THE GLORY OF GUNSARAY
By Andrew Biggs
Ten-year-old Gunsaray stepped on a mine earlier this year, blowing his left leg off.
Such are the hazards of living in rural Cambodia, the most heavily mined country in the world. It is estimated there are still up to five million mines buried in the fertile plains of our eastern neighbor, which works out to one mine every 3 Cambodians.
Gunsaray spared two other Cambodians of their quota. I can’t imagine the grief of losing a leg at that age, but my lack of imagination could be because for the brief time I met him, he didn’t stop smiling.
I met little Gunsaray just last week when I was in Siem Reap participating in a running race. No need to look so surprised; this very column began thanks to a story I wrote when I ran the Bangkok Marathon back in 2008.
It appears that as we humans hit the age of 40 we branch off in one of two different directions.
One group gives up the booze and drugs and sex and turns to fitness centers and jogging tracks in an effort to remain youthful and exuberant. The other group finds youth and exuberance in the continued use of alcohol and other stimulants, propping up bar counters and making the acquaintance of Nigerians.
Me? I moved to a Buddhist country where one of the principal tenets is “walking the middle path”. Notice the Lord Buddha did not say “running” or “jogging” that path, and thus I choose to do a little of both; I enjoy running, but I also enjoy running a tab at my local establishment.
Anyway that is how I got to the annual Angkor Wat Half Marathon. I made a last minute decision to switch to the 10 km race since one of the other runners in my four-person party, a woman, was running that shorter distance. I was afraid some desperate Cambodian might jump out from behind the hundred-year-old giant teak trees lining the race course and molest her. Thus I did the only chivalrous thing an overweight under-prepared man would do; I asked to switch to the smaller run to keep her company.
“I’m sorry, the 10 km race is all full up,” a pleasant Cambodian official informed me the day before the run at the venue. “There are no bibs left.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes. Quite sure.”
Any normal person would have left it at that, but I have spent 25 years in this part of the world and know the true meaning of “quite sure”.
I lowered my head. “What a terrible shame, because my female friend is going to run the 10 km alone, and her parents were just killed in a terrible boating accident off a Laotian beach, and I fear if I’m not there beside her, she may break down and cry halfway through the course — or worse.”
“Maybe I have just one left,” she replied.
Maybe you do, I wanted to answer, but thought better of it.
In two minutes I had my 10 km bib in hand and I did thank the official profusely, although my cover was almost blown when my female friend fronted up beside gaily chortling: “Did you manage to change your race?”
“Shut up and look gutted,” I whispered.
Anyway that is how I ended up at the Angkor Wat before sunrise last Sunday.
The race itself was well-organized and this being Cambodia, there was a special category of runner; that is, people missing limbs.
Everything was well-oiled with the exception of a bubbly local male celebrity who, over loudspeakers, kept urging runners to “MOVE TO THE SIDE! MOVE TO THE SIDE!” Since the organizers had thoughtfully encircled the venue with loudspeakers, and the bubbly local male celebrity was nowhere to be seen, runners had no idea which side he meant.
“Is he saying ‘site’? Do we have to move to the ‘site’?”
“Aren’t we at the site already?”
“Maybe he’s saying ‘sign’ with a Cambodian accent.”
Perhaps the bubbly local male celebrity could sense the confusion, since he attempted to clarify himself by saying: “TO THE SIDE OF ME! TO THE SIDE OF ME!” Fat lot of good that was.
The 10km race began at 6.20 am and what a magnificent course it was, through the stunning ruins of Angkor Wat.
My aim was to maintain a pace of 9 km an hour; a goal I proudly kept up for the first three kilometres. And it was during those three kilometres I was introduced to Gunsaray – when he overtook me.
Gunsaray shot ahead of me around kilometer number one; a skinny little kid on a single wooden crutch. Look closely at the photograph on this page and you will see Gunsaray’s single flip-flop.
And yet this little kid with the one leg tore past me, then kept up with me for those first three kilometres. Imagine running three kilometres at a rate of 9 km per hour, dear reader – now imagine doing it on one leg.
Gunsaray was the centre of much cheering and egging on by fellow runners from all around the world. He was the star of the race, with a look of determination that broke into a smile the size of the Angkor Wat itself every time somebody patted him on the back.
At kilometer number three I lost him. He fell back, just as my female companion — whose fabricated tragedy enabled me to run the race — ran ahead of me. She would finish the run in 1 hour and 12 minutes. I finished in one hour and 14 minutes.
He came in at one hour thirty minutes. What a feat; that gorgeous little kid on a single leg did, in an hour and a half, what I did with two legs a mere 15 minutes faster.
It took me half an hour to seek out Gunsaray and ask to take his picture. In that time the half-marathon runners started coming in, including one man who, at the finish line, got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend.
I found Gunsaray among about a dozen other disabled kids his own age who ran the race, all of whom belonged to a charity fighting for Cambodia to ratify an international treaty that seeks to ban cluster bombs. Those are the bombs which contain sub-munitions which do so much more damage than the regular mines.
I just hope Gunsaray and his friends have a wonderful New Year. The Angkor Wat run was memorable, but he and his friends made it truly unforgettable.