Nong Khai ASEAN Half Marathon – Now that’s what I call a visa run!

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I’ve never been in Nong Khai before, infarct until recently I hadn’t even heard about the place but when I heard that they were holding a race on 17th December, well I couldn’t resist checking it out.  The second Nong Khai ASEAN Marathon was being held in the Isaan city, which these days is probably more famous for being home to the ‘The First Thai Laos Friendship Bridge’ than anything else.  The 1170m structure, which opened in 1994, spans the Mekong River and is the border crossing between Thailand and Laos.

One of the things about staying in Thailand is the need to have a visa. I had a 60 day one from the Thai Consulate in Glasgow and extended it by 30 days here in Chiang Mai. To extend my stay in the Land of Smiles for another 60 days, I was required to leave the country and go to a Thai Embassy or Consulate and apply for a new visa in another country. One of the easier options was to take a direct flight to Udan Thani and head to the Laos capital of Vientiane.  The bus goes through Nong Khai anyway, so I decided to stay a couple of nights and see if I could get a race entry.

I arrived on Friday night and after my Saturday morning run hired a scooter and rode along to V viang Lifestyle Shopping Mall where the race registration was taking place. I’ve been training for the Chiang Mai Half Marathon on the 24th December and my schedule had me down to do an eight-mile run (approx 13km) on Sunday. I thought that if I could get an entry for the 10k race, I could get some company for my run and once I added in a warm-up and warm-down, I’d get my eight miles in.

Unfortunately, the 10k was sold out and I was faced with the choice of doing a 5k Fun Run or the Half Marathon.  I was in a dilemma, what should I do? After a few moments of thought, I decided to throw caution to the wind and entered the 21.1k event.  One factor was that there was an MV60+ category at this race, whereas in the Muang Chiang Mai Half there wasn’t and I would be running in the MV50+ cat.I paid my 500Tbhat and received my Bib number, with timing chip attached and a rather psychedelic looking running vest before popping into a local coffee shop for my morning refreshment and a chance to chat with some of the more local runners, including Wijittra Kornthipsirikun.

Nong Khai is usually a sleepy town and I had hoped that staying at the semi-rural Park and Pool Hotel would have provided me with the opportunity of a good night’s sleep but I didn’t realise that the resort is also close to the local football stadium which was hosting an evening event and the sound of Isaan music kept me awake.  It also gave me some time to think and I questioned my lifestyle choice which resulted in me being tucked up in bed on a Saturday night, rather than joining in with the local festivities.  The music didn’t go on all night and I managed to get some sleep before my alarm clock woke me up at 3:30 am.

It didn’t take long to get ready and I was soon on the scooter heading towards the race. As soon as I hit the main road, I spotted another brightly coloured running vest making his way to the race and stopped and gave him a lift. I haven’t ridden a scooter very often in my life and I’ve never given someone a lift on one but there’s a first for everything and within ten minutes we had reached the race HQ, where a policeman directed me into the motorcycle parking area.

There were some serious looking runners sprinting around the car park as I gently warmed up and turned my thoughts to tactics for the race. My training had been going well until recently when I had hurt my left leg and I had been forced to cut back on my training intensity.  My 12-week programme was focussed on my target race on the 24th and not today.  I decided just to go with the flow and see how my leg reacted, not to take any risks and to keep the pace under control. If I finished in the top five in the MV60+ race all well and good, if not, no problem. It was, after all, only a training run.

I joined in with the masses and after the pre-race announcements that advised us that there was a strong field with numbers doubled from the previous event, we were warned that there might not be enough finishers t-shirts and that there could be some construction work on the roads, we were set off from the back of the shopping mall at 4:30 am.

For me, conditions were perfect with the temperature being around 19c and I wasn’t even looking at my watch as we made our way through the dimly lit city centre streets.  After 2k we joined Kaew Worawut (Route 242) and headed south-east.  The Mekong River was on our right-hand side but the buildings impeded our view and we couldn’t see it.  Mind you, we couldn’t see much and the further out of town we got, the darker it became. I had the pleasure of seeing the leaders of the Full Marathon making their way back into the city though and I applauded them as our paths crossed. 

By this time the Half Marathon field had opened up widely and I was running behind a local runner.  We reached the road-works, which coincided with the darkest part of the route and there was no way that I was going to lose sight of the only other runner.  My Garmin beeped and a quick glance revealed that we were running 8:00-minute miles, although it could have been 8;08, whatever it was I could live with it and I kept in touch with him as we reached the turning point and entered the second half of the race.  He was running just a little bit faster than me and slowly opened up a gap but even in the pitch dark, I managed to keep him in sight.  I felt good and I was happy to let him set the pace. We were caught a few other runners on our way back and then with around 9 miles (14.5k) under our belts I caught up with him.  I had to decide if I should continue to let him set the pace or run my own race. I was comfortable at this pace, the streets were lighter now and there were other runners up ahead.  I overtook him.

However fate had one more dice to throw and instead of returning along the same route to the finish line, I was directed left and then right. Now, this was more like it.

I was running along with the Mekong River on my left-hand side. 

There were brightly coloured temples along the river path and I watched with horror as a pose of Buddhist Monks stepped out from their Wat onto the walkway. There was just enough room for me to squeeze past them on the left and as I did, rows of seated Thais rose to their feet and applauded me on my way. Now there’s a running experience never to be forgotten.  Once past the monks, the path was clear and I began to wonder if I had missed a turning point but eventually one appeared and directed me back into the city. The fun wasn’t over yet though and I saw two signs ahead of me, one pointing right and one pointing left. I hollered out ‘yiisip et’ (21) in my best Thai and was directed right.  I could see some other runners and managed to catch them before turning left towards the shopping mall.

‘Haa, ceet, sam, song, nong’ went the countdown for the 10k race which set-off just as I ran along a cordoned off part of their Start and turned left towards the Half Marathon Finish line. Stopping my Garmin with a time of 1:45 made me a very happy man indeed.    I had run well, had a negative split and had felt good and strong at the end. I received my medal and finisher’s t-shirt and took a drink of water before making my way to the official timing zone, where my print out revealed that I had placed 42nd overall and 1st MV60+.  I chatted with others, enjoyed a complimentary massage and refuelled with some of the various food and drinks provided by the organisers and sponsors, as we waited for the results to be confirmed.   It turns out that I had taken 17 minutes off of the MV60+ course record and had led the race from the start, beaten runner-up Francis Duriez from France by 9.5 minutes, with Liw Lamin from Vietnam placing third with a time of 1:57. Unfortunately, because of various factors, we didn’t manage to get a photo of the three of us, maybe next year? I did manage to get a photo with Saysunee Parapim who placed second in the FV30+ category and then one of me with my biggest ever trophy. It kind of dwarfs the others that I’ve won in the last three months here in the Land of Smiles.

Many thanks to everyone involved with the event from an Ayrshire man in Asia.

Full results here

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