Global Limits Cambodia – The Ancient Khmer Path Stage Race – Race Report

Global Limits currently organise three annual semi-supported multi-stage races in exotic locales around the world – Bhutan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.  The Global Limits Cambodia race takes part in rural and ancient parts of the Cambodian countryside, taking in amazing temples, natural landmarks and rural scenes.

They keep their races small (under 50 runners) and the focus is on interacting with the locals, seeing some amazing locations and having an enjoyable week.

After running their Sri Lanka race in April 2015 I went back for more in Cambodia in December.  Here’s how the week went down (warning: ultra-long post ahead!):

By Thomas Watson

Global Limits Cambodia  – Key Points:

  • Global Limits encourages you to enjoy yourself rather than needlessly torture yourself.  Buy a coke along the way, take photos, go for a swim in the river – it’s more about enjoying the surroundings than it is about a race.  They transport your 10kg dropbag between campsites, so you just run with a minimal pack.  Most campsites have some degree of washing facilities, so it’s more comfortable than most stage races – and the GL series is typically cheaper too.
  • The locations and the scenery are stunning – between camping at temples and waterfalls and finishing at Angkor Wat, you take in some of the most incredible sights in Cambodia.  Having said that, some parts of the course are simply long, barren dirt trails linking two temples – but this is necessary and unavoidable.
  • The conditions were hot (up to 40°C several times) and humid.  Otherwise the trails are almost completely flat, with the exception of two short but brutal hills on days 4 and 5.  The majority of the terrain is dirt road or track, with some forest / jungley winding sections.  There are a couple of short stretches of asphalt, some muddy puddles, a rice paddy and one unavoidable feet-getting-wet bit – otherwise dry and easy underfoot.
  • Overall organisation and support was excellent.  Stefan Betzelt, the mastermind behind GL, is a seasoned distance runner and organises races he wants to run.  Some competitors had did have issue with course markings  – which I never encountered.  The GL support team are a bit of a big family.


Group photo at the start of Stage 4.  Credit: Global Limits

GLOBAL LIMITS CAMBODIA – The Stage By Stage Breakdown:

Pre-Race / Registration

Registration and check-in kicked off 2 days before the actual race began, in a hotel in Phnom Penh.  After registration and equipment check, we had a buffet dinner and introduction from Stefan.  The next day, we got a short walking tour of Phnom Penh before jumping on the bus and heading to the first campsite – a Buddhist temple hall, somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Inside the first camp (a temple hall).  Photo Credit – Global Limits

Stage 1 – 30.6km

After a night in a temple hall, we got up and made our way to the start line.  A group of local monks blessed the runners with a chant, before Stefan kicked us off.  As usual, I’d turned up more under-trained than I would’ve liked, so after a fast start I peeled back and held a conservative but steady pace.

Early morning view from the trail, Stage 1

The day was mainly on dirt trails, passing through some tiny villages.  It was a good first day – relatively short and flat – that allowed everyone to acclimatise and get the first day nerves out of the way.  I was fairly surprised to come in 5th, having held back early on.  Everyone remarked on how hot it was as they arrived at the finish line, which was in a village.  The accommodation that night was two large home-stays, with mosquito nets for the runners filling the upstairs of both buildings.

Stan & Leonard enjoying some local chow at the end of stage 1

Stage 2 – 36.0km

Kicking off at 0700hrs, we were straight back out on more trails and dirt roads for the first part of the day.  I managed to stop in and pick up a couple of Cokes at tiny road-side stalls, again trying to hold a conservative pace – it’s still only the 2nd day, after all.  The final stretch of today was through off-road tracks in jungle territory – the trail weaved quite a lot, before finishing at the first campsite of the race outside the remote Preah Khan temple.    Again, I somehow stumbled across the finish line in 5th place – totally unexpected.

Start of stage 2, exiting the village

We all spent the afternoon resting in the shade of the temple, chilling out and cheering on each runner coming in – it was another hot day and the longer you’re out on the trails, the harder it is.  Late afternoon, some enterprising local support staff disappeared to the nearest village and came back with a crate of ice-cold Cokes – nae bad!

Stefan giving the daily briefing at camp after stage 2.   Photo Credit: Global Limits Cambodia
Preah Khan campsite at night.  Photo Credit: Global Limits Cambodia

Stage 3 – 62.2km (longest day)

This was a long one.  Usually, the ‘long day’ comes later in a stage race (often day 5) – having it earlier on in the week was a nice way to mix it up and get it out of the way!  Stefan the organiser decided to have a staggered start today, so the first 10 or so (which I was surprised to find myself in amongst) had to start an hour later than the rest of the runners.  This meant it was gonna be much hotter when we started, the sun having had an hour’s head start on us.

Typical dirt road in Cambodia.  Photo Credit – Global Limits Cambodia

The first 30km of the day was through fairly dense jungle / forest, usually running on single-track footpaths – there was mud, there was mosquitoes, there was loads of branches in the way.  A couple of runners fell over in this section and suffered cuts and scrapes.  I held back initially, letting the other ‘fast ones’ trail ahead – but soon I caught up with Dion and Peter, two experienced runners who were each suffering leg and back complaints, and I ploughed on.  From the first checkpoint I started to pass the slowest of the runners that’d went out an hour before me, and tried to continue that trend as the day went on.

Local kids on the long day.  Photo credit – Global Limits Cambodia

The second half of the day was 30km on one straight, open, exposed road – basically a grind.  It just so happened that it was probably the hottest day of the race so far, so as I passed the half-way mark I slipped in my iPod shuffle for the first time.   As the heat grew I started running-for-a-song, walking-for-a-song – somehow this technique pulled me through, and as the day went on I managed to keep a steady pace.  With the relentless sun, I soon released my baseball cap wasn’t providing much sun protection, so managed to pick up a wide-brimmed straw hat from a farmer for around $0.30 – it provided total coverage for my neck and face – perfect!

By CP4 (40km mark) I was surprised to bump into Johannes, then Femi – both were feeling the heat, and passing them somehow bumped me into 2nd place.  I forged on, stopping at CP5 for a quick Coke and a seat (which I soon regretted – getting up was much harder than it should’ve been), then pushed on for the final straight.

Making it across the finish line of the long day.  Photo Credit – Global Limits Cambodia

I probably walked most of the last stage, but managed to burst into a run when I realised the end of the stage was approaching.  The finish line was in another amazing temple ground – this one had been in one of the Tomb Raider movies.  After the best bucket shower ever, I joined Jill (1st place) at the finish line and watched more runners come in.  Everyone seriously struggled today, finding the long distance, relentless heat and exposed road really tough.  A lot of runners never made it back until well after dark, having spent 14+hrs out in the heat – and on their feet.  The main upside was the restaurant across the street from the temple – I had some of the greasiest eggs I’ve ever had, and they were awesome.  Washed down with a coconut and another Coke.

Peter and me with my $0.30 straw hat, seconds after Peter finished the 62.2km stage.  Photo credit – Global Limits

Stage 4 -29.7km

After somehow coming 2nd on stage 3, I was unexpectedly shunted up to 3rd place overall – suddenly, it seemed I had a podium position to defend.  So from stage 4 onwards I got my head down and pushed on a bit harder.

Support crew on Stage 4

The first section of Stage 4 was mainly on asphalt road, before turning off onto rural trails.  Straight after CP1 we hit a fairly short but very steep hill, and the route required a lot of traversing over boulders.  I lost a lot of time on the hill, simply because in Mumbai I never get the chance to train on them.  Anyway, ploughing on, the rest of the day was on sandy trails and dirt tracks, leading to the next camp site – the Kulan waterfalls!

Crossing the bridge to the finish line of stage 4.  Photo credit – Global Limits

Somehow I wasn’t really aware how cool the waterfalls were going to be so it was a great surprise.  The Stage 4 finish line was at the other side of a rickety old wooden rope bridge that crossed a river.  We spent the night in cabanas by the river, and just downstream was the falls – see photo.  As soon as every runner crossed the finish line they jumped in the river to wash and cool off, then we spent the rest of the day chilling around the river.  Best overnight location of any stage race I’ve been to!  And somehow I was holding on to the 1st male position…must be a real shortage of good runners in this race, I guess?

At the Kulan falls, pre-swim

Stage 5 – 45.1km

By this point many of the runners were feeling the strain of having been running for four days, and you could see the general pace was slowing.  Stage 5 was probably my favourite day in terms of the trails we were on – the first stage was all downhill with sweeping vistas over the early morning fields, then we were into forests and foot paths, before running through rice paddies and villages.  I managed to lose both my shoes while trying to sprint through a muddy puddle, and lost a few minutes wading back through the mud to get them, then cleaning my feet and ditching the muddy socks!

Around the 35km mark you hit an absolutely killer hill – as previously stated, I am really bad at hills – I was literally pulling myself up using the tree trunks, stopping every few feet for breath.  It was hot.

The four of us ran together – Peter, me, Femi and Johannes – for the first part of stage 5.  Photo Credit – Global Limits Cambodia

Anyway, when I got to the top there was a woman with a cooler selling Cokes – I had 2 – and a cool temple you pass through, before descending the other side of the hill and then blasting the last 10km along sandy dirt trails to the finish.  The finish line is outside a rural school, and we camped in the school grounds.

Final campsite in rural school grounds

Jill the front-runner missed a turn right near the end so technically I came 1st (there’s a first and last for everything I guess), and she turned up 5 minutes behind me, having ran several more miles than me.  The rest of that day was spent chilling at the school and at a stall by the trail, drinking a beer and watching the other runners come in.

Peter, Dion and me after stage 5

Stage 6 – 16.6km

This is a nice and short final day, running from the rural school to Angkor Wat temple, passing through several other phenomenal temples en route.  My performance on stage 5 had unexpectedly bumped me up to 2nd place overall (by a whole 30 seconds…), so I suddenly had a new position to defend.  Again Stefan organised a staggered start for this stage.

Me and an annoyingly-fresh-looking Johannes after sprinting the last 2 or 3km of the race, at the entrance to Angkor Wat.

My legs were fairly tight to start with and I had to walk for a while, trying to get my calf muscles to loosen up.  I ended up letting a lot of people pass me, but soon my legs limbered and I started to gather momentum.  At one point we ran past Angelina Jolie’s motorcade, she was in Siem Reap to film a movie (just another day on the trails).  We passed through one massive long temple which was a race highlight (I’ve no idea what it’s called).

Anyway I managed to pick up speed and eventually caught up with my old pal Johannes, who was 2nd overall male behind me, and only had Jill (1st place overall) in front of him.  I fired some Led Zeppelin on my iPod and ran up to Johannes’s side, and we ended up sprinting the last 2 or 3km of the race together, letting one another pull ahead before the other would catch up.  It was a brilliant way to end the race, us both running strong, side-by-side.  It’s funny – I met him in the hotel bar a week previously and we’d both discussed how we were planning to relax and enjoy the scenery and treat this race as a holiday, and not push ourselves – and here we were going utterly flat out against each other – but it was in good sportsmanship.  A fantastic way to end the race.  As we neared Ankor Wat the two of us were darting past bemused looking tourists, total adreneline.  We flipped a coin to see who would cross the finish line first, and as usual I won (sorry, Johannes).

Obligatory Finish Line Snap.  Photo Credit – Global Limits

After crossing the finish we promptly found a couple of tins of beer and coconuts and put our feet up while watching the rest of the group come in.  I had a quick walk round Angkor Wat with Dion and Peter, before we all headed to the 5* hotel to chill and enjoy the awards ceremony.

Dion Leonard, Jill Hammill, little ol’ me, Johannes Mohr, Femi Copi and Christina Khinast.  Bunch of legends. Photo Credit – Global Limits Cambodia

I think one of the reasons stage races appeals to me is that over a week in a remote place you get to know the other runners really well.  The Global Limits series is particularly great for this because they keep the races small – by the end of the week, you really do know everybody and have been through something arduous together.

Thanks to Stefan, Manu, Boingy, Sucheat, Laura, Amy, Jenn, Pavel, Geert and the local support team.

The 2015 Global Limits Cambodia runners and crew.  Photo Credit – Global Limits

Overall Time: 26hrs 08mins 12secs (220km)

Position: 2nd overall / 1st Male

Global Limits – Event Website

Photo Credits – all uncredited photos are my own, otherwise all are from Global Limits.  Note:GL send each competitor a zip file with 100’s of photos of the race following the event.

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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