Pounding Cambodia’s ancient Khmer path

Pounding Cambodia’s ancient Khmer path


Rob Cummins


Rob Cummins


"adventure race", Cambodia, Ironman, Kymer, "Rob Cummins"

In 2013 Rob Cummins set his eye on a six-day 220km Cambodia ultra running event with his partner Aisling Coppinger.

Rob Cummins is no stranger to challenges. Having set himself the target two years previously, last year he qualified for the Ironman World Championships. This year he set his eye on a six-day 220km Cambodia ultra running event with his partner Aisling Coppinger. 

The race involved starting with a blessing by Buddhist monks, camping in ancient temples, running through locations from the movie ‘Indiana Jones’ and finishing in front of the world heritage site of Angkor Wat! If it sounds like a fantasy, just remember that heat and humidity can transform dreams into nightmares. With his usual honesty, Cummins tells all. 
Day 1

Distance: 34km. Terrain: Flat well-maintained off-road track. Weather: 30°C at 7am rising to what felt like over 40°C with almost 100% humidity. No cloud cover. 
We spent our first night at a Buddhist temple. Over 40 people slept on mats on the floor in one big room. Sleep was patchy. This was part of the adventure. Wake-up was shortly after 4.30am when someone who couldn't sleep decided he wanted some company.
The plan was for myself and Ais to run together, as we were here for a holiday. I knew this would last only until Ais realised she had a chance at a podium place. Then all plans would go out the window and she would probably hit the gas as I started to slow down.
It’s hard to describe how important the heat was in this race. It would be easier to run twice as far in temperate conditions. I had no idea before that the sun could be so brutal. We had to walk twice that day to get our temperatures under control. This was a huge shock. We don't walk when we run, ever. And here we were walking less than 20km into a weeklong race. 
I never really understood the humidity thing before either. Nothing dries so within 15 minutes of starting my clothes were soaked and stayed that way till the end. 
Even so, our very slow pace paid dividends and we moved up the field to 11th and 12th, with Ais in second place in the women's race by checkpoint 2 at about 24km. We finished day 1 in those positions.
We started in farmland which gradually changed into jungle and we finished in a tiny village. We stayed in a ‘guesthouse’ which again was a communal room with us sleeping on the floor under mosquito nets with lots of snoring and farting. 
The Cambodian people were incredible with whole villages coming out to cheer as we went through. This was the first ultra marathon or extreme race ever run here so they must have thought we were crazy. 

Day 2

Distance: 40km. Terrain: Dragging climbs on a straight 30km dirt road with no shade before entering the jungle. Flat track with a number of water crossings and some shade. All off road. Weather: Same as day 1! 
Day 2 started like day 1, very slowly. A lot of the faster starters from day 1 started easier today. Everyone was a bit shocked at how hard yesterday was and how much they suffered. The lead woman, an English girl called Sophie, had almost a 30-minute lead on Ais from Day 1 but rarely got more than three minutes ahead of us on day 2. 
I was starting to hate the sun. I just couldn't cool down. My head hurt and I couldn't wear my hat or I got hotter. I felt slightly nauseous at times and couldn't eat much. 10km was taking us 1hr30-1hr40 to run. I couldn't believe I could run this slow. I usually race 10km in 37-38 minutes and a very easy 10km jog might take 55 minutes at home. 
Even at this pace I was in trouble. The heat was overpowering and relentless. Imagine standing in the sauna for three hours. Now add shorts, a T-shirt, hat and a 2-4kg bag on your back.

Next bring in a treadmill and start to jog. You can stop but that only means you will be there longer. You have to keep moving. But you can't move as fast as you hoped so have to adjust your time goals. Three hours become four and the mental torture gets worse. Then four become five.
As difficult as it was we were holding our own and were ahead of a couple of the guys who beat us the day before. We were warned not to go off the marked track as the next 10km ran through a live minefield! The next stretch was surreal as we passed a crew clearing mines. The area was dotted with flags and one was only about 2ft from our track! 
After about 90 minutes in the jungle we popped back out onto a dirt track and ran past a huge ancient stone temple that was partially collapsed. It looked like something out of the movies and had both of us gasping and grabbing the camera. Less than 500m later, we could see the finish right outside another huge stone temple. 
The relief at being able to stop running was huge. We slept in tents for the first time that night at the entrance to the temple – a place that before this race I wouldn't have believed still existed. The people here live almost like they did 500 years ago. It was like getting a glimpse of history.
Day 3

Distance: 62km. Terrain: Jungle for 32km – flat track with lots of water crossings and very little shade. Then a straight 30km road with almost no shade. Weather: See above! 
This stage was due to start at 6am to avoid the hottest time of day, but it was delayed till 7am. Also we were hoping to do the stage in about 10 hours to finish before dark. But there were problems with the course. Two nights heavy rain meant that the jungle stretches were under enough water in places that we’d have to swim. 
This was worrying as the water here carries all sorts of diseases. It's OK if you don't drink it or have any open cuts but people had cut and blistered feet and legs. I can still walk and carry my bag in water that’s 5ft deep but Ais is only 5ft tall so she would have to swim. 
I surprised myself by feeling pretty good at the start. The pace was good considering the terrain and we covered each 10-11km section in about 1h35-1h50. I ate more often and earlier than the previous two days knowing I hadn't gotten enough in for either stage when it got really hot. By 7.30am the temperature was up to what felt like 40°C again. 
The jungle was a huge amount of fun to run in, but after almost five hours I was really relieved to get out onto the track. I was feeling OK at this stage, not great but OK.
Somewhere between 40km and 45km, I started to feel really nauseous and couldn't cool down. At this stage Ais was feeling good and the lead woman, who was now alternating walking and running, was in sight. I told her to start racing. If I couldn't get running again, I’d see her at the end. 
Over the next couple of hours I slowed more and more, till I couldn't run at all. I tried to fast walk but that too gradually slowed to a shuffle. I started vomiting. I got walking again although it was interspersed with vomiting and dry heaving. Thoughts of finishing before dark faded. I just kept shuffling along. I was dizzy and sick and so hot I just wanted to lie down but I knew I’d never get moving again if I stopped. 
After more than 10 hours I arrived in the village. A head torch came towards me and someone took me by the arm and led me to the temple where Ais was waiting. I finished in 10h40; Ais had been in well over an hour. 
I lay down in my stinking, wet clothes. I couldn't open my sleeping mat and couldn't stay upright long enough for Ais to do it either. I slept almost instantly, but woke after about an hour. Ais helped me wash and I managed a small amount of food before lying down again. I couldn't sleep for hours and feared what was to come tomorrow. 
For the first time ever I was afraid of a race. Really afraid. I didn't want to go back out into the sun. I was so sick and hot and all I could think was how depleted and tired I was. I couldn't see improvement in time for the next stage of ‘just’ 29km. Thinking that I fell into an hour or two of fitful sleep. 
Day 4

Distance: 29km. Terrain: 10km of asphalt followed by a rocky track climb (2km) and then undulating trail. Weather: See above!
Day 4 started at 9am so it was high 30s from the first step. Ais had passed Sophie on day 3 to move to within 10 minutes of her overall. Sophie however had suffered a lot and ended up needing medical attention afterwards. Although she was back on her feet for day 4, she didn’t start. This moved Ais into the overall lead with Valerie, yesterday's stage winner, only seven minutes behind. 
It was the first time I started a race not knowing if I could physically finish it and I was afraid to tell Ais how bad I felt. Saying it out loud would be admitting to myself as well as her the possibility of failure. I'd thought, worst case, that I might only last 10km before walking and that I’d be out for 5-6 hours. In fact, my temperature shot up and I had to walk five minutes in. Five minutes into a 30km run... 
I didn't panic and tried to walk fast. As soon as I got some shade at the side of the road I ran again. If I got some downhill I ran. I started thinking,

“I reckon this will be OK. Walk, run, control the heat. I'll make it.”

I didn’t know what I was going to do with a 45km stage tomorrow if I couldn’t run 500m today but I tried not to think about it. 
For a while I could see the last of the runners in the distance but then they were gone as I slowed to a walk. Then I started to get passed by the guys who started out walking. I just couldn’t go any faster. 
There were roadside shacks selling food but we'd been warned not to eat it. I bought a Coke but it had no effect. Later I bought bananas but only managed a couple before the nausea was too much. I finally arrived at the 10km checkpoint after about 2h10 and lay down. I couldn’t talk to Kristina who was manning it. 
I knew I couldn’t finish like this. I could hardly breathe. I fought inside like I'd been doing since the start today but I knew I couldn’t go on. 
After a while I sat up and answered Kristina’s questions with one-word answers. She told me that even if I was the last person on the course she would walk in with me. At last though I said, “I’m finished.” There was no relief only a new feeling of sickness, of failure. 
I still had to get myself up the 2km climb to be picked up. The only way to the camp was by dirt bike and they couldn’t ride the climb. After an hour or so I had cooled down and the nausea passed enough to climb. It took 40 minutes to go 2km. 
I arrived at camp on the dirt bike a while later to discover a bigger drama unfolding. Sophie had to be airlifted to hospital in critical condition after a number of intravenous drips. That evening the announcement was made that the following day’s 45km stage was neutralised. While one of the group was in a critical condition, Stefan the race director wouldn't go ahead with the race. 
During the course of the afternoon I managed to eat and gradually recovered. Then the doubt started. I shouldn't have stopped. Was I really that bad?
Day 5

Distance: Neutralised – 12km
We still had to get to the next camp, 45km away, and we couldn't get transport where we were so we all walked 12km to the bus. I spent the morning thinking that I should have finished. Even if it took all day. I’d have recovered today with this walk. But I also knew I couldn't have done anything different and counted myself lucky I hadn't needed medical attention like Sophie.

Day 6

Distance: 16km. Flat trail and road. 
Stefan the race director announced that anyone who had dropped out could run this last stage. I was glad as I wanted to finish with Ais and having eaten well and rested, I felt I could probably do that. Cambodia had one more surprise though. The hottest night so far. I was sick again all night and neither of us slept. We got up about 4.30am but I didn't think I could run. I felt just terrible. 
The entire camp had the same problem and no one had slept. A number of people had even slept outside despite the mosquitoes and ants as the tents were too stifling. I managed to cool down and get myself ready. It was only 16km and I could walk it in 3-4 hours if I got really bad. 
The day was cloudy and I managed to get running and felt OK. Constantly pouring water over myself and enjoying the shade, the last run was a pleasure. It was such a relief to run again and the finish was the most spectacular I've ever experienced. 
Aisling had started the day as the first woman. She had a 20-minute lead after battling Valerie on stage 4, winning it. On a 16km stage she could relax and enjoy it. We ran at almost normal speed completing the 16km in about 1h30. The last 400m took almost 10 minutes as we walked through a temple to soak it all up. 
After thoughts 
Aisling has just won an incredibly difficult big international race on her first attempt at the distance. She’ll be quick to tell you she was lucky or the field wasn't that strong but that doesn't explain how she also finished ninth overall. She was only minutes behind an international stage race veteran with over 150 stage and ultra races to his credit and more than a few wins and podiums finishes. Most of the other seven men ahead of her have also won and podiumed in ultra, stage and mountain races. This despite the fact that she doesn't like racing in the heat and was the least experienced of the female contenders. 
Listening to Aisling talk about it in the following days, she has an awareness of her body and what's happening to it that is invaluable in this type of race. She knows how fast or slow to go, when to eat and drink and more importantly when not to. She also has the patience to wait and the nerves not to panic. She races her own race and makes other people react to her so they can't race theirs. In long-distance running and racing, I reckon this is one of the most important talents to have. 
As for me, I learnt a big lesson, one I should have learnt more than 10 years ago. Years ago, I started my first bike stage race at the start of my third season of racing with very little training done, expecting to get through it on experience, a 2-3 hour ride at the weekend and the odd hour mid week. I got dropped after an hour of the fastest racing I'd ever experienced and pulled out an hour later. 
I didn't have to quit; I wasn't sick, I hadn't crashed and would have made it within the time limit. I could have started again the next day and finished the race but instead I just gave up. I quit. It was my first and only DNF in almost 14 years of racing. It ate away at me for a long time – the humiliation of quitting, of feeling weak and useless. I never did it again, never stopped when it got hard no matter what. 
That DNF taught me a valuable lesson. One I didn't think I would have to learn twice. But here I am again with a DNF beside my name and again I feel it's something I could have avoided. I underestimated this race and now instead of the satisfaction that comes with finishing something really difficult I have the sick feeling that comes with failure. It's not a lesson I want to learn again. 
I don't want my overriding memory of this race to be negative though. It was one of the most incredible experiences we've ever had and I'll take a lot of good memories and a lot of new friends. 

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Pounding Cambodia’s ancient Khmer path

In 2013 Rob Cummins set his eye on a six-day 220km Cambodia ultra running event with his partner Aisling Coppinger.