Arriving in Doha after 13 hours on the Qatar Air 777 is a welcome relief. I step off the plane and I could be in Lima or New York or Buenos Aires – just another giant sprawling airport. The only difference is the Arabic/English double label of everything from toilets to McDonald’s.
I follow the crowd and make my way down an escalator where I immediately see a desk labeled with a welcome sign for the 1st IAU 50km World Championships. A woman in a full black hijab and abeya welcomes me – I’m not sure whether to shake hands – and ushers me towards immigration. She walks me in front of a line of about 50 people where the guard takes my passport, while the on-lookers glare.
“You are a football player?” he asks.
“No – I’m a runner, marathon runner,” I explain.
He nods and stamps my passport and I’m in.
From there, I walk through customs and outside I’m met by more local organizing committee folk who direct me out to a mini-van. We wait for no one else and I’m immediately whisked off into the warm Qatari night.
The driver is silent until we arrive at the Torch Hotel in the Aspire Zone – the athletics center of Doha. The Torch – shaped and lit from the outside like a literal torch – is the aptly named tallest structure in Doha and can be seen from miles away, towering above the desert sprawl.
Once inside, I’m continuously awed by the scale of Doha and the Torch and Aspire Zone. From the staff – who speak better English and are more courteous than I am – to the 20-story lobby, to the ipad-controlled colored-lights in our hotel room, to the endless buffets of gourmet food at every meal, nothing ceases to amaze me. It is awesome, in the most literal sense of the word.
On that first evening, I meet my fellow USA Teammates and Team Manager, Susan Dunn. We’d all been in communication thanks to Susan’s incredible management over the last month, but it was great to meet everyone in person. The boys head out for a little shakeout on the race course – a 5km loop which we’ll run 10 times – and I pretty much immediately feel ready for bed. Still, it’s good to move the legs a bit.
We have dinner in the “Flying Carpet” restaurant – an amazing feast after 24 hours of travel and snack food – before hitting the sack. I’d been nervous about this first night’s sleep, but I’m so exhausted from the travel and little sleep on the plane that I seem to have no problem and pass out hard.
Babies don’t sleep this well. I wake up and it’s noon and I’ve been in bed for over 12 hours. A button on the room-controlling ipad open the curtains and the bright Doha sun (which we haven’t seen yet) fills the room. I have a cup of coffee and get dressed and head out to run.
I run a few laps of the course and my legs feel infinitely better than they did the night before. The sunshine and warmth are a welcome treat after leaving DC in a freezing rainstorm. I hope it’s not quite this warm for the race, though!
After another tasty lunch, I meet up with three other athletes – two women from Canada and Ireland and a guy from Australia – and the four of us are escorted to the American School of Doha where we’ll be talking with a group of students. Our group is led by the incredibly friendly Nadeem Khan – an IAU official and former competitive ultra-runner himself.
We arrive at the school and I’m immediately overwhelmed by the security. As soon as we pull up in our mini-van, the security guard runs up to our drive and tells him that we can’t have the car within 50 meters of the school entrance and we’re rushed away to a spot down the block. We walk around to the pedestrian entrance and – after another 20 minutes of trying to find the person who’d arranged our visit – we’re finally allowed entry into ASD.
The school grounds are beautiful – we could have easily been teleported into a wealthy New England private school for all I know. The only difference is the incredible diversity of the students and teachers. Qatar – like many other wealthy Middle Eastern Cities – has a disproportionate number of expats (Qatari nationals make up only 12% of the total population). What is left is a giant melting pot of the dozens of other nationalities that have been drawn to the big money being made and paid out in Doha.
In the school, this is manifested in the visible diversity among students and faculty. Teenage boys with torn jeans and shaggy blonde hair long-board by groups of dark-skinned girls in hijabs. Teachers wear beards and turbans while others have transferred here after 40 years of teaching and coaching American Football in Virginia.
The four of us answer questions (“What do you think about while you’re running?”) for an hour or so and the kids are polite and seem genuinely interested. I make an absurd connection with the young cross country coach who it turns out was a college classmate of several American friends I’d made while living in Ecuador. Truly a “small-world”, long-shot connection.
Back at the Torch, the LOC has organized a fun-run with athletes from other teams and locals alike. We have a big group and it feels great to run at a calm pace and enjoy the company of new friends, all while trotting around the beautifully manicured Aspire Zone grounds. As Geoff put it, it seems like they designed this giant park specifically for runners, with every surface the heart could desire – pavement, track, wood-chips, an “imperfectly perfect” dirt road, and grass – yes – even grass here in the desert!
In the evening, we head to Team Manager Susan’s home for a team meeting and a wonderful home-cooked meal. Susan has been nothing but wonderful up to this point and her incredible family and friends treat us like much more V- VIPs than any of us are expecting. Taco night is a great success at not only getting us out of the hotel for a few hours (marveling at the myriad architectural marvels and holding on tight as Susan expertly navigates the absurd Qatari traffic en route), but also at helping us get to know one another and all of our support crew. I’m already feeling so grateful to be a part of this team – and now it’s really feeling like a team – as I head to bed on Wednesday night.
Thursday’s schedule is thankfully nearly empty. Tony (my roommate) and I sleep as late as possible – trying to skew our bodies’ clocks so that we’re ready for the late night race. We wake up after noon. I head out for a last run around the race course loop, my legs feeling perfectly tapered and fresh, before spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing.
I’m able to chat briefly with Mariana and my folks and I tell them that I feel ready – ready for what the race might bring and ready to have a good day. And I believe it. It’s been a long time since I really tapered for a race like this and I am nothing less than thrilled to be here, to be fit, to be so well prepared for the specific needs of running this race.
The opening ceremonies are our the commitment for the day and the whole team heads over around 5pm to yet another gorgeous and gargantuan building in the Aspire Zone. A million flags and faces fill the staging area from whence we’ll parade into the main banquet hall, team by team, country by country. The mood is joyful – we snap pictures with one another and with other teams, as the Mongolians, Croatians, Zimbabweans all want a selfie with Team USA. What a blast!
Finally, we march in – sandwiched between Tanzania and Uruguay – and stand on the stage under the bright lights. The podium where the medal ceremony will be held is behind us as we smile for the cameras. I feel a shot of adrenaline as I know we’re all hoping to be back up here for Saturday’s awards.
But for now, we simply enjoy it – the spectacle, the convocation of skinny humans from all corners of the Earth. What are the odds that we’d all be under this roof on this tiny desert peninsula in the Arabian Gulf on this warm December evening?