Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Global Limit’s Ancient Khmer Path 2016: Stage 2 – Cow Bells & Privilege

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Hot. Very hot.

Long (very long) straight tracks looking out onto long-distant horizons. Very long.

But before I get onto that . . . My ear-plugs and herbal sleeping tablet saw to it that I didn’t hear the dogs reported to have started battling at somewhere between 3 and 4am. Or the cockerel. Still, a 4.30am start is early enough. Then I heard them!

I was keen to get out of the sweat box as soon as possible so didn’t hang about. It was a slightly earlier start for today’s Stage 2 to try and reduce the impact of running 22.5 miles/36 km in temperatures that would quickly reach into the 40Cs.

And care would need to be taken, because the very next day was the big beast: 39 miles/62.2 km. Much of it, course marker Manu had reported, would very likely be through water holes and mud.

We lined up and Global Limit’s Race Director Stefan’s instruction was clear: run straight ahead for many, many miles until finally reaching a small village. Turn left. Follow the markers to the finish.

Easy. It was a brisk start by all in an attempt to make the most of (relatively) cooler temperatures before the sun would burn at us.  Wide open countryside, one long track with a few short bends, little in the way of track-side vegetation: a day for being boiled.

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Credit: Global Limits

***

The sandy, dusty track continued on and on. Once out of the village that saw the start of Stage 2 the vegetation soon became sparse.

Knowing that going too hard today would be daft I concentrated on my music and just kept plodding on, drinking plenty and taking my electrolyte tablets regularly. Life carried on driving past: basic tractors carried wood, straw or animal carcusses; trucks overladen with people on their way to work. They looked bemused why this (already) stinking bunch were running down a straight road in what were already uncomfortable temperatures. Kids cycled past on their way to school in pristinely clean blue trousers or dresses and crisply ironed bright white shirts.

The sandy, dusty track turned a sharp shade of red-orange and still the track remained pretty much straight for mile upon mile. A delicious respite was the race checkpoints: I poured a little water over the back of my neck. The respite was only a few seconds, if that, but felt good and cool. It was becoming important to try and keep my temperature down as the surrounding ever-hotter air struggled to pull away the heat my body was producing. After a while, sweating profusely, it was so damned hot. We were now in the low 40Cs and I wanted cold drinks to try and cool me down from the inside. As long as I was still sweating I knew I was fine.

Eventually, The Village of Sanctuary and Cold Drinks appeared. I think I visited a few of the little huts that served as shops to get what my brain was screaming for: a couple of Cokes (one for later), a couple of plain waters deliciously cold from being sat on a block of ice for the morning . . . bliss . . .

Here the track turned left. What had been a flat red track, a main road by Cambodian standards, became pot-holed with a mix of dried and wet mud. We were now starting a journey into Cambodia’s jungle interior (or what’s left of it): thicker vegetation, areas where a motorbike or pedal bike might get through it but little else. Certainly not the vehicles and tractors we’d seen since the start of Stage 2.

Another checkpoint appeared and I drenched my head in water. The chill was too short, but enough. I guzzled down what I could and ploughed on. I remembered that this time the previous year I was starting to feel pretty rough and began my slide to a DNF. I felt OK this time; very hot, but OK.

And so the meander began, following a dried mud track through what was an exposed land of bush and grass, with a few trees. Here the sun was in vengeance-mode, beating down ceaselessly albeit not yet midday. I knew I had to concentrate to make sure I didn’t miss any of the orange tape draped from grasses and bamboo that directed the route. Course marker Manu had, as the previous year, done a fantastic job of course marking so any fault of missing the tape would surely be a competitor’s. But when you’re starting to struggle to keep cool, or look across momentarily to the horizon and the deep green palm trees, it could be easy to get lost after a couple of seconds of losing concentration.

DSC04156Part-way along the final miles of meandering I saw The Hut. It stands pretty much isolated, just a simple wooden hut: the flooring is raised off the ground, the sides are open, the roof has seen better days. I recognised it from 2015 the minute I saw it. Then, I took a long, long sit and asked myself what the hell I was doing as I boiled alive well on the road of dehydration. Asking that question was a mistake and so the loss of the mental battle had begun. This year I felt a lot more positive: I was better hydrated, feeling fitter and my heart rate was still behaving (just). I didn’t stop for long at all. I took a pee: dark orange, so I was dehydrated but the fact I was able to pee was still positive. I took a large drink of water, got some food down me and jogged on.

Other sights and smells were again reminders of 2015: this time I was able to really appreciate the almost overpowering scent of wild frangipani and the sight of clouds of tiny yellow butterflies erupting around my legs from the ground as I ran.

I was feeling pretty good and strong as I neared the finish. I started to hear in the distance the odd yell or laughter, maybe a generator . . . I was almost there. The jungle became thicker again, a complete contrast to the more exposed areas I’d just run through. Under the heavy canopy of trees the recent heavy rains had now made the solid tracks a little tricky to navigate: mud was unavoidable. In one tricky spot I couldn’t find a dry way through without bashing my way through almost impenetrable jungle foliage, and so took the risk of a leap and a bound on tired leg muscles to jump a deep rut.

The track became firmer as I neared our overnight spot: an ancient temple almost 1,000 years old. Aged ruins appeared, tumbled walls littered the jungle floor. And there it was, finally: a run in to the first of our ancient temple stays.

***

And what an awesome privilege to be able to camp here, right in front of the ancient stone. After recovering and catching up with earlier finishers it was time to relax. Again, DSC04163a relatively early finish allowed for plenty of time to just . . . simply . . . chill. Eat a little, drink a little, stretch, have a wander, have a doze.

DSC04171Local life continued, quietly and slowly. The sound of the sway of cows’ bells around their necks woke me gently from my post-salted nuts doze. A group of boys, about 4 or so, were commandeering their herd of cattle across the little spring that ran underneath us and through the thick jungle (how far they’d travelled for this I’ve no idea: I hadn’t seen a village for miles). We’d earlier taken a quick dip in the cool spring to wash off what we could: I hoped we hadn’t simply smeared ourselves in liquified cow dung left by earlier cattle crossings.

I took a short wander through the temple entrance and out the back; although cleared of mines in 2004, I didn’tDSC04174 want to go too far in a country where mines still annually claim victims in their hundreds. From the surroundings it was clear this area sees very few feet. I tried to fathom how all this stone got here 1,000 years ago . . . For what purpose? Who carved it? It felt very special to have the privilege of being able to run here and still have the time to absorb the tranquil surroundings: this was not a tourist hotspot by any stretch and other than the Global Limits staff and competitors I saw just two other tourists during our time here.

***

Before too long the Global Limits family was all back together again, every competitor clapped enthusiastically to the finish banner of Stage 2. All were in good spirits but after a tough, exposed day no-one really wanted to think of the remaining 99 miles or so. We were all knackered already.

A leisurely afternoon was passing: meals were cooked, cold drinks consumed, doings (for those sufficiently hydrated) carried out in the makeshift toilets in the jungle. Race Director Stefan’s pre-dusk race briefing created a few jitters: the following day’s longest stage would see us passing through mud with a few unavoidable deep water crossings . . . and if the water didn’t drain away overnight some could be wading through up to chest height . . . and beyond a certain point in the jungle it would be very difficult to get to us.

“You will hate us by the finish!” smiled a proud Stefan with a glint in his eye.

The message was clear: if you pass Checkpoint 2, there’s only really one way out of the jungle . . . your feet!

With that, and the descending massive biting insects, it wasn’t long before bed. I would be sharing a tent the rest of the week with Haruki, a guy no stranger to multi-day stage races whom I would soon learn was an endurance machine.

I took a last look at the thousands of bright stars looking down on the temple. I swatted a large and loud biting thing that had settled on my neck. A big lump came up.

Time for bed.

Garmin stats: Stage 2

Distance: 22.75 miles (cumulative: 41.73 miles)

Time: 5h20m45s (cumulative: 9h21m37s)

Calories burnt: 2,300 (cumulative: 4,989)

Average heart rate: 133 bpm

 

 

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