Going to extremes in the deserts of Dubai


Living in Dubai can have a strange effect on people - here, four Irish expats describe how it is a perfect place for indulging in extreme sports

Extreme is one word that could sum up Dubai. Extreme heat, wealth and the extreme culture clash.

Perhaps it is this atmosphere that has lead to a number of expats taking to heavy duty sports and endurance activities in a big way. Triathlons, ironman contests, and desert marathons are all popular here, and the Irish expat community is no exception.

Marie O’Neill

31-year-old from Tipperary. Recently completed her first ironman contest, in Busselton, Western Australia, and raised $35,000 dollars for the Raye Foundation in Ethiopia

“I work for a relocation company in Dubai. I studied computer science in the University of Limerick but I left Ireland 12 years ago. I’ve lived and worked in Germany, South Korea and Australia and have been in Dubai now for the past five years.

“I was always an active person. In college I rowed and played camogie and Gaelic football. However, when I decided to take up triathlon in October 2011, I couldn’t swim the length of a pool, I had never rode a bike with clip-on shoes and had only done a couple of half-marathons.

“Dubai is one of those places where the expat social scene revolves around bars and clubs. It started off as a personal challenge to do something for myself and get fit. I knew it was going to get tough. Training in the summer involved going to bed at 6pm on weekends and getting up at midnight to cycle through the desert to avoid the extreme heat. You have no social life.

“The reality is there’s not a hope in hell I would have done something like this if I lived in Ireland. My attitude has changed in Dubai. I have always looked for challenges for myself in Ireland and elsewhere but there are so many more opportunities to do these kinds of things out here.

“The lifestyle here is different. We earn a lot more money than at home so I can afford to self-finance trips to Australia or wherever else. Triathlon is a very expensive sport. Between the bike and all the other gear you need, it adds up.

“There are plenty of 50-metre swimming pools and tracks to train on here. I don’t think I would have gotten to the level I’m at now in Dubai physically, mentally, or financially had I been competing at home.”

Diarmuid O’Malley

40-year-old from Limerick. He and Neil Munro completed the Polar Circle Marathon in the North Pole in October 2012 and raised $50,000 for the Christina Noble Foundation. He is the publishing director for ITP Publishing Group

“I’ve lived in Dubai for nearly 10 years with my wife and three kids. I have a fourth child due at the end of this month. Initially my wife and I came out here to try something different for a year or two, really liked the place, and we’re still here.

“When I lived back in Ireland I played a lot of rugby and golf. I used to play with Old Crescent in Limerick at All-Ireland League Division One and Two levels.

“I did my first marathon in New York in 2001 and have had the bug ever since. I’ve done 12 in all and I’ve done a 72km ultra marathon.

“Coming from the heat of Dubai, it was crazy to choose a marathon in the Arctic Circle. The Polar Circle marathon takes place in October, so training here was in high-temperature season. The average summer days were around 45 degrees. You can get over the heat but it’s the humidity that can make endurance sports very difficult.

“We did a lot of training in Ski Dubai, an artificial indoor ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates. Its only 0.4km in length so we went up and down several times first thing in the morning. The temperature in there was about minus 1 degrees, but we were expecting minus 10 to minus 15 degrees in the North Pole.

“Raising money for Christina Noble and the Sunshine School in Vietnam gave us plenty of energy to keep going. Living in Dubai is like a cocoon. There’s a lot of wealth here and a lot of spoilt individuals with too much money. I’ve seen a lot of people move here and forget who they are. I do things like marathons to maintain a sense of reality.

“A lot of people change in Dubai. You can lose your soul in a place like this. My wife and I are constantly trying to educate our children to keep them grounded.”

Michael Burke

31-year-old from Galway. He, his cousin Ulick and their friend Peter Galbraith are taking part in the 250km Marathon Des Sables in Morocco in April. They are raising money for Facing Africa Noma and have set a target of $50,000

“I have a couple of businesses here in Dubai and have lived here for about seven years. My work keeps me very busy and I forget to eat well or do any exercise. When my cousin Ulick asked me to do this, I was out of shape. I was fit in school and college but after that I let myself go. In 2004 I ran three marathons in three months and weighed 86kg. When I agreed to do this in 2012, I was closer to 100kg.

“Something like this is great for focusing the mind and getting healthier and sharper. Because I work for myself I can train when it suits me.

“It’s classified as a self-sufficiency race. You carry your own food, clothes, heating coals, cooking utensils, bandages, gauze, everything, on your back. The locals would eat lot of dried fruits such as dates and apricots along the way. Westerners like me will rely on energy gels and protein bars.

“But stamina and mental health are crucial strengths for a race like this. We have been told that a lot of emotions come into play. People have very short fuses when the body is craving water, carbohydrates and salts. The organisers say a touch of madness is needed to complete it.

“Because of the long distances, you do a combination of running, walking and power walking but you also get into what’s known as the MDS [Marathon Des Sables] shuffle. Your quads and your hip flexors are challenged severely. A lot of hiking, rather than running is needed in preparation. We go out into the Dubai desert regularly to train and do a combination of hiking, shuffling and running with various weights on our backs.”

Deirdre Casey

30-year-old from Cork. Won the 2011 ITU World Championship Amateur Sprint triathlon in her age group in Beijing. She is now in training to take part in the European Championships in Turkey and the 2013 World Championships in London in September

“I have lived in Dubai for exactly three years. My fiancé had been working in the construction industry in Ireland and so, needless to say, he needed to go elsewhere to find work. So we came here.

“I used to play hockey for Ireland. I was on the Irish women’s team and competed in the Olympic qualifiers in 2004, and then in the Europeans in 2005. Eventually I had to choose between the sport and my career. Hockey couldn’t pay the bills so I work as a chartered accountant now. Since I moved to Dubai I haven’t picked up a stick. The standard here is too low.

“When still in Ireland triathlon was beginning to get bigger as a sport. I was always a strong swimmer. Then I came out here and there was a big scene for expats.

“Here, it’s pretty different to what I was used to, training wise. First of all, hockey is a team sport while triathlon is all about you and your individual mentality. It’s nice to do something for yourself.

“Despite coming first in a lot of local races and winning the world championships in 2011, I wouldn’t be good enough to do it professionally. I work 55 hours a week. So I can only train once or twice a day.

“Dubai has played its part in my success. We live in a bit of a bubble over here. There are top-class training facilities everywhere. The climate causes its own problems. It’s really tough here in the summer. No matter what time you go out to train, the humidity is ridiculous. You have to just try and adapt. But the good thing is you end up feeling like you have an extra lung when you get home.”

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