x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Multi-sport teams enter final stage of gruelling desert test

After five days of racing in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, only 63 seconds separate the two top teams as they go into the final stage on Jebel Hafeet today.

After five days of racing in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, only 63 seconds separate the two top teams as they go into the final stage on Jebel Hafeet today. Desert Islands and Team New Zealand emerged from a 107km overnight slog through the dunes of the Empty Quarter as part of a pack of five teams that finished within a minute and a half of each other but two-and-a-half hours clear of the sixth-place team.

Both the top teams feature members of the team that won the inaugural challenge last year, but Team New Zealand has been steadily eroding Desert Islands' lead throughout the race. Gordon Walker, the Team New Zealand captain, said they had the chance to overtake Desert Islands, led by his former team captain Richard Ussher during the desert run but they opted to stay with Team Nike rather than risk getting lost in the dunes.

Ussher said Desert Islands had gone astray on one route choice in the dunes but had recovered sufficiently well to maintain the slenderest of overall leads over Team New Zealand. The final day of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge comprises three stages: a 12km mountain-biking course starting at Green Mubazzarah and featuring a height gain of 750m, a 19km mountain running and rope activities course on Jebel Hafeet, then a 27km mountain bike leg to finish in Al Ain.

Walker knows that Ussher will motivate his Desert Island teammates for a big effort on the final day because he did the same thing last year. Their team had a three-minute lead on the last day but extended their margin to 20 minutes by the end of the race. Last year's win was a fairy-tale finish for the New Zealand team, which had paid their own way in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge and faced a financial hit if they failed to recoup their investment by snaring some of the prize money. Their success involved beating fully sponsored adventure racing teams.

This year Ussher's team is sponsored by Desert Islands, a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi-based Tourist Development and Investment Company, but Team New Zealand is listed as being without a sponsor. Two other teams retain a chance of upsetting at least one member of last year's winning team defending their title. French teams Wilsa Helly Hansen and Sport 2000 Vibram Outdry are two seconds apart and within 20 minutes of the leaders. They are the only teams to be under a cumulative total of 36 hours for the race.

The race has underscored the over-representation of New Zealanders in adventure racing. Nearly half of the members on the seven highest-placed teams yesterday were Kiwis. Only Sport 2000 Vibram Outdry does not have a member from New Zealand. Ussher's team is one of the least Kiwi, with his Finnish-born wife Elina, Jarad Kholar, the Australian adventure racing champion, and Jay Henry, the US mountain bike marathon champion.

jhenzell@thenational.ae