Behind the dunes at Dubai's National Day Camel Marathon

Story highlights

  • Camel racing is one of the oldest traditional sports in the UAE.
  • Debuted in 2015, the 15-mile (24km) marathon is the longest and most arduous races in the country's history.
  • The second annual National Day Camel Marathon took place on December 3.

Abu Dhabi (CNN)One hour, eight minutes.

That's how long it took Salem Al Hammadi to win Dubai's second annual National Day Camel Marathon.
Narrowly passing 10 opponents in the final 6 miles (10km) of the grueling race, Al Hammadi was the first of 100 men on camel back to gallop over the finish line in the sweltering desert heat.
    Dating back to 7th century, camel racing is one of the oldest sports in the United Arab Emirates and draws tens of thousands of fans and competitors from all over the region each year.
    The 2016 National Camel Day Marathon kicks off in Dubai.
    The 15-mile (24km) marathon is the longest and most arduous camel race in the country's history.
    The race on December 3 marked the country's 45th UAE National Day Celebrations, which showcase traditional Emerati sports, such as camel racing, shooting, falconry and diving.

    Riding through history

    In the Middle East, camels are man's best friend.
    For centuries, the creatures have been a prized commodity, reared for their meat and milk, and commonly used as caravans to cart goods across the region's deserts.
    A racing camel can reach speeds of up of 18 miles per hour (30kmh), making for an action-packed marathon that's not without risks.
    Al Hammadi, for example, took a tumble earlier in the race, before stealing the lead in the last stretch.
    Camel races are popular across the region. Pictured here, the district of Kabad, southwest of Kuwait City, held a race in October.

    A lifelong pursuit

    Now 23 years old, Al Hammadi has been racing camels since he was 8.
    "(Racing) is something I am very passionate about and plan on continuing to do until my body cannot anymore," he tells CNN.
    This year marked his second time competing in the marathon -- he came in 3rd against 71 other competitors in 2015.
    Al Hammadi this month rode the same camel as last year, saying that his connection with this animal was a crucial factor in his success.
    "I made sure not to over-exert her during the first 22.5km," says Al Hammadi. "I know what my camel is made of and I know her endurance, temperament and skill."

    The times are changing

    Over the past 50 years, the sport has changed dramatically with the introduction of new technology and commercial sponsors.
    Though "robot jockeys" -- machines that ride camels -- are prohibited in the actual marathon, it's not uncommon to see trainers operating remote-controlled jockeys from 4x4s in other races.
    "Back (when I was a young boy), all camel races were done with actual humans, as opposed to robot jockeys," says Al Hammadi.
    That's not the only change. As the sport commercialized in recent years, typical purse winnings have increased, too.
    In the past, racers would compete for simple rewards -- a hat or a handful of dates.
    Today, modern camel races often fetch prizes to the tune of millions of dirhams. The winner of the National Day Camel Marathon takes home a new car, while second and third place jockeys win Dh70,000 ($19,000) and Dh30,000, respectively.