Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Global Limit’s Ancient Khmer Path 2016: Stage 3 – The Dreaded Long One With Muddy Bits

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What does one think waking from a deep slumber to be hit with the realisation . . . after those first two tough days you’re going to run 39 miles (62.2km) in 90%-plus humidity in temperatures in the 40Cs?!

You don’t. It gets filed somewhere in the back of the mind, but it still sits there simmering quietly and marinading in the juices of not knowing what’s coming up. It was an early start and time to eat. Time to pack. Think only of the first 5 miles or so. Break it down, piece by piece. Eventually the end will inevitably appear.

I still had a sense of trepidation because this was the stage in 2015, at checkpoint 2 in the middle of the jungle, that I called it a day. This year I definitely felt better prepared but 39 miles is still a long way in tough conditions. I had a morning pee: I wasn’t as dehydrated as the night before but still needed to concentrate on getting a regular supply of water into me.

Tent-mate Haruki and I agreed we’d pull each other through into and out of the jungle.

***

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Erm . . .

From the off the track was muddy, or wet sand at best. Only the infrequent patches fully exposed to the rising sun were some semblance of dry. There would be 19 miles of this. While flat throughout it was a hard slog in parts. We took turns leading out to maintain a run with a fast hike. The sun was up in no time, as was the temperature and the utterly unavoidable humidity: it felt like a wet, hot blanket enveloping everything . . . kit, skin, everything . . . going too hard made breathing a little trying. Breathing hot, wet air felt almost suffocating at times. That’s when it was time to ease off.

We ploughed on. Checkpoint 2 appeared and we still felt good. It was hard to imagine that 12 months previously I was completely energyless and beat, unable to hold down any water let alone food. Now, I was still chugging away. I think the real difference was sticking to a strategy of just taking pure water with Salt Stick Caps. While a little too much might make me dry heave, this year I’d ditched any electrolyte that had any flavour to it and it seemed to be working in allowing me to drink more . . . albeit just plain warm water. Yum. Not.

After 15 miles or so of slogging, slipping, running, walking, scratching our heads in

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. . . where are we exactly?!

working out best routes through, we knew there were just a few miles to checkpoint 3: a village shop with COLD COKES AND SALTY SNACKS! People started to appear: we’d only seen Global Limits competitors and volunteers for the last few hours. We’d soon be out of this, although I already had a slight pang that I’d miss the almost absolute silence this section of the race brings.

Up ahead some Bhuddist monks appeared, beating their own paths through the mud to wherever they were going. We were still miles from anywhere so I’ve no idea where their destination was: we were now properly in the middle of, well, not a lot . . . the next DSC04187village was still several miles away and Haruki and I had just been following a vaguely defined muddy track heading eventually towards a small village. And beyond that there were still many miles before anything resembling more than a village would appear.

Still, the sight kept our minds occupied and away from negative thoughts of finding ourselves increasingly being solar microwaved. The vegetation and canopy of the jungle we’d passed through, which gave intermittent relief from the scorching sun, had now given way to paddy fields and land of much less trees and vegetation. These were sure signs of approaching cold Cokes and people selling tasty salty goodies. As were the ancient stone bridges. Hidden away in some undergrowth these were very easy to miss; the style of stone carving and construction on some of these were unmistakeably similar to so many of the stone temples we had seen and would come across in the coming days. Clearly, these had been given up to the encroaching jungle a long time ago.

The more popular well-walked and modern wooden bridges were those we crossed to finally reach the small village shop which served as checkpoint 3. The cold Coke was really something else.

***

I was now beyond my 2015 DNF point. I was shattered. It had taken a lot of effort to get through those 19 miles over that mud and sand. What took my mind off it, aside from the cold Coke, was watching a very young and very cute yellow-cheeked gibbon (I think), an endangered species that had befriended checkpoint 3’s Global Limits’ team. It was having a whale of a time being fussed over and had taken to hugging race medic Linda with its oversized long arms. Almost pure blond in colour, signifying its young age, it would turn black over time (the monkey, not Linda).

Less fussed about yellow-cheeked gibbons Haruki had taken a quick swig of cold drink and some food and ploughed on ahead, unfazed by the rapidly rising temperature. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, the guy’s a machine. I though was very aware I had a couple of large heel blisters that needed attending to. I’d picked them up from the jungle section from fast marching and running at funny angles through the muddy sections, slipping around all over the place. I had no idea they were there until I stopped at this checkpoint. Now oozing and swishing a mix of blood and clear fluid they took a while to sort: a pop and a cut, drain, clean (sting!!!!), patch, and patch again.

I stayed far too long in that checkpoint. Under cover, it was tantalisingly cooler while the sun beyond was rising to the hottest parts of the day while I was buying up the shop’s cold waters.

But another 20 miles lay before me on the most sun-exposed part of the course, a pretty much straight line heading west to the finish, and I needed to push on. A few more competitors came in. It really was time to get going. I pushed myself off the plastic chair and got walking; large blisters I hadn’t noticed previously now felt like sharp pins were being repeatedly prodded deep into the sensitive flesh of my heels. The pain would eventually pass.

***

I don’t really know what happened after that. I must have been more shattered than I thought. I started to recognise the previous year’s symptoms that led to DNF: a little muscle cramping (despite religiously chucking down Salt Stick caps); almost complete lethargy; completely dry mouth; just too damned hot. This wasn’t good.

At every opportunity along what was a loooonnnnggggg almost straight road of red I stopped at the shops for cold water. But whatever I drank it didn’t seem to be enough. I started retching.

A checkpoint appeared and I passed on through after dousing my head with warmish water. It helped a little. Up ahead I was catching up to fellow Brit Matt. I guess I must have been vomiting and retching loudly because he turned around whenever I made that attractive dry gagging noise to see if I was OK. He looked somewhat alarmed I might get too close and took off.

Then the bad stuff, negative thoughts, started coming into my head. My blistered heels were agony; their pain was a little less if I kept running, my mid-foot strike taking some of the pressure off my heels that walking didn’t. Oh no, I thought, not again . . . But I could only run for so long before being reduced to a walk. More food, get more food down you . . .

I needed to get to the next checkpoint to rest a while. But it was taking an absolute age to get there. The red road ahead just seemed a long straight line of going nowhere. It’s hard for me to visualise it now, but doubts were coming into my head . . . was this just too much? what had I done wrong? Do I need more or less water? Salt Sticks? I was trying so hard to kick the negativity demons out of my head, to push away all the thoughts associated with generally feeling knackered and wretched . . . rumours were of other competitors wanting to drop . . . I didn’t want to think about it.

I could see the sun was gradually dropping down the bright blue sky but not fast enough. There was zero shade and hadn’t been for an age. Finally I reached a checkpoint. I was a bit hazy.

Volunteer Daniel had seen me approaching, retching away. He ordered me to lie back on the elevated wooden platform of the checkpoint that was a villager’s house. I tried to drink some more but couldn’t. He told me a medic was on the way, or was she already there? Why did I need a medic?

I just needed to rest, or was I finished (again)? If I was done that would probably be the end of my multi-day stage running exploits: a third DNF on the trot couldn’t suggest anything else. I didn’t like the sound of that.

Medic Linda was superb and efficient. I started shivering uncontrollably. I felt cold but my skin wasn’t and the air was still humid and hot. Linda served up some electrolyte chicken broth of some description: its thick consistency tasted disgusting at first, but I eventually got it all down without heaving. Linda then kindly sorted out my bloody heels and after some time wrapped in a foil blanket I finally stopped shivering and was hot again: this was a good sign.

In the meantime numerous competitors had passed. I don’t know how long I’d been at this checkpoint but I’d lost a lot of time, possibly 2 hours or more. Course marker Manu had turned up; I don’t know how or where from . . . maybe the stage finish wasn’t so far away? News of other competitors thinking about calling it a day filtered through on the radios. Manu looked me straight in the eyes and said: “You HAVE to push through this. Push on through to the other side. Break through it.

He must have known what buttons to press because he said something else, I don’t know what exactly, but whatever it was really did the trick. It sounded and felt like a challenge appealing to my not always helpful sense of I can and will do whatever you tell me I can’t, assuming I want to do it in the first place. Well, I certainly didn’t want another DNF.

And the sun had gone down, making it much, much cooler. Manu’s piercing eyes having burrowed into my cortex with wise words, I leaped up, swigged some more water and energetically headed off.

That was close.

***

Wow Mark! You’re going like a train!”

It was race volunteer Daniel.

Of all the many great things about Global Limits as an event organiser it looks after its competitors at all times, DNF or otherwise. Having been unwell Daniel had been volunteered to just follow closely behind me to the finish, however many miles away that was. I didn’t know he was there until, apparently, my sudden rejuvenation of energy meant I had been pulling away from Daniel who was trying to keep up. Soon, I was passing a couple of competitors ahead of me.

Daniel took a radio call from race director Stefan. Having spoken in German, Daniel was trying to translate Stefan’s encouraging Germanic phrase into English but there wasn’t a perfect fit. “Something like ‘Really pleased or proud you’re carrying on, something along those lines.” It was a very kind thing to say and gave me further strength to not only finish but finish strongly.

We had a great chat for those last several miles to the finish, now with energy to reincorporate some running. It was now beautifully cool. Like most of the volunteers (including the medics) Daniel is himself a seasoned ultra-athlete and was planning to race the infamous UK event The Dragon’s Back (“the toughest 5-day mountain running race in the world”, according to the race organisers). Which makes him a nutter.

He instead came 6th overall in Global Limit’s 2017 inaugural The Hidden Treasure race in Albania, confirming nutter-like tendencies for running up mountains. And talking of nutters, the aforementioned Manu came 4th in that race: he runs up a 3,000 foot mountain to get home most days . . . as you do . . .

***

I felt so much stronger now with the finish in sight, reeling in a couple more positions. I couldn’t resist a final run in along the ancient stone promenade of our camp for Stage 3: the incredible Beng Mealea temple. I had been on target to finish Stage 3’s 39 miles in around 10-11 hours rather than the 14 hours it finally took me (too much time spent patching up and being ill in checkpoints!) but the important thing was to have finished it. I was now into unknown territory in terms of what the rest of the course looked like, having not got this far the previous year. I was looking forward to it.

So it was yet another awesome spot for the night. Unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate the full magnificence of the Beng Mealea temple (which served as the film set for some of the Indiana Jones films) until a short period in the morning. It was now pitch black. Having dumped my kit at the tent I wandered up to the local village restaurant for some cooked, delicious hot food and cold water.

Stinking, sore, heels painful, I hobbled back to my tent, to congratulate Haruki on a storming run. There being no rest day in the Ancient Khmer Path race it was just a few hours before an early start for a more gentle Stage 4 (18.5 miles/29.7km) to finish at the cool, frothing waters of the majestic Khulen Falls.

I could not wait to get into those cold waters . . .

Garmin stats: Stage 3

Distance: 40.26 miles (cumulative: 81.99 miles)

Time: 14h12m23s (cumulative: 23h34m0s)

Calories burnt: 4,258 (cumulative: 9,247)

Average heart rate: 114 bpm

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