Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan – let’s go trail running
13 January 2016
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live. Time to chat some running and you’ve got to love technology because this interview is spanning the globe, and we head off to the jungles in Cambodia, believe it or not. There is a multi-day stage race about to take place in Cambodia.
It’s part of the Global Limits Series, and there are three races in all that happen around the globe. One in Sri Lanka, there’s one in Bhutan as well, and we’re joined now by Stefan Betzelt, who puts these races on. Stefan is a German national and he asked me to tell you that English is not his first language.
But Stefan, you’ll be pleased to know that your English is way better than my German, so we will keep it in English. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on. Tell us a little bit about how this all came about, Global Limits and these three races across the globe.
The history behind the races
Stefan Betzelt: I, myself was running for decades, I was running the City Marathons and the last decade I was running multi-stage races myself, all over the world. Whether it’s a marathon or races in Namibia, China, Himalaya, name it.
Somewhere I found out, it’s something in this kind of races missing that might be of interest for global runners and that was the combination of the sportive aspect, the running, with the local culture and getting into contact with the local populations.
In none of these races that I have done so far you have experienced that. If you run in the desert, you come home and you don’t know in which country you have been because you haven’t seen any animals, you haven’t seen any locals, no population nothing.
Making sure runners experience local culture
I thought there might be some interest for global runners to get a little bit more involved in the local cultures and getting into contact with the local populations and that I tried to make different in my races. Next question is, in which location can you do these races?
I don’t think the world needs me to organise another race in the Sahara or in China, you have plenty of similar races there. I tried to find let’s say untouched locations on the landscape and you are pretty aware that there are not too many countries around the world where you do not find ultra-race so far.
After doing a little bit in Norway, I find out that especially in Cambodia and in Bhutan, no ultra-race is taking place. I also wanted, beside finding a location that is untouched by other ultra-races. I tried to find locations that have a history and in an outstanding culture and combining it with an outstanding finish line.
In Cambodia the ancient Khmer culture, 1000 years old culture, combined with a finish line in the most spectacular ancient temple you can find, Angkor Wat Temple, was the first idea I had. Then I made my survey and made cross checks and started ten weeks later to organise this race.
Untouched parts of the World
The same way it was with Bhutan, totally untouched country, one of the most secret country in the world. Just having 25 000 tourists per year, spectacular finish line in Tiger’s Nest Monastery hanging 3000m in the cliffs of the mountains.
Unique culture, Buddhism culture that you can’t compare to any other country in the world. That were my first two races and this year I set up the third race in Sri Lanka, also finishing in a World Heritage Site.
That is a little bit of background of Global Limits, why I organised these races, I’m doing that now for three years. The good thing in here is, and the different thing, you can’t book such a journey in any travel agency around the world.
We pass local villages where never a foreigner has been, they see one runner after the other coming through the village, don’t understand, don’t know what they are doing there. But after a while, in Cambodia, 50 children standing at the checkpoint, cheering the runners. Or in Sri Lanka the old housewife standing with a can of water on the street and giving water to the runners to refresh them. It’s something you can’t book in a travel agency.
BB: Stefan, it sounds amazing. Tell us about the numbers of people that you get on these races? How many people are you able to accommodate?
Book early – numbers are limited
SB: We have limited the entries, depending on the location, in Bhutan we have 35, in Sri Lanka we have less, the reason for that is because we stay overnight in let’s say ‘unique campsites’. We stay in ancient temples, in Cambodia we had one camp in the Ben Mealea temple, that is where the movie Indiana Jones was made or in the temple where the Lara Croft movie was made with Angelina Jolie.
We stay there overnight, in Bhutan we stay in 3600m, in a small monastery, we have limited entries because otherwise we can’t use our campsites that are kind of specific and unique. I easily can send 100 runners through the jungle in Cambodia, but then we have to set the camps on an open field, so like desert races or whatever.
That is not the kind of setup and intention of Global Limits to host this kind of event. We stay in local village houses with families, with monks, whatever. That is a little bit different to other races.
BB: Stefan, are these races self-supported as a lot of the desert races are?
Not quite a self-supported race
SB: Let’s call it semi self-supported. We transport the luggage of the runners from camp to camp, so you don’t have to carry these 8-15kg backpack during running. We wanted that our runners can concentrate purely on running, just wearing their day pack for water, emergency kits and power bars or whatever it is.
But they have to bring their food. We carry the food and the changes of clothes and whatever it is, from camp to camp. Besides race in Bhutan, in Bhutan we have, let’s call it full board. We serve meals all during the day, in the monasteries we have a cooking team with us, so there you even don’t have to bring your own food.
BB: Stefan, it must be particularly difficult to put one of these races on, never mind three of them. Tell us logistically, how difficult has it been, what are some of the challenges you’ve had to face?
The logistics behind the races
SB: Well, organising a race in remote countries that are totally inexperienced in what we are really doing there, is a long way to get the permission. First of all you have to find a local partner who can take care of all the logistics in place. Taking care of the drivers, the camp infrastructure, running around to get the permission. First of all, you have to find such a person.
In all three countries it’s difficult to find somebody who is experienced in that. In Cambodia it was easier because south east Asia has a little bit more experience in let’s say trekking, biking, whatever, so just the sport is different that we are doing.
In Bhutan, I think after three races, they still do not really understand what we are doing there, so every year, it’s really tough to make the local staff understand what we are doing. In Sri Lanka you are faced with totally different problems, getting permission there.
I have never written so many letters and met so many ministers like in Sri Lanka, all of them in the first meeting are very helpful, sure, send me a letter and you get directly the approval, after one and a half years, I still haven’t heard back from them. So getting approvals, getting permission, making the locals understand what we are doing is not the easiest.
As you have mentioned, I am German and German’s tend to be correct and make it as perfect as possible, so there are two different worlds meeting here, but finally, it obviously worked pretty well so far. Not everything is perfect, but as long as the runners do not realise it during the race, what’s going on behind the scene, everything is okay.
BB: Fantastic. As far as other races, these three are magnificent, they’re totally unique, are you looking at other areas, other countries to possibly host events like this?
Are more events on the horizon?
SB: Actually I’m not really planning to organise a fourth race. Global Limits, the company is mainly driven by my own, myself and hosting three races annually, it’s enough work to do there. Also to find another location with the same set up.
I’d prefer to do three races and organise them as good as possible instead of organising four, five, six races, then you’re losing the focus on the individual races. I prefer to make three races nearly perfect, or as best as possible instead of doing a fourth or fifth race. Probably somewhere I may change one of these locations to another location, but that is for the future. Currently we host these three events annually, most of the races are fully booked so far, so no need to make any change.
BB: Stefan, have you had many South Africans or any South Africans come and run any of your races?
SB: In general we had in our, in total in our seven races that we hosted, or let’s say eight races including this one what I’m just organising, we had about 45-50 different countries from all over the world. Whether it’s New Zealand, whether it’s South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, wherever they come from.
Also we had some South African runners, but the focus so far was not too much on South Africa, or South Africa the focus was not too much on my races because of probably marketing, the weak rand. So it’s probably travelling for South Africans, it’s relatively expensive these days, but in this race we have a South African runner, the famous South African trail runner, Megan MacKenzie has signed for Sri Lanka next year and intent to book to Cambodia and Bhutan in the next two years as well. So the focus is more and more in South Africa as well.
BB: They look absolutely amazing Stefan. The website to get to, if you want to find out more about it, is global-limits.com, we’ll put the links in the show notes to this episode as well. Stefan, they look amazing. I’ve put them on my list, these are races I want to do and I look forward in the years to come to visiting and running in those spectacular countries. Thanks for your time today.
SB: You’re welcome at any time.