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Teams compete on the third day of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in Liwa Desert.
Teams compete on the third day of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in Liwa Desert.

Up next: the Empty Quarter

A 120km crossing of the towering dunes of the Empty Quarter is likely to decide the winner of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge.

ABU DHABI // A 120km crossing of the towering dunes of the Empty Quarter is likely to decide the winner of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge. The toughest single leg of one of the world's most arduous adventure races requires teams to run all day and into the night, with a couple of four-hour rest breaks. It is also the best hope for the French team Vibram Sport 2000 to capture the lead for the first time in the six-day event that crosses the breadth of the emirate's land and seascapes.

For Richard and Elina Ussher, the New Zealand couple who have led teams to victory in the two previous Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenges and who have led from the start in this race, the desert leg means a change in tactics. Their task now, rather than going out as hard as possible, is to keep the French team in sight and preserve their hard-won 45-minute buffer, established on the first two days. The order in which the 38 remaining teams emerge from the desert, from around mid-morning today, is likely to prove crucial to the outcome of the race on Wednesday. Before then, there are another two days of pain and privation, with dirt-road mountain biking, night orienteering on Jebel Hafeet, rope work up the cliffs of the emirate's tallest peak and then cycling and running to the finish line at Al Ain's Jahili Fort.

Richard Ussher said the couple's race plan was always to take advantage of their abilities at kayaking to build up a lead before the desert section. "We've got more of a buffer than we expected so we'll be looking at drafting other teams like [the French]," he said. "Drafting isn't exactly like on a bicycle or swimming, but you can take advantage of where other people have walked and where the sand is a little bit firmer."

Rather than showing the signs of a mammoth effort on the first two days to build a huge lead, Ussher looked relaxed owing to the long breaks between racing sections. "I don't sleep this well at home it's like I'm on holiday," he said. Another New Zealand quartet, Team Adco, led by Fleur Pawsey, was in second place by about 20 minutes before the desert section. But Ussher said that while he respected the strength of his compatriots, he was most concerned about the threat from the French.

Other rivalries in the race are also likely to be determined by the desert section, in which teams can also opt for a relatively shorter route of 80km. jhenzell@thenational.ae

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