Shannon Dunlap finishes strong.
OPTIMISTIC exuberance is often attributed to the fabled runner's high - the euphoria that can follow intense cardiovascular exercise - and I felt it during the past few weeks of training for the Angkor Half-Marathon Race.
One of the main reasons I run is because that burst of endorphins has gotten me through hundreds of minor heartbreaks and disappointments.
Moving to Cambodia and settling into a new culture was difficult, and I found
myself lacing up my running shoes more and more often. Stray dogs and chickens chase me wherever I go, and I have become an ongoing source of curiosity and amusement to the tuk-tuk drivers around Siem Reap, but with long stretches of red dirt road falling rhythmically behind me, the world seems to make more sense.
I had never entered a long race and signed up for last Sunday's half-marathon mostly out of curiosity. But because running is often a solitary endeavour, it turned out to be a rare opportunity to witness other runners' highs.
The high made people more forgiving of the small imperfections of the race - the garbage smell, the understaffed water stations, the clouds of dust kicked up by maintenance trucks. One runner nearly collided with an elephant, but he took it in stride. "I've never had to do this during a run before," he called cheerfully.
For some, the runner's high might have been magnified by the majestic surroundings. Dozens of participants seemed so awestruck by the temples that they forgot about running and stopped to snap a few photos. Onlookers, too, helped to supplement the high. Local Khmer families lined many stretches of the course, and groups of kids cheered and gave the runners high fives. Despite my modest pace, I began to feel like an Olympic champion.
One of my favourite stretches of the course was a hairpin turn that allowed me to see all of the other runners ahead of me and behind me.
This was my only real glimpse of the leaders, with their determined faces and gracefully athletic bodies, pushing themselves so hard that they looked more like sprinters than marathon runners.
For some, that's what the runner's high is all about - striving toward excellence and victory.
Some ran to help the less fortunate, garnering sponsorship for their favourite charities. Others ran simply in the spirit overcoming obstacles. "I'm a survivor," one woman's T-shirt read.
As for me, I managed to meet my own goal of running every step of the way. Fatigue set in during the last two kilometres, but almost immediately a stranger began jogging beside me. "Come on," he said. "It's time for us to finish strong." That, I think, is the definitive quality of the runner's high - feeling stronger when you cross the finish line than when you began.