Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coach Dog says thanks, kids

The Mighty Mighty St. Paul Cross-Country Club.

It's Thanksgiving Eve. (Is that even a Thing?) I'm thinking about how Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday, with lots of food and relaxation but without all the pressure of Christmas. (Yes, I'm a twentieth-century-never-learned-how-to-cook slob; at least on Thanksgiving, unlike on Chuseok in Korea, the women, after fixing all the food, can eat with the men.)

The holidays are the hardest time to be away from your family and country.

Today, I called a halt to Cross-Country Club till spring. I'll be running all winter, but it's getting pretty cold and pretty dark pretty early and I wanted to stop before the kids get run over on the way back to school or, worse, quit. I loved actual cross-country coaching more than anything else I've ever been paid for; I lived for those fall days and mourned when each season was over. (This is a shout-out to all those Flashes and Jackets I helped coach... I love you guys!) :: sniff ::

This has hardly been the same; we've just gone out twice a week to the park and the stream and all but a couple of the kids have run a few minutes and walked and talked for a half-hour each day. Korean girls seem to think that running makes women muscle-bound. (Koreans also widely believe that your blood type determines your personality, getting rained on makes your hair fall out, and sleeping in a closed room with a fan on will kill you.)

I'll miss it, though... they're good kids and I like to think I (or the experience) helped them somehow. Maybe in the spring more of them will see how running can enrich their lives. If not, that's okay, too.

Meanwhile, I'm thankful for Monica, Stephanie, Susie, Ecllid, Leo the Swift, Yuri, and little Christina and Kelly (who hold hands everywhere they go-- sometimes while running), and for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Here we go again

I suppose that once in awhile I should write about something besides running. So I will. (Though I did have a fun hash on Saturday and a good 10K race with my friend Lauren on Sunday. It was... oh, right, right. Back on topic.)

As you know if you've been able to tear yourself away from Dancing With the Stars, the North dropped a bucketload of missiles on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island (two miles from North Korea and 70 or so from me) yesterday. The best guess I've seen online is that some generals did it to demonstrate their discontent with their loss of influence with the upcoming succession of Kim Young Jerk to replace his dad Kim Ug Ly. Two RoK marines were killed. I think about them and their families and about the fact that all of the boys we teach will be in the military in just a few years.

My friends abroad (I mean, back home) want to know how people are reacting and what it feels like to be here. I think it's like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the aftermath of a minor tremblor: will the other shoe drop? People go about their business and keep their ears open for further developments. Arirang, the English-language channel, devoted 15 minutes of the news to the attack, but didn't break into their regular shows.

I'm not scared, and absolutely everything spooks me: tall buildings, roller coasters, Snooki. The reason I'm not scared is that I don't think that the North's leaders are so bullgoose loony that they're suicidal. I know enough history to know that sometimes things just go much further than any sensible person anticipated, like the Civil War, World War I, and Sarah Palin. (Same joke twice: too much?) And the current RoK government is much more hard-line than its predecessors.

The US embassy sent us registered Yanks email that basically said they'll let us know if we need to bug out. I don't know how I could take flying out of here and leaving our kids behind. But I don't think that the bigwigs on either side of the border want to die; The North Korean leaders are capital-E Evil, so they wouldn't care, but the South Korean guys don't want hundreds of thousands of casualties. So I think it's going to be okay.

All the same, maybe I won't go tour the DMZ on our day off this Friday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harrier? Than what?

I realize that I've hardly been writing about anything but my running for awhile. Hell, I realize that I've been writing that I've hardly been writing about anything but my running for awhile. Why? Well, aside from school, which isn't always an entertaining topic, running is basically what I've been doing, and so much of my attention and time were devoted to marathon training. (Incidentally, that rescued Chilean miner who ran the New York City Marathon? He finished his race in the same time-- to the minute-- that I did mine. I didn't hold him back... I'm innocent of contributing to the delinquency of a miner.)

Aside from that, I have a tendency to go home in the gathering dusk after school and sit there, doing some work, shoveling a bucket of carbs down my gaping maw, and counting (nonexistent) flowers on the wall. That don't bother me at all.

Well, maybe a little... it's getting darker. And colder. And earlier.

On Saturday, at the invitation of my friend Shawn-- she's the one whose shoulder my head is on in the bus photo in my marathon post-- I attended the Yongsan Kimchi Hash House Harriers' (YKH3) hash.

Hashing, to put in very briefly and somewhat inadequately, is a recreation of hares and hounds, wherein beastly British pursue British beasts. A couple of runners (the "hares") take off from the starting point and fifteen minutes later the other runners (the "pack") head out in pursuit. The hares have marked the course with chalk and/or flour and/or shredded paper: turn this way; go straight ahead; STOP... the trail could go in any direction; go back three markings and try again... it's brilliantly laid out so that the fastest runners go ahead and check possible leads, than double back so the slower ones (NO, I'M NOT THE SLOWEST) can catch up and catch their breath.

So, picture this... a ritzy shopping area of Seoul, thousands of Koreans out in their fall/winter fashions, totally bewildered by forty or fifty Westerners. some wearing cat ears or carrying bedpans or rubber bricks around their necks (don't ask), running down the street blowing whistles and yelling "ON-ON" and and "ON ONE" and "TRUE TRAIL" loudly enough to be heard a block away.

We went down alleyways and by posh department stores, around a soccer field and through a traditional Korean village, through a busy subway station and on the trail up Namsan Mountain, down by the creek past the incredibly elaborate lantern festival...
(As it was daytime, the lanterns weren't lit up, but by the end of the after-run social, a lot of the runners were.)

Oh. My. God, you guys, it was...

So. Much. Fun.

I hadn't realized how long it had been since I had actually played at anything. No basketball, no tennis, no softball... and I wouldn't even count those games as pure play in the way I mean here. I'm thinking Frisbee, Hacky Sack, New Games... you do know what New Games were, don't you, you old hippie? Something that's just fun, with no score, no losers, no competition... prepping for a road race is rewarding, but it's work, constantly checking how far you've gone and how fast you've done it. This is pure fun, like dogs tussling over a stick or kids playing tag or Victoria's Secret Angels having a pillow... ah, never mind.

To tell the truth, I didn't love everything about the club. There's a constant raunchiness involved that seems very forced, very frat-boy, to me. Regulars use "hash names", generally very dirty ones, in lieu of their real names, and there are all kinds of rituals before and after the hash. I was hazed (noninvasively) because I was a Virgin. (Umm... that means a first-time hasher, not what you're thinking. I swear I'm not a lower-case-v virgin, though I suppose it's possible that it's grown back by now.)

As I may have young (under 40) impressionable readers, I'll forgo repeating the names or the jokes or the details of the rituals. I will say that there's a lot of beer involved and, in this particular hash club, a plastic dinosaur named Dick. After the hash, I completed a ceremony that theoretically involves draining a can of Bud Light and pouring the remnant over my head, so I've lost my Virginity, though I'm still No-Name Steve until I earn a hash name.

There are a couple of thousand H3 clubs all around the world, including several in Seoul. I think I'm going back to the YKH3 hash this Saturday, though this week's theme is Naughty Schoolgirl and I left my plaid skirt  back in Florida. Sometime soon I'll also check out the Southside H3 and maybe the Seoul H3, which is all male. (I hear that there's a 75-year-old guy who goes out with them every week.)


Monday, November 8, 2010

I'd better watch out, I'd better not cry

...I'd better not pout, I'm telling you why:

Obama is coming to town.

...and Merkel and Putin and, oh hell, Thatcher, right, she's still in charge, isn't she? And DeGaulle and Bismarck...

Well, anyway, the bigwigs are coming to my neighborhood next weekend; the G20 Summit is at the Seoul World Trade Center, which is just four miles or so from my apartment.

The US embassy sent out this warning:
The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in South Korea to safety and security issues related to expected public demonstrations around venues for the G20 Summit scheduled to be held in Seoul, November 11-12, 2010.  The expected demonstrations will disrupt travel and have the possibility of becoming violent.  The U.S. Embassy in Seoul recommends that if you are not directly involved with the G20 Summit, you should avoid host sites, including the Coex Center in Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, in south Seoul.  You should avoid areas near the Summit sites or areas where there are large gatherings or increased police presence.  This Travel Alert expires on November 13, 2010.
 I think every blog post is more interesting when it has a picture, don't you? they're closing off all streets within two kilometers and the traffic and buses are going to be FUBAR all week and I doubt I'll be going very far at all. I was at the COEX Mall, beneath the World Trade Center, yesterday, and they'd already installed metal detectors and were searching people trying to go up from the basement mall. We've also been cautioned to carry our ID with us at all times.

This is the closest brush with fame I've had since I shook hands with Teddy Roosevelt on my 18th birthday.

Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose

...any way you look at this, you're shoes:

...too much running may cause hallucinations.

My regular readers (both of you) may be getting tired of reading about my running, so I thought I'd give you a change of pace. (See what I did there?)

So I thought I'd write about other people's running.

Yesterday was the Joongang Marathon, the one I'd originally registered for before switching to the Chuncheon because of its more relaxed time limit. Of course, the Chuncheon had perfect, warm weather for watching and I ran that; the Joongang had perfect weather for running (cool, foggy, windy) and I watched that.

I went to the Olympic Stadium to hand off my bib to another Seoul Flyer, as someone's Chuncheon bib had been handed off to me. We Flyers (I say "we" though what I do can hardly be called flying) found each other in the mob of 30,000 people...
Here are a few of the 35 or so Flyers who attended, just outside the Olympic Stadium before the race.

...and then some went to the 10K, some to the marathon, and three lucky ducks (including me) to go find coffee.
...a pre-race fanfare you won't get in Boston.

One of the drawbacks to running a race in Korea is that the few spectators along the course are as stolid as cows unless a friend or family member runs past. The three on the right of the group picture, Shira, Zuleika, and I (and I swear most of the hair that's covered by the cap is brown) stood a hundred yards outside the stadium and screamed and yelled ("Chuweyo!", "Assa assa!", "Fighteeeeng!") and pounded our thunder sticks (umm... you do know I'm referring to those plastic inflatable noisemakers, yeah?) for everyone who came by. Runners just lit up, gave us thumbs up, high-fived us... they were so clearly thrilled to be appreciated for once, while the other Koreans on the sidelines stared at the crazy waegookin and took our pictures.

Then we went into the stadium to await the end of the marathon, which I'd have to say was a pretty damn good one:
I will say that there are few places emptier than an 80,000 seat stadium with 500 people in it. Still, Shira's urging me to run the Seoul International Marathon full course in March, and I have to say that the prospect of finishing in the stadium, on the track where Carl Lewis and FloJo and so many others ran, seeing myself on the JumboTron as I approach the finish line... hmm...

Yeah, they call it the JumboTron for the skinny runners, too.

OH! I almost forgot... I lightly rewrote my blog post called The Forty-Year Promise for local consumption and the Chosun Ilbo newspaper is going to print it (and pay me... something) in the booklet they're publishing about this year's Chuncheon Marathon. Hooray for me!

Monday, November 1, 2010

The forty-year promise

...aka The Long and Winding Road.

When I promised myself in 1969 that I'd run a marathon someday, it was a nebulous idea, a statement that I simultaneously meant and didn't take seriously. Finally, this last spring, when I bumped into a Korean runner my age who said he was a marathoner and asked if I was, too ("Anniyo... Five K"), it occurred to me to ask myself why not, why in the eleven years since I started running regularly again, it had been so easy to force my one-time promise into the back of my mind, where it got neglected on the shelf somewhere between "Mrs. Peel, we're needed" and Cleon Jones' .340 batting average for the Miracle Mets.

(Yes, I can do simple math, but "The forty-one-year promise" just didn't have the same ring to it.)

And so I got serious at last. I bought items I'd previously scorned as affectations, like a GPS watch and a hydration belt. I got up predawn on summer Sundays and ran till I'd lost ten percent of my toenails. I forced myself into a corner, telling my friends at school and on this blog what I was going to do, making it so I couldn't bear to not complete the run.

And so (drumroll) to the (pregnant pause) big day.

On Sunday the 24th, I got up at 4:00, determined above all to not miss the Seoul Flyers' bus to Chuncheon. Friends at work had told me I'd have no trouble finding a cab in our neighborhood even at that hour, but I didn't want to take any chances. In fact, it took nearly 30 seconds for a taxi to come by. I got to the rendezvous point by Ichon Station, north of the river, so early that neither the bus nor anyone else was there yet.

But the bus got there and the Flyers got there and we all got to Chuncheon together.
Los Volantes del Seoul, antes de la carrera. The guys wearing beige in the back left are actually US Army MP's, who sneaked into our picture. I got even, though... I beat at least four of them in the race.

It seemed a long, long wait for the race to begin, long enough for many trips to the men's, where I passed one of the East African guys who always take all the top spots in these things. (He was like an Italian greyhound, about 3'2" and 17 pounds.) There was more than enough time to take multitudinous pictures, as well. this one, a few of my girlfriends.

But finally it was time to get started. The 21,000 runners were sorted into ten groups, A-J, depending on their previous times. Naturally, I was in Group J. The "A" group took off at 10:00, but it was 10:20 before the "J" team moved from the holding field to the street...
...are you sure that this is the line for ABBA tickets?

...and fully 10:35 before we got to start. And, of course, all of 10:37 before the sun came out and it got hot.

Actually, it was the most gorgeous Indian-summer day imaginable, very soon in the low-to-mid 70s with not a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately, ideal marathon weather is 50 degrees and overcast. (The next day it was 50 degrees and overcast.) The race only provided water stops once every five kilometers, with tables with cold, wet sponges halfway between each pair of water stops. It wasn't enough. Fortunately, Kerri of the Flyers had told me there were gas stations on the way where I could buy water and lent me a couple of bucks to do just that. I'm not sure I could have finished without that help.

The hard part for the first few miles was holding back, running three minutes fairly slowly, walking one minute, ad infinitum. Judging from my performance toward the end of the race, maybe I could have held back a little better. But the early run went well as we made our way out of the city of Chuncheon (population 250,000), past the soccer stadium, and up in among the mountains.

At the first water stop (and all the ones after), dozens of high-school-aged girls behind the tables were shouting, "Hi Steve! Hi Steve!" I couldn't figure out how they knew my name or why they were rooting for me; then it hit me: they were yelling "Fighteeeeng! Fighteeeeng!" That's the generic Korean word for "Let's go" or "You can do it" or "Kick ass" at such events. (At my first 5K in Seoul, the gift was a "KOREA FIGHTING" running shirt.) Like the English phrase "well-being", which in Korea is an adjective attached to any product that can remotely be claimed to be healthful, "fighting" has been pilfered from our language to mean something sorta kinda like it to the locals.

From roughly mile five to mile fifteen, the course was gorgeous, with the muted fall colors all over the looming mountains and the serpentine lake glittering below. It reminded me, almost, of home, or the Adirondacks. It. Was. Lovely. I didn't put on my iPod for a couple of hours because I didn't want to distract myself from the view and the feel of the course.
Here's a hint of the sun, the mountains, and a water stop after 18,000 or so runners had been through.

As I've written, though, rather warm, very sunny, and punishingly hilly are not the ideal conditions for distance running. In all of my training, I'd avoided hills as much as possible to save wear and tear on my legs and because I thought I was training for the (flat) Joongang Marathon two weeks later. I had my two 10-ounce bottles of water, but they weren't nearly enough.

Aside from the inadequate water supply and the utter lack of port-a-potties (thank goodness for --ahem-- being male), the race was very well run, with excellent markings and a course even I couldn't get lost on. Several times along the way, bands serenaded the runners, a traditional Korean drum-and-gong group in colorful outfits here, a Joan Jettish band of teens, inexplicably pounding away to All I Want for Christmas is You in Korean, there.

Then we hit the roads through the farmlands, and I might have thought I was in Burdett, New York, or Hastings, Florida. The locals, human, bovine, and canine-- though, fortunately, not ursine-- all looked at us runners as if we were crazy; clearly rural folks are pretty sharp. Aaaand we plodded on and on in the sun. I kept passing, then being passed, by the same people, mile after mile, as we were taking our walk breaks (planned, in my case) at different intervals.

After 16 miles or so, we reached the blessed shade as a mountain, wearing a huge net to protect passersby from falling boulders, loomed at our shoulders.The shade made all the difference in the world, but after a couple of miles it was time to get back in the sun, cross a long bridge, and start the long descent to the city. By this point, of course, we were all ticking off the kilometers (of the total 42.2) to the finish... twelve, eleven, ten, nine point eight, nine point six...) And it was getting harder and harder to keep running for the three minutes and harder and harder and harder to start again after the minute-long walk breaks.

The last four or five miles to the finish are sort of a blur. I remember that Chuncheon itself has all the charm of downtown Syracuse (hint: not much), that I was dying for water and found a gas station that sold me some, and that my calf tightened up so much that I had to walk-- hobble-- for a mile, which spoiled my hope of finishing in five and a half hours. (It was the horrible pounding of 26-plus miles on hard surfaces that nearly did me in.) But finally I was almost there...

I ran the last half mile. Frankly, I'd pictured it in my mind over and over: my friends (who were going to be at the Joongang race here in Seoul) lining the final stretch and calling my name, the utter joyful elation as I crossed the line, preferably collapsing in a heap of virtuous sweat and glory, Vangelis playing on the PA system... yeah, well. The only people I saw who knew me were Kerri and Shira of the Flyers, and they cheered their hearts out for five seconds, but another Flyer was fifty yards ahead of me and they almost didn't see me at all, so... no photo. (I swear I actually did the race, though.)

I do confess to getting a tiny bit teary-eyed as I neared the finish line, just, I guess, at the realization I had done something important to me, if to nobody else. But it felt too matter-of-fact, and I was too tired, to be ecstatic. I still haven't felt ecstatic. Why? Well, I never had a doubt that, barring a serious injury, I would make it. That just wasn't a possibility. But I did, and do, feel a quiet but deep satisfaction, and I think I always will; it only took 41 years, but I did it.
On the bus home: a beautiful smile from Shawn, left; quiet satisfaction, right.

What have I learned? Well, to train longer, for one thing; what with starting a little late and moving my race up two weeks, I missed about a month of training and one humongously long prep run. My split times for each five-kilometer stretch (38 minutes, 38, 38, 38, 39, 42, 43, 43) show that I may have been mentally and emotionally ready, but the body could have been a little more so. I've learned that all the training in the world can't account for outside influences such as mountains, heat, and lack of water... some runners boiled over like Studebakers in Arizona in July. I've learned that I-- and so, all of us-- can do more than expected if the will is only there. Five hours, forty minutes, forty-three seconds isn't quite Olympic-caliber, but... well, you know.

I ran a 10-K race yesterday, a week after the marathon, and did well. I'm running another 10-K in three weeks, and, I'm pretty sure, another marathon next year (maybe in five hours flat).

I've learned that I'm a runner.