My phone alarm goes off at 5.15am and immediately snaps me out of a blissfully dreamy state. Eeek! I immediately start to panic. The race starts at 5.30am!
I’m staying at the historic 3Nagas Hotel which is a few hundred metres from the start line of the Luang Prabang Half Marathon. I quickly calculate that I can still make the start. My mind races while hopping around, one leg in my running tights, trying to put five-finger toe socks on the other foot, while guzzling an oat slice. Adrenalin pumps through my body and I berate myself for being so irresponsible.
“Why didn’t my 3.30am alarm wake me? What has gone wrong?” I wonder.
Sure, we’ve been on the road for a week and my usually disciplined pre-race week routine has evolved into deliciously decadent three course dinners, mojitos and Singapore Slings alongside indulgent breakfast buffets. Not ideal. It’s been far from a regular week with four flights and four hotel stays travelling across four countries so my body clock is a little awry. At least there has been terrific hotels (thank you Accor Hotels!) with fabulous treadmill-equipped gyms so the running part of pre-race week has gone to plan.
But that’s no excuse to miss the start of a race. The whole purpose of our trip is to raise funds and run the half marathon. Amidst the panic, I’m already thinking how will I explain this to my hosts who have sent me here in good faith: I’m tasked with writing about this event in the wonderful UNESCO town of Luang Prabang as a fundraiser for Lao Friends Hospital for Children. There’s other alarm bells ringing in my head as I briefly wonder why my friends didn’t knock on my door? I’ve not got time to give it any more thought beyond imagining Annabel and Dennis already at the start line.
It’s 5.18am. I guzzle from the water bottle beside the bed and grab another one to stash in my race belt.
“It’s ok,” I think, “I’ve got 12 minutes to get out the door and to the start line.” So long as I start the race my finish time is irrelevant I figure. I just need to start, no matter how disheveled.
“I can do this.”
These four words have been my mantra through every race I’ve run since taking up marathon running a few years ago. “I haven’t quite blown it yet,” I tell myself pulling my shirt over my head while jamming my feet into my runners.
It’s 5.19am and I’m dressed and ready to bolt down the stairs and out the door. 4 minutes is surely a record! “I can run to the start and call it my warm up!”
But I need to go to the toilet. Like a shuttlecock flipping over a badminton net I weigh up whether I have enough time. Knowing the potential repercussions if I don’t go (no, let’s not even go there… you really don’t need to know), I sacrifice precious minutes for essential ablutions.
It’s 5.22am when I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. My long hair is awry and last night’s mascara shadows my lower lids. There’s no time to brush my teeth. I look a fright, but I don’t care.
Grabbing my room key and phone I glance at the screen and register the time. And the date. It’s Saturday 22 November. The race is on Sunday 23 November.
Shit. I can’t believe it. I look again. Then I check the date on my laptop screen. Sure enough, it’s Saturday.
Collapsing on my bed I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. “It’s Saturday!”
Instead of running, today we’re visiting Elephant Village just out of town, where we’ll learn from mahouts about training elephants with gentle words rather than the more common and barbaric hooks. We learn half a dozen Laos words to guide the elephants, which I forget long before I clamber unladylike, legs and arms askew, onto the wiry-bristled neck of Kham Khoun. At 43 years old she’s the old lady of the village and I immediately fall in love with her soft eyes shaded by delicate lashes. This, despite being terrified as she lumbers through the forest, no-doubt totally confused as I mix up my commands telling her to go left, right and straight ahead when I really mean stop! The only one I get right is thank you.
“Kop chai lye lye Kham Khoun,” I say as I sidle down her flank, grateful for a gentle nature which precludes her from tossing me into the jungle.
I do manage to run the Luang Prabang Half Marathon on Sunday, arriving in plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere beside elaborately gilded Haw Pha Bang temple in the grounds of the Royal Palace. Annabel and I line up in the dark alongside over 900 runners from 42 countries. Nominated by CNN as one of Asia’s best, it’s easy to accept their claim. Twice we cross the coffee-coloured water of the Nam Khan River, one bridge an ancient timber structure that wobbles underfoot. 3-wheeled tuk tuks dart ahead, children wave colourful flags, and volunteers directing traffic press their palms together in the traditional wai greeting. Team Sofitel runners are spotted both on the course and manning water stations while Dennis, our tireless support crew and anti-morning person, has forsaken his beauty sleep to snap photos and cheer street-side in the intense heat.
Streets lined with ancient French colonial architecture give way to countless wats (or temples) of varying degrees of grandiosity. Home to saffron-robed monks, runners follow the same route barefoot monks take each morning as they collect offerings in urns slung across their shoulders. Alms-giving is a sacred custom steeped in tradition dating back to the 14th century where monks rise pre-dawn to collect food for their only meal of the day. It sits nicely with the charitable act of giving that the event embraces, with runners raising over USD45,000. I silently pray that the monks are not quite so tardy as myself when it comes to time-keeping.
Read Annabel Candy’s wrap up from the Luang Prabang Half Marathon
Fiona Harper was a guest of Accor Hotels and Fly Scoot