The Phuket International Marathon
By Rachel ToorFeatured in the November 2006 issue of Running Times Magazine
When Jim Gerweck, Running Times’ Managing Editor, asked if I would be interested in representing the magazine at the inaugural Phuket Marathon, I jumped at the opportunity. And jumped for joy at the thought of fruit.
Ten years ago, an old friend and I took a big trip. Val was changing investment banking jobs and had some free time and a bucketload of frequent flier miles, enough to get us both to the other side of the world. A first-generation Chinese-American, she’d taught English in China after college and we’d always said that someday we’d go to Asia together. That day came. Val planned the trip: We started in Hong Kong, catching up with friends and doing errands, then took a trip to Cambodia, one of the saddest countries in the world, where we experienced the beauty of Angkor Wat and saw the crippling effects of American landmines that continue to blow off Cambodian limbs. Finally, we had playtime on a beach in Thailand.
Phuket Island was like any beach resort anywhere in the world. The same stores selling the same beach stuff; lots of opportunities to rent motorbikes and diving equipment; loads of places to stay and even more venues at which to eat and drink. The beaches were beautiful and sandy, the Andaman Sea salty and cold. After the intensity of being in Cambodia, Thailand was, for me and Val, all about relaxation. And fruit.
Mangosteen. Mangos. Lycees. Custard apples. Rose apples. Papayas as big as watermelon. Val is characterologically more cautious than I. She ate fruit that we could peel. Me, I ate everything.
For ten years I’ve been pining for mangosteen. It is considered, in Thailand, the Queen of Fruit. It has a hard, thick, purplish skin. Inside you find white sections of tangy, sweet deliciousness. You can’t get it here. You have to go to Asia.
Jim said, “Thailand.”
I said, “Mangosteen.”
If You Build It, They Will Come
I was also interested in seeing Phuket again. I’d been thinking about the island since just after Christmas, 2004. The Indian Ocean tsunami hit Thailand hard—leaving 5,300 people dead. The place of most devastation was about an hour and a half north of the little island where I’d played with a baby elephant and gone for runs on the beach. While other countries had suffered greater losses, Phuket had been in the international news because it draws so many international travelers. Nearly half of those killed by the tsunami in Thailand were tourists.
The idea to have a marathon in Phuket came out of dinner on a boat in Bangkok. Peter McLean, a Scotsman who does publicity for AIMS, the Association of International Marathons and Road Races, was meeting with Raimund Wellenhofer and Roman Floesser, of Go Adventure Asia, an event management group that puts on the Thai Temple Run marathon. McLean averred that Phuket would be a great destination-marathon location. He thought it could become like the Honolulu Marathon—a place where runners and their families could combine interests and vacations. It¹s an easy hour flight from Bangkok, which is, itself, a hub for the rest of Asia. And it would be a way to get people back to the island.
Originally, they had thought to make the marathon part of a relief effort, to raise money for the aftereffects of the tsunami. But when the race management team met with Phuket officials they were told that the island had had more than enough relief. Organizations from around the globe had donated time, money, and the labor of strong arms and backs, and the island was now in good physical shape. What was still suffering was the tourist trade. Tourism is the island¹s main industry, and it¹s been hurting since the angry sea rose up. Hotel occupancies were 60 percent of normal a year and a half after the disaster. Many of the Asian tourists, I was told, were reluctant to come to a place where such a tragedy had occurred.
So they got it together. They made Akemi Masuda, a sports commentator and 1984 Olympic marathoner, the official race ambassador. The Japanese take their marathoning seriously, and Akemi-san is treated like a rock star. Accordingly, there were gobs of Japanese media at the event. And then there was us, the group of invited Western journalists who huddled together for press conferences, meals, and late-night World Cup watching. We had folks from the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand. Our posse also included a few people whose business it is to put together marathon tours.
The races were hosted by the Laguna Beach Resort, a gated community of five high-end hotels on 600 acres of pristinely landscaped tropical lushness, connected by shuttle buses and boats that hummed through the lagoons. Each hotel property is a little different, but each has been accorded many stars.
Arriving at the airport in Phuket I noticed the first change since I’d last been there: a shiny Burger King. I was taken to the hotel and greeted by a young woman in traditional Thai costume, who gave me a cool washcloth and a glass of flower tea. I looked over my shoulder and saw an elephant walking toward me. Anna, a beefy 4-year-old, was being led through the lobby by a man in blue pajamas. I was told that Anna made twice-daily strolls through the pool complex. It’s hard not to love a fancy hotel with an elephant in the lobby.
Harder, though, to love the Phuket Fantasea. We journalists were treated to a trip, complements of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, to a Disney-esque theme park where we sat through a performance that combined Cirque du Soleil, vaudeville, traditional Thai dance, laser light show, animal performance (at one point I counted 17 elephants on the stage) and straight-out bizarro: Chang and Eng, Siamese twins in Amos ’n Andy blackface, made frequent appearances alongside unusually voluptuous Thai girls and a midget. It was politically incorrect beyond any definition. The Thais, apparently, love it. As it turns out, the Phuket Fantasea is one of the island’s premier attractions.
On the more sober side, we were given a tour of the course — mostly flat at first and then with little rollers. At around 20K we got out and race director Raimund Wellerhofer explained to us that this was the point hardest hit by the tsunami. Having spent more than a dozen years living in North Carolina, I had become used to the ravages of hurricanes and expected to see trees still lying prone, roots exposed. But the palms weathered the storm well. The native grasses, killed off by salt water, had made a recovery. And the little shops and restaurants on the beach were spanking new — freshly poured concrete floors and new thatched roofs. Were it not for a crop of “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs, I would never have known of the devastation that took place here.
The island is ready for the tourists, but those who are coming are mostly Europeans and Australians; the Asians are still staying away. Wellenhofer explained, “Asians don’t want to go places where people have died.” He said they were afraid of the spirits. And the Japanese, Wellenhofer said, whose diet is largely from the sea, don’t want to eat fish that have fed on human bodies.
And so the strategic deployment of Akemi-san. At the press conferences the petite and gracious woman spoke at length and answered questions, which were then translated into English by an interpreter. She wasn’t the only celebrity there for the race. Lee Hee Jin was on hand at the VIP functions (and to run the 10K). The young Korean is part of the girl band, Baby Vox, a pop sensation. “She¹s kind of like the Asian Britney Spears,” a guy from Singapore explained to me. Rounding out the celebrities was scientist Alan Coleman, who also ran the 10K. He’s the guy responsible for Dolly, the first cloned sheep.
More than 2,000 people competed in three races — marathon, half marathon and 10K. The kid’s 1K race made it possible for everyone in a family to have an opportunity to earn a T-shirt. Of the entrants, there were 500 foreigners from 30 countries. Truly, an international event.
The marathon started late in the day for a Thai race — at 5 a.m. At the line, in the dark, it was already hot enough to raise sweat from a motionless runner. The half marathon and the 10K started even later.
We milled around the start area to the sounds of traditional Thai drumming. When the gun rang out, off we went through the gates of the resort and into Phuket, the real Phuket. It was a gift to be able to watch the island waking up. To see the fruit stall vendors setting out their wares. To watch the fish market come to life. The locals were mostly silent as we trotted past.
I remembered how liminal Asia had always seemed to me; the boundary lines, separating inside and outside, people and animals, sweet and spicy, seemed delightfully blurry. Folks lived on the streets, cooking and washing and hanging out, not behind doors or windows; it felt like running through people’s daily lives.
It was hot. I had asked a local if it was OK if I wore only a running bra and my running skirt, if I would offend people. He said, “You are farung. It doesn’t matter what you do.” As a foreigner, the native rules of proper conduct don’t apply; the polite Thais expect so little of us.
It was hot. And it was humid. It was like running through a bowl of Tom Yum soup. By the time I reached the halfway point at Naiyang Beach and could see the celadon-colored sea, I knew that it was going to be an accomplishment for me just to finish the race. I forgot about my time, stopped caring about my place. I shooed away the guy on a bike whose job it was to accompany the top female runners. Please, I said to him in English he didn’t understand, Go ahead. I spent energy I did not have motioning with my arm. Please, I thought, Let me suffer in solitude.
And suffer I did. By the time the sun was fully up, I was nearly down. I jogged at death-march pace and thought about Thailand. I’d had a number of conversations about the fabled friendliness of the Thais. It’s a jolt, really, to be around people who are just so darned nice. It’s not about tourism; even those who don’t want to sell you anything are warm and welcoming. Why, I wondered?
Thailand has never been invaded. It’s a Buddhist country. The King, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, “Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist religion and Upholder of all religions” plays jazz saxophone and his passion is photography; bank notes include a picture of him with his camera. This year marked the 60th anniversary of His Royal Highness’s ascension to the throne and it had turned the whole country yellow—his color. People wore bright yellow shirts and plastic wristbands along the lines of Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG campaign with LONG LIVE THE KING on them. The Thai people love their king.
The economy is strong. There’s a commitment to living well, to enjoying the pleasures of living. In Bangkok, on the way back to the airport, I saw a tall skinny building with a big sign on it. It said: “Drink Don’t Drive.” It struck me as a fitting symbol for the traffic-congested city, though its prescriptiveness stood in marked contrast to our own either/or approach. There’s a gentleness readily apparent in the culture, and a tolerance. Diversity of all kinds is easily accommodated; often it is embraced.
Nature doesn’t discriminate when it comes to disaster, though perhaps these qualities—acceptance and grace—helped the Thai people recover from the tsunami. Many of those who worked at the hotel where I was staying—who worked so hard to make my stay luxurious—had no doubt lost something. And yet their spirit never seemed to flag and their friendliness never ebbed. My suffering, as it were, in this race—which I chose to do, which I did because it is what I do for fun —was nothing. I thought about the Buddha and strove for a more enlightened path as I slogged toward the finish.
Fruit, Fruit, Fruit
After the race I wallowed beside one of the many pools, eschewing a fruity drink served in a coconut to peel and eat bunches of lychees and rambutan (which look like hairy eyeballs and taste like perfume). Then I wandered over to the beach, lured by the siren call of the massage ladies in their lavender smocks. Under a tent with rows of cots, a dozen slight women worked hard, using their hands, arms, and feet to knead the bodies of Amazonian Westerners for $8 an hour. My muscles, like those of many runners, are tight as violin strings. When massaged, I yelped in pain. The Thai ladies howled with laughter. Good-natured, generous-spirited laughter.
The island had survived the tsunami. I had survived the race. The Andaman Sea rumbled just meters from where I lay, on a cot, on a sunny afternoon. The next day I would head off again to Bangkok, and from there to Vietnam — a country with 10,000 years of war in its history — to spend time in Hanoi, to take a boat trip in Halong Bay, to go trekking among the Hmong people. But for now, I was happy to relax in the peace and tranquility of this happy place and to eat myself sick on exotic fruit. Phuket may not be the most culturally interesting destination, but it’s not a bad place to start a vacation.