Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Stages 4 & 5: The Ancient Khmer Path (Cambodia)

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One of the great things about the GlobalLimits race was its inclusive nature, with strong bonds formed within just a few days (even for those, like me, who had DNF’d). Everybody was mucking in to help each other and laughs were a-plenty. Race Director Stefan was at pains on the morning of each following stage to emphasise that for those of us who were DNF and so out of the rankings it was still perfectly fine if we wanted to continue on that stage to enjoy the scenery and surroundings. It was little things like this that made this GlobalLimits event so much more than a race.

Moo Wong (Korea) and Anne (USA) were happy to continue unranked and plough on through Stage 4 having DNF’d Stage 3. Kim and I were in no fit state.

Instead I decided to help out on the race, a first for me. Before too long I found myself with race volunteers Rodrig0 (Spain) and Jen (USA) at the finish line of Stage 4, the stunning Phnom Kulen waterfalls, to help set things up.

This was such a great end to a stage, the finish line falling immediately the other end of a swinging wooden bridge atop the river flowing to the Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Around this area were open-air wooden huts at which families would gather to eat and share gossip. These would be our beds for the night. GlobalLimits had managed to get a rare and exclusive license to stay at this site overnight, a special privilege.

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“No sheep here, just some nutter making sheep sounds.”

After setting up we’d attracted some attention from the local youngsters. Rodrigo entertained them with tunes from split reeds of grass and my contribution was a rendition of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep: I couldn’t tell if their look was one of concentration for lip-reading or because they were very, very scared at a grown man looking down at them saying “Baa baa . . .” in a deep voice.

Before long we worked out it was the former: they got the hang of it, or at least the first few words: “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, over and over, could be heard shouted around the river, huts, and trees, with a Cambodian twang, for some hours to come.

There was some time to take a deliciously refreshing swim in the river and a shave before the runners started arriving, led by the indomitable Jill Hamill (UK) who really was hammering the field and particularly the men: a sub-3 hours for the 18.5 mile stage and still looking fresh as a daisy.

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(credit: GlobalLimits)

The rest of the field trickled in thereafter to finish with plenty of time left before dusk to take the steep steps down to the bottom of the Kulen waterfalls.

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25 metres high, 15 metres wide: bath time

A blessing from the skies! It was great to get into those waters, feeling the force of cascading water powering down to massage aching muscles. At last: cool and clean (at least until the next day). Feeling so much better I started to get my appetite back, devouring a couple of fried bananas (delicious!) and first drinking and then scooping out the soft white flesh of a couple of coconuts. The coconut seller was delighted, clearing out his entire stock for the day not long after the last runner arrived.

6pm was fast approaching along with rapidly fading light. Lorraine, Anne and I had grabbed one of the huts to ensconce ourselves within a mosquito net each: darkness quickly arrived and the Phnom Kulen site gradually fell to almost silence. The crowds gone, the only sounds remaining were of the bubbling, flowing river running alongside our open-sided huts. Bliss.

This was a very magical place.

***

Until the cockerels started making a racket at very-early-o-clock and the dogs started yapping several minutes before natural light appeared. There may have also been some cockerel-versus-dog-versus-chicken rioting during the night, such was the racket. It was time to get up in the dark for an early 6am Stage 5 start to clear the camp in plenty of time before the crowds and stallholders would arrive.

I still didn’t feel entirely right to think about giving Stage 5 a bash so I opted instead to help man checkpoint 1. It was great to help out the other runners on their way: other than the top 3, still lead by Jill, it’s fair to say all looked tired and exhausted as the temperatures steadily climbed along with the humidity despite it being barely gone 6am.

A couple of Bhuddist monks wandered past to wherever bare-foot walking Bhuddist monks go at that time of the morning. With a little shade under a tree we waited for the first and then all runners to pass through the checkpoint. Here we were parked just off the road on the earth track before it meandered into the distance to eventually lead across paddy fields after firstly a steep ascent to the top of Kulen mountain. A single wooden hut was set back from the track we were stationed at, standing amongst the tall grasses and a couple of trees; the farmer and his wife were walking off into the surrounding fields to tend their cattle and crops for the day.

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It really felt we were now back in the middle of nowhere, and indeed we were. The farmer’s children joined us to observe what change in their routine was going on. Laura, who had worked in Cambodia over many years, spoke fluently with the eldest boy: he was 14, wasn’t at school and had never been to school. Sadly, he was never likely to, nor were his brothers and sister. I had at this time started crushing empty plastic water bottles to save rubbish bag space as the children looked on.

“Keep them as they are, the kids will use them as toys. They really don’t get much in the way of toys.” said Laura.

I handed some uncrushed bottles to the two eldest boys and the two youngest clamoured for the next two empties. They simply bashed the bottles together to make an unrhythmic noise, but the sheer delight on their faces was clear. I took another bottle and held it in front of me, my other arm held up behind me in Three Musketeers en garde-style. I was given a blank, bewildered look: this didn’t mean anything at all. Gradually, though, they were taught a new game, and off they played inventing ever-greater uses for empty plastic water bottles.

***

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(credit: GlobalLimits)

After trekking across dusty tracks and paddy fields Stage 5 would finish at the end of a long, sandy road, our tents in the grounds of a school which would be our home for the night. My appetite was back by the end of this day: I polished off a tube of barbecue Pringles found in one village on the journey back to camp and felt immeasurably better.

It was another scorching day with long sections in the full glare of the sun with a short, sharp 200 metre climb to the Ta Aek temple thrown in for good measure which many found punishing after so many miles in the legs over so many days.

The next day’s Stage 6 would be the final stage, the one all had been looking forward to: a 10 mile run through ageing, daunting, majestic, quiet temple ruins around the Angkor complex to finish at the World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat.

A stage I decided I wasn’t going to miss. It was time for some personal redemption.

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2 thoughts on “Stages 4 & 5: The Ancient Khmer Path (Cambodia)

  1. Very well said Mark. It brought me back to the race In Real time. What an amazing race that was. I love reading your pieces. It seems so long ago yet you bring it back to life thank you

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