There is no better way to get to know a place than to swim in its waters, bike on its roads, and run on its pathways. This is something I’ve learned in ten years of racing triathlons at all distances, from sprints to Ironmans, on three continents and four countries, including all over the United States. From meeting other athletes and dealing with inevitable bike repairs to finding the right food to fuel your body and, of course, feeling vulnerable to whatever could happen on the course, it’s a unique way to travel.
And then there is the conversation piece: “You’re doing a triathlon where?” In Bahrain. It’s a tiny Persian Gulf island nation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “Why? Won’t it be hot?” In the winter it’s in the 70s and 80s. “Do you have to wear a burka? On a bike? ” No, the state is actually very Western and open to women doing sport there.
The truth is, I didn’t know how it was going to work. I was intrigued when I heard about Challenge Bahrain, the kingdom’s first half-Ironman triathlon (a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run), set for last December. Bahrain’s prince Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa was helping organize it. He is an avid triathlete, and I had seen his entourage and cavalcade of black SUVs descend on race towns from Panama City Beach, Florida, to Syracuse, New York. He is also behind the building of Bahrain’s new triathlon training center, which he hopes will make his speck of an island (11 miles wide by 34 miles long) a regular stop for athletes who want to practice in the arid desert heat. Plus, I had read news of a 35K charity swim from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain held in March 2014 that had attracted pro athletes, with some participating as part of a relay and others, including Prince Nasser’s brother Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, swimming nonstop. A picture of athletes at a banquet table in the royal stables made it onto one pro’s Facebook feed. Bahrain was putting itself on the endurance map. I decided I would sign up for the triathlon and ask questions later.
Bahrain is known for two things: being the center of the world’s pearling industry since 2000 b.c. and becoming one of the first places in the Gulf to discover oil, in 1932. The latter led to the kingdom’s shift from a pearl economy to an oil-based one. Lately it’s been transitioning again, into a financial trade center, and it’s adding the strong winds of tourism, especially for the sake of sports. The first push involved setting up a Formula 1 track, which opened in 2004, and now the racing circuit stops in Bahrain every spring. The infrastructure to support endurance sports quickly followed.
To get to Bahrain, I flew through Amsterdam on Delta Air Lines, whereas my training partner, Andi Emerson, treated herself to a nicer but more expensive Etihad Airways overnight flight to Abu Dhabi. She arrived rested, having slept on the plane, but I arrived exhausted; I didn’t catch up on sleep until after the race.
Unlike in most pretriathlon situations, in which one tries to rest in the days before the event, I wanted to see Bahrain. We got there on Wednesday night for the race on Saturday and went straight to an excellent sushi dinner at the Domain Hotel’s restaurant Imari (Bldg. 365, Block 317, Rd. 1705; 973/1600-0000; thedomainhotels.com), where we met Andi’s friend and former work colleague Mohamed Almaraj, a Bahraini. He filled every hour of our next two days with tours around the capital, Manama—of the Shaikh Ebrahim Center (Muharraq; 973/1732-2549; shaikhebrahimcenter.org), made up of old houses that were restored to show off Bahrain’s cultural history; the Bahrain National Museum (Al Fatih Hwy.; 973/1729-8718; bnmuseum.com), which displays rotating contemporary-art exhibitions and has an enormous pearl collection; the beautiful Bahrain National Theatre (Block 322; culture.gov.bh), where the opera is housed. We shopped in bustling open markets: A souk dedicated to spices is next to the larger Manama Souk (Manama 304), which has everything else, including a “Gold City” for jewelry, watches, and pearls. By the time Friday came around and we were able to rack our bikes at the triathlon transition area and take a test swim in the chilly water of Bahrain Bay, I was utterly worn out, but also excited since the next day was...race day.
Most mornings of a triathlon you get up at 4 a.m., try to eat some toast, oatmeal, or whatever you can manage to get down despite your nerves, and have just one cup of coffee (since the prerace butterflies provide ample adrenaline). I performed this ritual at the official race hotel where I was staying, the Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa (105 Zallaq Hwy., Bldg. 2015, Block 1055; 973/1763-6363; sofitel.com), before taking a bus to the starting line, 19 miles north in Manama. The athletes gathered at the edge of Bahrain Bay, the towers of Manama to the left, the new Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay (Bahrain Bay; 973/1711-5000; fourseasons.com) to the right. We watched the pros start. With their arms moving steadily and smoothly, they formed a wide upside-down V shape, like birds flocking in formation, advancing toward the first buoy, about a half mile away. It was a long out-and-back rectangular course, and I like to watch the better swimmers choose a line and then try to follow that when it’s my turn.
The prince was about to enter the water, surrounded by bodyguards. His brother, the distance swimmer, was also in the group, and a little way off I spotted a small pack of Bahraini women ready to start. They, like everyone else, were in wet suits, and no one, from what I saw, wore anything other than normal triathlon gear. Women had been asked in the race guide to keep shorts on the longer side and not to show midriffs, which was fine with me since I never race in anything that is abs baring or bun hugging. This was just like every other race, except the atmosphere was more electric. Bahrain seemed as excited to have us as we were to be there.
One unique aspect about the swim was that the water was extremely salty. It felt slick and fast, and I was careful to not get water in my eyes, for fear it would sting and make it impossible to see the buoys. The good thing about the high salinity is that it increases buoyancy. The salt pushes your body to the surface; a natural sinker like me (my coach always tells me not to let my hips drop) is faster in water with a higher salt content.
I got out of the water in a personal-best time (37 minutes and 41 seconds) and ran toward where the bikes were racked. First I had to find my gear from a row of hundreds of identical white bags. Once I found it, I ran into a tent to put on my helmet and bike shoes. I hopped on my bike in my wet tri suit, but the wetness never really bothered me since, in the hot Bahrain air, I was dry by mile five.
Traffic on the island had been mostly suspended for the day. Biking along a black ribbon of smooth new highways, I felt as if someone had changed the light bulb. The sun just seems to shine brighter in Bahrain. I rode past sites so distractingly beautiful it felt like someone else was driving: The modern glass towers of Manama gave way to the ancient elegant sand-colored mosques with their minarets sounding out the call to prayer. Everywhere I looked there were short palm trees that threw off little puddles of shade. No wonder Bahrain’s nickname is Land of a Million Palm Trees.
Eventually the yellow desert and far-off view of bright blue Persian Gulf water rose before me. I was almost finished biking. Maybe I was delirious from riding 50-plus miles, but as I began the final 3.3 miles, where I got to ride Bahrain’s curving Formula 1 racetrack, I found myself smiling despite the fact that I had been moving for 3 hours and 22 minutes in the blazing sun.
The race was supported by hundreds of volunteers from the Bahrain Army, all with the exact same haircut, and each handing out water, sports drinks, Coke, bananas, and orange slices, and rooting for us at seven aid stations along the run. After I finished my 2-hour- and-47-minute bike ride (another personal best), the army volunteers at the start of the run course shouted, “Good luck! Good luck! Good luck!”
About two miles into the 13-mile run, which took us through a game preserve with ostriches and giraffes, I saw Prince Nasser heading back toward the finish. He was looking fresh and running tall, as opposed to how I usually become, more stooped mile by mile. Even accounting for the fact that he had started in the front of the race waves (each one five minutes apart), he was way ahead of most of the field. By the time I crossed the finish line—exhausted and hobbling—after my 2-hour-and-17-minute run, the prince was all cleaned up and looking slender and athletic in sweatpants, a gray puffy jacket, and white baseball cap turned backward. Though I was feeling faint and wobbly, I decided to congratulate him on the race. “Thank you,” he replied. “This is a dream come true.”
I was proud of my overall time, 5 hours and 48 minutes. It was one of my fastest in recent years. My run was slower than usual because I had a little electrolyte meltdown; I didn’t take in enough salts, in other words. It had nothing to do with the conditions or the race, but it meant that I shuffled the final five miles.
Shortly after the last racer finished, Bahrain announced a new Challenge Triple Crown of Middle East triathlons that would add Dubai and a third, yet-to-be-finalized location to the circuit. As of press time, it will offer an eye-popping, game-changing prize purse of $1 million, unheard of in the growing world of endurance racing, where most pros compete for a few thousand dollars per race.
The following day, the local newspapers covered not only the triathlon but also the epic traffic jam caused when the main bridge to the airport was shut down for several hours to let the bikers pass. People were tweeting that they were missing planes, and one pilot tweeted that he was stuck, too, so his plane wasn’t going anywhere. The prince issued a formal apology. Which is perhaps why this year, though the race will go on, it’s going to take place at night.
The next Challenge Bahrain triathlon is November 20, 2015; challenge-bahrain.com.
Photo Credits: Charlie Crowhurst / Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon; © UrbanMyth / Alamy