Angkor Wat International Half Marathon on Dec 07, 2014
If I would be interested in what? Seriously? I guess your partner really regards you as a serious runner, when he constructs THE annual vacation around a race. So of course I was super excited, when he pointed at his computer screen with the announcement of the Angkor Wat international half marathon in Cambodia. Not only would I get a new race T-shirt with bragging rights but we also would travel half around the globe to a country I’ve never been. I love traveling, especially to warmer destinations than Vancouver in winter. Honestly, what is there not to like? You bet I’m interested in that race. And then we were “making Ernst” and signed up for an epic race.
Pre-pre race day
It is fan-grasping 27 degrees Celsius (after dawn at 7:30 pm) when we hurry with very little guidance from airport personal from the airplane across the airplane parking area to the arrival hall. Luckily we already kind of acclimatize to THIS kind of winter after touring the northern parts of Vietnam at enjoyable 23-25 degrees.
The arrival hall assembles a colony of athletes. Large, slim, gorgeous looking people from the “West” are forming a snake like line up through the room to get to the visa-at-the-airport counter. Being prepared always pays off and saves us approximately 1.5 hours of waiting time in a crowded no air condition room. We plow through the waiting field and feel like winners in an instant when we wave with our passports that hold an $85 worth pre-paid e-visa.
Our pre-arranged car driver is excited to finally meet us. The ride to the town center takes only 15 minutes.
Alarm rehearsal for tomorrow’s race day. It is 4:20 am. After checking-in last night I suggested that we should witness the stunning sunrise above Angkor Wat this morning. David laughed hard until he realized that I really meant it. Sleep is overrated anyway and it is not that we are about to run a race. We are here now and this moment will likely never come again. So we better take everything in, race or not.
Thankfully temperatures have dropped over night to refreshing 26 degrees.
A tour guide plus car picks us up. Still drowsy we get into the queue of cars, motorbikes, bikes and Tuk Tuk’s that all have one destination: Angkor. Being an early raiser is so much more fun in a crowd. Ever year more than 2 million people visit the ruins, which comes down to an average of 5,555 people a day. Considering that it is high season in December, I would say, every single visitor seems to experience the sunrise this morning.
Our picture is taken at the ticket office for the non-transferable entry pass. The choices are $20 per person for a one-day ticket, $40 per person for three days or $60 per person for a week. Funds are accepted in cash only (US dollars, Cambodian Riel, Euro or Thai Baht). No other organization is authorized to sell the Angkor Pass. However, there is no need to buy a ticket to participate in the race.
At 9:30 am our brains are overwhelmed by the sophisticated architecture and craftsmanship of the largest religious monument of the world, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition our dogs are barking (which is probably not a good thing a day before a race) and we are out of water (also not ideal). We call it a temple day after visiting Angkor Wat, the South Gate and Bayon temple.
It is a funny feeling when you return to your hotel after what feels like a full day of temple touring and breakfast is still served. Do I need an excuse for a double serving of almond croissants? Carb-loading is such a great excuse, even though it has not really been proven effective for women. However, these croissants are really delicious, like French pastry finger liking delicious.
Race kit pick up
The afternoon is all about tuning in into the race mode. In Cambodian style we arrive by Tuk Tuk. The ride was sponsored by our friends Joerg and Sholto, which are on a management assignment in Siem Reap for two more years. I mean really? How brilliant can it get? Angkor, race plus visiting friends?
Anyway, race kit pick up is amazingly easy. Find your bib# on the board at the entrance. Tell the volunteers behind the tables your number. Get our bib and chip. Move to another table and get our T-shirt, visor and information booklet. No id check, no line up, no expo, no adrenalin sharing, no peaking at the competition, no nothing. In and out.
Note: 2.737 half-marathon runners and 2.175 10-K runners, mostly internationals from 35+ countries will finish the race.
Cambodia is spa heaven. 60 min of foot massage makes a dent in your pocket of around $7. We go for the more luxury version and indulge in 90 min Swedish full body massage for $37.
Before we go out for dinner we outlay all our gadgets, performance enhancing products, runners and accessories next to the couch. However, the turn down hotel staff likes our shoes better in the shoe rack and folds our shirts nicely back into the closet, which caters to an extra shot of disorientation in the morning.
Since I didn’t really follow any of my pre-race routines I don’t make any exception now. Dinner assembles a little bit of everything: raw, cooked and especially stuff I have never eaten. Western style food is widely available if you want to stick to the routine. A main dish for about $6.
Race day – Breakfast
4:20 am. Breakfast in bed. Race day came so fast. I didn’t really have any time to think about a good pre-race breakfast (the hotel starts serving breakfast at 6 am but puts some croissants and coffee out for the runners). At dinner last night I kind of considered to take one of the sweet rice dessert to go. But knowing me, it probably wouldn’t have made it back into the hotel room.
So instead of performance enhancing nutrients like beet juice, MCT oil, oats, BCAA’s and caffeine I share a protein bar that tastes like a brownie and vitamin C enhanced spring water with my better half. I feel like a bad role model. After all David will run his first 10K race ever today – in scorching heat. He contributes an astonishing intact looking leftover muffin that had visited the temples with us the day before.
Really nothing goes according to race schedule plan. But who cares? I already find myself comforting with the words: “This is just for fun. At any moment you are allowed to quit.”
We find ourselves in the longest Tuk Tuk parade ever, which is super cool and the experience itself is worth the suddenly inflated event transportation prizes of $10. On normal days you can hire a driver and his Tuk Tuk for half a day for $12.
Close to 5.000 runners had to arrange for private transportation to the start and finish line. Think 1.000 or so Tuk Tuk’s, in the dark, making the sound of 1.000 or so lawnmowers, driving with one head light through a banana forest. Priceless! Of course it comes to a traffic jam and we walk the last 500 meters, hoping not to strain our ankles (still dark out and not street lights).
According to the guidebooks, “December is the coolest time of the year and almost guaranteed rain-free”. Sounds good? The word “coolest time” obviously must refer to the meaning of “wicked”. Running in temperatures in the upper 20’s with more than 70% humidity may not be every ones ideas of a good time. However, most of the course is in the shade of ancient trees. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it?
Note: Later in the race at the 2 km sign I watch my camera gracefully slip out of my hand. The plan to take pictures along the course is immediately abandoned. My body turns into a leaking water faucet thanks to the weather conditions.
I am prepared with all kind of insect repellents you can think off. I’m even looking forward to some extra motivation to run (away from). But not one crosses my path. Either I’m immune after being exposed to their monster sisters and brothers of the Sunshine Coast, BC or they are not into foreigners served in an extra salty crust.
Yes, I could go but it is not quite necessary. Besides the line up at the few porta-potties is too long (that never changes no matter where you race) and I’m not brave enough to squat down somewhere in the bushes. It’s still dark out. I do not fear to be seen in a compromised position. That’s not it. But our tourist guidebook has announced that this is the season for some kind of poisonous snake. However, this fact was never verified by our tour guide.
After the start it’s going to be the bushes or one of four possible stops at public park washrooms, which seem miles away from the course. I hope for the best. 1) My body will re-absorb any kind of liquid available to it. 2) Pee may be misinterpreted as sweat.
Note: #1 was proven to be true at the end. Even though I drank water like a horse I had not to go to the toilet until after breakfast in the hotel. Because of extreme sweatiness (see point weather) my cloths clinked to my body, I also would not have been able to pull my pants down and up again without any tremendous loss of time.
Just before the start of the wheel chair half marathoners the sun rises above Angkor Wat temple. It’s magnificent and feels like someone just lite the lights for the stage. This is truly amazing. I pop in my salt pills and lick on a tiny jar of honey that I had taken from some breakfast buffet in Vietnam. Did I say I wasn’t prepared?
At the start it gets a little confusing. There are no carrels and the 10-K racers mix with the 21-K racers. In addition the 10-K racers have to run into the opposed direction, 10 minutes after the half-marathoners. Eventually everyone seems to figure it out. The announcer also helps with directions. After the gun goes off it takes a while until the mass separates so I walk the first 100 meters.
The competition and the race
It. Feels. Awesome. I can’t believe that I’m doing this. I’m running the Angkor Wat international half marathon surrounded by the ancient temples and trees.
I observe other runners. At km 3 I pass a guy that has a second close look at his breakfast choices from this morning. Not sure if this is due to a late night out at pub street or due to the weather conditions.
I pass a couple in their 50’s. He is blind. Both hold on to a strap that connects them. I later learn that this was the 3rd time they’ve run this race together.
I pass a local runner in jeans and dress shirt with the most inefficient running style but the biggest grin ever on this face.
I run with some ladies from the US for a while, reassuring each other that this is super fun and wondering if this was really the 8-km sign we just passed because it most definitely feels like it should have been the 14-km sign.
Km 12 I’m too absorbed in whatever thoughts and miss that I just pass Ta Prohm one of the most fascinating temples. It has been left the way they found it, meaning big trees and roots hanging over ancient stones walls.
Km 16 brings me back to the present moment. I run over a sign sprayed onto the pavement that states “U-turn of 10K”, which gives me an instant lift. David has been here not long ago. I can do it. Just 5K more. 5K’s are peanuts.”
Km 18 Bayon temple with its giant sculpted faces appears. I’ve been here yesterday. Not much further.
I get passes by a lady in a wheel chair. (What an accomplishment. Can you imagine?) However, I’m jealous about her ability to move forward, faster then me, without any effort. This course was sold as super flat but clearly here it has some elevation! A kingdom for a ride.
Km 19 South gate and because it is so narrow it means the traffic of one direction can pass only. I speed up because I don’t want to lose any time getting hold up by traffic. Looks like the course is opened to some vehicles already.
Instant power is given away for free by local kids along the course that try to catch high-fives from these weird hobbling strangers. If they are not catching high-fives they stare at you. I can read one question in their eyes: “Why? Whyever would someone travel so far and spend so much money * to run in swelling heat such a long way? Do they know that you could hire a Tuk Tuk or at least rent a bicycle?”
However, I’m a guest and these indigenous kids have come to welcome me. So I try to touch every little tiny hand that reaches out to me, dirty or not.
Note: *The race entry is $65. The average person in Cambodia earns $3 a day, whereat Siem Reap is the second poorest province in Cambodia.
Water and aid stations
There are nine water stations along the course. Five are also serve an electrolyte drink. Water conveniently comes in 330ml plastic bottles, which makes it easy to drink and hold on to. I finish six bottles plus 500ml of my own electrolyte mixture (with no need to pee at all) and two GU gels.
Banana’s are served at km 6, km 10 and km 18. First aid tuk tuks and a medical tent is available along the course.
Some of the tiny spectators seem to glance at me until I realize it’s not me or my blond hair it’s my plastic bottle. They will get an incredible small amount of money in return for a big bag of empties.
Suddenly I realize how lucky I am. How fortunate I’m that I was born in a country with running clean water (and even a choice of cold, hot or lukewarm), a country with a school system and health care and a country with great chances for personal development. And that I can travel and run for “fun” at incredible places.
These kids struggle with problems that I never even close had to deal with. For them it is about the basics like food and shelter. According to an article of National Geographic about 20% of Cambodians are undernourished. Officially or so they say that no one lives in Angkor Wat park but the little bamboo shacks and villages with free run chickens in front tell otherwise.
Unfortunately Cambodia is also judged to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The right to sell tickets to the park was sold off by the Cambodian government to a private businessman from Vietnam that deals besides others in oil and gas stations, luxury hotels and resort and pharmaceutical products. It’s estimated that maybe a third of the entrance money is actually spend on the environment of the Angkor site. But who can tell. Is cash only.
I run to build my courage, to gain self-realization, to train my vulnerabilities. Running creates a balance in my life. I also do it for pleasure and to hang out with cool people. But mainly running is important to me because it shows me if I can run a half marathon all my visions and dreams can become possibilities.
I travel to expand my horizon, to see how other people live, what other people eat and what makes them happy. I want to learn and grow. What seems a natural thing to me, is not given to all people of the world.
If I now would allow me to quit this race any moment just because of some uncomfortable weather conditions, all of this would be absolutely pointless and ridiculous. These kids would be happy to have my problems.
I finish with my slowest time ever after 2:06:19 (average time 2:17:52) and in position 221 from 1246 women. With my half marathon time from May this year I would have been on position 24 (my ego, of course time matters to runners). And this is me just wining too because there are runners who PR at Angkor Wat international half marathon.
David finished his race in 1:14:40, which is an incredible time for a first 10-K race ever. I’m very proud.
This was the first time ever after running a half-marathon that my stomach allowed food instantly after the race. After the finish line we enjoy a mango smoothie for $1.
Of course breakfast still was served when we hobbled sweaty but happy back into the hotel lobby. There also were no casualties in regards to black toe nails. Aching muscles were treated with another full body massage. Later at the pool you could tell the runners from the normal tourist by stretching moves or not so graceful walks. However, for an immune system running a half marathon is not fun, even at a slower pace. I could feel my body struggling the next couple days.
Very last word
The province around Siem Reap was once the world’s greatest civilization and lots of smart scientist asking the question why such a sophisticated civilization died out. Some say it was the lack of a water system, others say it was the lack of rice/food because all the rice farmers had to work on the temples.
Are we repeating the mistakes other civilizations have made? Are we treating our water system with respect? What system do we support with our daily shopping choices? The local small farmer or industrialized farming that does not care about nutritional value, animal welfare or the environment but revenue?
Angkor Wat International Half Marathon: Race report by Tanja Knapp