One by one, either in multi-part harmony or a capella fashion, they sang his praises.
Everybody in the triathlon world understands that Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee is a rare breed of elite athlete, the sort who deals out energy-draining, soul-sapping defeats to his rivals and then smirks at the finish line. But as the vanquished extolled his virtues yesterday along the sands of the Corniche, none of them realised he had actually spotted the other short-course competitors at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon (ADIT) a handicap of sorts.
"He is a phenom," said Egypt's Omar Nour, who finished eighth. A moment later, Nour learned that the 24-year-old Briton not only had waxed the field in record time, he had logged two extra kilometres by mistake, which made the guys finishing behind him feel even worse.
"Get out of here," Nour said, eyebrows arched. "What happened?"
In the most amusing anecdote from a day filled with memorable performances, Brownlee got distracted during the cycling portion of his 111.5km day and missed the track exit slot after finishing the required lap around the Yas Marina Circuit. By the time it dawned on him that he was taking a second lap around the racetrack, five guys who had not made the same mistake had blown past him on the timing board like they were in F1 cars.
After missing the exit, Brownlee was caught on camera rather amusingly looking over his left shoulder while hurtling over the pavement at Yas, and there was nothing behind him but his shadow. He flipped a quick U-turn and tried to fix the navigational gaffe.
"I realised, 'Hey, I've been here before'," he said of his second trip around the circuit. "I asked a few people, asked where I was, and they were no help at all."
Having taken a commanding lead with his aggressive riding style, Brownlee dropped to fifth place with his unscheduled detour, but nonetheless rallied to finish in 3 hours, 20 minutes and 18 seconds, breaking the short-course record by 29 seconds.
Locating the Yas exit, partly obscured by a throng of photographers watching his every move, was one thing. Finding the finish line has never been an issue.
With all the confusion, Brownlee, who won Olympic gold in London last summer, said that he had no idea where he stood until he hopped off his bike and prepared for the third leg of his day, the 10km run, where he truly excels. His foes were nearly as flummoxed.
"At one of the turns, I saw him behind me and suddenly going in the opposite direction," said Cesar Beilo of Holland, who finished second, 5 minute, 16 seconds behind the flashy Englishman. "I thought, 'What is happening?', because I had never passed him."
Not many cruised by the winner of the elite men's long-course competition, either. In a performance that was at least equal to Brownlee's exclamatory win, Belgium's Frederik van Lierde won the ADIT title for the second time in three years, and seemingly could have coasted to a wire-to-wire victory if he had wanted.
Van Lierde came out of the swim portion in the first cluster of competitors, hopped on his bike and ran in front for most of the next 200km, occasionally backing off and letting others take the lead.
By the time he finished, in 6:41:02, he was four minutes ahead of the runner-up. Van Lierde has entered all four ADIT iterations and never finished worse than fifth. After falling back and letting others take a brief lead, with a few minutes remaining in the exhausting bike stage, he dropped the hammer.
"I felt really strong right from the beginning, and pushed the pace a little bit, which was a risk," said Van Lierde, a pre-race favourite who was third at the famous Ironman competition in Hawaii last year. "I told myself over the last 35km, just go for it and see what happens. Take it or leave it."
He took it, all right - pocketing the US$50,000 (Dh186,600) prize, one of the biggest on the global triathlon circuit. So did Australia's Melissa Hauschildt, who was so completely gassed at the end of her 223km long-course day, she conducted several interviews while seated on the red carpet that adorned the race finish line.
Locked in a pitched battle with Switzerland's Caroline Steffen, who has contended all four years she has entered the ADIT, Hauschildt finally passed Steffen for good about 7km into the last stage of the event, the 20km run.
"That was the toughest race I have ever done," Hauschildt said. "I turned myself inside-out on the bike. I have nothing left."
Fighting cramps late in the bike segment - she repeatedly had to stand while pedaling to fight off the contractions - she managed to stay close to Steffen, who finished second.
"I thought, 'I don't know if I can do this'," said Hauschildt, who finished in 7:20:29. "Yeah, it hurt."
Same for Steffen, who led for 160km of the bike portion of the race, but finished 3:24 behind the Australian. She seems to be getting closer and closer to the ADIT title.
"Just not close enough," Steffen said, forcing a smile.
The day began with an unexpected twist, so to speak. Chris McCormack, a two-time winner of the vaunted Hawaiian Ironman competition, broke the pink finger on his right hand when it became snagged on the wetsuit of another elite-level swimmer. He nonetheless finished the 3km swim, wriggled out of his wetsuit with some assistance from a race attendant, and hopped on his bike, but the axel on his new rear tyre broke a couple of kilometres later.
So, about an hour into the race, one of the most recognised names in the sport was back at the on-site medical centre, getting his hand taped and splinted, bemoaning his doubly lousy luck.
"Gee, somebody up there doesn't want me to race," McCormack said, eyeing a nearby video screen as his brethren continued their day. "There is nothing worse than watching the race from here. I feel like such a loser."
In a race with 2,050 total entrants on a punishingly hot day, there surely were others who understood the sentiment.
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