Rider number 401 was dead tired and suffering from low blood pressure. She was also last by a wide margin in the 5,000m and trudged alone, through a raucous rainstorm, around the track of an almost empty stadium.
Bou Samnang, 20, still finished the race.
His performance in the rain at the Southeast Asian Games – this year’s edition was hosted this month by his home country of Cambodia – would have been a footnote in a tournament unknown to most part of sports fans outside the region. But when the video circulated widely on social media, she became an unlikely national celebrity.
“I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I told myself I shouldn’t stop,” she said in an interview.
As he continued to fight, it helped that a small group of supporters were clapping furiously, he added, and that he felt compelled to finish because he represented his country.
Ms Bou Samnang, who graduated from high school last year, didn’t expect to attract international attention when she arrived on May 8 for the 5,000m final in Phnom Penh, the capital and her hometown. She was grateful just to be in competition.
A few weeks earlier, Ms. Bou Samnang had suffered a particularly severe bout of low blood pressure, a result of her chronic anemia, while exercising in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming. A doctor told her to stop running for a while, and her trainer, Kieng Samorn, didn’t insist otherwise.
“He has a health problem,” Mr. Kieng Samorn said. “We can’t force her.”
But Ms Bou Samnang said she was looking forward to running in the Southeast Asian Games, her first international competition, and her coach didn’t get in her way.
In the women’s 5,000m final, held in a little-attended 60,000-seat stadium, Ms Bou Samnang gathered at the starting line alongside some of the best runners in the region. The eventual winner, Nguyen Thi Oanh of Vietnam, is an Olympian who had won multiple golds at previous Southeast Asian Games.
After the starting gun sounded and the riders got into formation, Ms. Bou Samnang took up position towards the rear of the peloton. Within a minute or so, she was so far behind that she was not visible in much of the television coverage.
But he continued, even as Ms. Oanh and other runners finished, the skies opened and some fans lost interest.
Ms Bou Samnang would finish in 22 minutes 54 seconds, nearly six minutes behind Ms Oanh of Vietnam and around 90 seconds behind a compatriot, Run Romdul. By then the stadium floodlights were out, water was pooling on the rink, and her pink shoes and red uniform were soaked through.
His performance was reminiscent of other runners who persevered, including some who famously won track events after crashing. One is Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, who did it in the 1,500m at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago.
Runners tend not to get much praise if they lose by a large margin. One exception is in long-distance events, where it’s common to celebrate the latest finisher, said Steve Brammar, general secretary of the Hong Kong Trail Runners Association. An ultramarathon trail race he runs there has an “Ultimate Finisher” trophy for just that purpose.
“Ms. Bou Samnang’s perseverance has been inspiring and really seems to have warmed hearts and captured the imagination,” Mr. Brammar said in an email.
After finishing last in the 5,000m race this month, Ms Bou Samnang’s health prevented her from running the 1,500m event as planned, her coach said. But after video of her determined performance circulated online, she received public praise from the King of Cambodia and a $10,000 bonus from Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, equivalent to several years of average Cambodian earnings. .
Ms Bou Samnang, whose father died in 2018, is the third of four children. She said she would use the bonus to study law at a Cambodian university and that she intended to continue racing competitively.
Her mother, Mai Met, said she cried after hearing her daughter finished last in the 5,000m race. But that sadness was tempered by the outpouring of public support that followed.
“I am happy,” said Ms. Mai Met, 44, who has long supported her family by working in garment factories.
His determined finish illustrated an “ideal of sports,” said Edgar K. Tham, a sports psychologist in Singapore who works with athletes in Southeast Asia.
He said the attention Ms Bou Samnang has received is notable in part because Cambodian athletes tend to fare better in combat sports than track events in regional competitions.
But the example he has set, he added, will resonate far beyond Southeast Asia.
“That’s what life is all about: moving forward and using failures as lessons to bounce back,” she said. “If you take it in that spirit, it’s something inspiring.”
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