To get out of the Kulen Park before it reopened an early start was needed. It was still dark as we lined up, headtorches on. Various grades of disability were now evident for all as we hobbled our way across the wooden bridge from our camp to gather for a 6am start.
Evident for all, that is, apart from the handful at the top of the rankings. Brits Sally and Clare were still smiling, and had been all week: they were 1st and 2nd females and 3rd and 4th overall in the general results just behind the 1st and 2nd males. Proving again that the longer the race, the closer the women are to beating the pants off the men (as Jill Hamill did, by hours, in the 2015 race) . . .Today was just a marathon (pah!) and with just 10 miles or so to go to finish the race the next morning you could be forgiven for thinking the race was done . . . but that would be a mistake. It was still yet a long way after just over 100 accumulated miles in the previous 4 days. And it was still damn hot.
As was this morning; I was sweating just standing there, my once pristinely white race t-shirt now an unattractive hue of a mix of dirt, blood, food, sunscreen, sweat, insects and jungle vegetation grimness.
Race director Stefan announced the off, after announcing “And if you still don’t hate us now, you will . . .” (this was sign of an impending hill), and something passing for a running style began among the 32 competitors.
To the first checkpoint was possibly the easiest run of the entire week. The route took us 10 kilometres to checkpoint 1, downhill after some short, sharp undulations to start. Time to run harder. I found myself jogging along with multi-stage race addict and mountaineer Pat, once I’d caught up to him when he took a fall and a flesh wound to the knee.
It was great to experience the cooler morning keeping our heart rates down as we descended gently. After a few miles the track, neighboured by thick bamboo and trees, opened up to what looked like a view across an African plain . . . here in Cambodia. We could see for miles to the horizon. We could also see the sun was rapidly rising . . . the descending switchback road would probably be the last opportunity I’d have to open up my legs and run faster.
So checkpoint 1 arrived quite quickly. In 2015 I helped on this checkpoint as I’d already pulled from the race, and duties included playing The Three Musketeers with some empty plastic water bottles with three kids from the nearby farmer’s house. I remembered the race medic at the time, Laura, a fluent Cambodian speaker, noting how old the children were and the fact they weren’t at school (as many kids here aren’t): clearly they couldn’t afford to be.
This year I still had the picture of them on my old race camera . . . I wondered if they were still around . . . A local helping out at the checkpoint said we could approach the nearby house so we could show the kids their picture. He asked the father if he recognised them, and he did, with a big, delightful smile, looking proudly at the picture. The father said that unfortunately the kids weren’t around . . . because the fantastic news to hear was that, one year later, all three kids were now finally able to attend school. And if I ever do this race again, I’ll take a framed photo next time!
A short distance after checkpoint 1 I almost missed the turn I needed: over my headphones a bunch of screaming kids who’d been running behind were screaming at me and pointing to go left. Thankfully.
The miles passed by as Pat and I ran along and we suddenly became aware the orange tape hanging from trees to mark the course hadn’t appeared in a while. Ooops . . . Had we missed a turn? We carried on up the track to meet a main tarmaced road heading back to checkpoint 1 in one direction and who knows where in the other, which couldn’t be right. An elderly man pulled up on his moped and in the internationally recognised sign language of “You’ve missed a turn and your fellow competitors are about 2 miles up the road” we both realised we’d missed a turn and our fellow competitors were about 2 miles up the road.
How annoying. Pat was mildly miffed and his competitive element emerged with vengeance: the pace quickened as we turned back to try and find the turn we’d missed and just caught it as other competitors disappeared around a bend down the track we should have taken. There was no stopping Pat now in his determination to catch up lost time, bloodied sore knee or not, and off he went. I held back, determined to keep my heart rate down.
I found myself alone again, enjoying the silence of a heavily wooded forest. On another turn I spotted fluttering on the ground a very large butterfly, easily the size of my outstretched open hand. It was struggling to break free of the ground to strike for the air in which it belonged, but an army of large ants had been nibbling at it, a long line of them from the trees having received the message that food was on the menu. I spent a couple of fascinating minutes watching nature in progress: the butterfly in its final death throes, the ants determinedly sawing away at its various parts.
Round another turn I wondered if I very nearly became food for something, or at least the recipient of the poison from a spider whose markings were saying “STAY AWAY!”. I was stopped in my tracks after having made another woodland turn. I was stood in the middle of the track which was about 2 metres wide to the bordering vegetation of the wood. Half an arm’s length in front of my face, a few centimetres above my head, was the centre of a massive spider’s web . . . stretching across the whole 2 metre width. If I’d stepped to the left or right of it my body would be in its thick strands. And what was smack bang in the middle of this huge spider’s web?
A massive spider. Far bigger than the tarantula that was crawling over my face before Stage 1. And far more fearsome-looking. Nature has a way of marking its creatures in such a way that immediately says “Do not touch me!“. And that’s exactly what this spider was saying.
I was looking at its underside. A browny red bulb formed its rear end, rising from which was a deep black body with bright yellow outer segments. Each of its 8 legs, easily a few inches long, sported a single yellow ‘knuckle’ about half way down.
I moved as close as I dared, crouching slightly to avoid the web, and took a pic. Then ducked to ensure I cleared it, my eyes fixed on its presence, and snuck under to the other side of the web. I shivered, and ran on a little more cautiously.
Hang on, I thought, did I see Vaclav behind me? He was easily several centimetres taller than me . . . should I wait to warn him or would he see it before his face ploughed through the spider’s abdomen?
Yeah, he’ll be fine.
Stage 5 was turning out to be pretty awesome. Somehow losing my wonderful Adidas Evil Eye sunglasses around a checkpoint was not so awesome (you’ll find the other pair I once owned somewhere in the Jordanian Arabian desert if ever you head out that way). Having started descending from Mount Kulen, passing through remote villages via sandy tracks and horrible spiders in forests, we were now passing through acres of paddy fields.
Another insight into Cambodian farming life. A single farmer in a paddy field was looking after his water buffalo, surrounded by large palm coconut trees. It was very idyllic here. The road we needed soon arrived and I gathered some running energy across the tarmac until I was too tired, grabbing some cold water from a couple of stalls. Large groups of cycling teenagers emerged from the closing school: those pristine white shirts and blue trousers or skirts again. How do they keep them so clean?!
Some kids standing outside their home cheered and were insistent on giving me a small posie of flowers. I tucked them into my water bottle pockets. It made me all emotional; I don’t know why. Probably the wrong type of music appeared on my iPod . . . I flicked to some rousing motivational speeches instead to garner some energy.
“Hallo Mark!” It was David, whom I’d met at Singapore airport, bounding and beaming down the road towards me, full of energy and smiles. The entire course hadn’t seemed to have had any effect on him at all, which you’d expect for someone who’s slight . . . but he’s an incredible 69 years old!
I was grateful for the company and the chat and I could feel some of David’s energy beaming into me. We decided to tackle the upcoming hill, the only other ascent of any note on the course, but a short, sharp shocker of 200 metres or so to the top and the Ta Aek temple.
My word was it steep . . .
Some parts were slippy from the recent rains and we had to take care grabbing at vegetation to help pull us up in places: some of the thorns were the size of shark’s teeth. I was getting worried for David: this was a heart pounder, and I was struggling!
Finally though the shock was done and the track levelled out to a few small stone temples and outbuildings. Some cold drinks had been left in a cool box by the temple guard, who wasn’t there: an honesty box arrangement was in place so we left some extra money above the norm . . . top marks to the guard for thinking ahead.
The track climbed just a little more to this little known temple: another fantastic site way off the beaten track. Race director Stefan caught me on camera with a look of genuine delight and surprise: I really wasn’t expecting to see this at the top. The stonework was incredibly well preserved after all these centuries. . . maybe because it was such an effort to climb up and remove any stone or cause damage.
There were just another 5 miles/8km or so to the finish where we would spend our last night out on the course in the grounds of a school. I felt in good shape, despite the recent steep climb, and decided to push hard for these last 5 miles.
So I did, starting with a fast descent down the other side of this big hill. The bottom appeared in no time at all, my legs feeling strong. As I increased my pace another competitor would appear in the distance and that was sufficient motivation to go just a little bit harder without blowing up. The track was mostly firm sand or dirt and I was loving it. I reeled in another 3 or 4 before a junction: I bought an ice cold bottle of water for the last mile or two to run in. Turning right I knew from the previous year I didn’t have long to go. The track was now very sandy, but still I kept going. Stefan passed by on his trial motorbike: “Good running!”
Then I could see the finish in the distance, the Global Limit’s flags and the checkpoint staff ready to stop my clock for the stage. I came to a stop, knackered. My Garmin told me those last 3 miles were my fastest of my entire day, in fact the week, with my last half mile at 8 minute miling.
This meant I still had plenty left in the tank and I started to wonder if I should have gone harder throughout the race. Or had I now acclimatised or begun to rest and recover better after a few days? Regardless, it was now too late to do anything about my overall time but maybe I could give a surprise swan song for the final Stage 6 . . .
I was beaming ear-to-ear coming into the school grounds where most competitors were already rested up. Ash, a multi-day stage racer of many years across the planet, incredibly fit and hilarious to boot, felt very strongly that I didn’t look miserable enough for the penultimate day of a 6 day stage race and ordered me to adopt a look of dejected miserableness for a photo: I tried my hardest but couldn’t do it; I was still faintly smiling, delighted to have had a strong finish to Stage 5.
It would all soon be over, which felt a little sad, but first I had a pile of uneaten food to give away. I joined a couple of other competitors at the school entrance. Surprisingly children aren’t keen on freeze-dried Mug-Shot noodles or Salt Stick Caps but I still had a bag of jelly babies to hand out, gratefully received.
A big bus took all of us on a short trip to the Angkor Wat ticket booths for us to get our photo ID, needed to run through the Angkor temple complex the following morning.
Back at camp it was dark and soon time for bed. Everything was packed away, anything not needed and of use given to the Cambodian support team.
A final early start and we’d completed the Ancient Khmer Path.
Wierd: despite how tough a week it had been I’m not sure I wanted it to end just yet . . .
Garmin stats: Stage 5
Distance: 29.36 miles (cumulative: 130.09 miles)
Time: 7h44m34s (cumulative: 37h10m35s)
Calories burnt: 2,568 (cumulative: 13,402)
Average heart rate: 115 bpm