Sunday, December 1, 2013

Me and Yu and K forty-two

Last month I ran my fourth marathon, my third consecutive Joongang International Marathon, from the Olympic Stadium down to the outskirts of Bundang (that is, the suburbs of the suburbs) and back. I had thought that last year's would be my last, till the Boston Marathon bombings prodded me into an irrational but definite sense that I needed to do another as a statement to... someone... that we runners won't be intimidated, a day in memory of the victims.

Maybe that wasn't reason enough; I ran my first marathon to keep a promise I'd made myself in high school, my second to break five hours, my third to no-kidding break five hours (as I'd missed by less than a minute). All through the grinding miles this summer (about 360 of them, but maybe you find 575 kilometers more impressive), I pushed and sweated and resented myself for committing to this and wondered what the hell was wrong with me. (That, however, would take a bit more than 360 miles to figure out.) And on the really long runs, my left leg would stiffen so that I could hardly bend it... if that happened in the race, it would be the Bus of Shame for me.

Getting out of bed on the morning of the marathon is a grim affair. The predawn hour, dressing and fretting, feels like anticipating a root canal, and on the taxi ride to the stadium, every speed bump (and there are many) makes the stomach contract just a little bit more. I felt like a chihuahua getting fastened into a bungee harness and looking down in dismay and perplexity. I had no idea why I was doing this.

In the shivery November morning at the stadium, I kept busy finding a men's room that didn't have a 20-minute queue, stashing my stuff in a bag and storing it, and dodging among the masses of energetic Koreans doing their stretches in front of the girl group dancing and blasting K-pop from monstrous speakers. Then it was time to line up on the street.

I had been regretting not having a running partner (Val, from last year's marathon, or Laura-Claire, from my training this year), but I got very lucky. Within a few miles, a Korean man a few years older than I spoke to me and we began to run together. His English was pretty decent, certainly years ahead of my Korean. I told him my name was Steve and he gave his family name, Yu. (Maybe he thought his full name would be too much for a foreigner, and maybe he was right.) We ran the whole rest of the marathon together. That, right there, is a strong reason to not give up.

Within another mile or so we were joined by another guy of about 40, whose English was good enough for the circumstances. He never gave me his name, but he talked about loving his job as a city bus driver, so I'll call him Ralph (as in Kramden). He was especially proud that he can say "hello" in a dozen languages; he likes to make his foreign passengers feel welcome. He's a sweet guy.

So Yu and Ralph and I shared the next dozen miles together, and somehow the scenery and the time went by. They only knew to say "Good job" to encourage a foreign runner, so I taught them the finer points of "Go get 'em" and "You got this." I expounded on the superiority of the F-word in English to its Korean equivalent. ("Shibal" just doesn't have that same satisfying percussive effect.) They taught me some useful Korean phrases that I, being me, forgot by the end of the race.

We ran the whole way near the pacesetters carrying big blue "5 Hour" balloons. I began to long for the turnaround point out in the countryside and had just persuaded myself that we must be near it, and was abashed when the "3 Hour" balloons went by on their way back. The turnaround just would... not... come.

My leg had been aching under the knee since about Mile 5, but it never got any worse. However, after we finally turned around, with about ten miles to go, both calves got tighter than snare drums. Ralph's hip began to pain him about that same time and before long he fell ten feet behind us. I turned around and asked, "Gwenchanayo?" (Are you okay?) He said "Neh" (Yes), but the next time I looked back, he was nowhere to be found.

When running for five hours, without the option of quitting, there really is nothing in the world but putting one sore foot in front of the other, forever. It's purgatory.

Yu and me, among the select 20,000 who got their photos on the official website.

Yu was patient as I had to walk the uphills and stop occasionally to stretch my calves, yet as we approached the finish he said, "If you are not here, I am not here" several times. He's very gracious; I don't believe him, as he's a far better athlete than I--he'd run the Chuncheon Marathon the week before--but it did my heart good nonetheless.

Finally we were approaching the stadium after 42 kilometers, and I was lifted by seeing my friends Laura-Claire and Lesley there to root for me, as well as my colleague Claudia and her husband Frank inside the stadium. Yu and I struggled around the track until we got to the homestretch and I said, "Let's go" and we picked it up through the finish line.

Then L-C, Claudia, Frank, and I took a cab to Butterfinger Pancakes (or, as I call it, "Heaven's Denny's") for a huge brunch and a long convo mostly about how wonderful I am. Not a bad Sunday, all in all.

At the finish line, Yu had said "If you are not here, I am not here" once again, we shook hands, and he walked off. That was nice, but here's why I'm leaning toward not doing a full marathon again: in my previous three, I got a little choked up, in relief or triumph or fatigue, I don't know which: just a tiny bit teary-eyed, as far as my manly manliness allowed. This time, it was over and I didn't feel much of anything. Just another thing on my list, another thing to do on a Sunday.

 How to make a Budweiser taste good: run for five hours first.

I may yet do another; I know that the training gives me structure, something to think about, and the kick in the butt I need to get out the door. (Since this year's race, I come home from school intending to run, but it's cold and windy and gray and I'm tired and I don't wanna and you can't make me.) But maybe I can get the same benefits from a half marathon... I could do one with L-C or Les...

I've done a full one at age 60; a little voice inside says that cutting back now would be giving in to getting older... but what's to look forward to? Running one every year, just a little slower than the year before? (This year's time was a minute and 45 seconds slower than last year's.) Who am I running them for, anyway? It's nice to impress my friends, but I'm not impressing myself so much, and for really serious runners, it's "just" a marathon, not an ultra or a triathlon.

Well, I'll figure it out eventually. For now, I have nice memories of me and Yu and K forty-two.

If he is not there, I am not there.