After a lot of travel injuries and an extended running hiatus, recently I’ve gotten back on my feet and have finished 1/2 marathons in Cuba, Cambodia and Bangkok. “How (and why) do you run races in the far corners of the earth?”, is the question I’m most often asked when it comes to my nomadic racing habit. (Closely followed by, ‘What countries have you run races in?’)
I’ve been a runner as long as I can remember. Never a fast runner, but always a committed runner. Running keeps me sane and goals keep me running while I’m on the road, so I often look for race opportunities that overlap with my wanderings. Not to mention there isn’t a much better way to see a city then by covering 13.1 miles of it on foot.
You’ve already heard the story of my first marathon in Amsterdam, but long before that, it was the amazing country of Thailand where I first caught the bug of lacing up my running shoes in cross-cultural competitions.
Catching the nomadic running fever
In April of 1997 I moved to Thailand. Living in a strange Bangkok neighborhood and in an incredibly hot country for the first time ever, I struggled to motivate myself to exercise. When I saw an advertisement for a 1/2 marathon in the beach town of Pattaya I knew it was the perfect challenge to get me out the door. I’d never run that far before, so if I wanted to live through it, I’d have to put in the miles.
Training while living in the city center of Bangkok was just the start of the adventure. As a young and penniless teacher i I didn’t have the big bucks to join a gym, so it was just me and the road. Potholes, pollution, three legged rabid dogs and friendly buses were a free bonus.
I trained for many weeks, and then on race weekend I traveled to Pattaya. As I made my way to the starting line pre-dawn on race morning there were a few things that I very quickly recognized were different from any race I’d ever run before:
- It was pitch dark
- There were almost no other women runners
- There were very few foreigners at all
When the gun shot fired, I crossed the starting line, one foot in front of the other into the dark 13.1 miles ahead. Although I was one of the few foreign runners I certainly didn’t feel alone. In 1997, expats in Thailand were much more of a novelty than they are today, and my first long miles were spent in the companionship of dozens of Thai racers who capitalized on the opportunity to practice their English with the lone farang. I ran in the blackness at a steady pace for the first hour, all the while building confidence that I was going to do just fine in my first half marathon.
By Mile 6 the sun was bright, the temperatures were rising, my fellow racers had exhausted their English vocabulary, and that confidence was waning.
Mile 7. Getting really hot.
Mile 8. Getting really tired. (and hotter)
Mile 9. Getting really dizzy. (and hotter still)
Mile 10. It all came crashing down. I stumbled into a water station and promptly collapsed from heat exhaustion.
Laying on the ground with Thai race volunteers gathered around, dumping cups of water on me and pulling on my arms and legs had not been how I’d envisioned my race finish (or my death). I had only been in Thailand a few months, and most of the Thai words people were shouting at me were lost in my limited comprehension. What I gathered from the charade was that they wanted to send me to the finish line in the medical emergency truck. Luckily one of the few phrases I’d mastered in Thai by this point was “mai ow” which simply means “No Want”. I said it over and over again until the medics let me stay.
I’m still not sure to this day why I was so bound and determined to finish this race under the scorching sun, but the hill at the 11th mile was one I was apparently willing to die on this day. I drank more and more water and sniffed smelling salts until I mustered up the energy to stand again. Drenched and moderately hydrated, I took water with me and started walking. I was going the rest of the 13.1 miles if I had to crawl across the line.
I didn’t have to crawl. In fact, after mile 11 I even started jogging again. Along the beach, past dozens of hotels, the finish line appeared. I didn’t feel great, in fact, I felt terrible. But above all, I felt undefeated.
And then the best thing happened. They gave me my medals. Two of them.
One medal was the one all racers got for finishing. The second medal was because I placed 5th overall in the women.
I’ve ran lots of half marathons since (8 official ones in 6 countries in fact), but I’ve never placed 5th in a race again. Nor have I ever skipped a water station on a hot day.
And the lesson I learned: Keep going, you just may win the prize. And if you’re going to run a race in a land where you don’t speak the language you may want to make sure you know the word for water.
“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.”
– William James