ABU DHABI // With a shout of "three, two, one, go!" through a loudspeaker, 160 athletes from 20 nations poured through an inflatable arch on the Corniche yesterday as the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge got under way.
Ahead of them lay a gruelling test of their physical and mental stamina in a race of more than 428km over land and sea involving running, kayaking, mountain biking and swimming. Forty teams will battle across the emirate's diverse terrain during six days that will push some of the world's toughest athletes to their limit. In the opening round, the competitors ran, swam and kayaked as they chased the US$40,000 (Dh147,000) prize money for the winning team.
The New Zealand-based athletes Richard Ussher and his Finnish wife, Elina, both 33, won the first two Challenges and were in determined mood to make it three in a row. Among the challengers is the all-woman team Dew Point from South Africa and a team led by Faris al Sultan, the 2005 Ironman world champion, all members of Abu Dhabi's professional triathlon team. Spectators watched the athletes cycle along the Corniche, run through the Emirates Palace hotel grounds and swim from the Heritage Village to the public beach to prepare for the adventure disciplines - sea kayaking to Lulu lsland then running a course around its dunes.
Leading the way along the beach, the Usshers showed they meant business, powering out in front. Al Sultan's team had regained the lead by the time the competitors emerged from the 900m swim back to the Corniche, but more experience in adventure racing by the Ussher crew, including Nathan Fa'avae and Marcel Hagener, meant that they were the first team to get on the water in their two-man sailing kayaks.
In the sea, they had to cope with a heavy swell and winds that prevented use of the sails. The fast turnaround was a relief for the Usshers, for whom Fa'avae was a late entrant, 10 days before the race, after another team member broke his collarbone. Fa'avae was a teammate of Ussher and Hagener when they won the world adventure racing championships four years ago but had little time to get used to the swimming, a discipline rarely found in adventure racing.
Their secret was to use towing ropes they had designed in a New Zealand swimming pool so that Ussher could tow his wife to lessen the difference between them. Hagener did the same for Fa'avae. "Every team had a weak swimmer," Ussher said. "I could swim with one arm and be faster than Elina, so we went down to the local pool and set up these lines." Al Sultan's team, all specialist swimmers, was an exception.
"Those guys went past us like they were dolphins and we were jellyfish," Ussher said. But on the transition from swimming to kayaking, he said, it felt like the other teams were taking their time. "I was a bit surprised when we were on the water, looked around and said 'Where is everyone?' We thought maybe we'd done something wrong." Once in the kayaks, the disciplines suited the Usshers' team and they increased their lead, completing the kayak-and-run leg around Lulu Island in one hour, 57 minutes and 50 seconds.
That gave them a lead of three minutes and one second over the second-placed team, Vibram La Fuma Sport 2000, based in France. "La Fuma will be our toughest competition by a long way," Ussher predicted. Al Sultan was philosophical at failing to build up a big lead in the first part of the day. "Christian wasn't in super shape, and on the run he was suffering," he said of his teammate Christian Rothart. "Christian was pretty much dead after the run and we had to wait for him for ages in the water."
The race also had its first casualty before the end of the first stage. Magnus Albinsson, of the Swedish team Sweco Karlstad Adventure, was bruised and bleeding after a fall on the cycling leg. His teammate Kristin Larsson went too hard at the start and ended up feeling faint. That put a dampener on months of training and effort by Larsson, who was sobbing and hugging her boyfriend after the team incurred a time penalty that effectively put them out of contention.
Larsson will need to rally her strength for the next five days on a course that includes sea kayaking to an overnight bivouac on an island off Saadiyat, negotiating a 120km orienteering course through the dunes of the Empty Quarter, mountain biking through desert roads and completing an orienteering, ropework, cycling and running leg over Jebel Hafeet to the finish in Al Ain's Jahili Fort. firstname.lastname@example.org