Sunday, November 11, 2012

The road goes ever on and on

Two years ago, in the town of Chuncheon, I ran my first marathon, in five hours, 40 minutes. Last year, I ran the Joongang Marathon here in Seoul, in five hours, 58 seconds. If I'd met my goal (five hours) then, I might have had a lot more free time in the summer and fall of this year. But that 58 seconds haunted me and, by the night of the 2011 Joongang, I knew I'd have to do it again this year.

I only had one goal: a "4" in the hours column; 4:59:59 would do just fine.

This year's training was a lot more pleasant than that of the last two years, as Valerie, the wife of one of our social studies teachers, agreed to be be my training and racing partner. As Val has Ken and their five-year-old son, Maddox, and a life, she wasn't always able to do the Sunday long runs with me. But we did the long runs together more often than not, including the 20-miler three weeks before the race.

We ran along the Yangjae Cheon (stream) from Gwacheon City in the southwest to the Han River in central Seoul, and the phrase "slowly but surely" was never more apt. One week, we were supposed to do 16 miles and both gave out in 12. The 20-miler was smooth and pleasant. When you go out to run, you never know what kind of day you're going to have.

The hours surely go by more pleasantly with a running partner, but more than that, I really value the conversations I've had with Val. She's down-to-earth and frank and funny and we share a lot of political and social views. Best of all, she sometimes made me realize that maybe I shouldn't believe everything I think. For example, I'd say that Koreans have no sense of personal space, and she'd say, it's a big city... have you been to New York? (After much consideration, I've come to the conclusion, yeah but...)

She brought me back to the moment many times, as I'd obsess over meeting the time goal in the training plan, obsessively doing the math in my head: we've done 6 1/2 miles in 74:40... let's see, that's the same as 13 miles in 149:20, that's 149.33 minutes, divided by 13 is... ah, heck. It's um... I know I drove her crazy sometimes. (I drive myself crazy frequently, and I'm not sure I ever drive all the way back.)

Anyway, one of the great takeaways from this marathon season is having Val as a friend. She (like Ken) is good people, as they say down south. I introduced her to the hash, which she took to like a duck to Perrier, and she fast became one of the pack's favorites. (She's one of the people who pushed the sheet cake in my face at my EM run, as seen in my previous post.)

Another thing that really helped me be in the moment was the death of my GPS watch. It just stopped holding a charge, six weeks before the big day. I found a German GPS watch at the running store not far from my place. (From Garmin to German...) My new watch measures distance traveled in feet (feet!), which is utterly useless, but once I gave in and switched to metric, it was a dream. I can set the display to show any arrangement of data I like, and there's a setting for average pace, so I could just make sure to keep at 6:52, or 7:11, or whatever per kilometer and otherwise forget it.

Anyway, the summer miles were brutal, even starting at 6 a.m. The fall brought some relief just as the runs were getting longer and longer. And then, finally, it was M-Day.

Fifteen thousand-plus runners and a whole bunch of balloons this year.

 I can't tell you too much about the actual marathon; as with a coast-to-coast car trip or, I suppose, childbirth, when it's over the mind blocks out a lot of the tedium and pain. Val was having intestinal issues and had to search out bathrooms several times, but we ran together for the first half or so of the race, then she caught me up, then I lost her again. I didn't see her for the last twelve miles. She finished ten or twelve minutes behind me. Everything considered, her accomplishment was greater than mine.

Our time running together was 'way better than running alone. Also, for once, the weather cooperated. In Chuncheon two years ago, it was much, much too hot, freakishly so for the time of year. Last year, the sky opened up for the first couple of hours of the race and it was impossible to get any wetter. This year, it was really windy, but otherwise the conditions were perfect, 50 degrees or so and overcast. It started spitting tiny raindrops for a bit just before the finish and I though we might get a real storm. But we didn't.

I'm very grateful to Jin, our school's executive secretary, who came out to the 10-K mark with Gatorade and food bars for Val and me, and to Mr. Park, my boss, who showed up at several spots to encourage us and to take video.

The last dozen miles, running north by myself, were purgatory. Everything, I mean everything (well, almost), below the waist hurt. My hips were screaming, my knees were whimpering, my calves were crying out (yeah, it was damned noisy out there). Because I are a genius, I'd left the ibuprofen with Val. I'd also left my iPod with my stored gear, so I didn't have P!nk and Joan Jett to pull me through. And the road just went on and on and...

I thought I was on track to beat five hours, but at one point I'd accidentally stopped my watch (for ten seconds? Ten minutes? I couldn't be sure.) So I didn't know.

And then, in the last few miles, the backs of my thighs seized up repeatedly, one at a time, to the point I couldn't have walked another dozen steps. I stopped six times in all, three for each leg, to stretch and employ colorful vocabulary. One time, a guy saw me and handed me an energy drink that turned out to be almost completely honey, so just to add to the fun, I was sweaty, dirty, swearing, and sticky.

But finally the Olympic Stadium was in sight. Two small groups of hashers were waiting just outside the stadium to cheer us on. I'm deeply grateful; it's so generous for them to take time out of their weekend and travel to the stadium just to see us go by for a few seconds. It gave me a big lift, and I needed it.

And then it was through the tunnel and around the track and somehow I pushed and pushed and crossed the line with the timer saying 5:05. I was pretty sure we hadn't actually crossed the starting line for around ten minutes after the gun went off, but I felt a lot better a little later in the day when I got a text with my official time:


Our art teacher Amber and her husband Kris were there for us, as were Ken and Maddox and a couple of their friends. I got to cheer Val all the way around the track--my voice, when I want it to, can fill up a 50,000 seat stadium--and we all exchanged hugs and smiles, Val and I picked up our medals, and we left. I was hobbling like a 90-year-old.

I was feeling pretty high emotionally and didn't want to go home to an empty apartment, so I suggested the Val, Ken, Maddox and I go to Butterfinger Pancakes in Gangnam for a little celebratory carbo-loading. When we got there, we found a 40-minute waiting line, so we settled for a little Italian place called Le Bois (French for "The Forest"; go figure.) It was wonderful, with excellent pasta and unlimited pizza (!) on the side, and Ken and I ate and ate and ate and all was right with the world.

I think this was probably my last full marathon. No matter how hard I train, I'll never get down under another touchstone such as 4:30, and until you've done it, you can have no idea what a slog training for the marathon, and the interminable race itself, can be. The only reason I can think of to do one next year is to say I did one at age 60, and that doesn't seem reason enough. A part of my ego says that no longer doing the full marathons would mean I'm getting old, but I know that's stupid. I think 2013 will be the year of half marathons and 10K's.
This is my medal. I think it's platinum.

I've been a bit at loose ends this week, without the self-imposed discipline of training and without cross country in school, which has ended for the winter. And without my obsessive checking of the election polls (which, incidentally, hooray!) But I'm good. I'm proud. I done good. Val done good. And that pizza done me real good.