A few minutes before the start of the race at 7.30am we were all assembled at the archway leading to the temple we’d sweated in for the night. It was scorching: not a cloud in sight.
Eight Buddhist monks stood in front of us with a look as if to say “You’re all barking mad.” Pre-race briefing done, Race Director Stefan began to play the Cambodian national anthem through a small speaker. He cut it short after a taster as, while not the world’s longest, it’s one of its contenders at 9 minutes or so. The monks then chanted a deep, tonal blessing to this group of runners about to throw themselves on the sun-fire of Cambodia, which was a fascination to hear.
And then we were off! Worryingly, my heart rate was not where I wanted it to be so I immediately vowed to take it very easy. With very little effort I was already dripping in sweat.
But the scenery took my mind away from it. Ahead and around were the multicolours of kit of 32 runners from across the globe. Either side of the red-orange dirt track were the deepest greens of lush countryside: soaring coconut trees touched off with the deep, cloudless blue of endless sky.
The track was easy to navigate and any change of direction was clear to see from course marker Manu’s hard work earlier that morning: short strings of orange tape hung from trees to show where we needed to go.
The route followed a wide track for most of Stage 1, a standard Cambodian road though it didn’t really feel like it as we passed remote villages comprising of little more than a few timber houses raised off the ground. Chickens ran amok and we soon got used to small yapping dogs chasing us harmlessly away from their homes. Cows and water buffalo chewed and lounged lazily in fields.
This stage was a gentle introduction at 30.6km/19.1m. A good job: it was tough to run in this. I adopted a run/walk strategy from the off, desperately trying to get my heart rate down which was too high in the 150/160-plus beats per minute from very little effort. I was soon aware I was very near the back of the field: not quite what I’d been planning but if I’d been honest with myself, not a surprise.
Checkpoints passed and I was drinking bottle after bottle of water. My salt intake strategy seemed to be doing well: I wasn’t cramping or leaving salt stains on my clothes. I did though feel absolutely shattered already.
Signs emerged that we were coming towards the end of Stage 1 as villages grew in size from just a couple of homes to maybe a dozen. Kids cycling on their way to school did so pristinely dressed in crisp, spotless white shirts; farmers passed by on old machinery, some adopting simple wooden platforms attached to the rear to act as a taxi for the family.
In every village groups of children appeared to cheer on the passing running circus. At one of many of these, a group of young girls were stood at the side chanting “Hello!” and waving as I approached. As I neared they all held out their hands to gift a large-petalled flower they’d picked, which was a lovely thing to do! I took just one and thanked them as I tucked the stalk into my water bottle holder and tried to get across the message to hand some to Henda (USA) who was a couple of hundred metres behind me.
Not too soon, the finish of Stage 1 appeared, the Global Limits banners flapping gently either side of the track in the tiniest of breezes.
I was a little alarmed to be finishing so knackered. Being around midday the sun’s heat was brutal for a runner such as me newly-emerged from the early British winter of rain and 3-5 degrees centigrade, as was the humidity. I sat down a while to gather some energy before finding my rucksack, parting with a US dollar for the best cold can of Coke, and finding my spot for the night.
A local family had given up their home and another building for us all to use. I climbed the steep stairs to a wooden, large single room to find an empty mosquito net. Shattered, my spirits were immediately lifted by the humour of Peter (Denmark) and Dion (Australia): the tough few hours beforehand were soon forgotten!
Then it was time to take it easy. I dozed off for a short while though it was difficult: as with the previous night’s Buddhist temple, the wooden walls and floor of this simple home were radiating heat. I went outside to join the others downing ice-cold drinks purchased from the enterprising locals.
A quick wash with a pail scooping cool water from a well left me feeling much better. Around this camp the mood was mixed: it had dawned on all of us that regardless of whatever events we’d all done in the past, this one would be tough.
Stage 1 was an eye-opener. The heat was all-enveloping, the humidity impossible to get away from, but it was a stage that showed the beauty of this awesome country.
Darkness fell quickly and, outside, there was a barely discernible drop in temperature. Remaining shirtless wasn’t a great idea for too long as millions of buzzing insects began descending for human food.
So it was back up the wooden stairs and into the wooden sweat box, the comedy duo of Peter and Dion keeping spirits high!