Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 3 August 2020

Why the Dubai Marathon is a reminder of our humanity

Running the 42-kilometre race is not only an intense, brutal physical challenge but a test of our mental capabilities and fortitude.
The Dubai Marathon course is perhaps unique in allowing participants to race alongside elite runners. AFP
The Dubai Marathon course is perhaps unique in allowing participants to race alongside elite runners. AFP

Having passed the 38-kilometre mark on a scorching hot day, I couldn’t ignore a cramp in my right hamstring and began questioning the entire premise of running marathons.

Despite high humidity at the start of this year’s Dubai Marathon, I’d had a relatively smooth race up to that point. In fact, I was cruising to a major personal-best time, despite treating the run as more of a training endeavour than a chance to race my fastest marathon.

But in the difficult final stretches of a 42.195km race, no one can escape the reality that marathons are an extended experiment in pain management. The experience is a brutal one. You simply have to grit your teeth, quiet your mind and endure, knowing the pain is temporary.

As best as I can tell, that is the appeal of running these distances. We are increasingly desperate for authenticity in an ever more fluid and shifting world. Subjecting the body and mind to a gruelling physical test and coming out of the other end is a tangible reminder of our humanity.

Of all the great marathons in the world, what makes Dubai an appealing option for those in search of such a test? The answer is simple: the opportunity to run with the fastest humans in the world.

With one of the largest cash prizes of any marathon, Dubai has attracted the strongest East African runners from its inception. While the organisers are eager for a world record on the course, the East African presence is a bonus for amateurs such as myself. With the out-and-back topography of the race course, marathoners literally run next to the fastest people in the world.

This year, I was lucky enough to start just a metre from the elite pool. At two points in the race, I watched as the elite pack glided past me with perfect form and lightning speed. It was an emotional experience watching these men and women fly through the heavy morning air, as if I was watching the ideal human figure in motion. But that was not the highlight of the race.

Given the challenging conditions, many elites dropped out during the race. With great humility and a spirit of solidarity, some of these runners shouted words of encouragement to the novices like me running past. Imagine playing football alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and then hearing them cheer you on. While the elites are present at major marathons such as New York and London, ordinary runners never get close to them nor do they have the type of exchanges possible in Dubai.

While organisers have focused on the growth of the alternative 10km race, the allure of Dubai for amateur runners has always been its flat marathon course. But flatness doesn’t always translate into an easy race. With sparse crowd support and little to stimulate the eye, Dubai is a supreme mental challenge.

The beauty of marathon running, aside from its simplicity, is the show of support runners receive from strangers in the street. That support contributes to runners getting hooked on the sport, but it doesn’t really exist on the Dubai course.

The race felt like one very long training run with few landmarks to get excited about and little in the way of organised support stations. You run for what feels like an eternity past rows of fast-food restaurants and petrol stations, only to turn around and run past the same fast-food restaurants and petrol stations.

For serious runners who are accustomed to the solitude of distance running, this lack of diversion is not necessarily a problem, and could even be considered a benefit. Running is, after all, a supremely cerebral activity.

Organisation was also a bit of a sore point throughout the race. Ethiopian runner Kenenisa Bekele, who was the heavy favourite to win this year’s race and possibly set a world record, suffered a serious fall at the start that later forced him to withdraw from the race. Bekele was accidentally tripped at the start after the race announcer failed to give a 3-2-1 go and instead simply fired the starting gun.

As for this novice runner, I was happy to achieve a personal-best time at the Dubai Marathon. With precious few cool winter months of training left on the calendar, I have set my sights on the ambitious goal of running the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa, in April. The historic 56km run ventures from the centre of Cape Town to the Indian Ocean before cruising up Chapman’s Peak overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Such dramatic scenery is a far cry from the endless pavement of Jumeirah Beach Road, but if I am able to keep my doubts at bay, grit my teeth and finish the Two Oceans, my experience in Dubai will have surely played an integral role in getting me to the finish line.

Joseph Dana is an opinion writer at The National.

Updated: January 25, 2017 04:00 AM

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