ABU DHABI // It promises to be one of the most panoramic tours possible of Abu Dhabi, starting on the private beach of the Emirates Palace hotel, along the Corniche, on to the recently opened Sheikh Khalifa Bridge and along the new highway to Saadiyat and Yas islands.
There's just one snag. Anyone who wants to take part will have to be ready to set off at 6am - and capable of swimming, cycling and running between 121.5 and 222 kilometres. With just 10 days before the start of the inaugural Abu Dhabi International Triathlon on March 13, close to 800 athletes from more than 30 countries have signed up to take part in what organisers hope will become one of the classic events on the calendar of this demanding sport.
Amateurs have the opportunity not only to take part in a unique event but also to rub shoulders with elite international athletes. Race entries will be accepted in person right up to the day of the race, but organisers are urging people to register online beforehand at www.abudhabitriathlon.com. "One of our main priorities for this event is to give age-group amateurs the chance to race alongside today's best triathlon athletes - the chance to compete with the elite which will hopefully foster a greater interest in the sport," said Faisal al Sheikh, head of major events at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).
Events such as the new triathlon, he said, had a major role to play in helping the ADTA to hit its target of attracting 2.7 million hotel guests by 2012. "The triathlon promises to be a unique event and one which captures the imagination of millions and achieving significant exposure for Abu Dhabi in both traditional and emerging markets," he said. Hunting for a share of the US$230,000 prize money will be the seven members of Team Abu Dhabi Triathlon, one of the stable of top-level sporting outfits sponsored by the ADTA that includes the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, Team Abu Dhabi F1 Powerboat Team and the Red Bull Air Race Team Abu Dhabi.
The team captain, Faris al Sultan, the 2005 Ironman World Championship winner, said he was thrilled the sport is coming of age in the UAE. He hopes the spectacular course will tempt amateur athletes here to have a go - just like he did when, at the age of 16, he tackled his first triathlon after being inspired by watching the legendary Hawaii Iron Man on television. Born to a German mother and an Iraqi father, the 32-year-old triathlon veteran lives in Germany but for the past 10 years has come to Abu Dhabi for winter training in and around Al Ain.
Over the past few years, he says, the sport has flourished in the UAE among both men and women: "The numbers of participants have been increasing dramatically," he said. "Even the smaller races are all getting sold out. We're really happy about that." He believes that many in the emirate, home to large numbers of young, high-achieving professionals, are turning to the sport to test themselves with a new kind of challenge.
"Physical activity is very personal," he said. "Nobody can do it for you, you can't buy it. The happiness you get out of sport is very true, very personal. People look for something new that they can only achieve by themselves." More people are discovering triathalon as well. Not to long ago, taking part in one of the components of a marathon was a "once in a lifetime" experience, but it has has now become relatively commonplace.
"Running alone can be a little bit boring," said al Sultan. "People are looking for something different which is why they're turning to multi-sport." Al Sultan will be in good company on the starting line. Those hoping to bag the US$50,000 (Dh183,500) first prizes for the first man and the first woman home include Sweden's Bjorn Andersson, one of the best long-distance cyclists in the world, the UK's emerging Ironman contender Phil Graves and Raynard Tissink, South Africa's five-times Ironman winner.
Among the 20 elite women will be the UK's Julie Dibens, current Ironman 70.3 distance and Xterra Triathlon World Champion and 70.3 world record holder, and her UK colleague, Leanda Cave, the past Olympic and long-distance triathlon world champion. Others include Yvonne Van Vlerken, Holland's 2008 Ironman World Championship runner-up and past Ironman world-record holder, and Americans Sam McGlone, the previous Ironman 70.3 world champion, and Hillary Biscay, who has scored 10 top-three Ironman places in the past two years.
Spectators will be able to watch the action throughout the day from the start of the elite event at 6.20am. The best spots will include the beach at the Emirates Palace hotel, where the swimming will take place, and the nearby transition areas, where competitors converge to collect their bikes after the swim and will rack them again before setting off for the run, among others. Throughout the day there will be events and attractions at a "Tri Zone" on the Corniche.
The standard or international triathlon distance is the Olympic event, in which athletes swim 1.5km, cycle 40km and run 10km. Abu Dhabi is breaking new ground, however, with two unique distances - a short course (swim 1.5km, bike 100km, run 20km) and a long (swim 3km, bike 200km, run 20km). @Email:mswan @thenational.ae email@example.com