The Dubai Marathon is known for its extremes: the scorching heat, the world-class athletes, the exorbitant prize money, and now in 2023 there is one more superlative to add … a painfully boring race course.
The Dubai Marathon has been held since 1998 and has been known for its elite field, fast times and some of the greatest cash prizes in long-distance running history. In 2008, one million dollars were offered for a world record and $250,000 to both the men’s and women’s winners. Haile Gebrselassie took the win in that race with an impressive time of 2:04:53, though not fast enough for a world record and a clean million.
The course had the reputation of being relatively monotonous with three city loops, but who can complain about running under skyscrapers, including the iconic Burj Al Arab and the magical Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Plus, an out-and-back loop course gives one a chance to check out the elites several times as they fly by in the opposite direction. But just a few days before the marathon, there was a sudden change in venue. Instead of downtown it was set to be run out by Expo City. A new course! This must be exciting, I thought (prematurely and incorrectly).
The start was at 6am when it was still dark and the weather a bit cool. It was strange, with no music, no countdown and I didn’t hear a gun or any other signal that the race had begun. We all just began moving unceremoniously towards the start arch and the only sounds to be heard were the shouts from the runner’s friends and families who were the sole spectators since we were far removed from any residential area. The first 11 kilometers were comprised of two laps around the expo park before heading out onto a 7-lane highway into nothingness.
At first I thought it could not be true, that there must be something coming up that would be worth seeing. Bands? Cheerleaders? Dancers? Magicians??? After all, this was a major international marathon in the city of wealth and prosperity. But as the sun came up and tried fruitlessly to filter its way through the dust-filled air, the only thing that really became clear was that we were on a road to nowhere. Up and down highway bridges, past desolate industrial buildings and the beginnings of construction of hollow residential complexes. It was mind-boggling really.
The only motivation was at the aid stations every 2.5 kilometers where the volunteers were really friendly and full of energy, cheering us on by name. But most aid stations provided only water. Two or three also had isotonic drink, but I found this too little considering we were running through the desert for hours; we needed mineral replenishment. There were only two aid stations that had small amounts of ‘food’: gummy bears, bananas, oranges and chocolate. A runner in front of me must have had nothing with him because at the first sight of food he dove into a tray of oranges with both hands, spilling several on the ground as the desperately tried to hold onto as many as possible. Thank goodness I had brought 6 gels tucked into my waist belt.
There were speed limit signs with the number 100 in a red circle. Only 100 kilometers per hour on this monstrosity of a highway seemed ridiculously slow compared to the no-speed-limit two-lane Autobahns in Germany. Kilometer 25 marked the turning point and I got to see it all again. People were running like zombies. It was clear the runners were frustrated. Many stopped and leaned against the highway embankments with their heads down in defeat. I tried to cajole them into continuing, “Keep on moving. It’s all in your head.” And they would reluctantly get back into motion. One man said told me he was going to ask for his money back. $150 for this?
And as if it couldn’t get much worse, it did. Thinking that the finish would be a highlight under the Al Wasl Dome at the Expo Center, I was shocked to find that spectators were walking along the last several hundred meters of the course including the chute into the finish. I was exhausted after having just run 42 kilometers and now I was dodging baby strollers just to get it over with. And if that wasn’t enough, once past the finish I was expecting to have a well-earned medal placed over my head, but there was no one there to greet us. We were told to keep moving. I asked a volunteer where the medals were and I was told to follow the stream of runners. We just kept going, mixed with non-runners, and I saw no end in sight. There were bathroom facilities off to the right so I ducked in to use them and wash up. Then I continued with the flocks of runners moving slowly around the expo walkway. It must have been at least 600 meters till we came to a small stand with a sign that said ‘42.2-km marathon medals’, where we were given large plastic bags filled with a bottle of water, a protein bar and a marathon medal wrapped up in cellophane. Another shocking moment, but at that point I just wanted to get out of there and off my feet, but first I needed to collect my drop bag. After futilely looking in the area I asked a helper who kindly told me where to go… another 500 meters. Once collected, I needed to figure out how to get to the Metro station to get ‘home’. An information map showed that I had to go the entire distance back to the finish line! I wanted to cry. I needed a break and found a bench to hydrate and eat the protein bar, energy to get myself home.
Why the last-minute course change? I have no idea and couldn’t find anything on the Internet. I suspect licensing, or maybe to allow all runners to finish without imposing a time restriction as was necessary when closing the main thoroughfares downtown. But hopefully by next year there will be time to rethink it and find a course that accommodates and pleases both the city and the runners.
Was it worth it? Hell yeah! I love running. I love the feeling, not only during the race, but especially afterwards when my entire body is expunged from the chaos, stress, and superficialities of life and gets me down to the basics of how good my body feels when having been able to prove to myself the amazing feats of what it is capable of accomplishing when having the opportunity to be used to its potential.
It’s what brings us back time and time again to the beloved marathon, even when we have to endure the extremes.