This weekend, I had a revelation. I found out that I truly am, without doubt, a mountain runner. Not just an ordinary runner, who’s content to race on roads. No, if I’m not running and racing in the mountains, I’m not entirely happy.
I signed up for the Siem Reap Half Marathon three months ago. The reasons, well because:
1) I’ve not done a serious road race for four years, so I was interested to see what sort of time I’d do over a recognisable distance.
2) There aren’t any mountain running races that I know of in Vietnam. Hence, if I want to race, there’s no alternative but to race on the road.
3) I’d heard the Siem Reap Half Marathon course is incredible, the race itself starting outside the world renouned Angkor Wat temple, then winding its way right past the temples of Angkor, along shaded tree lined roads.
4) Everyone from Hanoi I knew who wasn’t going to the Singapore Marathon that weekend was going to the Siem Reap race. So it seemed like the social, fun weekend away thing to do.
I followed Hal Higdon’s advanced half marathon training plan for 12 weeks, religiously doing my intervals and tempos and paces and endurance runs. These in them themselves I found a drag to do. Running around tarmac roads, negotiating Hanoi traffic, breathing in their fumes made the whole training schedule even worse. I thought my feelings were just normal, until I met others doing similar training schedules who didn’t seem to mind the monotony of road running or its associated events.
But I sucked it up. What with no sizeable parks around Hanoi, I didn’t have an alternative place to run except on the city’s roads. And I didn’t have an alternative mountain race to train for, because they don’t seem to exist.
Anyhow, last Sunday morning saw Siem Reap’s half marathon take place. I was as prepared as I could have been.
So when the gun went off, I keep to my racing plan. I stayed around 169 beats per minute for 10 kilometres, and then crept into the 170s for the rest of the run. I looked at my watch as I passed the painted markers, working out my pace in my head. But the more I ran, the more bored I felt with every passing minute. Why? Well:
1) The race was so flat. There were no hills to run up that would give me splendid views from the top. There were no downhills to sprint down for the fun of it or that would allow me time to catch my breath.
2) I became obsessed with my watch. I spent the whole time mentally calculating time and pace and distance and speed. During a mountain run, I’d maybe look at my watch once to work out when to start speeding up towards the end. At the end of most mountain races, I’d forget to click stop as I crossed the line. Because racing on the road is so terribly boring, I found there’s nothing else to do except look at my watch all the time.
3) All the other competitors around were totally obsessed with their times. As soon as I finished, it seemed like everyone spent the next few hours comparing results. Your time is never a big issue in mountain races. For example, here’s a post-mountain racing conversation “How did you do? Good. I really enjoyed that muddy bit. And that climb, could you run it or did you walk?” And here’s what I heard on Sunday: “How did you do? Good. Ran 1 hour 35 minutes 16 seconds. Beat my personal best of 1 hour 35 minutes and 20 seconds. Really pleased with myself with shaving off those 4 seconds”. Personally, I think the first mountain running conversation is a much more interesting one.
So I ended up coming over the line and for some reason bursting out in tears. I missed mountain running. I missed the mud and mountain air. I missed the steep climbs and rocky descents. And I missed home. It was very embarrassing to be bawling my eyes out at the end of a run. But I just felt miserable. I never knew road running could have such a profound effect on me.
Not that I didn’t have a great weekend away in Siem Reap itself. The race route was indeed beautiful and the race was well organised. Afterwards, we had breakfast at the Blue Pumpkin bakery straight after the race, an hour long thai massage, lots of bottles of Angkor Beer on Siem Reap’s Bar Street and beside the hotel pool, and good craic with the lads from the Red River Runners and the French School. But I just learnt that I’m not a road racer. I’ll do my training runs on the flat, I’ll run on the road, but don’t ask me to race on it again, or next time I might do something worse than cry.