Kirsty Oliver has just returned from The Ancient Khmer Path, a 220km stage race held each November in Cambodia. Organised by GlobalLimits, the race has six stages between 29 and 62 kilometres long and it has a very strong local character. There is lots of contact with the Cambodian people and the nightly camping locations are often near sites of cultural interest, including Buddhist temples. The race finishes at the heritage site of Angkor Wat.
The Ancient Khmer Path is a partially supported race, in that the runners, while they are out on the course, carry only mandatory gear and what they need for that stage. Water is supplied at checkpoints. Competitors’ equipment and food is transported forward by the race organisation to the next night’s camp. GlobalLimits also stages races in Albania and Bhutan. See more information about their races.
Why Cambodia? Why now?
Kirsty Oliver: Why did I enter? Well, I entered with a friend who subsequently pulled out and left me to go alone, but it was around the time I got divorced and I wanted to do something for myself, so I went anyway. At that stage my ideal was to run the Global Limits race in Bhutan - it’s been a dream to be over there and climb the Crow’s Nest and it’s on my 50th Birthday bucket list for 2019 - but Cambodia fitted the diary for 2018 and so I entered. I was in the race… I was on my way to achieving a goal.
What were Cambodia and the race like?
Cambodia is an amazing place, truly stunning, with very changeable scenery, jungly, dusty, dry… When I entered I didn’t really think much about how it would feel to be there, but honestly I can gush about it now I’m home. I didn’t research the country much either, so there were many things I hadn’t expected: I hadn’t expected my feet to be on fire most of the day. Nor that I would be soaked all day… the heat was so intense and the humidity so intense... sweat just dripped off us day and night. It was 38 degrees and the sun was relentless – does Cambodia not have trees? Hell no, no cover, no respite, and on some days there were just dusty orange roads that went on and on and on...
On other days the race took us through paddy fields, flat lands and small communities, where children lined the streets and called “Hello” – they are adorable and they love you taking their photos. They want for nothing and I think they are amazed by us: Who are these crazy crazy people running!? I do have one thought on a slightly negative side: although it is so beautiful, Cambodia is a scruffy place. And by that I mean do they drop litter…?! It’s filthy! Such a stunning place and just littered with plastic...
Stefan (the race organiser) and his crew were amazing and really did look after us. We started running early each day and therefore finished early, so we had time to really get to know them all and they just couldn’t do enough. In bigger races it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, it’s easy to not eat properly, not look after yourself, not hydrate, not sleep etc. But Stefan and his crew would get you water, help you to your bed, and make sure you wanted to get up in the morning and continue. They added the wow factor, the family friendly factor and that meant a lot to me. Their website can be a tad annoying to navigate, but the organisation is very professional and well organised.
Stefan was also very funny. On the pre-race briefing he introduced us to the team, who was who etc. He became our Pied Piper - we followed him wherever he told us to go... And then he mentioned the ‘Red Box… ‘ What on earth was that? And what was in it? You could see runners crossing the road to have a look. It made me chuckle, but it kept us all sane in the incredible heat. The box contained, each for 1 dollar, cold drinks - water, beer and cola. And for me it contained ice, which became part of my race kit. I used to put a chunk down my sports bra and let is slowly melt, to keep my core cool, though I did look pretty odd with lumps sticking out of my top.
The night stops were amazing. Staying in local houses was an eye opener, you realise how poor the people are, with no electricity, no running water, certainly no internet! What would the kids do if the UK was like that? The toilets were holes in the ground and we used rain water to wash, fully clothed, from a bucket. We didn’t mind, it was how they lived; so how could we object? They had moved out so we could move in. We also stayed by waterfalls and historic sites – some truly outstanding places of natural beauty. The whole thing was really well thought out, exclusive and remote. For me it was simply perfect, my little family for 6 days of running.
Again, I chuckle, Stefan was very strict on water... “Do Not… don’t even think about drinking the water or get anywhere near to the point of ingesting it!” Of course it was so hot that water was the one thing that everyone craved... And honestly, I didn’t go near it, but I dreamed about nothing else!!
There was some… interesting… wildlife. Mosquitoes we saw only on the last day, but spiders….? Yup, there was a massive one - and I mean massive - in the toilet! Funny thing was, next day when we were getting our water, we found we had a stowaway - the very same spider was in among the water bottles. It jumped across the floor towards the tents, landed in a rucksack before being tempted out and shown the door! Oooh, that was creepy. You know the ones in “I’m a Celebrity”. Ha ha, that’s the sort we had.
Finally I can’t leave this section without talking about dogs… You move, they bark… and once one barks the rest start, and keep going until the entire village is barking. So if you can, please, don’t pee at night or you will awaken the dog. The demon barking dog.
What training did you do?
In 2016 I had a crazy New Year resolution of running a minimum two miles every day, so after each day at work I would change shoes and get out for a run. I even kept it up while I cycled LEJOG (Lands End to John O’Groats), so after cycling 100 miles each day I made myself get out there and run the two miles…
I don’t run half as much as I know others do, which makes me look a bit of a lazy runner... Instead I spend a lot of time on low impact training, keeping the pressure off my legs by not pounding the streets. I prefer to do Spin, Combat and Weights, with running thrown in. It hasn’t held me back as I’m more than capable of sitting in the rankings of some races. In Cambodia I was happy to be 4th Lady home and 9th overall, which for a ‘lazy’ runner is not a bad effort - I jest though, as I train two hours each evening.
Were you as prepared as you needed to be?
If you buy good quality, lightweight kit it means you can get more running kit in your 10kg weight limit. I had new running clothes for each day and I really needed it. Definitely take a silk liner as it was way too hot to use a sleeping bag. On the other hand, do take a sleeping bag as each year the weather is different. Take snacks for along the route, as you can’t get any in country. Take thin socks as your feet will burn in the heat. Otherwise, I followed the kit list to the letter and it was spot on - there wasn’t anything I needed. Do take some US Dollars in the smallest notes you can get. Everything is priced at one dollar in the race and in the villages: anything over a 5 dollar note and they can’t change it.
What was the course like?
The race course is well thought out and we were never far from a check point, 12k being the longest one. It meant that in the heat you shouldn’t ever run out of water, though I do know some of us were pretty close on many occasions, which kind of shows how hot it was. The course was well marked, with signs literally every 100 metres, so you shouldn’t/couldn’t miss anything (although I did rescue 2 runners at one point – how on earth they missed the signage I will never know… perhaps they were drawn in by the shade and passed the obvious signs on the ground. Luckily I was within sight and got them back on track). It’s a very safe race – and as a female I was very much at ease on my own. The locals were all friendly and very welcoming and I never felt I should be concerned, even on the forest climbs. In fact, my main concern on the climbs were the pesky ants! Boy they can bite and they stick to you like glue.
What was the lowest moment?
Highs and lows? Now that’s really difficult to answer as I don’t like to think of things as lows, just challenging moments, and I had so many highs and so many laughs with the guys, even when the medic stuck a pin in my blister and almost got a kick in the face! Aargh! Yes that hurt. Three millilitres later and all the fluid was out. I did get lazy though as I got tired, starting on Day 4 and 5 - school girl error? I didn’t hydrate properly before going to bed and hence I think I suffered on the later days, feeling sick, and weak. So reminder to myself, make sure you hydrate at night as it goes a long way in extreme heat and humidity.
And the best?
I survived it, yes, I survived and loved it!! With my feet in tatters, tearful, emotional and exhilarated… It was an amazing experience! It’s a bizarre thing to write about the race when you look back at photos of running down dusty paths, the children, the barking (annoying barking dogs), the houses and people we stayed with. I would say to anyone – yes, it’s great to run in bigger races but you know what? - stay small, you can’t beat the smaller race whether it be running, cycling or anything sporty. I simply loved the whole experience and can’t wait to go run with them all in Albania in 2019.
How did you get on in the race?
The long day was my initial nemesis… And it was only Day 3 of 6… I ran really well the first 2 days, but 20km in on Day 3 and I was in trouble! We were told that we just had to get to 30km as there was no way to get us out: we were running through plantations and access for vehicles was restricted. So it was very much “man up and run on”. I walked the last 5km of this stretch as it was way too hot in the midday sun, and bless, then there’s a heart wrenching moment when three young boys about one kilometres from the check point came up and gave me a cuddle.. ! Totally off the wall and totally unexpected – though I did wonder “Why on earth would you want to cuddle my sweaty, stinky body!” But hey, they made me cry and I stumbled in to the check point. Day 3 was a long day, 11 hours of running and boy, did I know it. It came down to a stomp in the end. Days 4 and 5 were also hard days… Very different terrain! Hill climbs, long dusty roads, water crossings. The climbs were really interesting and one led us to the Elephant ruins, such a beautiful sight to see after a very technical climb in the forest.
The last day was a real highlight. Not just because it was the last day, but because we were running through the most beautiful places, temple after temple. The finish at Angkor Wat Temple was a real tear jerker. It is the most amazing place.
One last thing to mention: when we were in the temples we had to walk. It’s not often you are told to walk in a race. We even had to walk to the finish line, about ½ mile through the Angkor Wat grounds! It made it so funny, but hey, it’s their culture, so we all walked. We were only allowed to run the last 20/10m metres to the finish line and then it had to be a silent cheer, almost like a silent disco! We had literally 20 seconds to take a photo with the banner at the finish line? So we all lined up for a group photo before the Police came over to ask what we were doing. The rules seem to be getting stricter and stricter, so if you do want to run the Ancient Khmer Path then I would sign up now. Stefan is limited to 30 runners each year because of the hoops he has to jump through to put the race on.
I loved the race. I achieved everything I wanted to and it more than filled my expectations. I really miss the people I met – race blues kicked in - but I’m pleased I’m going back this year to Albania, besides all the other races I have booked in.