Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Stage 2, 22.5 miles: The Ancient Khmer Path (Cambodia)

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There’s a great simplicity in these types of races: get up, eat, pack, stand at the start line, run, stop, eat, sleep . . . and marvel at all the different lives and the world around you. Little time had passed since my alarm and here we were ready to run again in that time between full darkness and full light, possibly the coolest time it would ever be: the sky was giving off amazing hues of blues as the sun woke up and sped over the horizon and across the tree tops.

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Leaving camp 2 on the morning of Stage 2, somewhere in the middle of Cambodia (credit: GlobalLimits)

36km/22.5 miles along reddish-brown earth tracks would today take us to the end of Stage 2 and a finish immediately in front of the imposing 825-year old Preah Khan temple. While a little cooler this morning it was all relative: it was still damn hot and humid as we trotted off at 6am in the mid-20C. My mouth was parched despite attempts to keep hydrated.

The speedgoats sped off into the dust, led by graceful ultra-running machine Jill (UK) (who would destroy the field for the rest of the week), and the rest of us settled in to a longer day. After a short distance the stage had a first minor casualty: I saw Lorraine (Canada), who would become my tent-mate for the week, take a very impressive face-plant up ahead as she found what must have been the only rock planted in an otherwise flat and stoneless dirt track. I didn’t yet fully appreciate the extent of the face-plant and at the time it seemed not that serious: Lorraine simply bounced straight back up off the road like a bouncing rubber ball.

A few minutes later I caught up. Meese (Belgium), race volunteer and medic, had driven up alongside her in no time at all and I then saw how serious it was. Poor Lorraine had a seriously bashed face and head which later required in-the-field stitches. An impressive stream of bloody gore dripped onto the track.

Lorraine showed the steeliness that has seen her complete umpteen crazy events across the planet. Meese asked if she wanted to carry on. Lorraine gave a very quizzical, almost offended, look in response, as though she’d just been asked “Have you just farted?”.

The look said it all. “Well, yes, absolutely I’m carrying on!” she replied, incredulous (and “Don’t get in my way!” could easily have followed).

So she did, to the finish. With a pounding headache for the rest of the week.

***

The route took us by small villages getting ready for the day ahead, kids on their way to school in those still-pristine uniforms clapping and yelling excitedly, farmers commanding water-buffalos on their way to a day’s toil in the fields. After an hour or so the cooler temperatures had gone, replaced by that intensity of heat combined with high humidity. A tough introductory first day was being followed by a tougher second but I wasn’t alone suffering, completely soaked in sweat and trying hard to put one foot in front of the other. It was incredible to see what we could be reduced to by just the environment.

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Hot, humid and soaked: on Stage 2 along dusty tracks passing jungle (credit: GlobalLimits)

At this point I knew something wasn’t quite right. I was far more shattered than I felt I should have been so early in the race and I began to wonder if the periods of illness and lost training in the 6 weeks before coming out to Cambodia were finding me out. I wasn’t suffering from cramping muscles, so electrolyte loss didn’t seem to be a problem as I stuck religiously to my tablet intake. But no matter how much I was drinking it didn’t seem to be enough: was I drinking too much too quickly and going too hard?

Before long bigger villages arrived (that is, they had about 10 homes in them rather than 3) and so these little village shops had ice-cold cans of Coke . . . or so I’d hoped. The big ice boxes were there but with the “Coke Demon” Stan (Canada) having seemingly cleared them of branded Coke cans (he loves them!) I found myself desperately meandering from one side of the road to the other searching avidly for anything that was cold and fizzy in those big ice boxes. Anything to cool me down: by now it was hitting 38C in the shade and the misty, thick, cloudy atmosphere was visual evidence of the crushing 95% humidity.

At the last stall before I left this village the shopkeeper excitedly pointed to his ice box and lifting the lid I was faced with, in the bottom of a fridge, a couple of lonely off-red coloured cans stamped with Chinese logograms, floating around in a deep pool of molten ice: “China Good Luck Cola”, or something, said the branding. It didn’t matter. It was cold and fizzy and I gulped the two down in no time at all.

This gave me a lift to run a little more and the miles ticked along a little quicker now while the sugar gave me a buzz. The scenery remained amazing and I tried all techniques to get my mind away from the oppressive heat and humidity. But before long, the sugar tanks emptied again and my muscles returned to fat burn and general extreme lethargy; I was simply walking, and a fast-paced walk gradually trickled to a saunter.

The end of Stage 2 was approaching. I was feeling utterly whacked. The environment over today’s longer distance was a shock. No-one was around or in sight. I stopped on the dirt track to absorb a view in front of me: literally dozens upon dozens of small bright yellow butterflies sat on the ground, twitching their wings. I stood a good few minutes watching this then walked on: the dozens of butterflies rose up from the ground as I walked on through, enveloping me in a cloud of bright yellow. I felt better and smiled.

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Not happy

Around the corner I found a deserted farmer’s hut and had to sit a while. I wondered if my lack of prep in the 6 weeks before coming here meant a good race wasn’t going to happen: I took a selfie to record the moment, to think about later, because here was where The Three Little Words began to raise their ugly little heads . . .

Finally though I rounded a corner to see the finish line of Stage 2 in front of the ancient Preah Khan temple, our bed for the night. I managed a little trot to get over the line and finished not feeling too good. It was a delight to sit down.

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The finish line and overnight camp for Stage 2 at the gate of the 825-year old Preah Khan temple (credit: GlobalLimits)

Resisting the urge to throw-up I took on some fluid knowing I was badly dehydrated, which simply didn’t make sense considering how much fluid I’d been taking on.

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“Don’t feel well.”

I was very pale, felt nauseous, my kidneys ached and despite not having eaten lots my stomach felt very bloated: classic signs of dehydration, my paleness proving the fact that any available fluid in my body was working hard to try and keep my core organs and muscles cool. But aside from this I felt a very deep fatigue. It’s the worst of things to happen on a multi-day race: to start thinking about quitting. This wasn’t going to plan (again)!

So it was urgent recovery time. I took myself off into the Preah Khan temple where it was a little cooler in its rarely-visited recesses to change my clothes and lie down a short while, continuing to sip drinks and finish off whatever food was left from my day’s ration (until then barely touched). I rejoined the others in whatever shade could be found and simply concentrated on taking it easy. I continued to drink and when eventually I was able to urinate it wasn’t a healthy colour.

Knowing it can take up to 4 days for the body to fully rehydrate I was back in familiar territory: battling to replace my fluids at a rate hopefully quicker than my body was getting rid of them through sweat. The question was: how far could I rehydrate by the start of the long, long Stage 3 in the morning?

Lying in our tent I tried very hard not to voice any negativity to my tent-mate Lorraine. In the humid heat I laid, a third night of being able to do nothing to prevent rivers of sweat roll off my body despite my practising utter stillness. The only respite was returning to my tent after a pee in the night to lie back on my inflated mini-mattress: my earlier sweats had pooled into the ridged crevasses of my mat and cooled enough to give a chilling effect on my skin. Unfortunately, this experience didn’t last more than a few seconds.

A big positive though was the scenery around me. I looked out to my side through the mesh of the tent and could see the dark navy sky of night set behind the looming ancient stone ruins of Preah Khan. I thought about the thousands of feet that had passed here, this remote part of Cambodia, in the hundreds of years that had passed since this temple was built. Thousands upon thousands of glittering stars shone down.

How insignificant we all are . . . While I felt very lucky to be here, I eventually fell asleep resolved to see how I felt by checkpoint 1 on the morning’s Stage 3.

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Stage 2 camp view at night, Preah Khan temple (credit: GlobalLimits)

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