Race report: Angkor Wat Half Marathon 2014

AngkorWat3At the start line of this year’s Angkor Wat Half Marathon, rather than worrying about the 21.1km ahead, my mind was preoccupied with the issue of gender inequality. Lofty thoughts however they were not. I was eyeing the back of a runner, a male runner, who was peeing against a tree. Not fair! I needed the loo too, despite having just been to the portaloo, but with only minutes to go to the starting gun, I wasn’t going to risk missing the start of the race. Been there, done that! While I was feeling hard done by, other runners were climbing a mound of rocks to view Angkor Wat temple in all its sunrising glory. There can’t be many start lines to match this one but as ever my mind was (wishing I was) in the toilet.

The outfit. During the first km I saw a woman wearing the same skirt.
The outfit. During the first km I saw a woman wearing the same skirt.

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Blinking bladder aside, the race went very well. I got stuck behind a thousand runners at the start, but managed to weave through so that by the second kilometre I was doing a comfortable pace. I wasn’t going to risk ruining the race by racing; this was my chance to exorcise the misery of the previous year and savour the delight of running in such a special, and thankfully flat, place. Unfortunately after much mithering, I had opted not to take along my phone to take photos as I was already carrying a fuel belt. I sort of hoped I’d meet lots of people who’d take pictures and share them but that didn’t happen so here I am writing about running in a beautiful, special place with little photographic evidence. The photos I do have are from a family trip back in December 2012.

As usual, crowds of locals cheered on runners. I high fived as many kids as I could. My eight-year-old’s index finger spends a lot of time tucked into his right nostril but I put thoughts of hygiene aside; these kids probably had better manner’s than mine anyhow. Water stations provided small water bottles which is a waste really as most runners ditched the bottles after only a few sips. The volunteers were excellent at opening the caps and handing the bottles over and there was no issue of crowding at water stops as the route is wide and the runners were well spread out after a few kilometres. Kids collected the bottles for recycling all along the route so at least someone was benefiting from the excess of plastic.

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Typical road along the route. My socks turned orange from the dust.

I didn’t stop. I counted my steps to distract me from negative thoughts and worries. I barely looked at my watch. And until about 17km, all was going really well. I dared to think that I was actually enjoying myself. Then I started to feel a bit whoozy, a bit like motion sickness, a too familiar feeling from previous half marathon races. At least this time, the race was almost done when discomfort hit. I kept going, a little slower, but determined that I wasn’t going ruin yet another race. I can see from the official race photos that I must have been hurting by the end as my head is hanging and I’m staring at the ground, willing one foot in front of the other. At this stage, the 21.1km runners had merged with the 10km runners/walkers so more and more supporters – friends, family and fellow runners – stood along the verge, cheering people on. I seriously could have given one particular cheering American lady a big hug for telling me I was ‘awesome’  – I felt like sh*t – but that would have meant stopping and that wasn’t an option if I wanted to finish. Around the same time, I spotted monkeys hanging out of a tree. After all my years in Asia, monkeys are still a novelty and they served as a timely reminder that for an Irish ‘girl’ who discovered running mid-life, running around 12th century temples in Cambodia is a freakin’ amazing experience even with a nauseous stomach and heavy legs. Such thoughts got me to the end.

The south gate of Angkor Thom at the 19km mark.
The south gate of Angkor Thom at the 19km mark.

And I finished, happy for once. It was the fastest half marathon I had run but more than anything I was relieved that I hadn’t had a miserable race experience, only one that got mildly miserable near the end. When the official race results came out, my chip time was 1:50:59, a few seconds under what I had on my Garmin. I cared but I didn’t. I’d done such a good job of telling myself that my time didn’t matter that I had come to really believe it. I never run my fastest on race days but at least on this race day I had managed to run faster than on others without totally losing the gut plot (as I did last year at Angkor Wat and back in May at Borneo International Marathon.) I think the problem is low fuel and hydration which next time I will try remedy with a second gel at 14km.

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I’m still injured of course. My ITB hurt from 9km but I could run. It hurt a hellava lot more once I crossed the finish line. I was limping for the rest of the day. But it was worth it because for the first time in 7 half marathons, I didn’t wish I was somewhere – anywhere! – else. You could say that I took the endure out of endurance. The phrase ‘never again’ did not even enter my mind; that certainly was a first!

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Finisher medals from 2013 and 2014.

As for the bladder? Well I showed it who was boss. After bargaining with it that I would stop behind a tree – as I saw numerous men do along the route – it gave up nagging at about 10km. In fact it went into a coma and didn’t bother me for another six hours. If I ever run in Cambodia again – it really is a long trip from Perth but this year it was certainly worth it – I’ll make the effort to climb up and gaze at Angkor Wat as the sun rises. I might even take my phone along to take photos. For the record, I don’t really have any desire to be a man, though on my arrival in Cambodia, my wish was momentarily granted.

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For a  Buddhist country, the Cambodians certainly make a massive effort for Christmas. The decorations in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, were also amazing. (I stopped of in KL on my way to and from Siem Reap).
For a Buddhist country, the Cambodians certainly make a massive effort for Christmas. The decorations in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, were also amazing. (I stopped of in KL on my way to and from Siem Reap).

Temples & Toilets – Angkor Wat Half Marathon 2013

passAngkor Wat Half Marathon was, for me, dominated by toilets rather than the temples. And judging by the queues at the portaloos pre-race and the number of people scurrying behind trees and rocks during the run – I’ve never seen anything like it! – I wan’t the only runner thus challenged. Still, I’ll try and put my loo issues behind me – ahem – and focus on other aspects of the race.

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Snapshots of Siem Reap, Cambodia

Firstly, Siem Reap is a lovely town of low-rise buildings, teaming with stalls, shops and restaurants. Angkor Wat Temple is about 15 minutes drive out of town. The race was SUPPOSED to start at 6.30AM on Sunday so we left our hotel at 5.30AM and arrived in plenty of time to queue up for the loos. My friend and I joked that it was better to wait in line for the loo and to time a last wee just before the gun went off than to go in the bushes and end up hopping from one foot to the other with nerves at the start line. Mistake! As we ran from the portaloos in the direction of the start, we realized that the race had already started – without us! And it was only 6.24!

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My broken Nathan bottle race cap.

So I was three minutes into the race crossing the start line, which makes my ranking on the results look bad, but heh I was never going to be in the Top 20 anyway so there’s no use in being upset. Actually upsetting, was the fact that the valve on my Nathan bottle collapsed at the start, sending my Accelerade drink all over my shorts and leaving me with no fuel for 21 km. Water stations provided 350 ml bottles of water every 2.5 km and I ended up carrying one for most of the race; this did nothing for my posture but made me feel more secure about staying hydrated. The disadvantage of starting so far back was the need to overtake slower people who had started at the front. Weaving in and out, and avoiding slamming into the back of runners who stopped to take photos, dominated the first 5 km, which I took easy, breezy and dare I say I would have enjoyed if it hadn’t been for the constant need to swerve around people. At about 8km, I looked longingly at a gel a girl was taking though I had none with me as in the past they’ve made me feel nauseous. Another girl had a bag of Haribo gummy bears but she didn’t offer me any;( Of all the rear ends I saw on Sunday, one stuck out from the crowd. ‘How’s my Running? Call 1-800-EAT-DUST!’ was printed on a girl’s shorts. Love it! Somehow, after running around a slower lady, I got dizzy, and felt my stomach lurch. I took the next few kilometeres at a pretty good pace, keeping an eye out for a toilet, debating whether it was worth the loss of time or not. At around 10 km, I spied a sign for toilets and bolted out of the race and into the loos. I never thought I’d sabotage a race thus, but I did. Somehow my pace never recovered after this. Having passed so many runners before the pit stop, I couldn’t muster the will to try and pass them again. In fact I don’t really remember much of the last 10 km; probably due to a combination of lack of endurance training (I had a stitch for 9 km), lack of electrolytes (may also have caused the stitch), and the fact that I’d been sick for the 10 days prior to the race. I’m afraid, I wasn’t running with joy, more a sense of a chore that needed to be completed. I didn’t at any point run fast enough to get out of breath – during the first half I was afraid to in case I ran out of steam, during the second half I simply couldn’t because of the stitch.

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My detour!

Compared to tropical cities like Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, running at Angkor Wat felt fresh and breezy. The route is very flat and the surroundings are beautiful. Local children lined the route cheering, their hands outstretched for runners to clap, collecting water bottles which they can make money from recycling. Distance markers were clearly painted across the road at every kilometer. At some water stations, there was a can of something I didn’t recognize on offer but I didn’t risk it. By the end, the sound of water sloshing around in my stomach was enough to put me off drinking anything, so I’d probably even have refused a 100Plus if it had been available. Still, it would have been nice to have a sports drink on offer at a few water stations 🙂Image

Strangely, I crossed the Finish line feeling cold, my skin covered in goosebumps. I was delighted to meet a friend who gave me water as there were no refreshments distributed on the finish line. The medals were hard to find too; eventually, after asking many people, I found some children handing out medals to anyone who asked, in the middle of the finish line melee. My husband, who ran the 10km, got a medal identical to mine, stating Half Marathon. I’ve read complaints on Facebook that there were no medals left for Half Marathon runners who came in around the 2:30 mark which seems very unfair! Image Unfortunately we couldn’t hang around after the race for more than a few moments as we had a flight to catch back to Kuala Lumpur. My time was 1:56, which was a PB, but the fact that it could have been nearer 1:54 without the pitstop is hard to let go. Still, one MUST be positive. My foot, which I had taped, didn’t hurt at all during or even after the 21 km which, if I wasn’t such an ungrateful cow, should have been my opening line on this post.

I’d love to return to do the Angkor Wat Half Marathon in 2014 but as we’re moving to Perth, and there are no direct flights from Perth to Siem Reap, I’ll probably not have the opportunity. If we were staying in Malaysia, I’d definitely return (wearing a nappy – kidding!). I’m determined to master this 21 km lark. By this I don’t necessarily mean improve my timing – though this of course would be nice – but to cross the Finish line feeling a sense of achievement. Looking back I can see that the races I’ve enjoyed most, or that have given me a sense of accomplishment, have all (three) been 15 -16km. I haven’t registered for another Half until March, so I’ve plenty of time to work on my stamina and endurance to see if I can ‘master’ the 21 km distance. Image

In the meantime, I’ve ordered new race caps for my Nathan bottles and I will continue with physio for my PTT. And then there will be race toilet training which I have now added to my New Year’s resolution list for 2014!

Cambodia here I come

Almost three months after my PTT injury, I am finally going to do a Half Marathon this weekend. Sure I trained all summer before my pace came to an abrupt halt and sure I’ve only managed one 21 km training run since, so I’m in nothing near the shape I thought I’d be in when I signed up back in April, but there is still much to be excited about because the race is the Angkor Wat Half Marathon. I’m thinking of this as more of an ‘experience’ race than an ‘achievement’ race; I know it will be a special experience, not least because it’s my first trip child-free with my husband since July 2008, our second in over 12 years.

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We were lucky enough to have a family holiday in Cambodia around New Year 2012/2013. We visited many temples including Angkor Wat which dates from the 12th century and is the oldest religious monument in the world. Back then my husband and I decided that we’d return for the race, a very popular event amongst running expats in KL. In fact the first time I heard about it was three years ago while eavesdropping on a conversation between a friend and a lady who had just returned from the Angkor Wat race. I was truely flummoxed as to why anyone would want to travel to another country to get up before dawn on a Sunday morning to run 21 km. I still very distinctly remember how my pre-running mind boggled. And here I am now – packing.

Today is a day for logistics and final planning (for my kids). My nerves are in shreds at the thought of leaving them even though I know they will be in very safe and capable hands. I won’t really start thinking about the race until tomorrow on the two hour flight to Siem Reap on which I will meet up with an old friend, from my Aberdeen work days, who nowImage lives in Jakarta. When she did the Singapore Half Marathon two years ago I was in awe, never dreaming that it might be something that I too would be capable of. Yes, and here I am – packing.

I had my last pre-race session with Akmal, my physio, yesterday and I’m very happy that my foot is now in great shape. My new Brooks Adrenaline trainers feel very comfortable while offering arch support too.

I’m really going to try and run the Angkor Wat Half Marathon with gratitude, gratitude for the fact that I get to participate in a unique running event in a beautiful country that most people will never get to see in their lifetime, gratitude that I can run pain-free, and gratitude for all the familiar and unfamiliar faces, smiling, possibly grimacing at times, that I’ll see on Sunday morning under the rising Cambodian sun.

I’ll keep you posted.