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Ly Nary dreams of Olympics berth in women's marathon

Cambodia’s only female marathon runner, Ly Nary, recalls her troubled childhood, escape to France and return to her birthland along the road to Olympic aspirations

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Ly Nary stands on the podium in first place after winning the Kep half-marathon on March 7 this year.

LY Nary sets her alarm for 4:45am every morning, eats a single banana and drinks a cup of coffee before leaving the house. You have to start early, explains the 37-year-old, because after 7am the heat becomes too intense. In the afternoon, she hits the gym for another two hours of exercise on the treadmill and exercise bike.

She is not the only regular early-morning visitor to the stadium, but she is the first, and indeed only, Cambodian woman marathon runner (42-kilometre race runner) according to officials at the Cambodian Amateur Athletics Federation and the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.

Last year, Ly Nary won a prize for being the fastest runner in her age group in the Khon Kaen International Marathon in Thailand and also completed the New York City marathon. Domestically, she triumphed in this year’s annual Valentine’s Day race in Phnom Penh, as well as the inaugural half-marathon in Kep - organized by the NGO Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia on March 7. In the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon in Siem Reap last December, she finished first out of the Cambodian women.

Ly Nary may also be the only female Cambodian athlete with a post-doctorate degree, having written a thesis on drug resistance to HIV/AIDS medication. She originally started running to raise money for HIV/AIDS.

However, everything could have been very different.

Nary recalls the extreme hardship of growing up as a young child in Cambodia in the seventies, which included nearly starving to death. More than half of her siblings passed away, including one brother who died from tetanus in a refugee camp.

At the age of nine and weighing just 22 kilograms, she was sent on her own to France to live with distant relatives. “I have pictures,” she says. “I was all skinny.” Later, the relatives would hand her over to the Red Cross, and she was eventually taken in by a French family.

When she was 26, Nary decided to come back to Cambodia to help the country of her birth and to locate her biological mother. She found her, and four surviving brothers and sisters out of the 11 or 12 that she claims had been born. But all they could do was look at each other. After living the majority of her life in France, Nary had forgotten how to speak Khmer. She has since relearned, although people still mistake her as a foreigner.

“Now I’ve been here for nine years,” she remarked.

Ly Nary is currently training for the marathon in Phuket, Thailand, scheduled for June 13, as well as for this year’s annual New York marathon on November 7 and next year’s Boston marathon in April. But her biggest goal is to be Cambodia’s first woman to run a marathon at the Olympics, the next of which will be held in London in 2012.

“When I signed up as a Cambodian woman at the [Athletics] Federation, they were surprised,” Nary recalls. “They said they never have had any Cambodian women running marathons. That imprinted itself in my head.”

According to sports-reference.com, a Web site that provides sports statistics, 30 Cambodian men and six women have participated in the Olympics since 1956, with the Kingdom’s participation declining significantly after the civil war. Only four Cambodian athletes attended the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing – competing in two sports: athletics and swimming.

“I’m very, very excited because Cambodia now has a woman who runs long distances,” said Pov Sitha, a coach at Cambodia’s Amateur Athletic Federation.

Ly Nary says she wants to inspire other Cambodian women to excel in sports by setting an example. Running marathons can help a woman become more independent and self-confident, she asserts.

“Even at the stadium, just by looking at me run, girls want to run,” she said, remembering one middle-aged mother who told her she wanted to lose weight and become a runner. The advice Nary gave her was simple. “Go slow at your own pace in the beginning, step by step, but don’t give up.”

If Nary is selected for the games, she says she wants to spend at least three months in Kenya, running up and down hills. For the meantime, she is sticking to her routine in Phnom Penh.

However, it is not always easy. The land is flat and the roads are clogged with traffic. On a recent long-distance run, the tuk-tuk that was carrying her water fell into a drainage ditch. And she has no coach – because there are no coaches for long distance runners in Cambodia. Nary trains herself using a book.

However, she is not giving up. After pulling her leg muscle recently, she took aspirin but continued to train.

“Sometimes I feel if I get hit by a car and I cannot run, I will be miserable,” she noted. “[Running] is the only thing that makes me happy.”

Nary funds her own training and equipment, but notes the difficulties that other female athletes face with many struggling to purchase decent running shoes. According to Nary, some get trainers from sponsors, some buy second hand pairs while some have to make do running barefoot.

There are currently no full length marathon races organised in Cambodia.

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