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Runners race through a gate to the Angkor Thom temple complex during the 2011 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon in Siem Reap.
Runners race through a gate to the Angkor Thom temple complex during the 2011 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon in Siem Reap. Sreng Meng Srun

Doing the temples by foot growing in popularity

The spectacle of Angkor Wat is drawing an increasing number of endurance events to Siem Reap

On November 27, a gruelling six-day, 200 kilometre footrace hosted by GlobalLimits from a starting point just east of Siem Reap’s Stoung district off Route 6 marks the beginning of a rich season for runners with a focus on Angkor.

Two days after they lay first sight on the park’s temples, as many as 7,000 runners, walkers and rollers will be tying their laces for the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.

And, in January, a brand new race, the Ultra-Trail Angkor, will see runners covering 32km, 64km and 128km routes along the back trails around the temples, starting off at Bayon in the heart of Angkor Thom.

For each of these events, the running is key, but the temples are the main draw – they are a fundamental part of the attraction for runners, bringing them in from all over the world to a location that provides an unparalleled experience. Angkor is thus joining the ranks of some legendary race events.

“Once people know where it is, they get very enthusiastic,” said Francois Lefebvre, project manager for Phoenix Voyages, which is organising the Ultra-Trail race in coordination with the Sport Development and Performance Organisation (SDPO), who pioneered the challenging race format.

“We didn’t have to give a reason for being attractive, it already is because of the location,” he said.

For GlobalLimits, this is their fourth year in Cambodia. They also host races in Bhutan, finishing at the Taktshang Goemba, at 3,000m one of the most spectacular monasteries in the world, and in Sri Lanka, for a 210km route that ends with a 1,860-step climb up the Sigiriya Rock.

If 220km across northwestern Cambodia doesn’t sound tough enough, the runners all have to carry their own food and personal belongings. Racers spend weeks in the run-up to the event carefully weighing calories and microfibres to the gram.

Stefan Betzelt, the founder and general manager of GlobalLimits, agreed with Lefebvre on Angkor’s attractions. “We aim to find courses that give us the opportunity to camp in unique locations as well as having a spectacular finish line,” he said.

“Cambodia offers all these aspects – a stunning culture, amazingly friendly locals and finally Angkor Wat as one of the most spectacular finish lines in the running scene.”

The Ultra-Trail Angkor is part of an international string of events that SDPO has been hosting for 20 years, starting off with Les Foulées de la Soie, on the Silk Road in China, and since then growing to cover races all over the world.

Their race repertoire includes the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc, considered by many runners to be something of a holy grail.

Two thousand people take part each year for a tough, steep 166km race that can take up to 45 hours of running to complete.

Three hundred runners, mostly from France, are expected to take part in the inaugural Angkor Ultra-Trail, which will take them along back roads, rice fields and villages around the Angkor Archaeological Park.

“It is nicer than the marathon,” said Lefebvre, “but it is much tougher too. All of the routes are off road, and there is a lot of sand. It’s not for beginners.”

The toughest part for the organisers has been trying to sort out the refuelling points, as so many of them are not accessible by car.

They expect runners to take up to 28 hours to complete the 128km race, which will start at Bayon and take in Tanei, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup and Chau Srey Vibol temples, as well as Phnom Bok and Pradak Village by the East Mebon temple.

Meanwhile, the 32km route takes in the challenging terrain around the West Baray reservoir, and the 64km route goes in a loop to the north of the Roulos Group of temples.

“Camping in front of temple ruins at Preah Khan or inside Beng Mealea is a once-in-a-lifetime ‘wow’ experience for our participants,” Betzelt said. It’s all a far cry from the early days of the marathon, when the Khmer Rouge could still be seen and heard in the surrounding forests.

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