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.
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.
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.
Distance: 42.2 kilometers
Average Pace: 5:02 per kilometer (8:05 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 393