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.


Cindy said...

Congratulations! A marathon on in Seoul is definitely on my list...hopefully before 40 years :)

KatesterBP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katastic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katastic said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I truly enjoyed reading this.

Congratulations on your first full race and if you do decide to run the Seoul Marathon, I'll be right there with ya for MY first one! :)

You are quite an inspiration- I hope you know that!!!

(Oh and this is Kat from Seoul Flyers!)