A question to all my fellow triathletes out there; What was the best ever race that you’ve ever done? I know this is kind of subjective because to most, a race that results in a PB or, having the chance to race at Kona will be the one that tops the list.
But results aside, try winding back your clock a bit and ponder. Which race that you’d taken part in so far had the best level of organization, the best race pack, the best volunteers, or the most scenic race course, etc, etc? But what if I told you I took part in one race that have all the points that I’ve mentioned, and more? Not possible? Read on because here’s my report for the inaugural Challenge Bahrain, held on 6th December 2014.
Challenge Bahrain was one the new races announced in early 2014 by the Challenge series, and that makes it the 1st official half-iron distance race in the Gulf region. But the buzz only actually began after the Royal family of the Kingdom of Bahrain, whom were amongst the organizers announced that there’ll be a $500,00USD prize purse up for grabs for the top 10 male and female pros, with the winner for each category pocketing a sizzling $100,00USD. Not bad for a year end bonus. This makes it the highest paying half-iron distance race in history.
So no surprises with what the next wave of publicity the race organisers had provided when it was announced that a star studded field of professional triathletes will be in attendance, outside of Ironman WC at Kona. Names in the pro start list goes by the likes of Sebastian Kienle, Mirinda Carfrae, Michael Raelert, Tim Don, Rachel Joyce, Caroline Steffen, Pete Jacobs, just to name a few.
That definitely had my eyebrows raised because I was also deciding to do a half-iron race at year end to cap off my 2014 race season. Initially I was looking at Challenge Laguna Phuket, IM70.3 Mandurah or IM70.3 Penrith, all of which were held in November. But the attraction of Challenge Bahrain is too hard to miss. And I haven’t even mention about the awesome race course that starts off with the swim at the picturesque Bahrain Bay, a bike course that almost covers the whole city and ends with a lap of the Bahrain International Circuit(BIC) at Sakhir, and a run through the Al Areen Wildlife Park with the race finish back in the F1 circuit. More good news trickled in month by month leading to the race, with perks like air ticket discounts given by their national carrier Gulf Air, special rates with partner hotels, comprehensive shuttle services for the athletes and a pre-race pasta party, which was almost unheard of for a half-iron distance race. There were more surprises that followed, which will be mentioned later in this report.
After much contemplating and waiting for the outcome of my December work roster, everything fell into place nicely for me to sign up for the race. I’d also considered myself peaking at the right time and ready to race because I’d begun my prep for a half-iron distance race early. I was carrying a strong base after IM Frankfurt and tried out new training methods to further improve my performance, which worked out pretty well for me. The numbers were looking good, and I’m also near my ideal race weight after embarking on a stricter diet. Eating well does result in training well. Race confirmation checked, air tickets, hotel and rental car booked, leave applied and Challenge Bahrain awaits.
6th December was the race day, which falls on a Saturday. I arrived in Bahrain on Thursday the 4th, the day for race registration. I missed out a few hours of rest after a slight hiccup at the airport car rental desk but still reached the hotel in good time to assemble my bike and head over to BIC for the race rego, briefing and pasta party. This was also my 1st time participating a Challenge organized race and I must say the whole atmosphere that the race organizers provided were a bit more relaxed. Many booths were set up for registration to prevent any long queues and little things like letting ourselves put on the wrist tags were a nice touch. It’s our own wrist and we know how to put it on to our liking. Another ‘organiser’ have officials who wouldn’t allow that. There were some other stuff worth mentioning but basically, Challenge treats their participants as responsible adults. For us regular racers, we do take note of the small details.
After collecting my race pack, which again was awesome, I hung around the race expo area to kill off some time before the race brief and was fortunate to bump into some pro athletes. All of them were laid back and really enthusiastic in having photos taken together with them. The whole photo-op turned out to be quite exciting because this was the 1st time I got to see so many of the pros in person. This carried on until the pasta party, which AGAIN was like no other. Hence I have quite a nice photo collection now.
I stayed at Sheraton Manama, which was within walking distance to the start point/T1 at Bahrain Bay. The following morning, I slipped into my wetsuit and headed there for a practice swim. And 1st thing after jumping into the water, I was heading for the pontoon right at the opposite embankment because there were people from Four Seasons Hotel giving out coffee! After a nice cuppa, a friendly chat with some local expats taking part in the race, a few more quick pulls and sighting drills in the bay, I got out of the water only to be greeted by good news that free breakfast is served in one of the tents! It was a morning to remember and it’s not even race day yet. I already ran out of thumbs for the organisers at this point. After a nice hearty meal, it’s back to the hotel for a quick nap and a short bike/run brick before heading to the bay again for the bike and bag check-in. And with that settled, time for a nice dinner and a glass of wine before hitting the sack.
Race morning was greeted by light winds. Almost calm I should say, which was totally off the forecasted conditions we had a few days ago. A huge factor because this affects the swim and bike leg. Initially, with the stronger forecasted North-Westerly winds, it will give an advantage for the bike leg due to the design of the bike course. I shall refer to the attached bike course map as attached. As you can see, most of it was heading in a southerly direction so we should have some tailwind, but the caveat was the swim, which is not going to be smooth sailing due to the choppier waters. But it wasn’t the case before the race start. The water was almost dead calm, which will make the swim more ‘enjoyable’. In exchange, we would lose the tempting tailwind that we should be getting. As the saying goes, when you win some, you’ll lose some. After some final prep, I got myself suited up and ready to ‘toe the line’.
At the point of registration, the event organisers gave the option of the choosing a wave start for age-groupers capable of finishing under 4hrs 40mins. My target was to finish under 4hrs 30mins, therefore I picked that option. While having to start the race right after the pro start wave, one major advantage was avoiding high traffic volume during the race. As with all the rave reviews so far, what’s a race start without a cannon? Yup. A start cannon which looks to me like a Howitzer was positioned at the bank next to the start line. And with minutes down to seconds, the cannon was off and the pros were on their way before I headed into the water. My wave wasn’t as packed as expected and the swim was a deep water start, so there was enough ‘room’ for all of us. After another quick warm up in the water, we all gathered at the start line before the cannon fired another shot again. It’s our turn now.
The pace was aggressive and I had to be quick in picking off better swimmers who I can follow. By the way, as shown in the swim course map, the course is very straightforward and there were many landmarks that we can use for sighting. At the turning point, I felt that I went out a bit too hard so I decided to back off a bit and try to stick to anyone around the same pace as me. It was only till about 200m to go to the swim exit when I put in some harder strokes before getting out of the water. My watch read around 29 minutes-ish as I was running towards T1.
Another commendable effort made by the organizers was the layout of the bag pick-up at T1 and T2. As shown in the picture, the bags are placed on the ground with markers in 10s according to the race numbers. So, no more rummaging for your bag on hooks, getting them tangled and unhooking bags that don’t belong to you. Another brownie point there.
The change tent was manned by ‘strippers’, meaning these are the guys helping out the racers in removing their wetsuits and placing them in our bike bags. Hence, T1 was done in a jiffy where I quickly put a gel in me and got out of T1 feeling good. There was only a few of us in my group so there wasn’t the usual mounting point congestion in most races.
The roads at Manama, the city centre and capital of Bahrain, has one of the widest and smoothest roads I’ve ever ridden on. I like to run my tyre pressures a tad higher than recommended so usually I can feel more of the road. However, it felt weird this time because the asphalt was so smooth that I thought there was something wrong with my tyre pressure, or worse, a flat. But all was well! A look at the bike course map and you can see that it leads us up to Al Muharraq, the old capital of Bahrain, which is also near the airport. The organisers actually shut off one of the main roads leading to the airport and it created a huge tailback. It was evident that some of the motorists weren’t very pleased and worse, I even saw some people getting off cars and taxis to carry on their journey to the airport on foot! Though it’s only about half a kilometer away from where they were but it’s not a very nice walk if you’re lugging your suitcase. It was a bizarre sight and it left a bit of guilt in me as I rode past. Poor fellas.
Due to the wind direction, the 1st 20 to 30km of the bike course was met with some headwind, but nothing that was too hard to handle. I still felt good and attacked bit more before we hit the highway leading to BIC. This was also the 1st time that I’m racing ‘blind’. i.e. I have no HRM and powermeter connected and only had speed/pace as the only parameter. A small experiment on myself to see how good I am in going by ‘feel’ and this time, it’s going to be all out ‘Balls to the wall’. As the highway approaches, the air got calm and that’s where I really pushed it. Due to our small group, there were no bunching and all of us were spaced very far apart. The drafting rules for AGs in this race was a bit more stringent too. It’s 12m for us and even more so for the pros at 20m. This was due to the huge prize money at stake so making a pass can be a double edge sword because it’s a huge commitment. It can make or break a pro’s race plan. But, no such issues with our ‘fast’ group, as I was reaching BIC, I thought I’ve only passed about 5 guys at most.
Next, which to me was the main attraction of the race, a lap of the Sakhir Bahrain International Circuit that is also T2, before we run out of there again towards the Al Areen Wildlife Park nearby. The circuit is designed for F1 racing so it’s a fast track with long straights and faster sweeping corners. Not really suited for TT bikes but I was having a blast in the track ‘exploring’ the limits of grip on my Continental GP4000SIIs. There was actually a downhill left hand hairpin that almost caught me out! I had no intentions of cycling over rumble strips because I knew quite well that it’s not going to be pleasant, especially on a bicycle. However it was not all flat and winding as there were some long inclines and false flats as well. I played it safe so my legs wouldn’t be overcooked before I transit into T2.
T2 was situated along the home straight. I didn’t really monitor the elapsed time for my bike leg closely because all my eyes were only on my pacing. After dismounting, a hit on the lap button on my 910XT showed 2:47. At that moment I knew I had a smashing bike leg and all that was left to do was to put in a solid run in order to go below 4:30. Again, helpers were at hand to rack our bikes and handle our run bags. By this time, the temperature crept up and a bit of heat can be felt as I was exiting BIC, heading towards the Al Areen wildlife park.
Another interesting aspect of the race is that the park is safari themed, so it was expected that we may encounter some wildlife (less dangerous ones) roaming around freely. I can only hope that the ostriches won’t be chasing me because that’s what I actually saw! Having a course like this certainly kept me hot on my feet because I certainly wouldn’t want to spend too much time alone out there! But still, I was passed by an AGer whom I overtook during the bike leg. However, it was still fun and scenic, helped by the fact that the route was pretty flat also. After a huge loop in the park, I tried to pick up the pace as I head back to the finish at BIC.
As noon approaches, the heat was building up. So, I was grabbing cold sponges and water at every aid station. I felt a slight cramp in my left calf but at that point, I was only about 3km away from the finish. I still felt that I had something left in the tank so I decided to give it the beans. As I was arriving at the finishing chute, a last quick glance at my watch and it reads 4:17! Much better than I was expecting! So, down the finishing straight and I crossed the finish line at an official time of 4:17:52. A new benchmark for myself was set.
At this point, I had no idea what position was I in within my age group. All I knew was that I had set a very good timing and I needed a good massage badly and luckily I didn’t had to wait very long to get one. After I nice rub down, the catering tent nearby wasn’t short of good food and drinks and again, I was enjoying my kebab and coke along with the pros, whom some had already taken a shower and dressed in their street clothes. But I couldn’t enjoy too much of the post race atmosphere because I had to catch the first shuttle back to hotel and if I’m still wired when I reach, I may as well start packing up because my flight was booked for the following day.
I hopped into the shower immediately and was ready to put my feet up and relax for a while before the dreaded post race packing but decided to just have a quick peek at my online race splits. Admittedly, I was really impressed of my results but the real surprise came as I scrolled down to look at my AG placing. It read 1/111. “This can’t be real right?”, as I said to myself. So I decided to wait for a while before confirming once more. That moment actually made me as pumped up as I was before the start of the race. Hence, one part of my brain decided that it’s a good idea to start packing immediately. Might as well right?
With my bike all packed in and laundry done, the moment of truth awaits, again. It still read 1/111 at 4pm local time, which by then the results should be finalised. Now I had no choice but to go to the awards ceremony! I won my age group!
The first person I wanted to share the news with was my wife. I was glad that she was as happy as I was because I was guilty of being away from home for work and this race for an extended period. We can now look forward to our upcoming European holiday with our daughter! Now, I had to check the timing for the shuttle service back to BIC, where the awards ceremony would be held. My Challenge Bahrain experience hasn’t ended yet!
And with much fanfare as the opening, you can expect the awards ceremony to be even better. With even more food and entertainment, an outdoor party with live music was even planned for. Some better known acts like ‘Dire Straits’ (Yes. Them.), ‘Akon’, etc were there to grace the occasion. The prize ceremony was a lengthy one because there’s also a GCC category for athletes from nearby Gulf states who took part in the race, along with their own Bahrain National Championships. Then it was followed by the Pros, with Michael Raelert and Helle Frederiksen as the male and female winners, pocketing a cool $100,000USD EACH, along with a nice souvenir. And after the female age-groupers had got their prizes, finally my turn came to go up on stage for the male age-group prize presentations. The feeling was mind numbing throughout my time on the stage because it was considered to be an international event with so many professional triathletes present. And to win my category in front of group of athletes from more than 50 countries taking part is a moment that I’ll embrace forever.
In conclusion, other than executing my almost perfect race and ending 2014 with a bang, Challenge Bahrain had set the bar for all other races worldwide. Though being ‘just a half-iron distance’ event, it was a truly well organized and a thoroughly thought out event. Bahrain, being a Gulf state, one can expect that no expenses will be spared in order to carry out this event in the grandest way ever. And during the start of the awards of the ceremony, the organisers had announced a 2015 ‘Triple Crown Series’, with half-iron distance races to be held in 3 Gulf states namely Bahrain, UAE and Oman, with a total prize purse of $1million USD up for grabs over 3 races. The prize kitty gulfs (pun intended) over all the grandest triathlon races so far. The 1st race of the series will be held in Dubai on 27th February with many pros expected to be participating.
The organisers and the people of Bahrain had brought the curtain down for the 2014 tri season with a bang as well. Along with that, the Bahrainis were one of the most accomodating, friendly and generous people I’ve ever met so far, even with my frequent travels as an airline pilot. They filled in the gaps to create one of the most memorable race experiences for the avid triathlete. A truly definite ‘bucket list’ race if you ask me.
Lastly, I like to give a huge shout out to my sponsors, Emjay Enterprises for supplying me with Blueseventy and Compressport apparel, and Nick from T3 Bicycle Gears for his unrelenting support! Bring on 2015!
Note: $41.75SGD donated to Home Nursing Foundation for my achievement in Bahrain!