I honestly don’t know if I’m being unnecessarily defeatist, spineless and self-pitying (can’t believe I’m saying that like it’s a bad thing, must learn to be less judgemental with my use of language), or just undertaking a pragmatic and practical reality check in relation to evaluating where I’m at with my marathon training efforts. In any event, I’m definitely out of self-belief right now, which is a shame, as I understand that whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t you are most probably right… Further more, apparently if you believe you can run a marathon you are half way there. Which if true would be fantastic news, as I’d only have to run a half and I’ve already done that, so that would be basically job done!
So, the situation is this. Since I’ve been in Cambodia I have been completely unable to go out running on the roads or tracks anywhere. Unusually for me, this isn’t down to lack of motivation. It’s to do primarily with the unsafe roads and insane heat. The roads near me are heaving with traffic coming at you in all directions. No outside space is safe, motorbikes will happily cut across a shop forecourt, or take over such pavements as exist at any moment – not one or two of them with cheeky opportunism, but walls of them like advancing lines of robot soldiers that will not deviate from their intended path. Bikes will cut through the wedding tents that block the streets all over the place at this time of year. It seems in Phnom Penh motorbikes abhor a vacuum, the most unlikely of spaces offer a cut through and pedestrians walk at your peril. Just walking a few hundred yards feels perilous, crossing roads nigh on suicidal. I have been known to take refuge behind cement mixers or walls and hide out until there is a break in the traffic, rather than step out into the fray. There is no way on earth anyone could run through this
In the VERY early morning, say 5.00 a.m. it is relatively cool and quiet, but it is also pitch black. The roads are pot-holed to the extent that now and again you come across great sink-holes that have opened up in the midst of quite main roads. Although there is less traffic at this time, such as there is, is even more anarchic than usual, speeding headlong with no lights. It genuinely terrifies me. By about 8.00 a.m. it’s just too hot to do anything, I seem to spend many of my waking hours sitting in a pool of my own sweat. Even the effort of blinking can precipitate a flood. Then there is the pollution. It’s very bad, there are open stoves and fires every few feet along the highway, so you are constantly inhaling smoke from rubbish being burned or fires used for cooking. Sometimes the air is acrid with the residue of goodness knows what. There are paint shops and motor repair shops all the way along the streets where I am living. You smell petrol, paint and varnish – chemicals are in the air everywhere. Sometimes I think my lungs are just burning from within with all those acrid and astringent pollutants seeping into my body. It’s grim. Despite that, I think I have acclimatised a little. The other morning at the gym I thought it unusually nippy but it was still nearly 30 degrees. The climate and environs are just not conducive to training.
I have tried with the gym, going each weekday to Phnom Penh Sports Club. Although everything about the place is hilarious, it offers only limited training benefits. There are some treadmills, but none are fully operational. Yesterday I spent 45 minutes running on a treadmill, and even allowing for a drop in my fitness levels I am pretty confident I would have run more than the 0.1 of a mile it actually recorded. I was prepared for training on a treadmill to be a battle with my mind, but not for how hard it is to run when you don’t know what distances you are covering, and the equipment is so creaky and ancient you get electric shocks and shuddering along the way. It is incredibly frustrating. I am soooo slow. When I have got on treadmills I think are functioning OK, I still can’t run a continuous 5km, it’s the heat I think, I just pour sweat. I weighed myself pre and post ‘workout’ the other day, and although I doubt the scales are accurate either, they recorded a 2kg weight loss! It’s insane. I don’t know how to properly hydrate or now to use the equipment such as it is to get any improvement in my fitness.
There are no staff around and no noticeable expertise on which to draw. The other gym users are an eclectic bunch, and ideas about exercise in Cambodia (based on my extensive ethnographical research which is basically two outings to Khmer aerobics at the Olympic Stadium and using this gym) are frankly bizarre to my eyes. I don’t know much about sports science, but I find myself raising an eyebrow (well two, I’ve never been able to raise just one eyebrow unfortunately) at the number of people who run on the treadmills in flip-flops. The other thing is that every single user of the treadmills in the gym uses them hanging on to the front or side bars. I can sort of understand this given the erratic way in which the machines behave – speeding up and stopping at random – but I’d always thought/ been told that if you hang on whilst running you are really limiting the effectiveness of any workout. I’ve noticed some of the women who ‘run’ (most people on the treadmills just walk in fact) spend time running backwards. This is way harder than you can possibly imagine. Urged on by a Cambodian woman on an adjacent treadmill I gave it a go, but abandoned it within seconds. It may or may not be exercise, but it is most certainly a challenge to your co-ordination!
Yesterday, I was really getting demoralised/ frustrated by the gym. I got there at 6.30 a.m.. The first five treadmills I tried weren’t working, then I got on one that I thought was, and I even managed to programme it (so I thought) for a ‘long and slow run’ but after 45 minutes I had still only run one tenth of a mile according to its distance gauge. It also had my heart-rate logged at 140, despite having no way whatsoever of monitoring this as I don’t wear a monitor and wasn’t holding any part of the machine. So basically, I have no idea what I was running. Then I abandoned that in search of a bike. There was a line of 6, not one of which was working. I moved onto a cross trainer, which did seem to work, and did 2km on that, but I don’t know how to change the settings on that to make it more resistant, so that was probably basically like free-wheeling. I was at the point of abandoning the workout all together, when I espied what I call the jiggle machines.
These seem to be very popular with the locals. They are sort of metal boxes with foot plates on which you stand. These then move rapidly up and down (allegedly to replicate the act of walking but really I think not), and basically it just vibrates you more than you can possibly imagine whilst you hang on to a hand rail for grim death, trying not to giggle inappropriately or too manically. I had to have a go as one was not in use. I have been secretly wanting to do this for a while, but they tend to be monopolised by a sect of users who adapt them in mysterious ways. A couple of women bring towels, which they place across the machines foot plates and then just sit on them for seemingly hours, jiggling away. Others place little plastic chairs behind the machines and just sit on the chairs with their feet on the foot plates so their legs bounce up and down whilst they can relax. It is truly peculiar to my eyes.
Well, I can report that the jiggle machine is hilarious. I struggle to see it has any practical fitness benefit though I’ve just googled, and seen that they are called vibration plates and there is some (pseudo?)-science around the benefits of disruption to balance causing your muscles to contract and stabilise or something. What I will say, is that the sensation of feeling every bit of excess fat in your body wobble independently as you stand there, does focus the mind on what you need to do to reclaim your body as a temple worth inhabiting at all let alone worshipping at. It also made me think that I ought to be a bit more conscientious with my pelvic floor exercises. Maybe that is where the true potential benefit lies, increasing your own awareness of any extra layers of sub-cutaneous fat. Anyway, I was having way too much fun to do this on my own, so went and dragged my gym buddy off his treadmill so he could enjoy the ride too. This created some confusion, as we couldn’t get any of the other machines not in use to operate. Eventually, an exasperated older woman who was sitting on her towel on one of the vibrating plates gesticulated to us to help us work out how to set them in motion. It was hilarious. If you sort of lower and raise yourself in squat type movements as the plates vibrate furiously it does become quite challenging. It was also way more fun than the treadmill. I was temporarily heartened.
After my ‘work out’ I went for a shower, tip-toeing past the women eating rice in the sauna area and trying not to let any of my body come into contact with the mould laden shower curtains as I rinsed off excess sweat before going to the pool for my customary old – lady swim. The pool is quite heavy with chlorine, but frankly that is a relief given the generally poor state of cleanliness at the gym. I’ve been going for some 4 weeks now, and there is still the same debris on the floor and in the showers as was there on the day I first went. It is in the open air which is nice, but only a wall separates us from the heaving bustle outside of traffic and cooking. Smells of smoke and food cooking and worse, drift over, it is a strange sort of environment to be swimming in. I like the swimming bit though. It is the only time in Phnom Penh I’ve felt at a comfortable temperature, and it is relaxing. I don’t know that the way I move through water it’s really exercise, but it is at least movement.
So that’s my regime. The problem is though, with the best will in the world, even if I do run 5km and swim every day, this is nowhere near enough to build my fitness. The way that life works here that is it for daily exercise. Although going to the gym daily sounds dedicated, it really only amounts to the minimum amount of exertion required for daily health. For goodness sake, I walked further than that every day whilst living in Sheffield just going out shopping, or to Endcliffe park or whatever, and I used to do that without thinking and running was on top. The only other movement I get are walking to and from the school where I am working, which is barely a kilometer and maybe an excursion to the Russian Market. Activity, let alone formal exercise is just not a part of daily life here. I suppose there are other priorities. Forays into alternative exercise options have been entertaining but unhelpful. Going to the olympic stadium for example is a brilliant experience of cultural immersion, but the classes there don’t constitute exercise as such, more gentle therapeutic movement to traditional music. The running track there is of uncertain status. I’ve only been twice admittedly, but it looked like organised groups were using it, I’m not sure it really is open to all. I wouldn’t feel able to just turn up and run despite what I’ve heard. The people using the track (with some notable exceptions like the wheelchair racers and one fully kitted out athletic club) just walk round and round it like people taking a morning constitutional along a seaside promenade or walking out on a pier. I’ve not seen anyone actually ‘running’ in the way I would on any outing at any time of day on the trials and footpaths near my home in Sheffield. Besides, I have no idea how to train on a track. I’m feeling pretty isolated. Where are my Smiley Paces buddies via hologram when I need them most?
What does all this mean? Well, I’m feeling extremely defeated and demoralised by this whole marathon malarkey. It feels impossible. I saw the post about the Smiletastic 2017 challenge – something I’d love to do, but I don’t think I can from Cambodia. I just can’t run anywhere, it’s incredibly frustrating, long runs and timed races aren’t going to be available to me. I really want to do this, but I can’t undertake the London Marathon from a baseline of not being able to run 5km. It’s impossible to judge what my actual fitness might be. Maybe I am picking up more than I realise and in cooler climes I might surprise myself. I so miss not having other knowledgeable people around to guide and motivate me, and I’m really missing my Sheffield trails and pushing on up a hill to a view-point where I can really breathe the air.
Anyway, what I’m telling myself is this. Irrespective of whether I’m doing enough to get myself to the start line of London Marathon, trying to maintain and build whatever fitness I can whilst I’m in Phnom Penh can only be a good thing. I’ll persevere, I don’t have to make any decisions yet. Worst case scenario, the London Marathon allows you to defer once, for the following year, and I can do that right up until the day before. I presume they do this to stop people running when they really shouldn’t because they feel pressurised to take part whatever their state of health as it is their one and only opportunity. I would be really sad if I didn’t make it for 2017, but since I treasure this opportunity I want my attempt to be serious. It might not ever be spectacular, I will only be taking part to complete, I’m not going to set records with my time, but I do want to be the best version of me running as I can. I want to be able to run most of it, however slowly. I’ll stick it out at the gym. If the running continues to be impossible, I’ll just grit my teeth, and up my distances walking, miles on the legs must count for something.
I try to imagine myself in London, ready to go, Smiley shirt proudly worn, but it is an image that won’t properly formulate in my mind at present. It all seems too remote. I’m not backing out yet, but I am trying to put things in perspective. I really want to run the marathon, but I also want to embrace this whole experience of living and working in Cambodia. Maybe I have to accept they are not for now compatible. It doesn’t mean I wont get to London, but it may be on a different timeline from the one I’d originally hoped for. Oh well, lucky me, it would mean I already have something to look forward to for 2018. As someone who normally only sees dark clouds in the future, maybe I should celebrate that.