siem reap – As the sun rose over Angkor Wat on Sunday morning, more than 2,500 runners gathered to participate in the 13th and, according to event organizers, most successful edition of the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon.
Cambodian Olympic marathoner Hem Bunting, one of the 2,593 participants, won the 21-km race for the fourth time with a time of 73 minutes and 53 seconds.
Hem Bunting, who has won the Angkor Wat International Marathon every time he has competed, said by telephone he was happy with the win, but felt he could have done better.
“In 2005, I ran it in an hour and 10 minutes,” he said by telephone after the race. “But I am happy I am still a winner.”
Participants in the event were almost evenly split between Cambodians and foreigners, said Sem Phalla, a member of the organizing committee. The unique setting of the race, which snakes through 12 temples, attracted many sports tourists, he said, adding that the number of participants marked an almost 35 percent increase from last year.
“It’s very festive. When you’re on the course, the people in the villages are clapping, all the kids are there,” said Brent Roeger, 36, a US engineer living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who finished second in the half-marathon. Though he was more preoccupied with finishing the race, he said he saw many runners taking their time to sightsee and take photos.
The event also featured 10-km races for able-bodied runners and amputees, a 5-km race for women, a 3-km race for children and families, and a wheelchair half marathon. Organizers hope to stage a full marathon in coming years, but because of Cambodia’s lack of coaches and funding for sports, there are too few athletes here capable of running the grueling distance, Sem Phalla said.
Although final tallies were not available, the event will likely have raised more than $15,000 for several NGOs to buy artificial limbs for landmine victims, he added. The event was created in 1996 with that mission in mind and has since raised more than $200,000, according to organizers’ figures.
The race is also meant to help instill the citizens of a country with a tragic history and dependent on foreign aid with a newfound sense of self-confidence, said Yuko Arimori, a Japanese Olympic marathon medalist and representative director of the NGO Hearts of Gold, which helps organize the race.
“Sports has a special power for changing people mentally. After they finish the race, [runners] feel they can do something,” Arimori said, adding that the race, which in the past was mostly organized by Japanese nationals, is now almost entirely put together by Cambodians.
“Everybody knows Cambodia has a sad history, but they can change—they should change by themselves,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy in Phnom Penh)