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Miracles and marathons: the long, hard (and trafficky) road

Miracles and marathons: the long, hard (and trafficky) road

ALTHOUGH it began as a disaster in the making, Phnom Penh's first International Marathon

on Jan 12 ended in something of a miracle.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, several mishaps coincided to delay the start

of the 42-km race by 35 minutes - an eternity in an endurance sport where timing

and weather are everything.

For one, the first six vehicles that set out in convoy towards the starting line

- demarcated in white paint along the Kandal-Kompong Cham provincial border - overshot

it by approximately 5km.

About 15 minutes into Kom-pong Cham, the leader of the pack finally woke-up, realizing

that this pockmarked stretch of Rte 6A would have been impossible for disabled racers

to negotiate in their wheelchairs. The ensuing chaos resembled a scene from a Keystone

Cops film.

"We did have some problems," admitted Cathal Kerr, one of the marathon's

organizers. "We had a late start, because we didn't allow ourselves enough time

for preparation, and we underestimated the difficulty of setting-up everything in

the countryside in the dark."

Most volunteers and Cambodian Athletics Federation (CAF) officials also showed-up

late, and water stations hadn't been erected in time, Kerr explained.

"At the end of the race, when we talked to dignitaries and sponsors, they actually

thought that to be only 35 minutes late in Cambodia was actually a success,"

he added. "But we cannot allow this to happen next time."

A smooth start to the race was not the only challenge facing the organizers, according

to Kerr.

Mayhem in the course of the race - caused by unruly traffic over the first 35kms

- put marathoners at risk and hampered officiating, he conceded:

"Most of the course was going to be policed. In fact, we did not see a single

policeman in Kandal province out of the 75 who were supposed to turn-up. So for three-quarters

of the route, the runners were not given police cover."

Over the 7km run-up to the finish line - where several bamboo markers had been deployed

by CMAC - some daring moped drivers could even be seen executing the slalom.

"It was a potentially dangerous situation," said Kerr. "Since we are

trying to set this up as an event that meets international standards, this was not

satisfactory."

Despite the headaches, and given that this was as close as Cambodia has come to staging

an international-standard, long-distance road-race, it is safe to say that the 1997

Tiger Phnom Penh International Marathon was a hit.

Although he did not bolt from the starting line at 5:50am as predicted, Prasapchoke

Klunngern of Thailand flew to victory in just 1:42:12, blowing away the competition

by at least 21 minutes.

"People in Cambodia have treated me very nicely during my stay here," said

Klunngern after he was crowned champion in the Men's Wheelchair event.

Klunngern, 24, who has wheelchair-raced for eight years, said he overcame prejudice

against his disability in his native Thailand to get to where he is today among the

world-class of disabled mara-thoners.

Next in the field of able-bodied racers, were the Flying Dutchmen - Neals and Rob

Strik - a father-and-son duo from the Netherlands who won the Men's Open and Men's

Over 40 categories respectively.

At the ripe young age of 49, his bronzed physique and golden locks glistening in

a Cambodian sun, many mistook Strik senior for the son.

Rob Strik, who has been running since he was nine years-old, completed in 1980 the

prestigious Fukuoka, Japan Marathon in just 2:19:56.

As for Strik the younger, he won his first marathon in his maiden attempt. By his

admission, Neals Strik, a middle-distance runner by training, came to Cambodia intending

to run a half-marathon.

January 12 also marked a good day for Cambo-dia's elite runners. To Rithya and Huot

Peou took second and third place behind Neals Strick in an international field represented

by 14 nations.

But the pros weren't the only ones to bask in the day's glory.

The marathon was unique in that the disabled participants made up the bulk of the

field.

"None of us were concerned about winning or losing," said Peou Sophall,

who plac-ed third in the Men's Wheelchair. "We just wanted to put in our best

performance."

For the big event, Sophall, who recently competed in a half-marathon in Japan, practiced

at night along Phnom Penh's poorly-lit streets.

On more than one occasion while he moonlighted, Sophall said he was nearly accidentally

run-over, or verbally abused by drunken drivers and soldiers.

To Choeu Phou - one of three women wheelchair racers who participated in the 3km

sprint from the railway station to the top of Monivong blvd and back - she took part

in solidarity with "disabled people in Cambodia who are mostly forgotten by

society here."

"I did this to renew my hope in life and forget about my disability, and feel

proud to have been one of the women racers today," she said.

On what was indeed a Super Sunday in Cambodia, the miraculous occurred last.

Demonstrating sheer inner strength to dig deep, Christopher Moon - an ex-deminer

who was nearly killed by a land-mine in Mozambique - hobbled across the finish line,

long after the VIP stand was dismantled and Ranariddh's red carpet rolled back-up.

Stricken by flu, in 6:21:12 Moon did what most mortals would never have dreamed of

doing. His courage and determination were so contagious, said his friends, that some

of his 42 fellow amputees, who were each designated to run a kilometer in solidarity

with Moon, actually ran several by his side.

One able-bodied person who got carried away was Michel Dufort, a deminer with Mines

Advisory Group, who, with another colleague, literally coordinated MAG's amputee

Relay Team while on-the-run.

"I did not register for the marathon, and didn't even train for it," he

said. "I planned to run only a few kilometers with Chris and the Relay Team,

but when we finally got to the Japanese bridge, I suddenly realized that we had nearly

finished the marathon."

"Chris was not in pain, but at the 38 kilometer he turned to me and expressed

his disappointment that he was an hour off his usual mark," Dufort added.

"When he told me that I turned to him and said: 'Buddy, have you looked at yourself

in a mirror lately?'"

1997 Tiger Phnom Penh International Marathon

Results

Men's Wheelchair Open:

Women's Wheelchair Open:

Prasapchoke Klunngern

Thailand

1: 42:12

Sim Han

Cambodia

2:03:53

Peou Sophall

Cambodia

2:35:26

 

  1. no finishers

Men's Open:

Women's Open:

Sharon Harris

undeclared

3:47:18

 

Neals Strik

Netherlands

2:40:05

To Rithya

Cambodia

2:41:16

Huot Peou

Cambodia

2:56:14

 

  1. no other finishers

Men's Veteran (Over 40):

Women's Veteran (Over 40):

Rob Strik

Netherlands

3:06:15

Don Stenson

USA

3:38:40

Enrico Gallina

Italy

3:42:44

 

  1. no finishers

Men's National Championships:

Women's National Championships:

To Rithya

Cambodia

2:41:16

Huot Peou

Cambodia

2:56:14

Chheng Piseth

Cambodia

2:57:17

 

  1. no finishers

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