The world's richest long-distance race, the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, takes place on January 27 and for many participants it is more than just a race - it also marks the pinnacle of dedication to fitness.
This year the event follows a new route, through downtown Dubai. From a starting point at the Pavilion, beneath the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, along the Emaar Boulevard and eventually on to the coast along Satwa, the race promises to be as stunning in its backdrop as it is challenging for those taking part.
Most of the 14,000 runners in the 10km race, the 3km Fun Run and the classic 42.195km marathon itself won't be paying too much attention to the sights. Instead, they'll be focused on their personal or team goals. Many will have trained for months, in all conditions, to achieve personal best times and, in the case of the elite runners especially, may have travelled from far-flung corners of the globe to run through the streets of Dubai.
For many, the rewards are not simply the sense of achievement, sponsorship money and the shiny medal. Marathon competition and training have become the foundation of their health and fitness regimes.
"I have hypertension and one of the main benefits to running is keeping my blood pressure down as well as my weight," says Malcolm Murphy, a founder of the Dubai Creek Striders. Murphy ran his first Dubai marathon at the age of 50, in 1998. "Hopefully, injuries permitting, the 2012 event will be my 13th Dubai marathon. I've also run four in Abu Dhabi."
Medical opinion is divided on the health implications of marathon-running. On the one hand, it is seen as a run too far - and has been ever since the original marathon runner of ancient Greek legend, Pheidippides, dropped dead after dashing 25 miles to deliver news of the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon.
But equally, there is research suggesting that the injury-and-repair processes that the body endures when you exert yourself during training only go to make it stronger. When compared with the number of people taking part in marathons worldwide, the statistics for fatalities directly linked to exertions on the road are minuscule, making it still a very safe sport to take part in.
Certainly, any health hazards connected to long distance running do not appear to be putting people off - the sport is more popular than ever before. And such is the appeal of marathon and triathlon events these days that an entire industry has grown up around it. Magazines, websites, online advice forums and even specialist running stores have sprung up in cities around the world to cater for the growing number of amateur athletes looking to push themselves physically and mentally in an increasingly demanding variety of races.
"Of course, people are a bit more health-conscious than in the past, but I also believe people are looking for meaningful personal challenges," says Richard Donovan, an international ultra-marathon runner and the first person to run marathons at both the North and South Poles.
"Recessions in particular will always cause a certain amount of introspection and questioning and I think the result is often a commitment to undertake a physical challenge," says Donovan. "We all know that one such challenge leads to another as the addiction of running and exercise takes hold."
An indication of Donovan's "addiction" is the fact that he holds the record for running seven marathon distances on seven continents (in five days 10 hours and eight minutes), including one specially created in Dubai. "I had run a marathon in both Antarctica and Cape Town, South Africa, the previous day. The Dubai Creek Striders set up a custom-made 3.5km circuit in Al Safa Park that I had to repeat 12 times.
"It was in February and though the initial temperature was only 13°C, it was not long before it climbed into the high 20s and increased the demands on my body. The Striders were incredible support runners and once I completed it I went straight on to run London - and back to freezing conditions."
Attempting to complete a 42km course in your best possible time is not a task to be taken lightly. Novice runners are encouraged to speak to their doctors before embarking on any new, demanding fitness regimen, especially if they've suffered heart issues or respiratory problems in the past. Getting into race condition is vital, too. Entrants for the Dubai event are advised to be at a level of fitness and training where they are able to run 24km comfortably one month before the marathon. If they can't, then for their own safety and enjoyment it's recommended that they do not take part.
Training methods are varied; every competitor will have his or her personal regime, but many follow a gradual build-up over a series of months, featuring shorter runs during the working week and longer distances at weekends.
"First-timers at the Dubai marathon should try to forget the excitement at the start and instead go out slowly. Don't get pulled in with faster runners, which is so easy to do," warns Murphy. "The ideal marathon is running the second half quicker than the first - known among runners as negative splits - so that you leave something in the tank."
While the heat and strain of endurance running drain competitors of body fluids through sweat, it is the question of the "over drinking" by runners that has become a new concern for health professionals. Recent studies carried out among runners in the Chicago marathon by researchers from the Loyola University Medical Center found that almost half of runners may be drinking too much during their races.
"There's a misconception that you have to 'stay ahead' of your thirst," warned Dr James Winger, the study's author. By drinking as much as they possibly can, athletes are at risk of hyponatraemia - a possibly fatal "drowning" of the brain. "Thirst is a very reliable indicator of your body's actual hydration status," adds Winger, who adheres to the current medical advice which is to drink only when you need to, to protect yourself against both hyponatraemia and dehydration. Sip small amounts regularly throughout the race.
Murphy also advises first-timers not to be too concerned about the time they take. "Just enjoy your first one - and the feeling, known only to those who have done one, when you cross that finish line."
How to get the best out of your marathon
Train and rest. Remember, rest days are as important to your training as running days since they allow your body time to replace muscle glycogen.
Do drink during races, especially in the first half of a marathon. Get used to your body's requirements by drinking during longer training runs, too.
Avoid changing your diet too dramatically in your final week before the race. Certainly stick to what works for you on the race day itself. Many runners increase their intake of carbohydrates in the countdown to race day to load the muscles with glycogen.
The early start to the Dubai Marathon means an early night before. Get plenty of rest ahead of the big day and prepare your kit the night beforehand. Arrive early to warm up your muscles properly and to soak up the occasion.
Use petroleum jelly to prevent chafing on any hot spots when your kit can rub against your skin and cause distracting discomfort. Don't miss between the toes, under the waistband of your shorts, around your nipples and armpits.