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The Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge: Trekking the Empty Quarter

BACKPACKER editor Jonathan Dorn's photos and memories of a six-day desert adventure race in Abu Dhabi
abu dhabi adventure raceDorn and company hit the dunes. (Jonathan Dorn)

Expedition-length adventure races tend to leave competitors with gifts that keep on giving long after the kayak paddles are packed away and the sleep deprivation is counterbalanced by long nights of hibernation-worthy slumber. The gifts might be crater-wide heel blisters that take weeks to heal, or poison oak bubbles in places where Calamine doesn’t belong, or toenails that turn four shades of purple before sloughing off. Such things are almost unavoidable for racers who put their bodies through hundreds of miles of wilderness racing for five, or eight, or even ten consecutive days.

The members of team Yankee Scribes returned from the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge (ADAC) on December 17, 2010, with our own gifts that kept on giving right through the holidays—an odd assortment of wrist tendonitis, toe blisters, and lips so parched by the arid desert sun that one teammate (me, alas) considered sutures to close the cracks. We’d entered this six-day race, the world’s richest and most competitive, drawing top teams from all over the world, on invitation from the sports ministry of Abu Dhabi. Our group of four—outdoor adventure journalists Adam Chase (our captain) and Brian Metzler, and Olympic gold medalist Sheila Taorminda—would be the only media team in the race (which, due to the lackluster history of media teams, basically meant that no one expected us to finish).

The race started in the gleaming, skyscraper-studded capitol of Abu Dhabi, the seat of the United Arab Emirates, with a triathlon-style prologue that included running, swimming, and paddling inflatable canoes around the downtown area and the sprawling palace of the country’s ruling sheik. From the first horn, it was a mad pace, with team Thule, a Kiwi powerhouse led by Richard and Elaina Ussher and Natan Fa’vae, taking a lead that they would never lose. From the triathlon, we bused to a bike leg that ascended from the arid flats around the beautiful oasis city of Al Ain into the much-cooler limestone peaks of Jabel Hafeet. Two trekking sections and an outstanding via ferrata section followed, interspersed with navigation to quasi-hidden checkpoints. At night, we pitched tents around a movable race compound that consisted of communication and mess tents, plus several traditional Bedouin tents where racers could relax and rehydrate on Persian rugs and pillows. And then it was into the desert to experience what, for us, would be the true adventure of this race.

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