The 26-year-old triathlete, who made the surprising decision to turn his back on a stab at the Rio Olympics in favour of going long, must have thought he was back in the ITU ranks after lining up alongside 61 other professional men for the start of Challenge Dubai.
In a race characterised by testing conditions and beset with controversy, the flying Scotsman clocked 3:55:03 to finish 21st. Once the desert dust had settled, 220 columnist Tim Heming caught up with McNamee to discover if he was content with his debut, what he learnt and whether it has whetted the appetite for Ironman South Africa on March 29.
Let’s clear up the controversy first. Your training partner and long course mentor Fraser Cartmell emerged from the swim sporting a black eye. Why did you lay one on him?
Sometimes he just gets a little bit cheeky. No, he’s got a bit of a bruise but I can honestly say it wasn’t me and he has no idea who it was either.
Did you manage to settle and train satisfactorily in Dubai pre-race?
I had a bit of a travel nightmare. My flight from Glasgow to London was delayed so I missed the connection and stayed in a hotel overnight. I arrived on Tuesday, a day later than planned, but my bike didn’t. It was a bit of a farce and a nervous wait.
The homestay I had with Fraser was good though. The family were part of the local Tri Dubai Triathlon Team and doing the race too so their local knowledge helped massively. We’re so used to cycling from the front door, but in Dubai we had to drive to a safe cycling area.
We took a 25min trip out to the desert and rode 50km on closed roads which were perfectly tarmacked. There is a bike and coffee shop and it’s purely for cycling. It was quite surreal.
And I understand you had to borrow a bike?
I don’t have a sponsor right now so I’ve borrowed a BH bike [Beistegui Hermanos] which is a big European brand. It’ll take two to three more months to feel confident riding a time-trial bike as it’s completely different from what I know. Every day I pick up something new and the whole race was a massive learning experience.
With the bumper prize purse it was always going to be a big draw, but did you expect so many professional men to turn up in Dubai?
I knew that when that amount of prize money is put up [$300,000, with the carrot of $1,000,000 for any triathlete winning all three Triple Crown races], it’s to be like a who’s who of 70.3 racing. It’s the start of the season also so it doesn’t clash with any other events, but lining up with 65 guys did feel like being back in the ITU ranks.
The rough conditions meant the swim course was changed and made for a challenging start. What was your experience?
I enjoyed it. The choppy swim quickly breaks the field up and I found the first 300-400 metres comfortable. I wasn’t leading but sat safely inside the front group which is a million miles from ITU where I’m fighting for the whole 1500m to get out in the top 30.
Sighting looked difficult, but you emerged with Jersey’s Dan Halksworth at the rear of a front pack of 16. Did you realise your position?
Yes, I knew from racing so much that there were very few people behind me and there also wasn’t a breakaway after the first lap. I didn’t find sighting hard but that comes from years of experience.
We continue our interview with Scottish long-distance debutante David McNamee.
On to the bike and although the splits were still fast, conditions made for a strongman’s course as giant Dane Martin Jensen proved…
The bike was tough and a lot windier than I expected. I felt ok for the first 10-15mins but after 20mins the pace I thought was quite conservative became really hard to hold. I knew I’d lose 5-6mins but didn’t think it would be 10mins plus. My legs fell apart after 50-60km and there was a massive headwind all the way home as the last 20-30kms turned to a crawl.
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In ITU racing, if you are 3-4mins behind the leader you are out of the race. At 60km I realised I was 4-5mins back and mentally my legs packed up and went home. I was tired and struggling and started switching off a bit – and that made things worse. It’s something I need to improve on.
How did you cope with the 20metre drafting rule?
It’s a great idea and at that distance you aren’t getting any drafting effect. It’s the first time I’d done any proper non-drafting stuff and I found it hard to pace the effort off the person in front. A lot of the time I’d be at 20metres and switch off for 20-30secs and realise I’d lost another 10metres and had to push again to catch up. In ITU racing the focus is on the wheel in front, where you are in the bike pack and you know the course off by heart as it’s often a 5km loop.
The controversy in the men’s race stemmed from people taking the wrong route. Was it difficult to follow the course?
I couldn’t comment on whether it was badly signposted at that roundabout. I had no difficulty, but I’m the 20th person in line and if a mistake is going to happen it’ll be at the head of the race when marshals may not be paying attention as they are not expecting people to arrive.
Will Clarke remarked before the race that you were one of the few triathletes who could negative split a 10km run off the bike. You ran 1:13:33 for the half-marathon, so how does that sit with you?
I ran ok. I got off the bike and didn’t realise how far behind I was, started quite hard and felt good. The last part of the ride was so horrific I thought the run was going to be a really long struggle, but then I got to about 4km and saw Terenzo [Bozzone] coming the other way and realised I must be a good 15mins down. I was in no-man’s land and could see 500-600m up the road and there was nobody there.
I still ran the first 10km well and 10-15km was ok, but over the last 5km, at the point it really hurts, I knew I wasn’t in the race any more, and it was a lot slower than it could have been. I was still happy to get the half-marathon in my legs though, and at no point did I think it pointless or that I should just stop.
Ultimately, the test of strength will happen in four weeks in Ironman South Africa. Again, it’ll be new and I won’t know until the day. It might go well, but could be a disaster.
The upshot was you finished 21st and second Brit behind Joe Skipper. Do you have any thoughts on his performance?
Joe’s known as a really great biker and it was a good course for him and played to his strengths. He delivered a really good performance and seems to be improving every year. It will be interesting to see how he does for the rest of the season.
What were the biggest lessons to take from Challenge Dubai?
I was surprised how hard people went out in the first 10km. That was something I hadn’t considered and it’s similar to ITU in that once you get out on the bike, your main focus is to get to the front of the race. In ITU you have to be with the leaders by the first 20km or you’ll never get there. I also need to learn how to focus on the person in front to keep the gap consistent.
How do you rate your performance out of 10?
Probably six. I’m happy with the swim, and happy enough with the run. I wasn’t expecting great things from the bike but wanted better. The big downside was mentally switching off. It shouldn’t be an issue for me to bike 90km at a good pace and the more time I spend on a TT bike the stronger I’ll be in the aero position.
How important was Fraser’s help in Dubai?
It was great and will be for the next month in South Africa too. He knows exactly what he’s doing and it’s reassuring to have someone around like that. I’ll forget silly things and Fraser will have two of everything, so a lot of borrowing is taking place.
Finally, has it whetted your appetite for more non-drafting racing?
The main positive about this weekend is that I got an arse-kicking but have not come away disheartened. It went worse than I thought but I don’t regret not being on the Abu Dhabi start-list for the start of the World Series this weekend.
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