Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Pre-race: The Ancient Khmer Path (Cambodia)

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Where does time go?! It’s been a while since I got back from Cambodia just before Christmas 2015 and time has flown with promised DIY, a decluttering binge, Christmas preparation . . . and before I know it we’re mid-way through February 2016!

If you didn’t know already my attempt at Global LimitsThe Ancient Khmer Path resulted in my second multi-day stage race DNF part-way through the long day . . . read on!

***

The last time I arrived in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh back in 2009, it was obvious pretty quickly that their standards of administrative efficiency seemed pretty slack: an Australian arrival in front of us was chatting to the Passport General about her expired visa. The conversation didn’t last long: a jumbo bag of sweets was given in exchange for a wave through passport control.

When I arrived late November 2015 it was only on the connecting flight from Singapore I then knew I needed two passport-size photos to get in. There were a few of us in the same boat but the outcome was the same.

I explained I didn’t know I needed two photos and didn’t have them. After an incredulous look from the first of 15 admin staff in a long line doing whatever 15 people do with one passport I was asked if I had $2; suddenly, the lack of two passport photos for my visa didn’t matter and I passed slowly down the line of 15 staff before being reunited with my passport and a visa at the end. There were no signs explaining this was standard procedure so I have no idea if this was legitimate or not (there was no receipt!).

Transparency International annually publishes its index of corruption with a Corruption Perceptions Index giving an idea of how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. Of 168 countries surveyed for 2015, Cambodia ranked 150 out of those 168 (jointly placed with Zimbabwe!), so only 18 countries were perceived to be more corrupt than it, for example, Syria.

It’s been that way for some time, perhaps unsurprising considering it wasn’t until just 20 years ago or so that the murderous Khmer Rouge (after first exterminating a significant percentage of the population) finally laid down their arms after a long civil war.

Welcome to Cambodia: a beautiful country of varying shades of jungle greens and dirt track reds, of ancient temple ruins, confused about its modern role in the world with a gruesome history, yet with the happiest, friendliest people I’ve met on the planet.

***

The minute I stepped outside of the stuffy airport building I broke out into a pouring sweat in 35C and high humidity and pretty much stayed that way wherever I went unless it was in an air-conditioned room. The mid-afternoon heat was worryingly stifling. I had, after all, almost 24 hours ago left the chilly, wet, windy 5C of the UK.

Global Limits meets each one of its competitors at airport arrivals, a personal touch, and volunteer Meese (Belgium) met me and we drove to the event hotel. I was just a day early, arriving Thursday, but a few others were already there trying to acclimatise before Stage 1 started on the Sunday.

***

It was a peaceful night in my generously-spaced hotel apartment I’d been due to share with Ali (Lebanon): he’d been battling through numerous flight delays so didn’t arrive until late Friday.

Which was the day of race check in. As you might expect from a German-based ultra-race organisation, the event check-in was swift, efficient and thorough: having almost perfected the art of not taking much on these jaunts to get well within the race allowance my rucksack was bang on the permitted maximum of 10kg yet still included such luxuries as a small inflatable pillow and a spare pair of socks. Deep joy! Fortunately, Global Limits puts on races in which you don’t need to carry your kit aside from some compulsory items, freeing you up to enjoy the run amidst fantastic scenery.

The volunteers, including race support and medical team, were an impressive bunch with various histories and experiences of ultra-running: that meant these guys would know what we needed and what contributes towards a good race.

With that task out of the way it was time for a wander. As soon as I’d leave my hotel room I was sweating and couldn’t get water drunk quick enough: I was going through 1.5 litre bottles at a fair rate! A short walk up the road to the Phnom Penh market with fellow competitors Christina (Austria) and Dietmar (Germany) was a quick realisation that even walking was an effort: our initial pace slowed very quickly. I recognised my few heat acclimatisation efforts before leaving the UK were woefully inadequate.

The market was quite a sight: exotic, unrecognisable foods mixed with the common, a babble of exciteable strange tongues yelling and chatting, unusual offerings: freshly skinned frogs were still writhing in their death throes in a bowl of dead skinned frogs ready for the pot. The fried insects looked . . . crunchy: crickets, cockroaches and others less-recogniseable.

DSC03835***

Friday evening was the time to meet everybody at a delicious meal spent outside in the hotel grounds, a slightly cooler evening with the odd warm breeze under a cloudless, bright starry night: at last, some respite from the harsh sun of the day. Global Limits’ founder, Stefan Betzelt, introduced the race and explained what was in store for us. Then we attacked the buffet in anticipation of the exercise-induced famine to come.

With just 32 competitors from 16 countries it was easy to get to know others very quickly and some had fascinating stories to tell: some competed in multi-stage races several times a year; some were Everest summiteers; one guy, Len (Canada), a mere 63, had successfully summited the world’s highest mountains on its seven continents amongst other amazing feats (check out this CBC News video!); Anne (Canada), a mere 55, was in training for a 1,000 mile foot race; the Australian all-female The Trail Beyond team, “inspiring and empowering women to achieve their goals and strive for more than they thought possible”, were aiming to complete their fourth multi-day ultra-event in one year.

Stefan had earlier explained that a key difference in his Global Limits races is the camaraderie built up from a very simple concept: no-one is just a number, as with other races with unknown hundreds of entrants. Every competitor’s race bib has that person’s name on it, not a number, for a reason.

A week later we were one large but close family: talking, hugging and helping each other through the tough times and knowing everyone, including the excellent race volunteers, by name, regardless of background, religion or language.

***

I joined a small party on the Saturday morning to go for an hour’s tour of some key Phnom Penh points of interest. It was 7.30am . . . and already baking. I began to wonder what running through this was going to be like. Unpleasant. And wet. I still couldn’t drink enough, it seemed, to replace the large amount of fluid I was losing. I also knew my heart rate wasn’t behaving itself; I had to be mindful to keep a slow, relaxed pace of walking to keep it down.

Before long we were on our way, a four hour bus journey to a point in the middle of nowhere 110 miles north of Phnom Penh. It was fascinating to see the world go by: before too long, tarmac roads would give way to rutted driving hell, pot-holes the depth of a bath in dirt track “roads”. Fortunately it hadn’t rained for a while as otherwise these main roads would then become impassable.

Along the way to Camp 1 we stopped off near the (very) small town of Skuon, in Kampong Cham province, the home of fried tarantulas. Here were all sorts of insects piled high, fried and ready to eat. Along with a couple of others I couldn’t resist: I didn’t want to have come this far without trying this Cambodian delicacy.

 DSC03841

For $1 I got a bag containing two fried tarantulas. I had a can of Coke at the ready too to sweeten whatever taste I was about to experience. There was a pause between thinking “Is this a good idea?” (would I get the trots before starting Stage 1?) and the act of doing the deed but that soon disappeared: I started with the long, spindly legs and progressed to the head.

Mmmmmm.......

Oily (“Where do you think they get the oil from? Engines.” joked (I think) Stefan). And crunchy. With a hint of chicken. A little spice. I think it was more savoury than anything else. But definitely crunchy and chewy. One leg took a thorough chew; another popped in my mouth. The head was somewhere between soft and al dente.

“Last year, 14 competitors didn’t finish Stage 1 and they’d eaten one of those tarantulas.” It would take me a couple more days to tune in to Stefan’s dead-pan, quick sense of humour.

That was enough chomping on tarantula. I had one, very much alive, crawl around my arms until it started reaching for my sweet can of Coke.

DSC03850 ***

A short journey later across ever-more difficult roads lunch was of more standard fayre at a roadside restaurant. Before long we were driving down a dusty track, wide expanses of greenery all around us, rice paddies, palm trees and lone huts, to arrive at our first overnight destination: a wooden-built Bhuddist temple in the middle of nowhere. Just a handful of village huts were dotted around.

The wooden temple floor, raised above the ground and accessed by wooden steps, would be our home for the night. It radiated months of absorbed heat in a stifling hot air. The inside was a sea of multi-colour: prayer flags draped from the ceiling before pictures of religious gods and, spread around the barn-like structure, our mosquito nets in which we’d sleep.

DSC03854DSC03858

 

The air was so thick there was a discernible difference in temperature between simply being outside the mosquito net and being in it, even though the net was a fine mesh. I got inside to prepare my kit; as the day drew to an ever-more humid end the slightest of movements was rewarded with a full-on sweat. “Oven-like” was a term that became oft-used.

Before long a group of inquisitive children had arrived. Previous competitors had come prepared, dishing out handfuls of sweets and crisps to a smiling, grateful audience of this spectacle passing through their village. Rodrigo, a fascinating character, took to teaching them how to make a rasping noise through a blade of grass. Soon, most of them picked it up. “They’ll be doing that for us at 4 in the morning!” I joked. Sure enough . . !

DSC03862

At the appointed time Stefan gave a detailed race briefing, which included the stern words: “Do not, absolutely do not, stray off the tracks or race route. If you do, disqualification may be the result: there are still literally millions of unexploded mines in the countryside we are running in.”

Noted.

The medical team also gave a thorough briefing with plenty of useful tips; it was expected to be very hot but it was pointed out that an IV drip would result in disqualification. Amy (USA) and Jen (USA) did a great job putting us at ease; it was reassuring to know we were in the hands of a team highly experienced in extreme event medical support.

We were introduced to Manu (Spain), ultra-runner and race marker extraordinaire: he would be running the entire course early each day in advance of each stage start to put the markers up . . .  a mean feat!

Briefing over it was time to start race week rations, my dehydrated noodles, chatting and getting to know other competitors. It was a very relaxed atmosphere and everybody was keen to get to know everybody else.

It was amazing, really, that within just a few hours of having all been together since arriving we were all on first name terms.

***

Dusk was quick to appear. I tried out the toilet facilities before it was too dark to find them: each of two brick huts, joined by a single breeze-block wall (so little audio privacy), had a simple hole in the tiled floor in which to perfect the squat-style of one’s doings (quads and knees of steel recommended, but not required). Thomas (Great Britain) was a mine of fascinating facts and had earlier explained this method was why Asians don’t really suffer from hemorrhoids (apparently).

Just behind the hole and forming part of the rear wall was a large rectangular brick container of water: about hip height and measuring 1.5m x 0.5m, so a pretty large container. The plastic bowl gave a clue to its intended use, which was to simply wash down after the act and clean the feet. Rumour has it that one competitor had thought this washroom facility went well with the need to brush one’s teeth.

Which is unfortunate.

***

After a beautiful sunset the darkness brought the need for headtorches; large buzzing insects were a-plenty and it was vital to put on lashings of insect repellant. Still only 7.30pm it was time to get to bed: there would be an early 4.30am wake-up to prepare for the day’s start.

Simple: knee-length mattress, silk liner, small pillow . . . job done

Simple: knee-length mattress, silk liner, small pillow, rucksack foot-rest . . . job done!

There was no need for a sleeping bag: I laid on top of my silk liner which was on top of my small inflated mattress . . . and simply dripped. Sweat was running off me. The humidity and heat was quite something: there was no getting away from it. I continued to take sips of water but any movement, however minute, brought on a bigger sweat.

I had just a couple of respites: I found that when I sat up during the night to have a drink my soaked silk liner had cooled just a couple of degrees less than my skin temperature . . . it was refreshing to lay back onto this cool wetness. But it didn’t last long. The heat was still radiating from the wooden floors. My body was telling me that the ambient air was saturated itself with moisture so there was nowhere for my sweat to evaporate to: so there it sat, after simply running off me into numerous pools.

Despite this I had a good night’s sleep: ear-plugs plus a sleeping tablet did the trick. Good call: there were many mutterings about the sonic-boom snorer at the opposite end of the temple!

At 4.30am my alarm went off and so my prep for Stage 1 began. But, having lost so much water overnight from sweating, my first priority was getting a litre of water into me. With Lorraine (Canada) and Len (Canada) either side of me, we agreed that the heat and humidity was one big wake-up call.

Although a friendly and relaxed race, we were well aware it wasn’t one to be underestimated . . .

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