52,000 Steps: How I Ran the Angkor Wat Marathon

A marathon through the largest temple complex in the world – why not?

There is something mystical in knowing you are surrounded by walls and stones older than the oldest fairy-tales and legends of this land. There is something awesome in trying to feel Angkor Wat with all the fibres of your skin, knowing you won’t have a chance to see it with your own eyes for another 4 to 5 hours. So you stare into the night; trying to awaken all your senses, warm up your muscles and feel the presence of history.

Every day thousands of people visit Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and the main tourist attraction in Cambodia. This morning, I’m among the few hundred crazy ones that are preparing to run 42 kilometres through the entire site.

A young monk stands in Angkor Wat temple, marathon – Shutterstock
A young monk stands in Angkor Wat temple – Shutterstock

We stretch our calves and check our gear under the clear night sky. As I do so, I look up and see the morning’s stars watching from above. Yet the starlight and a few pocket flashlights brought by the more experienced runners are not enough to disturb the aura of the ancient temple that we know is all around us.

This is a small race; just a couple of hundred runners, a handful of organisers, some police officers and, of course, the temple. When the time comes I don’t even hear the start signal. I just see that people around me have started moving, so I turn on my music and start to run too.

The marathon route leads us away from the temple, towards the town of Siem Reap. The race started early and we have about an hour to enjoy the fresh air and empty streets before the scorching tropical sun comes up and the town awakens. The morning light brings some sense of reality by highlighting a smelly water channel by the roadside, tumbledown houses on the other side and the colourful mix of “finisher” t-shirts worn by my race companions. Unlike them, this is my first big race. If fact, I don’t think I would even have committed to it if it wasn’t for the location.

It must be around 6am when we run through the town, observing citizens going about their morning routine. The street is busy and I have to compete for space. There are tuk-tuks delivering all sorts of materials from chicken cages to some sort of construction material; there is a confident Cambodian lady crossing the street with her large shopping basket to get some groceries for breakfast; there is a pack of street dogs who seem busy this morning. And, of course, there are other runners just like me taking step after step after step.

The Angkor Wat marathon is held to raise money to help remove landmines – Shutterstock
The Angkor Wat marathon is held to raise money to help remove landmines – Shutterstock

The Angkor Wat marathon is held to support the ban on the manufacture and use of anti-personnel mines in Cambodia. The war and civil conflicts left the country infested with landmines which still cause hundreds of injuries per year. It’s dangerous to walk some fields and paths in Cambodia. Yet every year more and more people fly in to run 42 kilometres of Cambodian roads. Sure, the Angkor Wat marathon is missing a number of essentials such as street lights, roads closures or even regular bathrooms along the way. Yet, if you consider that every step you take throughout these 42 kilometres is a safe step in a country still filled with landmines, you get a completely different perspective on what these 52,000 safe steps mean for Cambodia.

We race out of Siem Reap and into the rice fields. An orange muddy surface has replaced the concrete road, wooden houses have replaced the solid buildings, drying laundry hangs in place of flashy advertising banners. The villagers by the side of the road are going through their daily routines: peeling fish, braiding baskets or just having a cigarette as they watch the bizarre crowd of runners passing by. You can tell that this marathon is a big deal for the locals – in every house, they pause whatever they are doing to greet us with waves and smiles. It’s Sunday, but all the kids have put on their school uniforms and lined up by the side of the road to high-five every single runner. I feel like some sort of hero and they give me the strength to keep on moving forwards.

Finally, 30 kilometres into the race, I reach the Angkor Wat complex. The runners have spread out so I get some time alone with the temples. Running by myself through this jungle where man-made wonders are bound by nature wonders feels magical. The whole complex is a beautifully balanced system where stones as ancient the forest are tangled up between high-hanging tree roots, as old as the Khmer empire. When running alone through the Angkor Wat temple, you have plenty of time to connect to the place on a different level than tourists. I pass my time imagining all the people who put one brick on top of another, nearly a thousand years ago. I also have enough time to hate every single one of these bricks, to curse and to scream in my mind out of exhaustion. You’d think that a place where people have prayed for years would bring you peace and calm your mind. Well, it doesn’t after you’ve been running for 4 hours straight.

The race will be over soon, but unlike my mind, my body does not know that yet. The toughest part is still ahead. The last few kilometres wind though the most touristy parts of the temple so there is no privacy anymore. Tourists jumping out of the buses, tourists taking pictures, tourists riding elephants. On top of that, weariness kicks in and reality starts to get blurry. Just keep on moving. Keep on lifting my legs. Keep on putting one leg in front of another. At the peak of mental and physical focus, my mind can only register all that’s happening around with no space to react to it. Elephants, wild monkeys and wild pigs (wait, wild pigs?), tuk-tuks, tourists and temples all blend into one crazy carousel until I notice the FINISH LINE sign ahead. My legs begin to automatically move faster, 200 metres, 100 metres, 50… Someone hands me a finisher’s medal and a bottle of water. The crazy carousel slows down and I can finally see Angkor Wat clearly.

The magnificent giant that watched my entire journey from the moment it started nearly five hours ago. The giant that’s resting its corpse on the bed of time itself, having seen thousands of inner journeys like mine, never needing to share its secrets with us. Angkor Wat silently watches everyone who decides to step into its territory to see and feel the history it’s guarding.