When we went to collect our bibs the day before the Angkor Wat 2012 Half Marathon, I felt that it was nothing but a good omen that I was lucky number 69. I would need some luck. I couldn’t stand the thought of finishing last, vomiting on my trainers, tripping over a tree root at Ta Phrom or anything else that could ruin the future for me as a half-marathoner.
Killing time in Siem Reap has always been a bit of an unsatisfying experience for me. If we were staying in a better hotel I expect we would have done more relaxing by the pool rather than wandering around Siem Reap town. The Mekong Angkor Palace Hotel was overbooked, with a shitty breakfast, overpriced rooms and a gang of extremely annoying fat Australian school leavers petting and flirting and just generally being dicks in the pretty crappy swimming pool.
I expect and invite people to argue with me on this one, but I have always thought Siem Reap was a bit rubbish. It seems to have got a lot worse in the two years since my last visit. Maybe I don’t know the right places. Is there more to Siem Reap than the conglomeration of tacky night markets and ‘traditional Khmer barbecues? I am hoping I will discover a better side to Siem Reap in the future because whenever friends and family visit it is obviously high on the list of where to go.
Having decided that pasta was the best choice for pre-run dinners, we tried our luck with two restaurants and on two consecutive nights in two different restaurants I was served two of the worst plates of pasta I have ever eaten in my entire life- think mushy penne with tomato water and raw onion. Yep. We did try to get into ‘Il Forno’ restaurant but they were fully booked both nights so maybe that’s where the decent Italian food is to be found.
Anyway, after forcing down most of the putrid penne my friends and I retreated early to our rooms, set alarms for 4.30am, attached our electric tag on our trainers then tried (and failed) to get a good night’s sleep.
We drank royal D as the tuk-tuk transported us to the starting line, breathing in the cool air in anticipation of the run ahead. As the sun began to rise quite spectacularly behind Angkor Wat, the orange shirted organizers gathered us 21km runners into really quite a claustrophobic holding pen with some rope.
We were held in the holding pen for a good 30 minutes. Looking around the crowd of runners I was amongst made me feel a little uneasy – so many tiny little lithe sprinters flexing and stretching very professionally, adorned with hi-tech running paraphernalia – calf support socks, running watches, sleek water holders.
They guzzled energy gels and made friends with each other by discussing their previous marathon accomplishments from around the world. I rotated my ankles and refastened the velcro on my hideous pink second hand Reebok running shoes that I had bought for 10 dollars from Boeng Keng Kang Market. I put my earphones in. Music would be my weapon.
My literary hero Haruki Murakami has written an essay entitled ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’. The following quote sums up for me exactly why I think long-distance running suits me and why I can hand on heart say I actually enjoyed the Angkor Wat 2012 Half Marathon and also why I am already searching for the next one to train for. Or maybe I just want to be Haruki Murakami ( I think I have got a long way to go to match him on his recently completed 62 mile ultra-marathon as well as his writing talent but hey).
“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
I sorted a lot of things out in my head during those 21kms. It was a pretty special 2hrs 25 minutes and 23 seconds. It was good alone time. Having lived in Cambodia for quite a while and being in a long term relationship with a Khmer man, I recognise my own need for this alone time as a sharp contrast to the Khmer tendency to find time spent alone quite the opposite of comforting.
Running and reading are ‘alone times’ that I intend to protect at least in some form throughout my future even when kids are in the picture as my own form of mental preservation.
The first three kms of the run were probably the hardest. My thoughts were solid and heavy- ‘ I need a wee’/’I can’t really be bothered to do this actually’ and ‘ I am running behind a Chinese man dressed as an aubergine’. These three thoughts clattered around in my head as my feet pounded forward.
However, as I entered the 4-8 km stretch alongside the still waters that surround Angkor Wat, through dappled sunlight, my feet began to find a rhythm moving to the music from my earphones.
I reminisced about going out with friends back home to see a live band or DJ set and it was at that point that I thought, ‘actually hundreds of times these feet of yours have seen a good six or seven hours of dance effort so of course they can handle 2-3 hrs simple forward jog with my preferred songs entering my ears and the awe-inspiring back drop to keep me occupied’. It was then that I really started to enjoy myself.
For every song I found a new rhythm and a new reason to keep moving and not stop. Most of all I knew that if I stopped running (or spaz-jogging as it would probably best be termed after 18km) that I would not find that momentum again.
The beaming children handing out bottles of water every 2.5 km added to the satisfying cliché marathon runner movement- gulp, pour on head and throw.
Turn a corner and there would be a group of bemused look -at -all –these- crazy -red-faced barangs- running –around smiles from the onlookers and I must have high fived a dozen policemen along the way.
There was a big elephant and two tour buses at the entrance to Angkor Thom which forced my feet to halt for a few seconds at 19km but apart from that I ran the distance. I did it. Number 69 came 422nd out of 842 women runners. Not too bad for a first attempt even if I do say so myself.
Getting drunk was pretty easy that afternoon-I think it took half a Beer Laos topped with Sprite. After that and a couple of glasses of wine and an expensive but absolutely divine cheese platter at Aha Bar/Hotel, Siem Reap suddenly seemed great although the three of us were hobbling around it like geriatrics.
I am having a rest for a couple of weeks whilst my family is here for Christmas. After that I will dust off the Reeboks. I liked the little journey I went on in my head during that run and I want to go back there. In the words of Murakami
“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”
― Haruki murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.