Mekong River Run

Running on tired legs never feels great. A couple of days on the trot can make the legs feel like lead and leave you wondering where all your fitness has gone.

But next time you have that heavy-legged feeling like you’re pulling a trailer, imagine running a full marathon (42km) every day for six days of every seven, to cover the length of the Mekong River, approx. 2 600km. Add to this the blasting heat and humidity of south-east Asia, altitude, dodgy food and water, and tough conditions underfoot. And, just when you’re baulking at the thought of 250km a week for two and a half months, throw in the age factor: you’re doing this +60 years young.

route of the Mekong River Run
Feeling a tad inadequate? Promise to never groan again? Perfect! Here’s the low-down on two South Africans who’re slogging their way along the length of the official Mekong River, from where it crosses into Laos from Myanmar (Burma), through Cambodia and into Vietnam, where it flows through the Mekong Delta into the South China Sea.

Capetonians David Crombie and Mark Barron have taken on this incredible challenge to raise funds for the Endurance Challenge Charity Trust (ECCT), a non-profit charity trust set up by David some years ago to raise financial support for SA organisations caring for HIV/Aids orphans.

David Crombie and Mark Barron
Mark is a vet, David a sports scientist with two doctorates to his name, and they’re both extremely experienced ultra-distance runners. David has more than 100 standard marathons under his belt, boosted by +30 ultras, including Comrades and the Washie 100 Miler. He’s also done stage races – the Himalayan 100 Miler, the Amazon Jungle 220km, and the 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon.
Mark also has a bunch of extreme races in his pedigree, including Comrades, Washie and the Puffer.

So, neither of these guys are average runners – in any way, shape or form. Nor is what they’ve taken on. And the best part of the story? As I write this blog post, they have just a handful of marathons left: as of today, they’ve covered 2 352km and have only six marathons to go before they complete their gutsy challenge. No one has ever attempted to tackle the length of the Mekong on foot – these proud South Africans will be the first to conquer it.

Craig and I had the privilege of chatting to David over dinner a couple of weeks before he and Mark set off for south east Asia. He’s an incredibly interesting man, with a mind full of wonderful running anecdotes to share – the kind of chap who’s great to run with uphill for his stories. But what struck me most about David was his steadfast determination to achieve this daunting challenge in the face of all obstacles. And there were obstacles…  in generous chunks. (But more about that in a future blog.)
David with 24 marathons ticked, 38 still to go

Nothing was going to stop this man from achieving his goal – not the distance, not the complicated logistics involved in planning the whole adventure, and certainly nothing silly like health concerns. The Mekong River Run was on his to-do list, and by hell, he was going to tick it off.

David and Mark began their challenge on November 3rd, taking off from where the Mekong shapes the border of China, Myanmar and Laos. I e-chatted to David a couple of days ago, on completion of their 53rd marathon. As usual, he was very chatty – despite being via the keyboard of his cell phone and with +2 300km in his weary legs!

Here’s what he had to say:

LD:  How does it feel to be ticking off marathon after marathon, each day getting closer to your goal?
DC:  As most runners will agree, there are "milestones" during a run that we use to our mental advantage – such as reaching the halfway mark, having less distance to go than already run, etc. In the MRR we have had many such markers  eg. getting clear of the seriaaaas mountain stages in northern Laos, reaching Luang Prabang (edible food, baguettes etc. instead of noodle soup or sticky rice!), Vientiane (our 4th week and the 1 000km mark), and even more so, our 50th marathon, which felt very special. Reaching these successive milestones comes at a price: a chronic recovery deficit. So whilst each is cause for celebration, it points to the reality that the next one will exact yet more blood, sweat and tears and demand that we dig ever deeper. We’re haunted by the fact that stopping is not an option, and buoyed by the fact that each marathon completed takes us inexorably closer to making our vision a reality – in some ways a seemingly endless double-edged sword that we re-embrace every day, often several times!

LD:  How’re you guys feeling, mentally and physically?
DC:  Now in the closing stages there is a sense that success is indeed within our grasp, and this will I am sure increase when we get to single figures – 9 to go will be a huge milestone. But as the number of marathons completed climbs, it’s more difficult to keep grinding them out. So I think we’ll be smiling AND wincing right to the wire. There has not been, and will not be, one easy marathon for us, and only when we reach the South China Sea will the constant duality of agony and ecstasy give way to unbridled elation – and vindication.

LD:  How have your feet coped, and how many pairs of shoes have you gone through?
DC:  Apart from the odd blister, our feet are fine. We’re minus just one toenail between us. We’ve used two pairs of trail and two pairs of road shoes.
Mark and David celebrated their 40th marathon on a Red Sock Friday with a swim in the Mekong. ShoOops!
LD:  Tell me about your dalliances with Mekong Gut – or Ho Chi Minh’s Revenge!
DC:  The gut problem I had was directly related to a meat dish. Desperate for some protein I succumbed to the temptation… and paid the price, which lasted for over a week!

LD:  What have been your notable highs… and your lows?
DC:  The first high was getting to CT airport – no more training, planning or organising, we were finally on our way. Landing in Luang Prabang was obviously a high, as was starting the first marathon on the banks of the Mekong, with Myanmar on the other bank and China border to our north – the infamous Golden Triangle. Reaching Luang Prabang and Vientiane were special, as was having friends Karen from NY and Judy from HK run with us on our marathon after Vientiane. And there’ve been too many other highs to mention!
No doubt the main low was the refusal of the Laos authorities to grant us a permit for the Mini Mekong Run – just two weeks before it was to be held. This, despite four months of negotiations and assurances with the necessary authorities.

LD:  I’ve been on the Mekong in Laos and can visualise the type of terrain you guys are dealing with. What percentage of your run so far have you been able to run next to / near the river?
DC:  Really close to the river about 40% of the time; close enough to see it intermittently about 20%. The remainder – over the mountains in the north of Laos we were quite far away, but once in the Mekong valley we were often parallel.
view of the Mekong, upriver from Laung Prabang

LD:  How are you coping with the humidity, heat and sun?
DC:  The short answer: with great difficulty! According to our information the weather pattern is most unusual – it should be considerably cooler, both day and night, with not too much humidity. Instead we’ve not had a single cool day, and temperatures have ranged from the mid to high 30’s. It was to overcome the heat/humidity problem that I changed our daily start time from first light to 2am, and this has made a big difference. But we still pray for cloud cover, breeze...or rain. Thus far the weather gods have turned a deaf ear!

LD:  Running those roads in the dark must come with its own challenges. Are you entirely reliant on rechargeable headlamps?
DC:  Apart from the full moon nights, a headlamp has been absolutely essential in order to deal with the route/trail/road conditions, which when not bordering on technical are just plain hazardous thanks to their appalling state – never mind potholes, I’m talking endless craters. It was one such hole that was my downfall, literally and figuratively, despite my trusty Petzl! My model of headlamp doesn’t use rechargeable batteries, so I carry a copious supply of fresh ones.

LD:  You said in one of your blog posts that the people in the remote villages in Laos referred to you as falang – white-skinned big-nosed foreigners. They must think you’re nuts. Have you experienced the same reaction so far in Cambodia?
DC:  Yes, we’re called falang in Laos, barang in Cambodia. It’s been much the same response – perplexed stares. I presume we are a rarity, especially in the ethnic minority villages. It has been the young who are friendly, often greeting us first with "Hello...where you come from...where you going?"
on another Red Sock Friday, this time with a vendor selling lotus flower pods and scrawny spatchcock chickens
LD:  What has been your funniest, and least funny, moment?
DC:  One of my funniest was discovering that all of several brand new books I had bought from "proper" bookshops for really good prices, eg.$10, were all in fact copies!
Our least funny has been the AK47 incident. At about 4am on Nov 27th, three guys emerged from the jungle in the pitch dark, pointed AK47s at us and demanded that we stop. Stop we did, and so did our hearts! We were searched, and only allowed to continue when our Laos-speaking support crew arrived. It turned out they were part of a Laos army patrol scouting for Thai or Myanmar insurgents. Scary stuff!

As of today, David and Mark have just 252km remaining before they reach their finish line, at the edge of the South China Sea. They will have accomplished a feat that most of us can ever only dream about, and they’ll have helped hundreds of HIV/Aids orphans in the process.

So, the next time your legs feel a tad overworked from training, spare a thought for what they’d feel like after +2 300km of gruelling slog!
David at the handover of a donation to Home From Home day care centre in Khayelitsha
Read more about the Mekong River Run on Mekong River Run or follow the guys on their Facebook page, at Mekong River Run.

** If you’d like to support the Mekong River Run by donating to ECCT, it’s easy:
Account name: Endurance Challenge Charity Trust
Bank: Nedbank Cape Town
Branch code:  100909
Account no: 100 984 4490
(for international donations, use swift code NEDSZAJJ)
For auditing purposes a record of all donors will be kept, so please ensure you provide your name and contact details when making the deposit. 

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