run past the checkpoint, at full gallop. We turned and headed back, guided by the approaching lights of the entire racing field coming in the opposite direction. After hoping to put time on our rivals, we arrived at the checkpoint in last place.
Adventure racing always calls on its participants to be resilient, and I was thankful to have three teammates that morning who maintained faith in my navigational skills as they followed me to the remaining orienteering checkpoints. Denise, Sully, Jon, and I ran as if we were in a 10-kilometer road race, passing more than half of the field before hitting a backup at the ropes section.
Djebel Hafeet is a luminous rocky crag that towers nearly 1000 meters above the flat plain below, where we had been orienteering. To summit this monster, we would scale a steep, rocky canyon rigged with ropes in the via cordata fashion. Wearing a climbing harness equipped with two extending points of contact, we clipped and unclipped from fixed ropes hundreds of times as we climbed hard in an attempt to gain back lost time.
Jon seemed to have forgotten that his feet were utterly ruined, and he led the way to the summit, where we completed the section at a parking lot and snack shop. In stark contrast to the excruciating heat during most of the race, the Djebel Hafeet brought thick clouds and cold wind.
Refueled by chips and soda, the entire field set off together in a flying peloton as we descended the paved road to Al Ain, a beautiful city near Abu Dhabi’s eastern border with Oman. The field completed the cycling section together and enjoyed a few minutes of camaraderie before the final section of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge.
During the final three-kilometer running section, racers from 20 countries reflected on their time in Abu Dhabi. An exciting adventure triathlon in Abu Dhabi City led to two days of sea kayaking in beautiful coastal waters. The Rub al Khali brought an incredible environment, unsurpassed in uniqueness and drama by any in the world. Two days of trekking there was truly incredible. Mountain biking in a sandstorm was not to be forgotten—nor was the Qasr Al Sarab Hotel. Orienteering and fixed ropes were icing on the cake!
I will remember the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge as one of the best races in the world, and I hope to return to the region soon.
About the Author
A product of life in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Travis Macy has seen success as a professional adventure racer and world-class trail runner, snowshoe racer, and mountain biker. A native of Evergreen, Colorado, he ran on the varsity track and cross country teams at the University of Colorado. Travis has adventure raced in Abu Dhabi, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Thailand, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, France, Scotland and Alaska. He often feels happiest when out on the Colorado trails with his wife, Amy, and dogs, Kepler and Nelson. Macy’s father, Mark, competed in every Eco-Challenge race and continues to participate in outdoor activities with his son.
Macy's journalism has been widely published in print and online sources including Adventure Sports Magazine, The Boulder Daily Camera, Trail Runner, Adventure World Magazine, Sleepmonsters.com, ARWC 2007 Coffee Table Book, and The University of Colorado Honors Journal. He teaches reading, writing, and arithmetic at Denver Academy High School (www.denveracademy.org).