The surroundings at the inaugural Challenge Dubai don’t border on the surreal; they wallow right in it.
It’s late February—an early start for the northern hemisphere by anyone’s account—and one of the biggest, deepest fields we’ll see all year outside Kona has congregated to race. Ironman World Champs (Pete Jacobs, Leanda Cave) versus ITU World Champs (Javier Gomez, Ivan Rana). Ironman 70.3 World Champs (Daniela Ryf, Gomez, Cave, Terenzo Bozzone, Michael Raelert, Jodie Swallow) versus rising middle-distance guns (Helle Fredericksen, Annabel Luxford) In, of all places, the opulent Arab Emirate of Dubai, where “biggestâ€ (shopping mall) “tallestâ€ (building in the world in the Burj Khalifa and “bestâ€ is pushed to the max. Wednesday’s press conference venue: the already stunning Jumeirah Beach Hotel, overlooking the famed $4,800-a-night, Burj al Arab island hotel. The only think missing is are camels relaxing at a Bedouin camp… but those are just a few miles away in the desert.
Did we mention the $1 million Triple Crown bonus?
Let’s put it more succinctly: provided Spanish favorite Javier Gomez—the reigning 70.3 World Champ—wins Friday, and wins at the mid-season Challenge Oman, he will without question give up his 70.3 Worlds title defense in favor of chance for a clean sweep of the the Nasser Bin Hamad Triple Crown in order to claim to the winner-take-all bonus of $1 million at the finale in Bahrain in December.
For athletes like Gomez, Fredericksen, Swallow and others, it boils down to this: title, or money? For pros in a tough-pay sport, it’s hard to argue against the $1 million bonus (for each men and women) the Dubai Sports Council has helped pour into this event in an effort to raise the status of triathlon in the United Arab Emirates. All any of these athletes have to do is win each of the three Emirate-based events: Challenge Dubai, Challenge Oman and Challenge Bahrain.
And it all starts here, Friday, with the $300,000 Challenge Dubai.
“It’s going to be a busy year—but it’s been busy the last 10 years,â€ Gomez told the media at Wednesday’s Challenge Dubai press conference. “It’s a great field racing the best middle-distance athletes in the world, but with these three (Triple Crown) races, this one is early and Bahrain is late, so there’s only one (Oman) interrupting my ITU season. With my focus next year on the Olympic Games, this is my time to have fun at non-drafting racing.â€
And, perhaps, make a lot of money.
Friday, 800 athletes will take part in Challenge Bahrain, hitting a middle-distance course with cool waters during a 1.9k swim in generally calm Arabian Gulf, a fast, flat 90k bike past the a stunning Dubai downtown backdrop, and an equally flat and fast run along the Dubai shorline in one of the most sports-hungry cities on the globe.
The athletes seem to like the course, and the surreal setting.
“I’ve head a run on the path along the beach, and it’s beautiful,â€ reigning Ironman 70.3 World Champ and Kona runner-up Daniela Ryf said. “The hotel has 10 treadmills with a view to the ocean. What more can you ask for?â€
The men’s race creates a plethora of interesting matchups. With Beijing Olympic Gold Medalist Jan Frodeno out to injuries from a recent bike crash, Gomez comes in as the odds-on favorite. But there are storylines. Michael Raelert, the German former 70.3 World Champ has been the subject of whisperings of being in top fitness.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever raced against Javier,â€ Raelert said, “but I’m honored to race against him now. He’s already the best athlete in the world, I mean… he is what he is. But he does have the target on his back.â€
How hot will the Australians like Joe Gambles, Brad Kahlefeldt and Paul Matthews, as well as Kiwi Terenzo Bozzone—currently at the peak of their summer race season in the Southern Hemisphere—be?
“I think the Aussie guys have had a nice string, but it can take a bit of spark out of you,â€ Australian and recent Ironman 70.3 Auckland champ Tim Reed said. “We’ve got guys like Michael (Raelert) and Javi coming off a break… it’ll be interesting to see where they are.â€
And of course, who, coming out of the hibernation of winter training in the Northern Hemisphere in Europe and North America, will go well? How fit can Trevor and Heather Wurtele, Meredith Kessler, Andy Potts and Ruedi Wild fare coming out of the U.S. and Europe?
“As a parent, it takes a lot to get me across the continent, let alone the Atlantic,â€ Potts said. ” It took Challenge to put this race together, and the carrot of the million-dollar challenge was enough.â€
Great Britain’s Jodie Swallow admits it the early-season dynamics for much of the field, versus the mid-season form of the others, will make for a high-stakes wild card day Friday. “Other girls I’m worried about? You know, there’s another 10 girls that have been on a world championship podium that aren’t even at this press conference,â€ she said. “It’s really a funny time of year.â€
Conditions are expected to be pleasant for race day, and light winds on the bike as the sun rises. Forecast is for a mild low of 68 degrees F in the early morning during check-in, and a high of 75 degrees F . Challenge officials said water temperatures today were 22.2 degrees C (71.95 degrees F) If that remains constant for Friday, it will likely be a non-wetsuit swim for the pros, with the final call one hour before race start.
Check in after the race Friday (pro men start at 6:45 a.m. local, 9:45 p.m. Eastern, 6:45 p.m. Pacific Thursday night) for a detailed post-race report and image gallery from the race.