I didn’t fancy eating tarantulas today on the journey to The Middle of Nowhere and pre-Stage 1 camp, so a slap-up breakfast was in order. And before long, with a comforting familiarity from the previous year, it was all-aboard the bus to begin several hours of gazing out of the window as we passed from city, to town, to village, to hamlet, via well-paved roads which gave way to huge pot holes: recent heavy rains had done some serious damage to compacted red mud that served as roads in more remote parts.
While absorbing the sights and sounds of Phnom Penh around us it was great to hear again Global Limits‘ local fixer Socheat give his personal story, peppered with historical anecdotes about Cambodia and its capital city.
Beyond the windows of the bus life continued with very little evidence of its troubled time: I wondered if it seemed busier than the previous year . . . was that huge building there before? . . . it was certainly busier than when I arrived a non-running tourist almost 10 years previous . . . Scooters, trucks, 4x4s, all raced around beeping and competing for space while the murky brown mighty Mekong waters roared on by.
But it wasn’t long after leaving the city limits that the pace of change of that frenetic city gave way to scenes and a pace of life that clearly had not changed for literally decades: scooters and trucks were replaced en masse by bicycles, 4x4s non-existent, compacted and cratered red earth replaced tarmac, women walked miles on foot selling fruits and vegetables from baskets draped from wooden beams borne across their shoulders, dark green fields and palm trees stretched to the horizon, water buffalo wallowed in watery ditches . . . this is what we came to see. The bus became quieter, absorbing the picturesque Cambodian countryside. The city mass of Phnom Penh was long gone.
A quick stop at ‘Spider Town’. For this year’s entertainment I thought I’d just let a tarantula crawl around my head, rather than eat it as last year. It must have been his brother that I ate because this one decided to burrow one of its legs up my nose in an act of revenge.
In a panic I motioned the fried spider seller to remove it, and quick! Reluctant to stop burrowing its way to my brain, one of its prickly legs cut my nose as it was pulled away. A little blood, and sore for a few hours, but panic over . . . and brain intact.
It’s a long journey to the Bhuddist temple which would be home for our pre-Stage 1 night. Coloured flags drapped the temple as did rows of mosquito nets in which we’d sleep to avoid being eaten alive. The hard wooden floor was very warm to the touch with weeks of Cambodian heat having been absorbed; the small gaps between the floorboards to the ground a few feet below would do little overnight in helping to bring the temperature down, so I took a pitch as near as possible to the most number of open windows and doors. I didn’t want a repeat of 2015: dripping in sweat from the simple act of just lying still and breathing.
There were various degrees of busy-ness: Stan, my room-mate back in Phnom Penh, was cool as a cucumber, sweat-free and ready to race; others seemed to be frantically emptying rucksacks for that illusive missing item that could mean a good or a bad race. I was somewhere in-between but after a while I was sorted: my pitch secured, kit ready for the morning, my day’s running bag of food and compulsory equipment in all the right places.
It was time to relax and allow a sense of calm to descend with the setting sun. In no time at all it would be pitch black, biting things would be in abundance, the humidity would be all-enveloping and the nearby pond water-lilies would have closed up for the day.
Over a pile of pizzas smuggled in by Stan conversation bubbled in different tongues as new friendships were formed and old ones reacquainted. On darkness, runners gradually returned to their mosquito nets; headtorches were attracting big, scary, biting bugs so it was time to turn in.
8pm. Hot. Humid. Pitch black. Insects buzzed and clicked outside the temple. Nerves were a-plenty. The buzz of conversation reduced to a hum; one or two zips were quietly unzipped and quietly zipped back up again.
In just a few hours the burning sun would start climbing, and Stage 1 would start. Here I was again a year later from my DNF in this event: it had taken a lot of effort and focus to get here a second time and while I was quietly confident and determined to not see another DNF, in these types of race . . . anything can happen.