A survivor of the Pol Pot regime who diligently worked her way to become an AIDS research scholar is today a highly motivated long distance runner eyeing an epoch-making spot in the 2012 London Olympics Marathon line up.
The 39-year-old Ly Nary is as proud to be the first officially acknowledged female Cambodian marathon runner as she is of her amazing scientific achievements.
“I had to give up one, at least for the time being, to do well in the other,” says the lightly framed Nary Ly, whose age belies her boundless energy for one of the most demanding of athletic pursuits.
It was on the iconic streets of Paris on April 10 that Nary Ly timed her personal best marathon time at 3 hours, 2 minutes and 25 seconds, finishing 26th in the senior women category and 1,046th out of a huge field of 31,169.
“I was quite surprised and pleased that I could cut such a good time and now I am confident that I could trim the timing down by another 10 minutes and get somewhere close to the London Olympics qualifying mark,” Nary told The Post in an exclusive interview.
“I am planning to run the Phnom Penh Half Marathon [on June 18] and possibly compete in an international marathon, preferably at Amsterdam, before November’s SEA Games [in Indonesia].”
Nary travelled to Kenya last year to train at the world famous High Altitude Training Centre in Iten. “The facilities there are fantastic,” she said.
She noted that being surrounded by experienced athletes in the camp had worked wonders in helping her record better times in marathons, but admitted that she was facing a “resource crunch” in affording a return visit.
“I am looking for a sponsor who can help me with this trip,” she added.
The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia is well aware of Nary’s long distance exploits and is willing to extend to her the benefits that all other athletes are eligible for.
“We would like to encourage her, after all, she is the first Cambodian women to run in an international marathon and we would be proud if she represents the country in the London Olympics,” said NOCC Secretary General Vath Chamroeun.
Nary assured that the countdown for London had already begun in her mind. “I will do what is humanely possible to reach that goal,” she said.
The athletics enthusiast, who first took part in the Angkor Wat Half Marathon in Siem Reap in 2006 to raise funds for children infected by AIDS, said she wants to inspire more and more women to take up long distance running. “It empowers them to be confident and self-reliant.”
Ly Nary was the youngest of the 11 siblings in a family that was caught in the midst of the turmoil in Cambodia during the 1970’s. When she was nine years old, she was taken to Paris by the Red Cross to escape civil war following the end of the Khmer Rouge, and returned to the Kingdom at the age of 26 to contribute her mite to the rebuilding process after a French foster family helped her with the education.
While working for the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia as a scientist doing research on HIV/AIDS, she obtained a PhD in 2006.
She then got her post-doctoral fellowship from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, where the famed Central Park was an alluring influence on her passion for running.
She enrolled as a member of a running club and her first rendezvous with the New York City Marathon came in 2009, which she finished in 3 hours 34 minutes.
Nary ended up shaving off 18 minutes in her next attempt but more significantly, her career as a long distance runner had been launched.
She came in first among Cambodian females at the 2009 Angkor Wat Half Marathon and took top honours in the senior women’s category at the Khon Kaen Marathon in 2010. She has done enough to convince herself that she could do even better.
Ly Nary is a rare sight in a country where women are reluctant to venture out in sporting endeavours. It’s hardly surprising that she continues chasing distant goals to inspire a new generation.