DUBAI // Organisers of the world's richest marathon are appealing to runners in the UAE not to wait too long to register and urging more Emiratis to take part in the event. In just over 10 weeks' time, hundreds of runners will gather shortly before 6.30am outside the Mina Seyahi Beach Resort on Al Sufouh Road to take part in the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon.
Thousands more are expected to take part in a 10km race on the same day, January 22. Last year, 888 runners completed the marathon and a total of 10,000 pounded the streets of the city. On offer is a prize of US$1m (Dh3.7m) for anyone who sets a world record over the marathon distance of 42.2km, as well as $250,000 for the first-placed man and woman and substantial prizes down to $10,000 for 10th place.
One man is the clear favourite to win: Haile Gebrselassie, 36, the world-record holder from Ethiopia. Gebrselassie confirmed last week he that would be returning to Dubai in a bid to win the race for the third consecutive time. In an attempt to encourage readers to give him a run for his money or, at least, to have a crack at completing the distance starting tomorrow in the Arts & Life section, The National will be carrying weekly marathon coverage. It will include a training schedule, specially designed for The National readers by experts from Fitness First, the Dubai gym chain, to help reasonably fit beginners to complete the distance.
And, when the race is run, The National will print the results of all finishers, in both the marathon and the 10km race that starts 15 minutes later. The race organisers are now hard at work ensuring that everything will be perfect come race day, from the measurement of the route through to the number of water bottles available. But the biggest challenge facing Peter Connerton, the event director, and his team is the reluctance of Dubai residents to book anything in advance.
"Getting people to register early is always an obstacle," he said, speaking over coffee at The Westin, the official race hotel. "We get calls two or three days before the race from people saying they want to run the 10km, but it's not that simple; we have to plan numbers in advance to ensure we get the logistics right with regards to the number of T-shirts, medals, water, isotonic drinks and timing chips.
"They think we can turn on T-shirts and medals like we turn on a tap, but it's not like organising a race for 100 people; we get these items in from abroad." Mr Connerton hopes that in time the marathon will attract as many runners as more established marathons, such as the one in London. He said demographics played a big role in the number of participants. "In most marathons more than 90 per cent of the runners are from, if not the city, then the host country; 99.2 per cent of ours are expatriates."
Thirty-one men and nine women from the UAE finished the 10km race last year; only eight Emirati men finished the marathon. "I would love to see more Emiratis taking part," said Mr Connerton, who hopes that some will be encouraged by the recent directives from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to support health and fitness in the country. Mr Connerton, a businessman from Dublin, Ireland, was contacted to raise sponsorship for Dubai's first marathon in 1998 while he was here on a business trip for his family's textile company.
After the event, he was invited to set up a Dubai Marathon office and the challenge appealed to him. With a passion for sport, business experience and previous experience of organising events, he said: "I knew where it could go." In the beginning, before major sponsors could be secured, Mr Connerton and Ahmed al Kamali, the president of the UAE Athletics Federation, personally subsidised the cost of the event.
"We brought in athletes from outside because we wanted to post a reasonable time," Mr Connerton said. It worked: the first winning time, set by the Kenyan runner Wilson Kibet, was a highly credible 2hr12min21sec. "For a marathon our size, people were surprised but we knew the weather was good, the course was flat, the conditions were perfect. People could run fast here. "I used to say to Paul Hodgson, our course measurer, that one day we would have a world record. He would look at me and say, 'You're joking.' He just didn't think it was possible in Dubai."
In 2008, Gebrselassie ran for the first time and set the course record of 2hr4min53sec. Suddenly, a world record in Dubai seemed attainable. Later that same year, in Berlin, Gebrselassie set the world record of 2hr3min59sec. Gebrselassie was on pace to break the world record at his second Dubai Marathon, last January, but persistent rain slowed him and he won in 2hr5min29sec. Now hopes are high that, weather permitting, something special will happen on January 22 on the fast, flat, out-and-back course along Al Sufouh and Jumeirah Beach Road.
Race details can be had from the site www.dubaimarathon.org