x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Spectators turn gruelling race into a spirited affair

Rain, cold temperatures and a crack-of-dawn start could not deter more than 1,000 runners from pounding the road in the Dubai Marathon.

DUBAI // Rain, cold temperatures and a crack-of-dawn start could not deter more than 1,000 runners from pounding the road in the Dubai Marathon yesterday. Spectators gathered at the start and finish point of the race, at the Mina Seyahi in Al Sufouh, as athletes ran along Jumeirah Beach Road as far as Jumeirah Mosque before turning back. Among the most vocal supporters were members of the Ethiopian community, some of whom draped themselves in their nation's flag and painted their faces in green, yellow and red, their national colours.

They sang throughout the event as one of their country's heroes, Haile Gebrselassie, won the marathon but narrowly missed out on a new world record - and with it a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) bonus. "Today's conditions were not ideal for a marathon and no one was going to run their best time, but it was a great experience," said runner Ronald Van Ballegooijen, 42, from the Netherlands, who lives in the Palm Jumeirah. "At the start people were talking to one another, but on the return leg it fell silent as people switched to grim determination to finish. The fact that charities will benefit because of our effort makes it all worthwhile."

Runners assembled at 5.30am before being led in a warm-up by aerobics instructors to the sound of adrenalin-pumping rock anthems. The race began an hour later, when the marathon runners set off in the darkness on the 42km course. They were soon followed by competitors in the 10km race and a 3km fun run, many of them wearing waterproof jackets in anticipation of a deluge. "I think it has been very well organised. The course is flat and straight but there was a good atmosphere," Mr Van Ballegooijen said. Many of the spectators were cheering on friends and family. Clare Kenyon, 24, an Australian living in Abu Dhabi, was supporting her husband and trying to calculate his pace amid the drumming and cheers. "The atmosphere is amazing, I've never heard anything like it," Ms Kenyon said. "You have to admire the fans. It's early in the morning and pouring with rain, but nothing will stop them enjoying themselves. "London has the reputation for being the marathon with the party, spirit but we're running it close today." Alwyn Roberts, 36, an English teacher from Wales, had travelled from Kuwait for the weekend to cheer on several of colleagues in their first marathon. "We are under strict orders to take a picture of them as they cross the finishing line," Mr Roberts said. Many of those who ran yesterday were raising money for charities, while a portion of all registration fees went to Seeing is Believing, which provides support for the blind and partially sighted. Katy Newitt crossed the finish line in under five hours to become the first blind person to finish the Dubai Marathon. Mrs Newitt was raising money for Foresight, a charity that also helps the blind and visually impaired, which she founded and chairs. "We started off at a slow pace and we had enough energy for a really strong finish," said Mrs Newitt, 43, who ran with a guide. "I wanted to show that people who are visually impaired or blind are full members of our society who can achieve most things if they are determined." Fitness First, the gym chain and a sponsor of the marathon, also raised money for a campaign to help educate disadvantaged children in the Republic of Sierra Leone in West Africa. "Spectators have donated generously. Providing support for charities is a key part of the marathon," said Tom Otten of Fitness First. But the star of the day was undoubtedly Gebrselassie, who had said before the marathon that the Dubai course offered him a good chance to beat on his own world record, thanks to its flat and straight route at zero altitude. Hundreds of Ethiopians lined the home straight and cheered while watching his progress on a large television. "Haile is such a great hero. I cannot describe to you how proud we are of him," said Mimi Haile, 32, a resident of Jumeirah. "He is an inspiration to all Ethiopians," added Johnny Gebrselassie, 26, who is no relation of the runner but was draped in an Ethiopian flag. A great cheer rang out at about 8am as Gebrselassie, in golden shorts and trainers, broke free of the pack to chase his record of 2:03:59. Spectators craned their necks to watch him approaching the finishing line. There was a momentary silence as the world-record time came and went, but cheers began again as he sprinted the last 100m before crossing the line in a time of 2:05:28, three minutes clear of his nearest rival. Gebrselassie was followed over the next several hours by runners of different ages and abilities, who crossed the line before sinking to their haunches in exhaustion. Despite the gruelling nature of the event, race officials said there were no injuries or cases of extreme exhaustion. Water and medical attention were available to runners every 5km along the route. tbrooks@thenational.ae