The sun inched above the three stone peaks of Angkor Wat, leaving streaks of raspberry gold in its wake. A cool breeze clipped my forehead but instantly disappeared. It was the first hint of coolness I’d felt in all the months I’d been in Southeast Asia but then again, I wasn’t usually awake so early either.
There was a low hum from inside the temple, hushing the crowd. I pictured a group of elderly monks inside, their bony bodies swimming in orange robes, chanting their gratitude for another dawn.
And then the gunshot rang and the race began—the Angkor Wat Half Marathon for Peace, Friendship and Health. The runners started out in a pack but we quickly spread out on the long paved road that stretched ahead of us. A pond appeared on my left. Steam was rising from its surface revealing pink lotus flowers floating on the water. A brackish smell hit my nose.
The French aid worker who had given me a ride from my hotel that morning passed me, intent on the road ahead of him, his legs long and muscular. A crowd of school kids wearing matching bright yellow T-shirts ran past like puppies, nudging each other from behind, and then charging ahead with laughter to slap another friend on the back. They sang out their teacher’s name—Mees A-lice—and took turns running next to her.
I could no longer hear the chanting monks, but felt their vibration in my chest and had to clamp my grin shut against the bugs.
Around the third mile, everyone spread out. The runner closest to me was a tiny speck in the distance. Wavy lines rose from the steaming asphalt and I quickened my pace, trying to outrun the pungent tar smell. The sun had risen high into a cloudless pale blue sky, dragging the morning chill away with it. A dewy humidity settled onto my arms and legs, and provided a magnet for the red colored dust that coated the road and was now clinging to every exposed part of me.
I had entered this race because I wanted to experience Angkor Wat’s ruins differently, and also challenge myself physically—part tourist, part hopeful athlete. What I hadn’t expected was the silence. The jungle was so thick on both sides of the road that it muted out all sound, except the soft thud of my feet hitting the pavement. I almost kept running off the road because I couldn’t keep my eyes off the massive trees with tangled vines twisted around them. Where one tree began and another ended was impossible to tell. I couldn’t see more than a few feet into the jungle, but I felt surrounded by expansiveness.
A man in a wheelchair whisked by—a competitor in the wheelchair portion of the race. Five or six followed, all men and boys, whose wheelchairs were made from wood scraps and bicycle tires. One man passed by and lifted his brown muscular arm up away from his wheelchair tire, and gave me a casual wave.
“Hello, sister,” he said, as if we were out for a weekend stroll.
He was dressed more for church than a marathon. He wore a gray sweater vest pulled over a clean, white, button-down shirt. The bottoms of his khaki pants were empty where the rest of his legs would have been. The pants were doubled over and pinned at the knee. I breathed in and out, feeling like a part of something.
“You’re doing great,” I responded lamely.
Even though the clearing of land mines in Cambodia has greatly reduced causalities, a lot of damage has already been done. According to The Halo Trust, 64,000 deaths and 25,000 amputees have been recorded in Cambodia since 1979. Land mines still litter rural areas, where 80% of the population lives. Children are especially vulnerable. Proceeds from the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon provide prosthetic limbs and other support for land mine victims.
There hadn’t been a water station for some time and I was getting thirsty. I had other runners in my sight, but always far ahead or approaching suddenly from behind and then passing me quickly. At first, I was afraid I might get lost but there was nowhere to turn, just a long straight road ahead.
A blister was forming on my toe, or more accurately in between my middle toes, and by the midpoint of the race, the pain consumed me enough that I forgot about the gritty taste in my mouth, the red dust finding its way in no matter what.
Around the beginning of the race, I overheard a man with a British accent talking to his teenage son.
“Let me know when your nipples start to chafe. I have ointment you can rub on them and Band-Aids in case they start to bleed.”
I wished that man would pass me now so I could ask him for a Band-Aid to protect my toes from each other. I also noticed that the sun was searing my hatless head and my face felt crusted and swollen. Later I looked in the mirror and saw white trails streaking down my forehead and cheeks. I read online that it was actual grains of salt hardening on my face, probably as a result of the overly hot climate, or maybe I was just a salty sweater.
When I had to go to the bathroom, I ducked into the jungle, unable to stand up straight because of the tangle of vines and trees above me. When I finished, I stood up too quickly and a vine as thin as dental floss wound its way around my leg. Each time I tried to free myself, it wrapped itself tighter, leaving tiny thorns embedded in my upper thigh.
Soon after the jungle finally released me, the road opened up on one side exposing a sprawling rice field dotted with gray water buffalo. For a moment I wished I had my camera but knew I could never capture this feeling even if I did.
A few houses signaled a village. An elderly man stood in his dirt-packed front yard which was the same red color as the dust that coated my arms and legs. He was fitting a rein on a water buffalo that stood at least a foot taller than him, its hind muscles flexing through its shiny coat. The man glanced at me with watery eyes and turned back to his task.
A few steps further, about 20 children lined the side of the road, chattering excitedly.
“High five!” They called, and held out their hands, waiting for me to slap them as I ran my way down the line. They were mostly in their bare feet, their dark hair sprinkled with fine red dust.
I held out my hand to every one of theirs. I couldn’t bear to miss one, even when I had to bend down low and slow my pace to meet a toddler’s chubby hand as gently as I could. Some of the taller kids, teenagers, raised their hands high above their heads, making me reach up high to make contact. I made my way down the line in a spontaneous aerobic workout, and by the time I reached the end I could hardly hold my arms up.
I thought about the children I saw the night before in Siem Reap. The Italian restaurant I’d gone to was crowded with foreigners. My husband and I sat at our sidewalk table for more than hour waiting for our food, as a steady stream of children paraded by, shouting random English phrases to anyone who caught their eye.
“Where you come from?”
“I love California!”
Other children walked tiredly by, holding trays out in front of them which were held in place by a band that went around their neck, like the trays of old-fashioned cigarette girls. Loaded on top were postcards, lighters, tiny teak wood Buddha statues. Fragile, cheap trinkets. The children’s eyes flitted from person to person, their faces blank.
“Very cheap, you buy,” they instructed us, pointing to the souvenirs.
Unlike the kids I was struggling to high-five, the faces of the kids in front of the restaurant held no joy. They were working the crowd, making money, making a living.
A teenage girl broke away from the chain of kids as I ran past. “I run with you,” she yelled, and ran next to me for eight or ten steps, her plastic flip-flops slapping down on the dirt road as her friends giggled.
A short time later, another young girl motioned for me to slow down and slipped a thin bamboo bracelet onto my wrist. “For your good luck!” Her friends applauded.
I talked for a minute with a woman from Japan who had run up alongside me. “It is very tired to hit every hand,” she said. She was right; I could hardly lift my arms anymore, but at the same time, those high-fives were the only thing keeping me going.
The villages eventually disappeared and the roads turned dusty. I was alone again. When I had only a mile to go, I mentally noted that run I’d farther than I ever had in my life. There was a grinding pain in my left hip. The spaghetti from the night before now sat in my stomach, cold and greasy.
The roads were supposed to be closed to traffic until the end of the race, but a motorbike sped past me, a cigarette hanging loosely from the driver’s lips. He carried three live pigs on the back of his bike, each one lying on its back, entrapped in a wicker basket made for that purpose.
I huffed and puffed past the serene stone faces of Angkor Thom. To see Angkor Thom on a regular day meant to see it with droves of other people, looking for the best vantage point to take a photo. But here it was, empty, the reason I signed up for the race in the first place—to have a moment alone with this mystical place, but all I could think about was how dazed and thirsty I was from the heat, how big and red my face felt.
Just past the finish line, my legs collapsed under me and I sat down hard on a mound of green grass. In order to focus on something unmoving, I worked on picking the thorns out of my thigh. There were a lot more than I thought. The next day, they would turn into red welts and it would take weeks to pluck them all out.
I could not get the echoes of my dark-eyed happy cheerleaders out of my mind. They cheered me on like I was an Olympic athlete or their grade school teacher and they got me through the race.
My husband came to me with water and pineapple on a stick and instantly, we were surrounded by children selling bamboo bracelets, T-shirts, and dime-store wooden figurines. I had crossed the finish line into another day of business.