Friday, February 26, 2010

I want to ride my bicycle...

The sand is blowing fiercely outside, coating everything with a gritty pale patina. Thomas was concerned about his bike and we gave it a good wipedown this morning, though within minutes it was covered again. A sandstorm day is not unlike a snow day back home: after the novelty has worn off it's good to sit inside and let the weather do what it likes without us. We watch the palms whip in the warm winds, the bright papery bourgainvillea flowers get scattered, and the ribbons of sand snake across the road.

I had to tell Thomas, sorry, not a good day for cycling, buddy.

Bicycles are one of my favorite photography subjects. They are romantic in the way that train travel and afternoon tea are. The sand wore us down a little, and I don't feel terribly wordy,(yeah, yeah, I know, mark this day on the calendar), so instead of my prattling away at you, let me share some photographs of bicycles from around Dubai. There's nothing particularly special about these, they just make me happy.

"cool bike" it says. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

a gardener's bicycle with his tools wedged into the handlebars

bicycles waiting patiently
along the piles of cargo by Dubai Creek

an early morning cyclist in Diera, wearing the flowing clothing typical of a Pakistani man

Have a lovely weekend, everyone. I'm going to go have a nice cup of tea.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How sweet it is...

This sign says...bloomingdales.

Oh yes, it does. See the font? It's the same. Writen right to left. That first letter on the right is a baa which makes the "b" sound and then there's a laam...I think, and then the next two make the ooh sound..oh, for crying out loud, it's above the just-opened, long awaited store next to the sign in English. My Arabic is pathetic, but I'm pretty sure they got it right.

Now, some of you out there might wonder if perhaps you don't know me after all. You are wondering, is she truly excited about Bloomingdales opening in Dubai? She's not exactly a clothes horse...

This is true.

(OK, I did go see if they have those cute cotton panties that cheekily say "bloomies" across the, well, cheeks, and I will go thorough hell and earth for the right, probably geeky, T-shirt. Can't be denied.)

Why, then, you ask, did I have my non-bloomies panties in a bunch to get out there?

Inside the store is a branch of the legendary NYC Magnolia Bakery

and HERE is an ultimate truth about this girl:

Big time.

Like Captain Ahab, I venture forth in search of my own personal version of the elusive white whale. There's no revenge involved, though the levels of desperation and insanity could be argued.

The search for the perfect cupcake.

Here in Dubai I have tried Kitch Cupcakes, Sugar Daddy, the Cake Bar, bakeries, caf├ęs , and so forth. Rare is the cupcake in Dubai that has escaped my clutches. In my near-holy quest (so it's more Monty Python than Crusade, so sue me) I have yet to find one that rivals Seattle's Cupcake Royale or (in hushed tones of reverence, please) Trophy Cupcakes.

Drat, drooled on the keyboard again.

I hate that.

(Here is Trophy's website if your computer keyboard is relatively inadvertant salivation-proof: You'll see what I mean.)

It's a sad, sad day for the intrepid adventurers when the cake is dense, or the icing far too sweet, or ugh, made with substandard ingredients, or they want how much for a cupcake, again?! I haven't found that one cupcake place I simply can't resist, that perfect little bit of sweetness and indulgence that makes me weak at the knees. But we persist in searching.

The human spirit, the siren call of discovery and adventure cannot be denied, thus Thomas and I press on, undaunted.

enticing display of teas at Bloomingdales, Dubai

In this spirit, my little comrade in arms and I went on a sweet expedition to the Dubai Mall to track down the Magnolia Cupcake (sp. cupcakus sexinthecityum tastii).

Going to the Dubai Mall means you should pack comfy shoes (no Jimmy Choos or Manolo Blahniks...they have shops within crawling distance of Bloomingdales there should the Carrie Bradshaw need strike...thank God I am immune to such obsessions), and plan on about half an hour from getting into your car in the parking lot to emerging out onto the street when you try to leave, such is the magnitude of this mall.

In New York City people stand in long lines to try these cupcakes. I'm not willing to stand in a line for cupcakes. Well, maybe a little one, no more than 8 people ahead of me and only if the staff are quick...where was I again?

Oh yes, anyway, we got there in the morning on a weekday and there were no lines. Just the beautiful storefront, friendly staff, and cupcakes.

I was a little bit surprised that there were exactly 4 flavors. Vanilla with vanilla or chocolate frosting, or chocolate with vanilla or chocolate icing. I had intended to get a vanilla regardless, since that is the true taste test in my opinion, but I'd also skimped on breakfast, thinking there might be a few flavors I simply couldn't choose between and oh darn I would have had to get a few....maybe pretend to take them home like a reasoned person but actually, in all likelyhood, gleefully eat them in the car with Thomas.

Nope. Just four flavors, so we got one chocolate and one vanilla. With sprinkles.

Oh well. The sprinkles made up for a lot. Though I had been secretly hoping for a lavender lemon cupcake...or a chai tea cupcake...

A girl's gotta dream.

The two of us sat by a fountain near the ice cream parlor (apparently the frozen yogurt is another huge draw for foodies) to enjoy the spoils of the mission.

As an aside, did you know the British call them fairy cakes? Isn't that lovely?

These were.

The vanilla, well, it was divine, and at 10 AED the best priced cake I've encountered in Dubai. Not worth waiting in a huge line for, nor braving the mall for...not exclusively, anyway, but definitely worth stopping for. Mmm. We whacked our two cakes in half to share. I realised very quickly that I was breaking some sort of universal directive and went back to get coffee to go with my cupcake.

Behind the counter, debating the merits of having plates ready to put the cakes upon or to assemble them individually as the orders were being filled, was a gal about my age with an American accent and huge flower tatoo on her arm.

Being the quiet, reserved type, I asked "you have a Magnolia tattooed there...are you some sort of cooking celebrity from New York?" She smiled, "No, it's a Rhododendron."

I jumped up and down a little. "Are you from Washington State?!" (the Rhodie is our State flower, and yes, I am probably a total geek for knowing that one).

We both jumped up and down and Elizabeth from Centralia introduced herself. The South African and Fillipina staff members looked on, bemused. The two of us went on and on and ON about the Country Cousins Restaurant just off I-5 in her hometown, which Mike and I both consider a sin to drive past without going in and having chicken fried steak, at a minimum. Sisters in Foodie-ness, worshiping at the same church of...well, whatever it is.

I was going to have plain coffee, but who would say no to a latte personally foamed by a fellow Pacific Northwesterner?

Not I.

Thomas, eating sprinkles

High from the encounter, I devoured every crumb, bought myself the above tshirt, and felt pretty darned good about the world in general.

Bloomingdales display and Thomas (with his little stuffed doggie Zaki) good.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rollercoaster of love....

(Bit of humor from the roads near RAK before we get into the story)

I know there are things more wretched than throwing up uncontrollably until you're left dry heaving helplessly, head spinning. Sure there are.
How about doing so at kilometer 15 during a half marathon (13.1 miles or 21 kilometers) in a porta-potty in the Middle East?

Trust me, that is a bad way to be. I now know this, firsthand, to be a fact.

Later, it was nicely pointed out to me that I was fortunate to have had the porta-potty there, and I can't argue with that.

It's all about perspective, isn't it?

Needless to say, the Ras al Khaimah (RAK) Half Marathon was not the joy for me this year it was last year. I'd been excited to get out of bed at 3:30 am for the drive out there, had felt fine for the first 10k, but hey, I managed to drag my sorry sick behind across the finish line, got my medal, and was happy for my fellow runners, even as I staggered around, somehow not passing out.

That's running for you. No matter how utterly crappy you might have done, you're still excited for the acomplishments of others.

My buds were concerned (apparently I looked as bad as I felt, which must have not been a pretty sight) and brought me water and gave hugs and then quietly and thoughtfully left me sitting alone when I involuntarily started gasping and crying behind my sunglasses.

I think it wasn't the feeling bad, but the thought that maybe long-distance running is not for me anymore that set me off.

Here, thirty minutes after the finish, no longer so freakishly pale, with the world staying where it belongs:

Mechelle, Natalie, Vickki (her first half!), and Nigel

On the humor side, (it's never far away!) I was more than a bit amused to hear my illness blamed on the camel burger I ingested. Hardly. More like having being sick with a nasty bug for a good week and having rotten low blood pressure besides. That latter bit tends to make you lightheaded.

I went home (a friend was driving, I was in no shape), fell into bed and slept for several hours.

Mike had really wanted to take me out for a rather-delayed birthday dinner, and what the heck, you gotta eat, right? The sitter was coming, and after the nap, though I was as stiff and sore as a woman can be, I was game.

I thought he was looking at me admiringly as I went out to meet him on the street to hail a taxi. Instead he was smiling at my stiff gait. Oh well.

I had asked Nigel, the same friend who had recommended the fantastic Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, for a dining suggestion. For a special evening, he said, the seafood restaurant Pierchic would be just right.

Oh it was. It really was.

Pierchic at the end of it's namesake pier, the Middle Eastern smiling crescent moon above, (it looks like a 'U' instead of a 'C') the waters of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf all around.

Setting the tone, after gaining permission from the gate guard, the taxi dropped us in front of a majestic fountain of golden rearing horses and we walked through the stunning marble lobby of the Al Qasr Hotel, where there was no question that if you were staying here you had money with a capital M.

Al Qasr means 'the palace' in Arabic and is supposed to evoke the experience of a sheikh's summer residence. Opulence in the grandest Arabic style, to say the least. We were early for our reservation, so we explored the corridors and then the extensive grounds, needing to ask for directions several times. We knew the restaurant could be 'accessed near the pool area' and the pool, which we later learned is the largest in the Middle East...

Well, yes.

Wandering the gardens in the sultry night air was lovely, heading toward the Burj al Arab, crickets and stars all around.

Already I was seeing why this experience has been repeatedly named a "Most Romantic" and a "Must Do".

Mike was being tolerant of my stopping every few feet to take photographs, even though I was getting a little compulsive, so beautiful was the setting.

We made our way out the long wooden pier, torches flaming in the salt air, lighting our way to the restaurant where we were seated with a view of the seven star Burj Al Arab on its exclusive island

and the glory of the Souk Madinat Jumeirah along the shore.

The ocean breezes danced around our table and the waves sang their sweet song beneath. I lost track of the number of friendly and thoughtful staff waiting on us; they would appear, improve our lives in some fashion, then fade discretely away into the darkness. We settled into a lingering and luxurious dinner that was everything a romantic evening should be.

Mike had what he pronounced "the best Manhattan outside of the USA". (Actually he had three.) I like the cherries out of those, so we have a system. The bread basket arrived, revealing the loveliest warm dinner rolls with the buttery taste of a croissant but fluffy instead of flakey. I could have eaten these all night long. Pierchic had already scored bulls-eyes with us on our points of greatest culinary vulnerability, and the meal hadn't even truly begun.

After our order, the restaurant presented us with an amuse-bouche of delicately smoked salmon, compliments of the restaurant. I had fretted a bit, reading that entrees ran around 500 AED ($136) apiece on a limited menu, but I found this to be an exaggeration. In fact, I think the criticisms must have come from people who are so snobbish about food they have to find something to publicly malign.

One person's online complaint was that the wine glasses were so big you couldn't view your dining companions! Give me a break! Besides, is there such a thing as a wine glass that's too large? Just asking. Because, as far as I was concerned, everything was exquisite. The staff's timing was so impeccable it could have been choreograped, completely beyond reproach.

Mike's lamb arrived and he rolled his eyes to heaven in appreciation with the first succulent, tender bite. My perfect square of crispy seared trout, balanced carefully upon four Risotto rice balls with some dainty greens beneath for height of presentation and a swirl of light colored cream sauce around was pure foodie art. The trout was nearly creamy in texture beneath a beautifully contrasting crunch of crust on top, everything that is appealing about eating fish and nothing that wasn't. I'd also ordered buttery new potatoes with sprinking of fresh herbs, which were blissful.

The staff continued to be artfully subtle and just the correct level of helpful, being accessable and friendly without the slightest whiff of snobbishness or pretension. Our portions appeared fashionably small, but we ended up pleasantly stuffed.

And that was before Pierchic subtly presented me with a chocolate fondant-y mousse cake that was as light and fluffy as air with three candles and a chocolate oval that spelled out happy birthday in gold.

We savored every morsel of that evening.

I finished with a perfect cappuccino to balance out the chocolate, as beneath us, the blue lit saltwaters came alive with fish, some a good four feet long, as well as the lengths of ribbonfish and the yellow and white striped shapes of butterfly fish cavorting and dipping.

I couldn't eat the truffles they brought us at the close of the meal, and tucked them into my purse. We laughed a bit at the check. A bit over 600 AED, we thought it a good deal, even as we recollected that we'd spent $100 for another particularly memorable birthday meal at the Metropolitan Grill in Seattle 7 years ago and thought that a chunk of change. Living in extravagant Dubai messes with your cost perspective, to say the least.

We wandered dreamily back over the pier to land, pausing to have our photo taken, and then home to dream.

A perfect evening after an especially hard day. Literally dizzying up and downs.

Looking back, I don't think I would have had it any other way.

Friday, February 19, 2010

This could be the very minute I'm aware I'm alive, all these places feel like home...

Before we begin, I want to assure you that no camels were harmed in any way during the creation of this post.

Feel better?


In the name of research, Thomas and I went and made the ultimate personal sacrifice of sitting on cushy chairs in a swanky sort of place and eating chocolates.

But not just any chocolates...

The world's first and only CAMEL CHOCOLATES!

Yes, my friends, now there is a high-end line of chocolates created from...yummy...camel's milk.

Those good folks at Camelicious brought in experts and worked for two years to create Al Nassma chocolates for you and me. Bless them.

You can get the elegantly wrapped chocolate in bars with such flavors as date or orange, as chocolates with coffee or hazelnut cream filling, or, my personal favorite, pistachio, or even a cunning gold foil chocolate camel.

They are undeniably tasty! And what a special gift for someone, huh? That's how I was first introduced to them, and a welcome gift they are indeed.

Thomas ate his with his favorite, strawberry Camelicious. You can also get it in saffron, date, and Bethy's choice, chocolate. Good stuff. The company's laban, a thick yogurty drink, is great in pancake mix and tomato soup. Which is good, because the cow and laban bottles look a lot alike and I've brought home laban from the grocery store by accident more than once.

As I knew you would be disappointed if I hadn't actually tried something new to me along with the chocolates, no worries. I am your guinea pig!


The Camel-ccino!

Seriously, there's no way I could have resisted such an opportunity.

Frothy, thickly foamy, hot, and beautiful to look at.

The taste, well, it's something I would have to get used to, (along those lines I am not a fan of soy milk lattes either,) but what an experience. Such an easy way to feel more a part of my adopted country. I drank it all, and with sugar sprinkled on top and bites of chocolate inbetween sips, well, that made for a darned good day.

The Bedouins of the deserts lived primarily on dates and camel milk and, according to the literature nicely provided by Camelicious, camel's milk is incredibly good for you. Hypoallergenic, rich in vitamins while low in fat, and "closest in composition to human milk."

I'm feeling healthier already.


I am absolutely dying to track down the Camelicious Camel Farm out in Umm Nahad. I hear they welcome visitors. Stay tuned for more adventures...

You can find Al Nassma chocolates in the Mall of the Emirates at their stand on what I call the second floor but here they call the first floor near, of course, the Camel Company.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cheeseburger in paradise... (carnivore alert!)

I saw this while minding my own business the other day:

"Butt transport by heavy & light trucks (LLC)"

Perhaps this was a sign to search for healthier dietary options. Serendipitously, I read in a local newspaper about a supposedly no-fat, cholesterol-free burger. My jaw dropped, my eyebrows lifted, and I had a new mission.

Time to go get me one of these:

Obviously anything made from meat is not going to live up to those claims, but whatever. A camelburger? Dude!!!!

The very first of it's kind offered in the UAE, and the first outside of Saudi Arabia, a quarter pound of reportedly super tough camel meat which has been tenderised by marinating it with herbs in a secret process. (Ooh!)

The fast food outlet in Saudi overcame the toughness issue by using baby camel. OK, so that's kind of sad. But a grown camel made into one of the great inventions to come out of the United States? Show me the way, I want one!

The burgers are being sold by an Emirati place called Local House. Right up there for an award in creative restaurant naming with the Automatic and the Eat and Drink. And yes, I patronise these establishments. Names like that mean awesome fresh juices and shwarma.

Joining some friends, we all trooped along the Jumeirah Beach waterfront to Heritage Village, a cultural enlightenment offering to enhance this month's Dubai Shopping Festival. Yes, people DO come from all around the world for the DSF just to shop. I have seen it, and it amazes me.

There were Emiratis demonstrating all sorts of aspects of traditional life, from the Bedouins, to whose tent Thomas made a beeline to get the tea he knew would be offered,

(which turned out to be Arabic coffee, and yes, I let him drink it. Nothing like a three-year-old hopped up on caffeine. He loved it.)

to the falconers:

(yes, Bethy is wearing that dress again, And she had me pack it today in her backpack to change into after school since she's going to a playdate and is conscious of the need to dress appropriately for the occasion. I have to steal it to get it in the washer while she sleeps or it'd never be clean)

and a beautiful Arabian who reared and danced for us, and submitted to being petted. Admittedly, those ears turned backwards betrayed its true fellings for the whole business:

Now, the moment of truth. Chicken sandwiches for the chicken spouses and children, but for my friend Karen and I, fearless creatures that we are, we went for it. We plopped down our 20 dirhams apiece and were rewarded with the sizzle of former desert creature on the grill.

Takeaway bags in hand, we found seats to watch little Emerati boys dance traditional shuffling, bowing steps whilespinning throwing and catching canes and small golden reproductions of what looked very much like Russian machine guns.

Unwrapped, our camelburgers were served on flattish buns, with sauce, melted cheese, lettuce and sliced tomato. Very slippery to keep together. First bite:

It ... didn't ... really ... taste like anything. Spices, cumin for sure. Karen thought, and I agreed, that it was faintly lamb-ish, but neither tender nor with the richness that I associate with lamb. In fact, the closest thing this came to was those boiled gray burgers they fed us back in elementary school.

Edible. in other words.

Bethy would have none of it, but Thomas wanted a "bite of the meat!" I hadn't the heart to tell my little carnivore what it was. He thought it was pretty good and ate one of my tomatoes too.

Now, where do I pick up my T-shirt? "I ATE A CAMELBURGER."

I should print some up and set up a stand. I'd make a killing off people like me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

They call me the wanderer, yeah the wanderer, I roam around around around...

I survived. We all did. It was great.

I feel confident the "great" rating of the Wadi Bih 72 km race would be echoed by everyone on our team. Most people in the world are saner and think that getting up on your day off at 3 am to go running out in the mountains, choking on a lot of dust, being smelly and sore, with no chance of winning whatsoever, isn't their idea of fun.

If I had half a brain I would agree. Fortunately there are races for people like me, and this year 150 teams with 5 runners in each agreed that this was definitely the way to spend a day.

So I had company.

The day began after a grand total of 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I was too keyed up to have gotten any sort of good rest. Our boxes of gear were ready to go, I had my passport, and couldn't wait to hit the road. The words most used by my teammates and myself that morning were "nervous" and "excited".

Natalie, Team Captain Graham, Tyler, Cei, and Lynne

Our team was called 'the Wanderers Return', but in truth only Graham and I had come back from our group least year. One of the other gals from then was also going to run, but had shown common sense (and was injured as well, but whatever) and ducked out at the last minute.

Our last minute replacement, then, was newlywed Lynne from Scotland, who ran the Wadi Bih two years ago. I knew her from having been on a team with her last June, a 10K run along the beach, racing teams of kayakers out in the Gulf paddling the same course (the runners won that one) and was pleased to have her lovely self and soft burring accent on our side.

Cei, Lynne, and Natalie

Next was Ceiwen, ("Cei", pronounced Kay ) from Wales, a bubbly personality who had wanted to run last year but had been forbidden to do so by her doctor after falling ill. She is excessively slender, allergic to everything, eats a limited vegan diet, and runs like the wind. Her Welsh exclamations crack us up on a regular basis.

Graham you know, of course, from Southampton , England. Team Captain. He had run the Dubai Marathon with his son in January and last week, thanks to a calf injury that flares up now and then to make him miserable, literally couldn't run the 300 yards to his marshalling station at the ABRaS 10K race. He didn't run at all this week, hoping that gym work and respite from running would have him able for Wadi Bih.

Last was the entrant I was most excited about: Tyler. Mike and I would describe him as "good people". He's a friend from Mike's work, and more importantly, from Montana! For the first time I was getting to run a team race with an American. (Dude! Awesome!) I had high hopes for him, in that not only did I think he would be a good runner, but in that he has the best attitude of anyone I know. Easy going and friendly, a great fit in any situation. He injured his ankle quite badly on the jobsite last fall, but was raring to go now.

I thought we had a combination that, with the atmosphere of the Wadi Bih race, would make for a good time. Not to mention some great accents thrown into the mix.

Here's how the race works: each team has a map, a clipboard and a stopwatch for marking stage and total times. There are thirteen sign markers from the start, and team members run each stage in a relay, taking turns.

Graham (red) Lynne (yellow) and Tyler with stopwatch (gray)

Each team has a support car that carries the other members which drives ahead to wait at the sign markers for changing over. Running out and back through rugged, beautiful country, there are 27 portions in all with an impressive elevation ascent and descent of 900m. A challenge to runners pancake flat Dubai. Last year it took our team 6 hours and 27 minutes.

"Boot" of the car, with our gear, toilet paper (aka loo roll, dunny roll, toilet roll, tissue, roll,paper, or, as we Americans call it, TP.) water, snacks and a first aid kit.

Natalie, Tyler, Graham, and Cei

Some maniacs run the entire thing solo, which is nice in that it makes the rest of us look sensible in comparison. (45 miles is far no matter how you spin it.) I believe the two below did so:


Wadi Bih donkey taking a long look at the string of cars and runners. I would love to know what he thought of us.

Our team hit the road as the sun was rising over the Straits of Hormuz, bathing the town of Dibba, its mosques, and mountains beyond in golden light. It's important to get most of the running done in the winter morning while it is still relatively cool.

The asphalt quickly ends and the racers ran through tiny sandy villages, where rocks are stacked up to make homes with tin doors, through the stretch of valley and up into Wadi Bih, the steep walls stretching up overhead, the track winding and cresting.

looking up the sheer Wadi walls

Sometimes the way is only wide enough for one car. Otherwise teams leapfrog along, hooting encouragement and snapping photos. A few locals sat out on rocks, watching us go by, others driving amongst us in their tough little Toyota pickups, either smiling or looking resigned, truckbeds loaded with bags of feed for the long-haired goats that nimbly scamper across the rocksides as if it were nothing, the babies bleating and jumping.

I envy the goats their seemingly effortless travels, as the terrain gets rougher and steeper. Despite the number of teams, the cars and runners spread out quickly, having staggered starts over several hours to begin with.

It was as I remembered it: the excitement of your turn coming up, setting out , the momentary lift of being cheered by your team as they drive by, and then the solitude of running in the mountains. There was nothing but the sound of my pounding steps on the sand and rocks and my breathing. In the morning the Wadi is still shaded, so even my shadow was not along to keep me company.

It's almost lonely, an intense solitude in the place known as the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, and like all places of great natural beauty and scope, makes you aware of your oneness and smallness in the world.

Each leg of the race is between 1.5 and 4.2 kilometers, so you're never alone for long. You also get to rest maybe an hour between stages going up into the mountains as your teamates take their turns. (Coming back is faster, or at least seems so.) This is where the camaraderie comes in, and it is wonderful. Camaraderie between team members, and cheering others as you drive by, rolling down the windows to yell encouragement to the solitary runners, then quickly rolling them back up to reduce the amount of sand dust you inhale.

Oman Police patrolling the mountains. They do not like it when you take their photo.

Lynne and Tyler in a great moment

I was deeply, heavily conscious of saving my legs for stage 11. I had insisted that I would run it again. The steepest, nastiest, most soul-killing portion of the run. 2.4 kilometers of vertical climb up heart-pounding switchbacks to the top of the mountain. Last year it had just about killed me. This year I swore it would be my gift to the team to sacrifice myself to it, saving our faster runners.

This is exactly what I did. My leg muscles were soon burning, screaming at me, sweat streaming into my eyes and dripping down onto the track, some 1000 feet of sheer, psychologically damaging up. This time, though, I was wiser. I didn't try to run the steepest parts, which was most of it. Instead I race walked, taking long strides, pumping my arms to push myself up the mountain. I had trained on the much-hated treadmill, setting it on the highest incline and bullying myself to do the distance. Going up that jebel my heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear, my throat was raw with each ragged breath and every second was completely and utterly worth it.

That's a good feeling.

Normally I wouldn't have felt so good about seeing, more than once, some of the other teams stopping their cars halfway up the hill to switch out their runners for fresh replacements. This is cheating. According to the rules, each leg should be run by one person, otherwise how can it be fair? At the time I didn't have any energy to waste on being irritated, being far too busy surviving and concentrating on doing my best. Later, of course, our team and friends' teams had a great time gossiping about and condemning such unsportsmanlike behavior.

A long, long 23 minutes in, near the top, I forced myself into a run, managing to pass two other competators, up and over, and down to my waiting team.

Few things have felt so bad or so damned good at the same time.

Wanderers Return team spirit! Cei and Lynne at a changeover

After the dreaded stage, I spent a lot of time coughing and hacking, but other than that miniscule detail, enjoying myself thoroughly. We hit the turnaround at 13 and had the utter joy of making our way back, past the huffing, puffing teams on their way up. Graham's legs were holding up great, the girls were eating up the miles, and Tyler was kicking, er, arse.

He flew down the mountain I had worked so hard to come up, Graham burning up our brakes not rear-ending another car between us, Cei gagging into a cloth at the black rubber smell. At one point coming down the slope we watched him put on his brakes like a cartoon character before making a turn, fast feet fast feet, and I wondered for a second if he would end up missing the turn and going over the side. He didn't and ended up beating us to the bottom, running the next stage as well. Tyler was the only one of us to do two back to back, solidifying himself as a total stud.

Here at one of the last stages, back on asphalt, showing typical Tyler spirit...eating up some other competitors shortly thereafter. Graham was tickled.

For me, the last half of the race was sheer joy of giving it my all each time, running without fear of that Jebel, moving out, loving the downhill slopes and cursing the occasional up, but making each part my best effort. It was getting hot and dry, but even so, with movement the air was still relatively cool on our skins until the last few stages.

I was undoubtedly the slowest member of my team. I was certainly the most unfit, though the bar was set pretty high, but despite that, for most of the time it didn't matter. I couldn't run a 4 minute kilometer, but I was pleased with myself, thrilled to be with the team, and at the finish line when we all ran in together, it was a moment well earned and all the more wonderful for it.

We were medaled and congratulated with a finishing time of 6 hours and 19 minutes. Tyler had thrown a six-pack of beer beneath the water bottles in the cooler and he and I each sucked one down in victory while Cei giggled at us and herself over her soy milk.

We sat on rugs beneath Arabic style canopies, watching the awards, eating a light lunch, clapping for the winners, and enjoying our accomplishment. The gathering had a real community feel to it, something we expats cherish.

Despite being tired, during the long drive back to Dubai though the desert the car was full of chatter and laughing.

At home, I made the mistake of sitting down. When I finally staggered back up to a relatively vertical position, announcing my intentions to go take a shower, Mike said, in all seriousness, "please do, you really stink."

Ah, the rewards of being an athlete.

[A special big thanks to all my teamates for sharing both their great day and photos with me!]