Monday, November 25, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Bagan Temple Marathon

On November 23, I ran the Bagan Temple Marathon in Myanmar (formerly Burma).  This was the second half of my two-part Asian trip that started with six nights in Bangkok.  Some of my friends did this race four years ago, but I didn’t get serious about it until I noticed the opportunity to do this race and the Bangkok Marathon as part of one long Asian trip.  The races were six day apart.

In Myanmar, I was touring with Albatros Adventure Marathons.  They’re a company that specializes in holding marathons in exotic locations.  I booked the trip through Marathon Tours & Travel.  They offered an eight-day itinerary and a six-day itinerary.  The six-day itinerary fit well with my trip to Bangkok, so that’s what I booked.  My lodging, sightseeing, and most of my meals were included in a pre-paid package.  My only out-of-pocket costs were for taxi fare, incidentals, and a few of my meals.

In contrast to most international trips, I didn’t have to endure any long flights or jet lag.  I was already is Asia, I was already adapted to the time zone, and I was caught up on sleep.

Wednesday, November 20

I flew to Yangon on a direct flight from Bangkok.  The flight time was only about an hour.

Myanmar has an unusual time zone.  Most time zones are offset by increments of one hour.  When I flew to Myanmar from Thailand, I had to set my watch back half an hour.  Myanmar is six and a half hours ahead of GMT.

To travel to Myanmar, I needed to obtain a visa.  You get the visa on arrival, but you have to present an approval letter.  That’s something you apply for online.  When I got to the international arrivals area, I saw a sign saying, “Visa on Arrival,” so I got in line.  I was almost to the head of the line when a customs agent saw me holding my approval letter and said I could skip that line and go straight to the passport control line.  Once I was in the correct line, the approval process only took a few minutes.

I took a taxi to Melia Yangon Hotel, which is one of the hotels where our group was staying for the first night.  The taxi driver accepted US dollars, but they had to be crisp and clean.  I knew that ahead of time and came prepared.  The fare was ten dollars, but the only bills I had were twenties.  I got change in local currency.  That was actually a time-saver, as I needed some local currency anyway.

When I arrived at the hotel, they couldn’t find a reservation in my name.  Eventually, they found one, but it was for the wrong day.  Albatros had two of their employees at the hotel.  I talked to one of them, and he called their local travel agent, who called the hotel and straightened things out.  After a short delay, I was able to check into my room.

I had a couple hours before dinner time, so I went to the hotel’s fitness center and did a short workout on the treadmill.

The day we arrived, we were on our own for dinner.  The hotel had its own restaurants, and it was also adjacent to a shopping mall that had a few restaurants.  Two of the restaurants in the mall were pizzerias.  Naturally, I went to one of the pizzerias.  It turned out to be a Korean pizzeria.  When I ordered my pizza, they asked me how spicy I wanted it.  I opted to get it less spicy.  That was a good call, as it was still pretty spicy.

Thursday, November 21

I was up early, so I could be all packed and ready to check out before breakfast.  We began our tour of Yangon right after breakfast, and we weren’t coming back to the hotel.

Out first stop was the Shwedagon Pagoda.  This was the highlight of our touring in Yangon.

In Myanmar culture, it’s important to know the day of the week you were born.  There are eight corners around Shwedagon Pagoda where people born on different days can pray.  There are two different corners for people born on a Wednesday, depending on whether they were born in the morning or afternoon.  This is the corner for people born on a Wednesday afternoon.

This is a place where a couple expecting a child can pray.  We saw a couple praying to have a son.

Whenever we were driving between stops, our local guide used the time to teach us about Myanmar history or culture.  One example is why Yangon was called Rangoon during the British colonial period.  Some letters are pronounced differently by different ethnic groups.  The first tribe the British encountered pronounced the name Rangoon.  Most people pronounced it Yangon, but during a century of British rule, the city was named Rangoon.

Next, we did a walking tour of the city center.  We started at Maha Bandula Park, where we saw Sule Pagoda, Yangon City Hall, the Independence Monument, and the High Court

From there, we walked past several colonial era buildings, including the telegraph office, the Strand Hotel, the British Embassy, and the central post office.  We also walked to a bridge where we could see the river.

We had lunch at House of Memories.  They served a five course meal that gave us an introduction to Myanmar cuisine.  Out main course included roast pork and chicken in two different curry sauces.

After lunch, we went to the airport to fly to Bagan.  Our flight was delayed, so we didn’t arrive in Bagan until about 5:30.  We had to wait for everyone’s luggage to be unloaded, and then a motor coach took us to our resort.  In Bagan, we stayed at Amata Garden Resort.  When we arrived at the resort, our race packets were waiting for us.  We just had to find the envelope with the right name.

By the time I checked in and unpacked, it was already dark.  We were on our own for dinner.  Most people went to nearby restaurants, but I was tired after being up since 4:00 AM, so I stayed at the resort.  They had a nice restaurant with a varied menu.

Friday, November 22

I slept well at first, but woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep.  
I eventually got up and went to breakfast.

One of most popular things to do in Bagan is a hot air balloon ride.  While I was eating breakfast, I saw the balloons flying nearby.

Every day, we toured with the same runners and the same local guide.  There were several other groups besides mine.  One had the same itinerary as I did and was staying at the same hotels.  Another had the same itinerary, but was staying at different hotels.  Others had an itinerary that started two days earlier.  At breakfast, I bumped into two runners I know who were in different groups.

After everyone had time to eat breakfast, we left for a guided tour of Bagan.  Our first stop was one of the local villages, where we got to meet people and see how they live.  One woman demonstrated how to spin thread from cotton.  Another was rolling cigars.

Bagan is best known for its pagodas.  They’re all across the landscape.  Bagan adopted Buddhism at the beginning of the 11th century.  The people living here during that period had such zeal for their new faith that they built thousands and thousands of temples over the next 300 years.  Most of them have been destroyed over time, but there are still 2,000 of them within a small area.  We hiked to the top of a small mound where we could look around and see dozens of them.

Most of the pagodas are temples.  The ones still used as places of worship are painted white or covered with gold.  The ones that are brick red are historical relics that haven’t been maintained.  We went inside one of these temples, where we could see Buddha images and ancient murals on the walls.

Another type of pagoda is a stupa.  These aren’t buildings that you go inside.  Instead, they’re solid structures that hold relics of Buddha.  The Shwedagon Pagoda is an example of a stupa.  While we were on the bus, our local guide showed us how the architectural style of stupas changed over time.  The next pagoda we visited was the Shwezigon Pagoda.  This pagoda is an example of the oldest style of stupa found in Myanmar.

After visiting the Shwezigon Pagoda, we had lunch at a restaurant near our resort.  This was another meal with multiple courses.  The meats were each served in curry sauces.

After lunch, we went to Ananda Temple.  Our guide showed us how the Buddha images seem to have a different facial expression depending on whether you’re close or far away.

For centuries, many of the temples, including this one, were neglected.  People lived and cooked in them, causing the interior walls to be blackened with soot.  Every so often, a new government would clean them up by painting over the soot.  This went on for centuries, until the layers of paint were as much as a centimeter thick.  Large temples usually had murals inside, documenting the life of Buddha.  The murals inside Ananda Temple were only recently discovered after years of carefully removing the layers of paint.  This effort is still under way.

That was our last stop.  Then we returned to the resort, where we had a couple of hours to relax before meeting to go to dinner.

In the evening, we had a pre-race pasta dinner for everyone doing the tour package.  They started by introducing the Albatros staff and the medical staff.  Then they had a pre-race briefing.

There were 300 people, so I was expecting it to take a long time.  I was pleasantly surprised.  They had two buffet lines, and it didn’t take long for everyone to get their food.  It’s one of the better pasta dinners I’ve had.  They had several types of pasta, as well as salads, potatoes, and desserts.  They even had pizza.

As soon as we got back from dinner, I went to bed.

Saturday, November 23

Saturday was race day.  Even though I had to get up early, I felt like I got plenty of sleep.  The resort started their breakfast service at 3:45, but I didn’t want to get up earlier just to eat.  I had such a big dinner on Friday that I didn’t feel like I needed any more food.  Instead, I just stopped by the breakfast area to have a cup of tea.

It was 71 degrees, but the temperature was still dropping.  It was forecast to get down to 66 before the race started.  Later, it would climb back into the 80s, but I was still optimistic.  It was much cooler than any of the other mornings.

We met at 5:00 AM to be bused to the start.  The race started and finished next to the Htiliminio Temple.  When our bus dropped us off, there was still almost an hour before the start of the race.

There are permanent toilets near the entrance to the temple.  There were also some primitive toilets set up temporarily next to the starting line.  I joined two friends for a pre-race photo.  Then I made a bathroom stop.  After that, I found a place to sit until it was time to check my gear bag.

Over my race clothes, I wore wind pants and a light jacket.  I didn’t need them for warmth.  They were extra protection from mosquitos.  I don’t recall seeing any mosquitos, but they tend to come out at dawn and dusk.

At our pre-race briefing on Friday, we were told there wouldn’t be any toilets along the route.  There were plenty of bushes, but if we went into the bushes, we should make a lot of noise to scare away the snakes.  We were also told if we were bitten by a snake, we should take a picture of it, so the medics would know how to treat us.  Needless to say, I was motivated to start the race with an empty bladder.  I wasn’t going in the bushes.

Twenty minutes before the race, I made a final bathroom stop, checked my gear bag, and lined up for the race.  I didn’t think many other people would be starting at a fast pace, so I lined up fairly close to the starting line.

We started at 6:15.  Just before the start, I could see the sunrise in front of us.  Looking behind me, Htiliminio Temple was bathed in the glow of the morning sun.

When the race started, the road was congested, and I initially had trouble finding room to run at my own pace.  That only lasted for about 200 meters.  Then I was able to accelerate into my pace.  I ran the first kilometer in 5:04.  That’s about what I was hoping for.  I didn’t expect to run that fast for the whole race, but I saw no reason why I couldn’t run that fast in the early kilometers, when temperatures were still reasonably comfortable.

We ran on a combination of dirt roads and dirt trails.  In some areas, it was a smooth hard-packed surface.  In other areas, there were rocks in the road or there were ruts from mud that had hardened.  It was all runnable, but I sometimes had to watch my footing.

Once we got going, I started to notice a breeze.  I don’t know if the temperature was as low as what I saw in the forecast, but I didn’t feel at all hot.

My second kilometer was faster.  I brought my average pace just below five minutes per kilometer.  That’s where I kept it for the next ten kilometers.

My goal at the start of the race was to break four hours.  I started faster with the expectation that I would slow down later, as it started to get hot.  I was surprised how long I was comfortable running five minute kilometers.  Early in the race, I was pretty confident I would break four hours easily.  I was actually on pace for 3:30.

Early in the race, I saw lots of temples.  I didn’t have to look for them.  They were all around me.  Sometimes, as many as a dozen temples were in my field of view at the same time.

After about three kilometers, I started seeing hot air balloons overhead.  At first, there were only a few of them.

Before the race, I heard or read that the aid stations would be every four kilometers.  Right on schedule, I reached an aid station at 4K.  They had bottles of water and cups of energy drink.  I drank a cup of the energy drink and also grabbed a bottle of water.  As soon as I got the cap off the bottle, I resumed running.  I carried the bottle with me and drank as I ran.

There was a trash bin right at the aid station.  I was expecting to see another one a short distance past the aid station, but there wasn’t one.  Bagan is an archeological zone, and they’re serious about preventing pollution from discarded plastic.  We were instructed to carry empty bottles with us until we saw a place to throw them away.  When I finished drinking, I carried the empty bottle.  At 5K, I finally saw a trash can and threw away the bottle.

Now I was running through Old Bagan, which is where Bagan was founded a thousand years ago.  After making a couple turns, I was once again running toward the area where the hot air balloons were flying.  Now I saw dozens of balloons.

There was a marathon, a half marathon, and a 10K race.  All three races started together.  The courses for all three races were marked with red and white striped flagging.  In addition, there were signs with colored arrows.  Black arrows marked the marathon route, red arrows marked the half marathon route, and green arrows marked the 10K route.

At 7K, we ran right past Ananda Temple. Shortly after that, the 10K race diverged from the marathon and half marathon.  I was expecting the field to thin out, but it didn’t.  The runners immediately in front of me were all doing the marathon or half marathon.

At 8K, I reached another aid station.  Drinking both water and the energy drink was too much.  Instead, I started alternating between the two.  When I drank water, I stopped long enough to drink the whole bottle, so I could throw it away at the aid station.

The third aid station came earlier than I expected.  It was at 11K.  After that, aid stations came more frequently than they did at first.  I never again needed to drink both water and energy drink at the same aid station.

This aid station was at a junction where the marathon course went to the right and the half marathon course went to the left.  I saw a few runners turn left, but I saw several turning right.  One of them was a woman in our tour group named Nicola.  As Nicola ran by the aid station, I heard one of the race officials say, “first lady.”  That gave me some idea where I was in the field.  I was in good company.

At 13K, we entered New Bagan.  This town is only about 30 years old.  It’s where most of the hotels and resorts are.  I ran right by the entrance to Amata Garden Resort.  Add this to the growing list of races where I’ve run right past my hotel.

Up until this point, the course had been flat.  The next few kilometers were rolling.  I started to find the pace more tiring.

At 14K, I took inventory of how I was feeling.  Earlier, my pace felt manageable, but now it felt somewhat tiring.  I had been running five minute kilometers, but I had to back off now.  For the past few kilometers, Nicola was just ahead of me.  As I abandoned the pace, she pulled away.

I could tell it was warming up, but I still didn’t feel the sun on me.  We were usually surrounded by trees.  They were short trees, but the sun was still at a low enough angle that we were usually in the shade.

The roads we were running on were all open to traffic.  I didn’t see many cars, but there were lots of motorcycles.  I also passed a couple of ox carts.

At around 16K, I ran through a small village.  A group of children were standing by the side of the road.  They all waved to me.  I waved back.

Next, I turned onto a narrow road/trail where the dirt was somewhat loose.  I tried to find the firmest footing I could, but the abundance of soft dirt slowed me down.  This section was more tiring.  I didn’t know how long this section would last.  I was hoping it would only be two or three kilometers.  It was much longer than that.

After a few more kilometers, the dirt got softer and thicker.  I felt like I was running over mounds of sand.  My pace slowed, and I found this section really tiring.

I reached the halfway point in 1:48.  I was on pace to finish in 3:36, but I was running out of gas.  Running through the loose dirt took a lot out of me.  Early, I was confident I could break four hours by a wide margin.  Now I wasn’t completely sure if I could still hold on to break four hours.  I was getting fatigued and I wasn’t even feeling the heat yet.  Later, it would get hot.  I wondered if I was starting to go downhill and it would just get worse.

For the previous few kilometers, I was so far behind Nicola that I seldom saw her.  At about 22K, I saw her again.  She didn’t seem as far ahead.  That helped restore my confidence.  I wasn’t falling farther and farther behind.

At 23K, I entered Nyaung Do Village.  This was the largest village on the route.  Now I was on a dirt road with firm footing.  That felt much easier, and I picked up my pace again.

Running through the village, I saw groups of children lining the streets.  Many of them wanted high fives.  I don’t think they were just showing support.  They seemed genuinely enthusiastic about getting to touch the runners.  I tried to high five as many as I could, even if it slowed me down.  Later in the race, I would see the same thing in other villages.

In the distance, I could see two runners.  One was Nicola.  The other was a guy in a white shirt.  This was the first time I saw him.  I tried to gradually catch up to them.  That might seem crazy when I was struggling just a kilometer earlier, but I had a reason for wanting to catch up to them.

This race had chip timing, but there aren’t any intermediate chip mats.  To ensure we ran the full route, they had an aid station somewhere in the middle of the route where we were supposed to get a wrist band.  You needed the wrist band to get your finisher medal.  I was well past the halfway mark and didn’t have a wristband yet.  I didn’t know where we would get them, but I started to worry that I somehow missed it.  I wanted to catch the runners ahead of me to see if they had their wristbands yet.  Yeah, I was getting a little neurotic.

At 23K, I checked my time.  Earlier in the race, I had been running five minute kilometers, which put me on pace for 3:30.  Now I was about three and a half minutes behind that pace.  I was once again confident I would break four hours easily, providing I continued to have good footing.

The route took us up onto a levee that went around the corner of a reservoir.  Up on the levee, it was easier to see the runners ahead of me.  I was definitely going to catch the guy in the white shirt.

As I got closer, I saw something on his left wrist.  It was neon green.  Was that the wrist band?  I started to panic.  When I was close enough, I realized that was his watch band.  As I passed him, I looked at both of his wrists.  No wrist band.  I had a big sigh of relief.

After leaving the levee, I got onto a paved road.  I thrived on the sure footing of the road and picked up my pace even more.  I caught up to Nicola.  She also didn’t have a wrist band.  I told her I was relieved to be back on solid pavement.  She was too.  Neither of us was fond of the loose dirt.

I was on fire now.  I went on ahead on my own.  When I reached 24K, I checked my time again.  I ran that kilometer in 4:43.  That was my fastest kilometer so far.

We were near a small mountain range.  I could see Tuvin Taung Pagoda on the top of the ridge.  If there was one point in the race where I wished I brought my camera, this was it.

At 27K, I reached an aid station that was at the southeast corner of our route.  As I rounded the corner, a volunteer handed me my wristband.  I felt like a weight was lifted off me.  Now I could stop worrying about that and focus on finishing the race.

For the next two or three kilometers, I was on a paved road.  I was once again consistently clicking off kilometers that were faster than five minutes.  I passed another runner. Then I reached 28K.  It was time to take inventory again.  I was feeling a little bit warm now, but I was two thirds of the way through the race.  I was on pace to break 3:35.  I didn’t expect to keep up the pace as it got hotter, but I maintained my effort.

I was past 29K and starting to anticipate the 30K sign when I made a left turn and saw another runner in the distance.  I immediately wondered if I could reel him in and pass him.  He was at least 400 meters ahead of me, but there was a lot of race left.  I made it my mission to catch him.

I was back on dirt roads again.  The surface was fairly firm, but I still noticed the difference in traction.  I found myself constantly changing my stride, as I tried to find a gait that let me run faster without wearing myself out.

I didn’t know how many runners were ahead of me, but now I wasn’t just racing for time.  I wanted to see how high I could place.  That’s exactly what I needed for motivation.  I lit a fire under myself to keep up my effort.

I was so focused on catching the runner ahead of me that I missed both the 30K and 31K signs.  I saw the 32K sign just as I was getting to another village.  I was high fiving the kids on both sides of the road.  It momentarily slowed me down, but they were excited and so was I.  Shortly after that, I finally passed the runner I had been chasing.

With 9K to go, I realized I was now on a good pace to break 3:35.  It didn’t seem realistic before.  Now it did.

After a couple of turns I got onto a road that went straight for far enough that I could see a runner in the distance.  He was wearing a green shirt.  By the time I caught him, I could see another runner ahead of me wearing a black shirt.  He was pretty far ahead of me.

I made another turn.  The guy in the black shirt was taking a brief walking break.  He was closer now, but way in the distance, I could see two more runners in white.  They were about 800 meters in front of me.  I only had 7K to go, so I wasn’t too confident I could catch them before the end of the race.  Then they disappeared around a corner.

When I finally turned around that same corner, they were right in front of me.  They were walking.  One turned to look at me as I passed.  I saw he was wearing a half marathon bib.

I never noticed when the marathon and half marathon courses merged together again.  Now if I saw someone in front of me, I didn’t know if I was competing with them.  As it turns out, everyone I passed from that point on was walking.  I don’t think I saw any more marathon runners.

The last major landmark I passed was the Nan Myint Tower.  I had noticed it before from farther away.  I continued running five minute kilometers.  I was no longer trying to move up in the field.  Now I was just trying to maintain my pace to the finish.

Late in the race, as I ran along a narrow trail, I saw a plastic bottle in the bushes.  I was annoyed that someone would litter like that.  I was tempted to stop and pick it up.  Then I remembered what they said about snakes during our pre-race briefing.  I stayed on the trail.

With two kilometers to go, I ran through Nyaung-U Town.  This is another fairly built-up area with hotels and restaurants.  Now my legs started to feel heavy.  I tried to keep up my pace, but I couldn’t quite do it.  My pace slowed down a little, despite by best effort to finish strong.  Finally, in the last kilometer, I saw a sign marking a turn.  When I got there, I realized I was turning into the parking lot next to Htiliminio Temple.  Suddenly, I knew exactly where I was in relation to the finish line.  I raced for the line and finished in 3:32:04.  I placed fourth overall.

Remarkably, I ran negative splits by four minutes, in spite of the fact that the second half was hotter.  It was at least 80 degrees by the time I finished.  I usually hold up well in heat, but I think it also helped that this was my third straight tropical race.  After five days in Cuba, six days in Thailand, and four days in Myanmar, I was adapting to the heat.

I love the design of the finisher medal.  It shows both the temples and the hot air balloons.  The ribbon is patterned after the Myanmar flag.

They had buses to the hotels that left every hour on the hour.  Before the race, I assumed I would be taking the 11:00 bus.  I looked at my watch and realized I could still catch the 10:00 bus.  They had a buffet line with post-race food, but I skipped most of it.  I got a water bottle and a croissant, and went to retrieve my gear bag.  Then I headed straight to the bus.  The bus made a circuit that stopped at several different hotels.  Amata Garden Resort was near the end of the circuit, so I didn’t get back until about 10:30.

After washing up, I went for a brief swim.  The resort had a nice large pool.  The cool water was refreshing, and swimming helped my muscles recover.

I had lunch at the resort and talked to some of the other runners.  In the late afternoon, we can a cocktail party at the resort for all the runners.  After that, I didn’t have room for a full dinner, but I came back to the restaurant to order a dessert.  I had to try the fried Bagan bananas.

I went to bed early, and for the second straight night, I slept solidly all night.

Sunday, November 24

Sunday was a day that we could either book an optional excursion or be on our own.  I opted to be on my own, which allowed me to sleep in.

I didn’t notice many other people at breakfast.  Then I remembered that a lot of the people in our group got up early to do the balloon ride excursion.  I stepped outside and saw some of them flying over.

The people in this one were waving as they got close to our resort.  I think some of them were in our tour group.

Before it got too hot, I went out for a recovery run.  I stuck to wide roads that had good footing.  My run gave me a chance to see some different pagodas.

I finished my run before the resort’s breakfast service was done, so I was able to rehydrate with some juice.  Then I went for a swim.  I bumped into Nicola in the pool area.  She was already back from her hot air balloon ride.  From the balloons, they got great aerial views of the pagodas.  Here’s one of her photos.

I spent most of the afternoon relaxing at the resort.  Then, at 4:00, I met the rest of the group to go to our celebration dinner.  The venue was kept secret.  We were only told it would be open-air, and we should wear shoes appropriate for walking over sand.  It turned out to be a sunset cruise on the Irrawaddy River, followed by a dinner party on an island.

After dinner there was a brief awards ceremony.  They had awards for the top three men and women in each race.  I just missed the three, but we all cheered for Nicola, who was the female winner in the marathon.

It took a long time to get back to the hotel, so I got to bed late that night.

Monday, November 25

Before going to breakfast, I packed up, so I would be ready to check out right after breakfast.  Some people went to other parts of Myanmar to extend their tour.  The rest of us flew back to Yangon.

We arrived at Yangon by 11:00 AM, but I wasn’t scheduled to fly home until 11:30 PM.  In the meantime, I checked into an airport hotel.  I found one with an airport shuttle that was only $25.  At the hotel, I had a secure place to leave my bags, and I could use their wifi.  They also had a pool and a restaurant.  They even gave me a glass of juice when I checked in.  I felt a little guilty about how little I was paying.

I could’ve taken a taxi into town to have lunch, but it was easier just to eat at the hotel restaurant.  After lunch, I was feeling sleep, so I tried to take a nap.  The hotel had AC, but the temperature outside was in the 90s, and my room was on the top floor.  The AC just couldn’t keep up.  It was 80 degrees in my room, which made it impossible for me to get to sleep.

When Deb was awake, we talked on the phone for an hour and a half.  Since I arrived in Asia, we’ve been in time zones that were about 12 hours out of sync.  That’s made it tough to talk to each other for more than a few minutes.  Even when we were both awake, at least one of us was on the go.  This was the first time neither of us was in a hurry to go someplace.

I had a light dinner at the hotel and tried one more time to take a nap.  By now, the sun was going down, and my room had cooled off by several degrees.  Unfortunately, I was no longer sleepy.  At 8:30, I checked out, and they brought me back to the airport.

I still have three flights to get home.  The first one is a Korean Air flight back to Incheon/Seoul.  That's a nighttime flight, but it's also the one with the smallest seats, which will make it difficult to sleep.  Hopefully, I'll be able to sleep on one of my flights.  Otherwise, I'll be a wreck when I get home.  At least then I can sleep in my own bed.

I don't have another race until mid-December.  I've enjoyed my Asian adventure, but it'll be nice to be home for a while.

Race Statistics
Distance:  42.2 kilometers
Time:  3:32:04
Average Pace:  5:02 per kilometer (8:05 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  393
Countries:  41

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Bangkok Marathon

On November 17, I ran the Bangkok Marathon.  This was the first half of a two-part Asian trip.  I’ve been interested in running a marathon in Thailand ever since my friend Maricar traveled there.  I didn’t get serious about going there this year until I noticed that this race and the Bagan Temple Marathon in Myanmar were six days apart.

A few years ago, some of my friends did the Bagan Temple Marathon with Marathon Tours & Travel, and they loved it.  The itinerary for that trip required arriving in Yangon, Myanmar on November 20.  That’s three days after the Bangkok Marathon, which was convenient timing.  There are multiple airlines with non-stop flights between Bangkok and Yangon.

The Bangkok Marathon has a midnight start.  Technically, the race is on Sunday, but it seemed more like a Saturday night race.  That meant my last opportunity to get a full night’s sleep was Friday night.  For that reason, I wasn’t comfortable arriving any later than Thursday.

That was problematic.  I ran a marathon in Havana the previous weekend, and I didn’t get home until late Monday night.  The only way to get to Bangkok by Thursday was to leave early Wednesday morning.  Even then, I wouldn’t get there until after 11:00 PM on Thursday night.

I couldn’t get there in less than three flight segments.  Delta recently added flights from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Seoul/Incheon, but they don’t fly that route every day.  Wednesday, unfortunately, was the wrong day.  I had to change planes in Seattle and again in Seoul/Incheon.  To ensure safe connections, I had to leave Minneapolis at 6:55 AM.  That meant leaving home by 4:30.  I’ve rarely been able to sleep on airplanes, and this was a long trip, so starting the trip tired wasn’t ideal.

The day before I left, I started having symptoms of a cold.  For almost a week, I was averaging between three and four hours of sleep.  That eventually caught up to me.  All day Tuesday, I had a mild case of post-nasal drip.  During the night, I started to feel a sore throat.  I didn’t have any other symptoms yet, but it wasn’t the best way to start the trip.

My longest flight segment was a 12 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul/Incheon.  I was originally booked in a Premium Select seat.  That’s something new.  It’s not first class, but it’s more comfortable than economy.  The day before the trip, I called Delta to ask if I could use miles to upgrade to a first class seat.  I could, and it only cost me 45,000 miles. That’s a bargain to have a seat that reclines completely flat for a 12 hour flight.  That gave me a realistic chance of getting some sleep on the flight.

Wednesday, November 13

During the night, I started to have a sore throat.  After getting up, I was back to just having post-nasal drip.  At this point, I was still clinging to hope that I could fight off the cold.

My flight to Seattle arrived about 30 minutes early.  That gave me a three hour layover before the long flight to Seoul/Incheon.

About halfway through my flight to Seoul/Incheon, I felt sleepy, so I took a nap.  Being able to recline completely flat is a game-changer.  I’ve never been more relaxed or more comfortable on an airplane.  It took a long time to fall asleep, but then I slept for at least an hour.  That was enough sleep to tide me over, but not so much that it would be more difficult to adjust to the time zone in Bangkok.

When I woke up, I felt slightly congested.  I was no longer optimistic about beating the cold.  I assumed at this point that I would gradually develop all the other symptoms.

Thursday, November 14

Toward the end of my second flight, we crossed the International Date Line.  Now instead of Wednesday afternoon it was Thursday afternoon.

As we began descending, I felt some discomfort in my ears.  I feared they would get more painful as we continued to descend, but they didn’t.  They gradually adjusted to the change in air pressure.  I was still only partially congested.

I arrived at the Seoul/Incheon airport in the late afternoon.  After another two and a half hour layover, I finally flew to Bangkok.  The last flight was only five and a half hours, but boarding was delayed, because of a last minute change in aircraft.  Everyone needed to get new seat assignments.  By the time we took off, we were already 40 minutes behind schedule.

To save time on arrival, I didn’t check a bag.  I’ve never been good at packing light.  Fitting everything I needed for a two week trip into a carry-on bag wasn’t easy, but I managed to do it.  After getting off the plane, I went straight to the long line for passport control.

Because I arrived so late, I spent my first night at an airport hotel.  The Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport is connected to the airport terminal by a tunnel.  By the time I got there and checked in, it was already after midnight.  I wanted to get to sleep as quickly as I could.  When I got to the room, the AC wasn’t on.  It took me a while to find the climate control.  It was set to 23 degrees Celsius.  When I turned it down, I could feel cool air coming out of the vents, but it would take time to get the room cooled down.

Friday, November 15

At 1:30 AM, I finally tried to go to sleep.  I set my alarm for 9:30.  In theory, I could get eight hours sleep.  It didn’t work out that way.

As I tried to figure out how to turn off all the lights, I inadvertently turned off power to the climate control.  I turned it on again, but it reset to 23 C.  I didn’t notice that.  I went to bed thinking the room was cooling off, but it was actually starting to warm up again.  I tossed and turned for hours before realizing the room was getting warmer.

At 5:00 AM, I noticed the climate control was set to 23 C.  I got up and changed it, but it took time for the room to get cool.  I eventually fell asleep, but I only slept for about two hours.  That was a lost opportunity.

When I woke up, my congestion was worse.  Did I mention this wasn’t the best way to start a trip?

I lost both Wednesday and Thursday to air travel, so I was overdue for a run.  When I got up, I went to the hotel’s fitness center and ran for an hour on one of their treadmills.  That workout seemed like a turning point.  Despite my cold and my lack of sleep, I felt OK for the rest of the day.

My room rate included my choice of breakfast or lunch.  By the time I was dressed, it was time for lunch.  I had the lunch buffet in the hotel’s Japanese restaurant.  The buffet was a fusion of different styles.  I had an eclectic selection that included sushi, pumpkin curry stir fry, pizza, and crème brulée for dessert.

I was able to get around Bangkok using public transportation.  There’s a train into the city from the Suvarnabhumi airport.  In the city, I used a combination of sky trains and MRT (subway).  One of the MRT lines was recently extended through the “old city,” making it easier to get to my hotel.

For the next five nights, I stayed at Riva Arun Bangkok.  This hotel was located on the Chao Phraya River, directly across from Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn).  My room had a balcony with this view.

I was impressed with the service at this hotel.  They brought me a small pot of green tea to drink while they were filling out my paperwork and checking to see if my room was ready.  They escorted me to my room and one of the employees gave me a tour of the room.

After unpacking and making sure the AC was on, I took the trains to the Marriott, where my friends Shannon and Eric were staying.  We spent the evening at the Octave Sky Bar on the roof.  We stayed long enough to see the city at night.  Then we went down to the 45th floor to eat dinner.

By the time I got back to Riva Arun, my room was nice and cool, and I was ready to get some sleep.  Before bed, I stepped out onto the balcony to see the view of Wat Arun at night.

I had no trouble getting to sleep that night, and I slept for most of the night.

Saturday, November 16

I had breakfast at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant.  From there, you not only have views of the river and Wat Arun, but you can also see Wat Pho.

After breakfast, I took a tour of the Jim Thompson House Museum.  Jim Thompson was an architect, designer, and textile colorist who revived the silk weaving industry in Thailand.  He designed his home, which consists of six teak buildings of traditional Thai architecture.  His home is furnished with an extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, and porcelain.  Some of the pieces are as much as a thousand years old.

In 1967, Jim Thompson went missing while hiking in the jungle in Malaysia.  To this day, nobody knows what happened to him.  His home is now a museum.

From the Jim Thomson House Museum, it was a short walk to the National Stadium, where packet pickup for the race was being held.  With my race packet, I got both a T-shirt and a singlet.  On my way back, I saw someone grilling chicken and pork kebabs, so I had street food for lunch.

After dropping off my race packet at the hotel, I went out to explore the neighborhood.  I walked past Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Wat Mahathat.  Along the way, I passed numerous small shops and street vendors.  Then I stopped to explore the amulet market.  This is a narrow alley lined with dozens of vendor selling amulets and other souvenirs.

On my way back to the hotel, I explored some of the small shops near Chang Pier.  Wherever I went in the old city, I saw tributes to the royal family.

Shannon was also doing the marathon, so she and Eric stayed at Riva Arun Bangkok the night of the race.  I got back to the hotel just as they were checking in.  Shannon still needed to pick up her race packet.  While they were going to the expo, I explored a different part of the old city.

This temple is called Wat Suthat.  The large red structure next to it used to be the support for a giant swing.  The giant swing was used as part of religious ceremonies, but the practice was stopped after several fatal injuries.

I had dinner with Shannon and Eric at an Italian restaurant near Khau San Road.  The restaurant was on such a narrow alleyway, that we would have missed it if not for using my phone for directions.  We all had pizza, and it was excellent.

As we were walking back from dinner, all the temples and government buildings were lit up.  This is the Supreme Court and the Grand Palace,

Here’s Wat Pho at night, viewed from the roof of our hotel.  In the distance, you can also see parts of the Grand Palace and the Rama VIII Bridge.

I still had four and a half hours before the race, so I decided to try taking a nap.  I never take naps, but this was an unusual circumstance.  It was already well after dark, I had a huge sleep deficit, and I was going to be running through the night.

I set an alarm and went to bed.  Before long, I fell asleep.  Before I knew it, I woke up from a two hour nap.  I can think of plenty of races with normal start times where I got less sleep than that.

I was feeling pretty good.  The nap energized me. It even seemed like my cold was breaking up.  I didn’t have any new symptoms, the post nasal drip was gone, and I didn’t have as much congestion.  I took a shower and started getting dressed.

I hadn’t noticed any mosquitoes since arriving in Bangkok, but Eric noticed one at dinner.  I was going to have a lot of exposed skin during dinner, so I used lots of insect repellant.  I didn’t have to worry about sunblock.

At 11:30, I met Shannon in the lobby, and we walked to the start.  It was a 10 minute walk.  I’m glad I used the bathroom before leaving the hotel, because I didn’t see any port-o-potties anywhere in the start area.

Before the race, there was a brief drum ceremony.  Shannon took this video of part of it.

Then they led us through a 10 minute warm-up routine.  I’ve seen similar things in a few European races, but this had an Asian flavor.  It was energetic.

Sunday, November 17

One might assume they hold the race at night so we don’t have to endure the radiant heat of the sun.  That might be the case, but I suspect it was for another reason.  Between midnight and 6 AM, it’s easier to close down the roads.  A majority of the course was on a major highway and the highway was completely closed to traffic.

The course is mostly out-and-back, starting and finishing in front of the Grand Palace. 
I assumed the course would be lit, but I had a small flashlight with me, just in case.

Shannon and I ran together for the whole race.  Neither of us was planning to go all out for a fast time.  We paced ourselves conservatively, respecting the heat.  We just wanted to finish.

For the first kilometer or so, we were running along the same street that we had walked going to and from dinner on Saturday.  We once again got to see familiar landmarks like the Ministry of Defense and the Supreme Court.  We continued through busy streets for another kilometer and a half.  We ran past the Democracy Monument, which was lit up beautifully, but I didn’t have a camera with me.  It didn’t want to get my camera saturated with sweat.

At the start of the race, the temperature was in the low 80s, with stifling humidity.  The temperature gradually dropped during the race, but the humidity never got any better.

They had water stations every two kilometers.  That was very consistent.  I don’t recall seeing any odd numbered kilometer markers, but the even ones were always right at an aid station.

After two and a half kilometers, we went up a ramp that took us onto Rama VIII Road, named after the eighth king of Siam.  After about four kilometers, we crossed the Rama VIII Bridge over the Chao Phraya River.  The bridge supports were lit up.  That’s a photo I would have taken if I had a camera.  As we crossed the bridge, I took in the views of the river.

Shortly after crossing the bridge, we turned onto a highway.  We were on that same highway for most of the race.

Most of the course was well-lit, but there were a few brief sections where the street lamps weren’t on.  I never needed to use my flashlight, but I did need to pay more attention, so Shannon and I didn’t get separated.

As we were nearing the end of the eighth kilometer, Shannon said she needed to slow down.  I didn’t realize it, but she was really struggling with the conditions in the early kilometers.  Around the same time, a runner from Ireland asked me if I spoke English.  He wanted to know how far we had gone.  I could see the next aid station just ahead.  I told him this aid station was 8K.  He ran with us for several kilometers and we had a nice conversation.

We slowed down a bit, and before long, Shannon was feeling better.  The highway wasn’t very exciting as far as scenery goes, but it was usually at least 50 feet above ground level.  Before we got onto the highway, there wasn’t any breeze.  Now that we were up higher, we had just enough of a breeze to help with the humidity.  That really made a difference.  It’s the reason Shannon started feeling better.

The 8K aid station was the first one to have Gatorade.  Before that, we could only drink water.  After that, we saw Gatorade at about one third of the aid stations.  Later in the race, we started to get excited if we approached an aid station and saw Gatorade banners.

Even though the aid stations were frequent, I found myself needing to drink two cups at each aid station.  I was sweating like crazy.

I think we were about 15K into the race when we started to see elite runners already coming back.  There was a lead pack of about eight runners who were all still together.  I’m sure the race for first place got exciting later.

For most of the race we were running in the westbound lanes of the highway.  Around 19K, we made a U-turn into the eastbound lanes.  We continued east for about two kilometers before turning around to retrace our route back toward the city center.

I rarely looked at my watch, but we reached the halfway mark in about 2:05.  Before the race, Shannon was guessing we might run the marathon in 4:15.  Now that we were half done, she said she was hoping to finish somewhere between 4:15 and 4:30.  She didn’t seem confident that we would break 4:30.  I assumed we would slow down, but I didn’t think we would slow down that much.

Coming back, we spent longer at the aid stations.  Shannon was drinking two cups, pouring one over her head and putting ice in her shirt.  We walked through the aid stations, but between them, I think we still ran at the same pace.  I was hot enough to feel sweaty, but I never felt the need to pour water over my head.  The pace we were running usually felt somewhat comfortable, so I wasn’t overheating.

There weren’t any port-o-potties anywhere on the course.  About two thirds of the way through the race, I cut back to only drinking one cup at each aid station.  At this point, I knew I wouldn’t get dehydrated.  I wanted to make sure I didn’t need a bathroom stop.

There was a half marathon that started later than the marathon.  With a little over 10K to go, we passed their turnaround point.  Suddenly the road got much more crowded.  Shannon and I had to pay close attention to keep from getting separated, particularly at the aid stations and on the few sections of the course that were dark.

For the rest of the race, we just needed to grind it out.  We were hot and tired, but the remaining distance gradually got more manageable.  With about 5K to go, I saw something in the distance that was lit up, but it was high in the air.  I assumed it was the top of a building, but I couldn’t see anything underneath it.  When I mentioned it to Shannon, she recognized it.  It was the top of the Rama VIII Bridge.  As we went around a corner and saw it form a different angle, I could make out the entire bridge support.

When we crossed the bridge again, we had about 4K to go.  The last 4K wasn’t the same as the first 4K.  We took a different route through the old city.

With about 2K to go, I looked at my watch.  Shannon didn’t want to know if she was going to break 4:30 or not.  I could see we easily would, but I kept that to myself.

We passed Sanam Luang.  This is a large park where prominent events are held.  We ran past it earlier in the race, but this time we were on the opposite side.  I didn’t know exactly what our route to the finish was, but I knew where we were.  In the distance, we could see the tops of some of the temples.

We turned left just before the Grand Palace.  Then we turned right to make our final approach to the finish line. We crossed the line in 4:20:42.

At first, I didn’t see where we were supposed to get our medals.  Then I remembered a tent we walked by before the race.  It had a sign that said something like, “Hand out finisher coin.”  We assumed that meant medal.  We looked for the tent.  In front of it, there were volunteers handing out the medals.

As we continued through the finish area, I started to see other runners carrying T-shirts in sealed bags.  We already got a T-shirt and a singlet at packet pickup.  Were we really going to get another shirt?  Shannon was skeptical, but I also remembered passing a tent with a sign that said, “Hand out finisher shirt.”  Sure enough, we found the tent and got our finisher T-shirts.

Out last stop before leaving the finish area was the food line.  Our post-race food included giant prawns and a large bowl of tasty soup.  We also got bags with other post-race snacks.

As we left the finish area, we saw Eric.  He had just walked over from the hotel.  He arrived at the same time we were leaving the finish area.  That was amazing timing.

We sat down on the curb to eat our post-race food.  Then we walked back to the hotel.  My first priority was to get out of my wet running clothes.  I didn’t want to put my wet clothes on the hardwood floor of my room, so I put them out on the balcony.  Then I took a shower.  I had to wait for my hair to dry before going to bed.  By the time I was ready, it was more than an hour since we had finished the race.  It was still dark outside, so I was hopeful I could get to sleep.  I didn’t need a full-night’s sleep.  I just needed a nap.  I was awake for a long time.  Eventually, I noticed light filtering in from outside.  I kept trying to sleep, but eventually I had to go to the bathroom.

When I looked at the time, it was two hours after going to bed.  It’s possible I fell asleep without realizing it.  It didn’t seem like I had been awake in bed for two hours.

I got dressed and met Shannon and Eric in the lobby.  They were flying to Chiang Mai, but they had time to tour the Grand Palace before heading to the airport.

The Grand Palace is large and incredibly ornate.  I took dozens of photos.  It was tough to select just a few, but here are some of my favorites.  The highlight of the palace was Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), but we couldn’t take pictures inside the temple.

Inside the temples, your knees and elbows need to be covered, so I was wearing a long sleeved shirt the whole time we were at the Grand Palace.  In long sleeves, you get sweaty fast.  When I got back to the hotel, I had to take another shower.

After cooling down, I had lunch at a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel.  After lunch, I explored Chinatown.  At first, I wandered somewhat randomly through the narrow streets, past food vendors and narrow shops selling just about everything.

It’s a shame I went there so soon after lunch.  Some of the food looked good, but I wasn’t hungry.  The only thing I bought was some fresh pineapple.  My last stop before leaving Chinatown was Wat Mangkon, a Chinese Buddhist temple.

I had time to do more sightseeing, but I was too tired.  It was a sunny afternoon, with temperatures in the low 90s.  Spending so much time walking around outside wore me out.  It didn’t help that I spent most of the previous night running instead of sleeping.  I went back to the hotel and relaxed in the shade on my balcony, watching boats on the river.  I waited to see the sunset behind Wat Arun.

There are plenty of good restaurants in the neighborhood of my hotel, but as I started walking to dinner, I noticed that most of them were already closed.  The one I went to was still open, but I had to order quickly.  I ended up ordering more food than I really needed.  Their prawn spring roll was listed as an appetizer, but it was a whole plate of spring rolls.  After eating that, I struggled to find room for my entrée.

I went to bed shortly after dinner.  That night, I crashed hard and slept for nine hours.  I really needed that.

Monday, November 18

After breakfast, I went to Wat Pho.  As with the Grand Palace, it’s hard to capture the grandeur if this place with just a few photos.

Within Wat Pho, there are several temples.  In one of them, I had the opportunity to sit on the floor and relax for several minutes while listening to a dozen monks chanting in unison.  The best known temple at Wat Pho holds the world’s largest reclining Buddha.  You have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate how big it is.

Next, I took a ferry to the other side of the river to see Wat Arun.

From in front of Wat Arun, I could see my hotel across the river.

When I checked in at Riva Arun on Friday, they gave me a voucher for a 24-hour unlimited ride pass on one of the hop-on, hop off tourist boats on the Chao Phraya River.  One of the stops was a pier next to Wat Arun.

There were nine different piers where you could get on or get off.  I mostly just wanted to ride along the river and enjoy the views.

I ended up getting off in three places.  Everyone had to get off at the Sathorn, which was the southernmost pier.  While I was waiting to board the next boat going north, I visited this Hainanese temple.

We also had to get off at the northernmost pier.  From there, I could see the Rama VIII Bridge, which we ran across during the marathon.

I was planning to get off at this pier anyway, as I hadn’t had any lunch yet, and there were several restaurants nearby.  I found one called Mango House, where I had this fruit and waffle concoction called Mango Paradise.

My last stop was near the Pat Klong Flower Market.  Like other marketplaces I visited, this one had narrow alleys and small shops.  Here, all the shops were selling flowers.

I was done with the hop-on, hop-off boat, but I wasn’t done visiting temples.  From the flower market, I took the MRT to Wat Traimit (the Temple of the Golden Buddha).  This temple holds the world’s largest solid gold Buddha.

It started raining just before I got to Wat Traimit.  All morning and afternoon, the heat index was above 100 degrees, so the rain felt good at first.  To enter any temple, however, you have to leave your shoes outside, and the shoe racks were a good distance from the entrance to the temple.  By the time I left, my shoes and socks were fairly wet.  When I got back to the hotel, I had to change into dry clothes and shoes.

I was hoping to get up early on Tuesday, so I wanted to stay close to the hotel for dinner.  You can’t get much closer than the hotel’s rooftop restaurant.  After dinner, I got to bed as early as I could.

Tuesday, November 19

It’s tough to find a good place to run in the old city.  The streets are busy, and the sidewalks are crowded.  The only time you can run on the sidewalks is during the pre-dawn hours.  I got up early, so I could go for a run while I had the chance.

By now, I knew which streets had wide sidewalks and were well lit at night.  I mostly stuck to streets I had run or walked along before, but at one point I crossed a bridge over a canal with the intent of running back on the opposite bank.

A security guard immediately said something to me.  I stopped and turned toward him.  I was nervous, because foreign visitors are supposed to have their passports with them at all times.  I didn’t have mine with me while I was running.  That wasn’t his concern.  He was just telling me I couldn’t go that way.  His tone wasn’t at all menacing.  In fact, he was smiling and apologized for having to stop me.  That’s Thailand in a nutshell.  It’s the land of smiles.

As I finished my run, there was more traffic in the streets, but the sidewalks still weren’t crowded.  In all, I ran a little over seven miles, finishing a few minutes after sunrise.

While I was up on the roof eating breakfast, I noticed it was really hazy.  Buildings that were only five miles away were barely visible.  By the time I was done eating, the smog was beginning to bother my eyes.  This was the first day it was like that.

It seemed like a day for indoor activities.  As soon as it opened, I went to Museum Siam, which was only a few blocks from my hotel.  Museum Siam is a cultural museum, that attempts to define “Thai-ness” and how it has changed over time.  It has 14 exhibits.  I found the first several exhibits easy to understand.  That last few made me realize how little I still understand Thai culture.  It would be interesting to come back to this museum after an extended stay in the country.

I had lunch at one of the many small restaurants near the hotel.  Their menu struck me as a mixture of Thai food and entrées I think of as Chinese.  I saw the same thing at other restaurants.  That reminded me of one of the exhibits at Museum Siam.  Even people from Thailand can’t always agree on which foods are genuinely Thai and which foods are Thai versions of foods from neighboring countries.

By now, the air quality had improved, so I was no longer limited to indoor activities.  I reluctantly changed into a long-sleeved shirt and went out to see one more major temple.  I could have walked the whole way, but I rode the MRT for one stop so I wouldn’t have to spend as much time in the afternoon heat.  This is Wat Saket (the Temple of the Golden Mount).


When I got back to the hotel, I found out there was going to be a rehearsal later in the afternoon for a royal barge procession that’s going to take place in December.  Most people were watching from the roof, but I could watch it from my balcony.

In the evening, I walked up to Khao San Road.  This is the shopping and nightlife spot for young people backpacking across Asia.  I had to at least check it out, so I found a place to eat dinner there.

Wednesday, November 20

Today I fly to Myanmar to begin part two of my Asian adventure.

To be continued…

Race Statistics
Distance:  42.2 kilometers
Time:  4:20:42
Average Pace:  6:11 per kilometer (9:57 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  392
Countries:  40