With less than 36 hours until Saturday’s 2013 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, elite athletes from both the long and short-course distances sat down to discuss their thoughts about the fourth edition of the race.

Two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack will make his second appearance in the race, and he said he’s looking forward to making up for his last attempt. “I had some mechanical issues last time, and I always said I would be back. It took me two years, but I’m really happy to be here and to give it a go,” said McCormack.

McCormack said his most formidable rival on Saturday would be 2011 Abu Dhabi champion Frederick Van Lierde. “I think Freddy is one of the most consistent Ironman-distance athletes on the planet and I will enjoy getting a look at how his fitness holds up this early in the year.” Van Lierde likened his early-season fitness to that of certain members of Belgian cycling pelotons, who tend to perform better in some of the cycling calendar’s early-season races. “I think I’m the type of athlete who can still perform well early on in the season,” he said. “But I’ve been here all four years of the race and so I’ve learned something every time that helps me to do better as well.”

Making his first Abu Dhabi debut will be XTERRA legend Conrad Stoltz, who said he accepted the invitation to the event because he thought the 200K bike and shorter run would suit him well. “I’m a good cyclist, but I weight 85 kilos so I need that short run. That’s why I don’t do Ironmans,” said the South African. “I’ve actually never been to the UAE, and so I really came because I was interested in exploring a new part of the world.”

Egypt’s first pro triathlete, Omar Nour, is no stranger to this part of the world, and he believes that will play to his advantage. Nour is actively pursuing a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, and on Saturday he will go head-to-head in the short course with current Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee of Great Britain. “I think it’s always good to measure yourself against the best,” said Nour. “But that said, this isn’t Yorkshire, it’s the desert. On any given day out here, people can blow up so you just never know what will happen on race day.”

Returning women’s champion Nikki Butterfield of Australia is looking forward to seeing where her fitness is on Saturday, after deciding against retirement and instead heading to Abu Dhabi to defend her title. “The last 12 months of our family’s life has been quite stressful, with Tyler [Butterfield] trying to make the Olympic team and just trying to juggle all of that,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t being a good wife, mother or athlete and one of those things had to give, and it was the obvious choice which one of those things it would be.” But after deciding against retirement, Butterfield faced a hard reality check back in December when she started in earnest to train for Abu Dhabi. “I had taken four months completely off,” she admits. “So if you asked me in December I’d say there was no way I’d have a chance here, but I’ve gotten in some really solid training back in Australia and it will be interesting to see how the race will unfold for me.”

One of Butterfield’s staunchest opponents is Kona’s 2012 runner-up finisher Caroline Steffen of Switzerland. Steffen has raced in Abu Dhabi all four years, and has enjoyed top-five finishes every time, and she considers it a key component of her early-season fitness as she prepares to prepare her title in Melbourne later this month. “This is my first race of the year and a really good chance to see where my bike is at,” says Steffen. “I need to race smart though and it’s hard in a race like this because I am a bit of a race horse and it is easy to go too hard on the bike.” Steffen says she’s hoping the temperatures are as high as possible on Saturday because it will give her another advantage. “I’ve been training in Australia in some hot conditions, but I also just think your body remembers the heat,” she says. “And it’s a dry heat, not super humid like in Kona and I think that’s much more manageable.”