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Dispatch: The Baker’s Dozen In Vietnam

Holly Bennett writes about her most recent "Baker's Dozen" race experience.

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In light of the unfathomable tragedy at the Boston Marathon, my most recent Baker’s Dozen race experience holds special significance for me. It’s a testament to the spirit of sport and the bonds that build from the simple desire of people–from all walks of life and all corners of the world–to get outdoors, have some good fun and bust a sweat together.

If you’re a regular reader of this column you know that the Baker’s Dozen refers to my personal project to run a race per month, plus one, in 2013. For April’s race I was thrilled to be in Vietnam to cover the inaugural Laguna Lang Co Triathlon. Because my travels would continue onward through Asia for several weeks following the Vietnam race and included a complex flight itinerary, I chose not to bring along a bike. Rather, at the invitation of the race director I custom-crafted my own duathlon opportunity: I participated in the swim portion of the triathlon, then headed to the start line of the six-kilometer fun run which conveniently started an hour after the main race.

As I previously reported on race day from Vietnam, the triathlon’s swim looked unlikely to occur due to unusually stormy weather and pounding surf at the event venue. But on Sunday morning, with the swell ever so slightly diminished, organizers made the call allowing us to swim (athletes were also given the option to race in the duathlon category instead). I was elated! I’m a slow swimmer, but I love the sport nonetheless and I’ll jump at any opportunity for a warm water ocean swim. What I lack in speed I make up for in strength, and having raced triathlons off the California coast for many years I have the confidence to navigate waves. The conditions on race day were rough enough that I wouldn’t have ventured solo into the sea, but with plenty of support on hand–including Vietnamese Army boats full of crew members­–I had no fear of charging forward into the surf.

The swim was indeed awesome–frenetic and fun and fascinating all at once. But while I loved that ocean swim, my experience on the fun run forms the heart of this story.

The run start line was packed with roughly 50 participants, all Vietnamese save for three or four of us. With the start signal we tore off across the golf course and soon enough were strung out into a panting pace line. Within the first kilometer I caught up to a lithe young local guy. It was my intention to pass him, yet from the moment we made contact we became inseparable buddies, running shoulder to shoulder the entire rest of the way. Through gasped breaths I learned that his name is Thanh and that he lives in the local village (he pointed out the area of his home to me as we ran). The majority of our communication was in the form of encouragement, however. If my pace slowed even the slightest, Thanh clapped for me, saying, “Go, go, go!” Each time we hit even the tiniest hill I felt his hand on my back giving me extra momentum upward. And each time we approached a competitor ahead of us we gave one another a knowing glance, overtook the other runner and then shared a universally understood thumbs up. Thanh actually offered to get water for me at each aid station, but I was quick to grab my own cup, wanting to be sure that he could focus on his own hydration needs.

As Thanh and I reached the final kilometer we both showed signs of fatigue. On the last little hill I reached over and gave him a boost with my hand at his back, payback for his earlier help pushing me forward. And as we turned into the final stretch of the race and the finish chute I grabbed Thanh’s hand and held it in mine overhead, victorious in having made a new running friend.

As I write this column it’s a few days post-race and just one day following the tragedy in Boston. My heart is heavy with grief, yet it’s also overflowing with happiness at how beautifully the spirit of sport transcends barriers of culture, geography, language, religion and politics. It’s something that is so easily shared. And despite the occasional attempts of evildoers to quash that spirit, it’s also something that is never diminished.

This morning I received an email from Thanh:

Are really happy ti know you. Wish you health, success, and well happy.

Thank you, Thanh. I’m really happy to know you, too.