I hate running. It is painful, boring and I’m not very good at it. But last year I allowed myself to be coerced into doing the 10k part of the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon, and this year, God help me, I signed up for the actual Half Marathon.
Since moving to Cambodia a year and a half ago, I have become the reluctant runner, plodding around the dusty red roads and broken pavements of Siem Reap. Actually, my running generates quite a lot of attention. Small children bellow “hello, what is your name” while running alongside, excitable dogs give chase, a family of six ranging from a 4-year-old to a wrinkly old man always reliably shout, “moy, bee, bye” and do comedy impressions of me running, before collapsing into giggles. It’s all very encouraging.
So having signed up I was committed and before I knew it, the day of the race had arrived. My 5am alarm screech on Sunday was a rude shock, but the 6.30am start was necessary to avoid the scorching heat. Actually, heat was the last thing I had to worry about as my other half and I motoed up to Angkor Wat, the starting point of the race, I found it was so early I was actually cold. Freezing cold. In Cambodia.
We arrived, had a last-minute energy gel – chocolate in a tube - and joined the throng milling around Angkor Wat. I spotted a Japanese man in an aubergine costume. I’d seen him in similar attire the year before and journalistic curiosity compelled me to ask why. “Because it’s funny,” he explained. Fair enough. The atmosphere was jolly and expectant; within seconds an excitable runner had gestured for me to join his group photo. “From?” he asked me. England, I told him. “Thailand,” he replied happily, shaking my hand. Photo taken, the group dispersed, smiling and thanking each other and I realised he hadn’t actually known any of them. Two minutes later I heard my name being called and turned to see an ex-work colleague from London I hadn’t seen in three years. He had moved to Phnom Penh and was here supporting his wife. Small world indeed.
But there was no more time for pleasantries; the race was upon us and before I knew it I was shuffling towards the starting line with the other 2,500 or so runners. Then we were off, to the thudding beat of Japanese drums played by band MILO Cambodia. Running with that sort of crowd was quite new to me. You feel a bit like a cow in a herd. Spirits were high as we passed two, then four, then 8k markers. I found myself sussing out the ‘competition’ – wondering if anyone was slower than me. It seemed unlikely.
At various different points along the route hordes of kids lined the side of the road, high-fiving us as we ran past.
Around the 9k marker we passed a bemused monkey sitting in the middle of the road, staring up at us all as we thudded past. Somewhere near Angkor Thom a huge elephant plodded slowly past, pinky-grey ears flapping as it transported temple-bound tourists. Random mini conversations were had with strangers; one complimenting my husband on his Tin-Tin t-shirt, another agreeing with me that we had indeed passed the 11k mark – you start to view each marker as both a blessing and a curse after a while, depending on your frame of mind.
At only one point did I question my sanity and wonder if I might actually make it: those difficult last 5ks. But with a little gentle – or not so gentle - prodding from my better half, water breaks, more chocolate gel and sheer grit-your-teeth willpower, not to mention reluctance to admit to all my friends that I had to walk the last bit, I made it. Shuffling, limping, with burning knees and new blisters on my toes, but I made it.
And you know what. All those (alcohol-free) weeks of pain were worth it. As someone who, frankly, hates exercise and early mornings, and is certainly not built for speed, I was delighted to finish the race – it took me 2 hours and 36 minutes, twice as long as the winner, Australian Joji Mori. But I finished. The route took us past Ta Prohm, by the Bayon, along the Terrace of Elephants and through the South Gate of Angkor Thom. We finished up at a sunlit Angkor Wat feeling elated.
Not bad for a morning’s work.
- Miranda Glasser