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RACE REPORT – Ironman 70.3 Salalah, 24 September 2023 

Desert, sand, camels with a mixture of hot Arabian air

Thinking of signing up for this race? Or maybe signed up already? This race could be perfect for you - but please be careful about one thing: your experience and your body’s ability to cope and adapt to the significant heat in the hot climate that Oman offers. The race takes place on a Saturday morning at 06.30am on the southern coast of Oman in an area called Salalah which is part of the Dhofar Municipality which governs the region. There are no direct flights from Europe, routing either through Turkey or the UAE are the best options. Once you arrive you will be immediately greeted by the hot air. Salalah's heat is a little more manageable than Muscat, the capital city, but still it is all a matter of perspective as hot is hot and Salalah has plenty of heat.

Climate: Most days, temperatures reach 30+ degrees and with a humidity factor of greater than 80% you can be sure to have entered what can only be better described as a furnace or a raging fire. Coming from Europe where climates are much more variable, getting used to the heat was not easy and even with a week of acclimation, with a little heat exhaustion to throw into the mix, we still didn’t feel ready to race a 70.3 Half Distance Ironman in such conditions. Race Venue: The resort of Hawana Salalah, the largest of its kind in the region, plays host to the event and has done so since its inception in 2022. The resort is an all-inclusive complex with a choice of 5-star hotels and access also to self-catering apartments which are either owned privately or by the complex.

During our stay we rented one of the apartments through a private person on Airbnb. This allowed us to prepare our own food, which we find especially useful prior to race day but also gave us the option of using the hotel facilities and complex if we wanted to - and which we did. They were fabulous, the choice of restaurants, pools and beaches with gorgeous white sands and spectacular sunsets make this a fabulous beach style holiday location. Everything within the complex was available to guests and there is even a Marina area which has further restaurants and other facilities should you need them. The resort is expanding a lot and already boasts over 1000 rooms across the complex which is vast. You can walk around easily but due to the heat was always convenient to jump into a golf buggy and be taken to your destination. The development is relatively new, and during and after the race week it was quiet with a few quests here and there not to mention the 400 or so people that would have come specifically for the race, either to participate or support. The development is still growing with more and more accommodation being built in the grounds and it is clear that there are big plans to make this a world class resort for the region. Within the resort you can organize tours, snorkeling, scuba diving and you might even find a local guy on the beach walking his horse and camel and offering rides. Outside of the resort there is very little. The nearest town is perhaps 10km by car and there’s not a great deal to visit or see. Further afield there are tours that can be organized but we got the feeling they were a little expensive and overrated so we did not participate. Therefore, this race and vacation was also a mini beach break for us which was great. Khaleef: Something to be aware of is that Salalah is unique to any other location in Oman in that it has its own microclimate which during September creates a mini monsoon season bringing heavy rains and cooler weather. The result is a fantastic array of greenery and waterfalls. These can be found in the foothills all around Salalah and tourists come in their droves to see the phenomenon which we are told is truly spectacular. Timing is everything, as once Khaleef comes to an end everything dries up very quickly and returns back to the desert so therefore if you wish to see this spectacle you must time it right and come early enough to see it. People of Oman: Are the kindest, generous and most hospitable you are likely to meet anywhere in the world. They are proud of their country, and rightly so, and they make you always feel welcome and special. Everyone we encountered was delighted to meet us and went out of their way to be nice and friendly.

The Race – 70.3 Salalah: Finally, the race. Is it worth doing, what’s the course like etc.? The course for 2023 was changed from the previous year to improve the run experience. We were glad this change was made as the 2022 event was a lonely run out and back along the main road whereas for 2023 the run remained entirely within the resort and focused on the centre point which is the marina. This was a huge improvement for everyone concerned so hopefully this modification in 2023 will also stay for next year’s event in 2024.

Please note this is where both the start, finish and transition are also located making it an easy to navigate, supporter friendly. Overall, we would rate this course very beginner friendly. There is an awesome pre-race buffet and briefing, which I know most people avoid but this one is really special. Before you even get to the briefing there was a 30-minute show where sponsors were introduced and thanked and also locals perform dances to demonstrates aspects of local culture. Everyone sits around on Arabic bean bags enjoying the entertainment and being served delights from the buffet. Trust us, this is no ordinary pasta party there are so many culinary delights to sample.

After the briefing which takes place on the Thursday there are opportunities to ride the bike course, swim on the course (unsupervised of course), and also there is a small EXPO where you can buy last minute supplies or have your bike serviced or repaired. Which was the case for me having two punctures on the same day. The roads aren’t of great quality but in fairness they aren’t bad either you just need to be mindful of where you ride, ensure you have good quality tyres and tubes, and you shouldn’t have any issues. On race day we didn't see anybody with puncture issues, so we think that speaks for itself. Race day comes around quick, and it is not long before everyone is lined up at the marina to enter the water at 06.30. There is no Pro Category at 70.3 Salalah but in fairness there were several riders performing at that level with overall times just exceeding the 4hr mark. If chasing podiums as an Age Group Athlete is your thing, then that might bother you but for most this was an opportunity to race in a mysterious land and to enjoy the experience. 1. Swim Course… First up, it is non wetsuit. The water temperature pretty much always exceeds 26 degrees therefore wetsuits are not permitted. To be fair this is a good thing because the amount of heat generated wearing a suit in that water would be very uncomfortable. The swim course is in the marina lagoon and the waters are always very flat and the water is salty as the lagoon leads out to the Sea beyond the harbour walls. Technically, it is an easy swim. The water is not clear so you can’t see anything and the only thing you might feel is occasional change in water temperature as you move through a hot or colder spot or vice versa. You exit the course just as you come back into the main marina waterway via a bridge you go under and a ramp you run up into transition which is also less than 50m away from swim exit. 2. Bike Course… It is a 45km out and back bike with 6 aid stations in total providing isotonic, fruit, water and are well manned by volunteers. Often you will catch a tail wind heading out along the highway which is closed to traffic for the race. It therefore feels fast and don’t be surprised if you are averaging speeds beyond 40kmph. The return leg is a different story though as you come back the same way but on the other side of the carriageway but now you face the wind and the small hills that you pushed up and over don’t seem as easy as they were on the way out. It is important to control your efforts as the wind can play havoc with your morale but can also drain your energy if not careful. Don’t overdo the bike and take time to hydrate correctly as it is hot and humid. For this bike course a triathlon bike is recommended with deep section rims or disc wheel. Take full advantage of the aero gains to be had as this is a relatively flat and fast course. 3. The Run Course: Is a 7km 3 lap run course around the marina, starting off by the beach and then running out into the various walkways that join the complex together. It is a nice run course. You get to see everything that the complex has to offer but, and this is a massive BUT….it was just too hot for too many people. If you are not used to performing in the heat, then you are going to suffer. If you have not run in a humid climate or have little experience of it, then this is going to compound the issue. During the race it was over 30 degrees with a humidity of over 80%. For the first two laps there was also very little breeze, and the air was suffocating, it was just not easy to breathe never mind run after having completed a 1.9km swim and 90km bike effort previously. Many athletes competing had issues with the heat from stomach problems, cramps, heat exhaustion, dehydration to name but a few of the constraints. On top of this the sun was bearing down on the athletes and there was very little shade, so it felt like being cooked from the inside by the humidity and roasted on the outside by the sun. We think most people did not perform to the standard they are used to on the run and the conditions were a major factor in that for most.

If you are fine dealing with such conditions, then you’ll love the run course but if you aren’t then bear this in mind before entering as you might live to regret your decision. Race day ends with the awards ceremony and the draw down for slot allocation for the 70.3 World Championships. It was originally scheduled to begin at 1700h but due to some VIP guests and dignitaries being delayed it was pushed back to 1830h. For most people this wasn’t an issue and it was surprising to see so many people at the ceremony, as often a lot of people don’t bother going.

It was clear that the opening buffet, welcome, and hospitality had made a great impression amongst the athletes, and we were keen to return for more of the same. The delay was disappointing, more so because the athletes were hungry and wanted to eat but had to wait which was frustrating. Feedback we would give the event is, this showed a little lack of situational awareness as the focus should have been getting hungry, tired people fed but the priority was misplaced elsewhere. But this didn’t spoil anything and is really only a minor point of feedback for what turned out to be another wonderful evening however most people then slipped away and didn’t join the after party as we were all just too worn out from the day’s activities. Would we do the Ironman 70.3 Salalah again? Absolutely yes! The organization was fantastic. The location is fantastic. The people are lovely and welcoming. The event and the race itself was one of the best we have experienced. Everything was really great, it exceeded expectations without a doubt. The only thing that may prevent us from signing up for another shot in 2024 is the date. For us a race scheduled towards the end of the year when temperatures are milder would be better for European or other international visitors to the region who don’t get to train in such horrendously hot and humid conditions. If you can train in it, then you can prepare for it, but for the majority we think that is a big ask. If we were to rate 70.3 Salalah it would be an 8.5 / 10 for overall satisfaction for the event. It is beginner friendly but more than suitable and challenging for all ability levels. Also, for anyone chasing qualification for a World Champs slot it is not a bad end of season race to include on your calendar when you should still be at a good level of fitness.

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