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The run of her life

Just two years ago a factory worker doing 12-hour shifts, 40-year-old Phitchanan Mahachot's rise to the athletic elite is an inspiring story of joy, determination and hard work

Phitchanan Mahachot. Photo: Pawat Laopaisarntaksin

When Phitchanan Mahachot ran her first full marathon two years ago, she was a rookie not even aware of the energy gel many long-distance athletes consume.

"I read from several sources that you need energy gel when running a marathon. So I went to a shop and tried to buy some. I didn't know what it was so I asked the shopkeeper where should I apply the gel!" Phitchanan, 40, recalled.

Phitchanan, who refers to herself as a hillbilly runner to reflect her humble origins as a poor, rural girl from Ratchaburi, has come a long way.

In about two years, the former factory worker who has no formal training in running and started competing at the rather late age of 38 has become one of the country's elite runners.

She finished first in the overall female category in many major races this year, including a few tough trails like the 50km Tanaosri and 66km Pong Yaeng.

Phitchanan Mahachot comes first in the overall female category at the Chombueng Marathon in Ratchaburi in 2016. Photo: BUGNUT@SIAMSPORTS

Her latest accolade is to be the overall female winner at the 100km North Face Trail held in Nakhon Ratchasima early this month, having finished the course in 12.34 hours.

What distinguished Phitchanan from others in the field is not just her extraordinary talent but how she braved so many life obstacles before she could reach the podium.

It's not only financial constraints that Phitchanan has contended with. Her mother suffers from a lung condition that requires her to be put on an oxygen inhaler every four hours, day and night.

That means Phitchanan as her carer can do anything as long as she can return to her mother in four hours. She has to plan her activities -- sleeping, eating or training -- during those intervals.

"I have never had it easy in my life," Phitchanan said. "I have known hardship since I was a child. I believe, however, that people don't really care how hard your life is. The point therefore is to concentrate on how do we overcome those difficulties."

Details of Phitchanan's life can make hardship sound like an understatement. Coming from a humble background, Phitchanan began working at a plastic factory in 2004, doing 12-hour shifts.

"I had to stand all day like a robot," Phitchanan said.

Two years ago, her mother fell ill and became very much bedridden. Phitchanan quit her factory job to take care of her mother. To make ends meet, she took on odd jobs such as making dolls, preparing food or being a gas station helper.

One day, she passed by a registration booth for the Chombueng Marathon, one of the oldest and best known running events in the country, held in her hometown of Ratchaburi. Out of curiosity, Phitchanan asked the race organisers if she could take part in the event, even though registration was closed. She was allowed to join the 10km mini-marathon on condition she would take care of herself.

That day, Phitchanan found her true calling.

"I felt a sense of joy as I ran," Phitchanan said. Before the race, she never did any serious workouts.

"I never had time for leisure. I worked in a factory. There was nothing a sport would do for me. I had to earn a living.

"To be frank, I am tired. I don't have enough sleep. Sometimes, I wonder why I have to train at 9 or 10pm when other people can be resting. I have to get up every four hours at night. I feel discouraged sometimes but I can never retreat. My mother has to stay with me so I have to take care of her."

After the first 10km, however, she started to fall in love with running. With a pair of second-hand sneakers given to her by an acquaintance, Phitchanan practiced during her free time and read up about long-distance running on the internet. She re-entered the Chombueng Marathon last year, and finished first in the overall female category in 3hr 17min.

For comparison, the Thai-American marathoner and 2016 Olympics qualifier Jane Vongvorachoti clocked in at 2hr 47min at the Rio Games.

After winning her first marathon title, Phitchanan's talent began to be noticed. She started to do freelance work for the running specialist shop Banana Run in Bangkok while participating in more running events and attracting sponsorship.

For Phitchanan, trail running is a metaphor for life, her life anyway.

"There is both joy and suffering," she said. "Sometimes, it's just a matter of survival. You have no choice but to fight on. You have to study the trail and plan your next move. You have to look ahead and see where you want to place your feet on a rocky path."

Phitchanan said she does not feel she is more gifted than other athletes but she does credit the hardship in her life that gave her an ability to endure.

"I sometimes thank all those difficulties I have faced. Without them, I would not have developed such a level of endurance," Phitchanan said.

She has also learned from both running and her challenging life circumstances to keep going forward and not give up.

"I fell down too. But I always told myself I have to get up as quickly as possible since I will have to rush back to take care of my mother," the runner said.

To make her point, she recalled how she stumbled over a tree stump, fell down and hurt her leg quite badly after covering only 12km out of the recent 100km North Face trail run.

She said it hurt so much she had to drag herself out of the trail and lay down on the wayside. She also thought she might have to leave the race.

"But I told myself I had to go through this. I kept going until I reached the last 14km. I told myself if I fell down again, I would just have to get up again. If I could not run, I would walk. If I could not walk, I would crawl," Phitchanan said.

While she said her personal goal is to realise her potential, she also wants her life story to inspire youngsters, especially wayward ones, to pick up the sport to stay healthy, physically and mentally.

She said she was once asked to speak to a group of youngsters who recently came out of jail to divert their attention to sports.

"They didn't listen to me so I am determined to make myself known. I don't have other talents except running so I have to use it. When I have fame, I will go back to them and talk to them again. I hope some will listen to me," Phitchanan said.

While Phitchanan often tells other people when they feel defeated to look at her and how she has to struggle with everything, the runner herself usually thinks back to the toughest race she ran in, the Tanaosri Trail, to find a will to go on.

"I had to run alone at 3am in the middle of a forest as I could not catch up with the male leaders but was too far ahead of female ones.

"It was dark. The trail went through ravines. There were six mountains I had to climb. I asked myself, 'How come it's so scary?'. I didn't really want to carry on.

"But then, I would also ask myself, 'What am I doing here?'. And the answer was clear. It's because of love. If I didn't love running so much, I wouldn't have been here. I wouldn't have done this.

"It's tough and I might not win any financial reward from the race but if I could go through it, I would be able to relay to others how difficult it was and more importantly how I managed to brave through it," Phitchanan said.

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