You absolutely went out of your way to help me get to the start line of Korea 50k, and despite your help, all you asked for in return was a fancy bottle of soju. I have failed you. But I have a good excuse. Here’s what happened…
It started back last week when I ran the Railroad Relay. Amid all the chaos of organizing a 6-man-1-woman team to run a 47.5k relay, my bag was lost somewhere along the course. Inside contained my wallet and cell phone. This left me with three days to get my ducks in a line with my bank and the visa office and pick up a new cell phone before my flight to Busan, Korea. That’s not why you didn’t get your soju, but it definitely played a key role.
Sasha and I boarded our flight just fine, despite Sasha literally running to the gate during boarding, and landed in Busan to the friendly face of Hyon waiting for us at the airport. She could have just given us instructions on where to meet her. She could have told us she was working and didn’t have time to get out, but no, she’s a total badass and was standing there ready to receive us in her welcoming Korean arms. It didn’t stop there. Hyon and her friend, Del then took us out to see the city, literally, by climbing the mountain bordering the city of Busan armed with snacks and beers. Sasha casually mentioned that it’s his birthday, so while our local tour guides with their real jobs went to bed, we headed out to the Russian bars. I learned a lot about makgeolli (sweet, creamy rice wine) and other various Korean drinking traditions, and somehow we found ourselves on the infamous ‘Texas Street,’ where I lost Sasha in the blur of flashing neon evocative of Cold War-era films. He chatted up the Russian women in their native tongue, who promised to give him a good time if he would “buy them a drink.” Twenty minutes later, Sasha was being asked to leave the premises with me in tow, asking the prostitutes to help me translate. We walked a few doors down where the Russian-speaking madams had too much gravitational pull for Sasha to resist, and so much makeup that it looks like I could tie-dye my shirt in the sink they wash their face in. It turns out these women are from his hometown. I started nodding off at the table watching Korean election news to the drone of Russian chatting nudged awake occasionally by one of the madams to ask if I want to meet her friend–very good sex girl. No thanks. Good time sexy man? I’ll pass. They reminisced about Vladivostok and Sasha gave them updates about current happenings around town. He bought more soju (sorry, none of you, Xav) and after some tear-filled hugs, we went back to the hostel.
The following day, Sasha and I went to the Gamecheon Cultural Village and explored the colorful houses covering the coastal hillside overlooking the ocean. Sasha, feeling the aftermath of last night’s adventures seemed contented to nap under a shelter while I climbed the vaulting streets and staircases, peeking in windows of coffee shops and art installations.
I resolved myself to head back to central Busan when I realized my knee was starting to hurt again. It slipped my mind that soon we would be doing a 59k race with 3,600 d+ of elevation. After Hyon had got off work, we met her friend Jen and went up to Haeundae Beach to eat some traditional Korean food, drink Cass beers and play in the sand. I didn’t bring back any of those Cass beers for you, either, but there is still some sand in my socks if you want it.
We hit the sack early, as our KTX train north to Seoul was leaving at 7:40. When we arrived, yet another friend picked us up right from the train station and offered to show us around Seoul before dropping us an hour north at the hotel near the race start. She wasn’t participating in the race, she just wanted to take us around.
I’m trying to count how many people went out of their way to help us, but I’m running out of fingers. We soaked in the history of the undulating streets through the ancient Bukchon Hanok Village and had real Bi Bim Bap (not the stuff I always ate in Seattle) which I thought was fantastic, but the locals said was just alright. I also didn’t bring you back any food, Xav.
As we drove further north, you could smell the tension of the recent political climate. Mountain roads with huts and farms gave way to concrete highways specially designed to carry tanks, while troop transport trucks sat dormant on the sides of the roads and bunkers loomed overhead. We were in Dongducheon, not far from the DMZ. A place that if there wasn’t potentially an army going to invade this weekend, would probably be pretty nice. Thick pine forests with rushing rivers and gaping paths that crest over ridgelines that reminded me of the mountains in central Oregon, except for the fact that if you look hard enough with a pair of binoculars, maybe you can see the broad side of a North Korean missile silo taking aim right back at you.
At the expo at Dongducheon Stadium, I shopped around at Altra, Columbia Montrail and got to chat with ultra-running superstar Ryan Sandes. More friends of friends flooded in and I was introduced to too many people than I could count, including the running legend and race organizer of Ultra Trail Mount Jiri: Mr. Ahn. We were having spicy kimchi-guk while my Korean friends were boasting about how well I run to Mr. Ahn.
“He always gets first place!” At small events.
“He will get second to Ryan Sandes tomorrow!” Absolutely no chance.
He offered me free registration to UTMJ. I hesitantly agreed, more focused on completing tomorrow’s race with my bum knee.
We headed back to our hotel room. That’s a very strong ‘our,’ as it was a single room for five people: four guys, one girl, and a bathroom with a glass window right in front of the toilet. So that means when poor Hyon (the only girl) wanted a shower, it was time for the dudes to head to the local bathhouse. Let me just take a little aside here to talk about bathhouses. On paper they sound quite disconcerting: grown men get naked and shower together in a large public bathroom. But after cooking in the hot tank and being steamed like a bao bun, then scrubbing myself with a goodie bag of bathing accessories, my insecurities washed away with the soap bubbles and we marched back to the hotel with clean bodies and souls. And just when I felt like I was getting quite comfortable with these new Korean faces–and other parts–it was time for bed. Three in the bed, two on the floor, to be exact.
Needless to say, with our peculiar sleeping arrangements, when the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. (that’s 1:30 in the morning in Taipei, where my current circadian rhythm lives) I felt a little low on sleep. But a combination of pre-race nerves, fresh coffee and chia seed oatmeal (thanks, Hyon!), and the 7-freaking-degree morning woke me right up. The five of us shoved food in our faces with jittering hands, checking our bags again and again for everything we’d need for today’s adventures. Did I mention it was 7 degrees? Because it was 7 degrees on the start line, and we showed up almost an hour (!) before the race start.
I thought when the countdown finished at 5 a.m. and I was able to start running, it would be a warm relief, but right out the gate we were running 4:20 min/k’s and the wind just cut right into my skimpy running gear. I led the way over Sasha probably somewhere back in 20th place. This means that the guys ahead of me were running in the 3:40s over steep climbs and drops to get away from me. I see this every race, but it’s usually a handful of suicidal runners instead of a group this large.
Still, Sasha and I ran closely. I made an offer to him to run it together and see if we can hunt down spots on the top-3 podium, helping each other out. “Sure,” he said, “if you can catch me,” and after 5k I could hear him audibly gasping for air as he climbed away just out of reach of me. I was pushing a little hard for the beginning of the race as well, but I knew the mountains we still had in store and didn’t want to deviate from the game plan. Not long after, the sun came up revealing some breathtaking vistas over Dongducheon that I wished I could have stopped to look at, had I not been racing.
Yes, this is the actual course.
Korean mountains are different from anywhere else I’ve run. In fact, most of the course was either pretty steep uphill or downhill, with stretches of wide runnable paths between mountains. We had four big peaks on the course: the first two were over 400m then the next two were both over 700m. And this wasn’t gentle switchbacks running up a mountain; this was a wall placed in front of you with a little goat path leading up to the top. I envied the people who brought poles.
The dramatic angles of the mountains lead to spectacular views though. Living in Taiwan, I never understood the hype of cherry blossoms until I saw those massive pompoms of electric pink totting randomly in the forest, grafted ages ago by some willing hiker. The Japanese maples smattered oranges, golds, and browns between the pines whose needles made the ground springy and fast and every vista looked like the backdrop for a motivational poster. I told the organizer after the race about how incredible it was that a course could be so physically demanding yet never lose its beauty.
I eventually regained my footing in the leaderboard and passed the 11th, 10th, 9th and 8th place runners. Sasha was still very close ahead as I was sparring with 7th place on a downhill that reminds me of downhill skiing videos–a strong Japanese runner decked out in blue Ultimate Direction gear.
You better do something crazy because if not, I’m taking you on this hill.
Occasionally, I could make out the red of Sasha’s Taiwan Beast Runners buff, usually on his way coming up a climb, but I decided to let him run his own race. That was when blue-guy and I landed on a logging road devoid of marking. One arrow pointed impossibly down the hill toward a splashing river. On the river, we could make out the white streamers used by the race. With no other visible options, we bombed down the hill to the river. When I arrived, I noticed one of the arrow signs directing runners to go to the left and I realized that we were coming onto the trail sideways, I took it to the right, hoping to loop back to where we were before and complete the course fully. I yelled “on-on” to Sasha, but he was gone with blue-guy somewhere. My thoughts were that blue-guy found the correct trail back on the logging road and they turned back. Alone except for the sound of woodpeckers, songbirds, and water spraying off the rocks of the river, I headed backward along the course hoping to find a race marshall or the checkpoint that was supposed to be nearby.
I crept up behind a photographer meditating by an ostentatious river-crossing section. I was able to ask him where I was and how to get to the checkpoint. I passed his viewfinder twice. The first time unhappily, as I kept pushing on down the river in reverse to get out to the checkpoint and talk with the volunteers about our current dilemma–solved by having me run up the trail to where I got lost, then come back down. Then I passed him again, grinning, knowing that I was now headed the right way. I felt bad for Sasha and blue-guy who after my second passing still hadn’t found the checkpoint and were nowhere to be found.
I left the river and turning again straight up a mountain for the second 700-meter climb. I overtook one more runner, a famous Korean runner who was clearly not having a good day. At the peak was our second of three military bases. A giant banner hung along the road welcoming athletes to the 2nd battalion-something-something military base.
The American and Korean soldiers sat side-by-side atop a concrete helipad snapping pictures above me as I made the last aching steps to the top. In passing, we exchanged high-fives and talked about where in the US we are from. I made the joke, “hope you guys keep looking this bored,” which I recycled to all of the other American soldiers I saw on the course because I’m hilarious.
Coming out of the military base was a concrete skydive from the helipad, from 800m to a road 530m below. At this point, we were nearly 40k into the race, and my legs could barely handle that much pressure. My quads were burnt out and cramping from catching my body weight on downhills, but I kept telling myself that after 42k we would have some gentler downhill, then a flat section that I have been keeping in my back pocket as my point of attack.
I did attack it, too. My conservative-ish running early on allowed for some okay times on the flatter section at the end. I tried to lay into an average 5:00 min/km including uphills and just roll my way into the finish, but my cramping legs had other ideas. It felt like a puppet string was being yanked in different sections along my quads, thighs, calves and shins, each needing to be ran on and stretched to get to loosen up. I took another Stinger gel and tried to get as much water in my stomach as I could to get everything to clear up, but it looked like this cramping is just something I would have to run through. I probably looked like absolute garbage.
Despite the thumbs-up, I actually feel pretty bad. Know who didn’t look like garbage, Xav? Some short little guy dressed in all black with curly hair and sparkling earrings. No, this guy looked like he was out on his morning jog, smoothly trotting his way uphill away from me. I gave him some words of encouragement then cursed him under my breath as I tried to keep up, but he just sucked a little water from his Salomon softflask and faded away.
Look at him. Just trotting along as if we didn’t just cover 45 km. What a bastard.
When I reached the final aid station with 8k remaining, I didn’t even bother asking how far ahead curly-head-man was. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to finish strong in my current ranking and lay down for a nap. The now-20-degree heat was perfect. My energy levels and nutrition were fine. I could even put up with the shocking cramps and blisters that now felt like hot irons along the inside edges of my feet (really gotta get some new Hokas) but the one thing I wanted most was to get some sleep. The kilometers plowed through with thoughts of curling up on the soft turf at the stadium for a nap after the finish.
That’s when I heard it. The sound of Korean music being amplified through speakers. If you run an ultra you know how fantastic and surreal it is to hear this; the sound of the place you left from. It felt like days since I was here. The signs changed from our standard white plastic flags to real, colorful signs set up for the 10k runners hanging trees.
A few photographers were sitting on the soft pine forest floors, urging me to just push through this last little bit. I rounded a corner and caught a glimpse off to the side of the stadium and the finish line with a perfect little path leading to the arches. Oh, joy. Oh, rapture. As well as a marshall standing in the way and a big slab of white tape directing me back onto a trail uphill.
“We’re finished?” I asked, glancing at my watch to see the total distance a bit lower than expected.
“Around 3 kilometers more,” he told me. I protested. “No, you go back into the trail now, one more mountain. Maybe 20 minutes.”
I audibly let out some curse words that began with **** and ended with ****-****-**** loud enough to rattle the songbirds out of their nests. I turn to look at the impending mountain. Except, the birds weren’t the only thing perched in the forest, as a curly-haired man was twisted around to look at me, then immediately tried to sprint away.
You’re not getting away that easy, little buddy.
I took off after him. He is absolutely killer on the flats, but I live, sweat and breath steep mountain trails. He went from 200 meters in front of me to close enough that I could touch him. I overtook him on one turn, only to be switched back on the next. At the summit of our final 150m climb, we both reached the viewing tower together and he turned down the mountain bike path again to make a last ditch effort to escape me. I can see in his shuttering stride that he’s basically letting his body fall down the mountain and I bomb down after him, feeling my cramping coming right back. The soft trails give way to green wooden platforms orbiting above the stadium, where onlookers were maybe able to witness this primal battle between tall, lanky foreigner and pocket-sized curly-haired Asian.
We reached the stadium with him right ahead of me, but this is where he shrugged me off. On the bouncy rubber track surface his stride opened up and I once again watched him fade away. We wound along the 400-meter loop into the finish line with him killing me by 22 seconds. Actually, it was less, maybe even 5-10 seconds, but the woman with the chip-reader took a little time to go between us and get mine to register, but we’ll just go by the race results.
Strava says I did the track section at an average pace of 4:10, which is my marathon pace. No hard feelings though, he beat me completely fair and square. That’s when I realized trying to sprint after a 59k race and stand around is a bad idea. My left calf cramped so tight that you could see the twitching hole of tensed muscles. The medics yelled at me to lay down and started rubbing it (who the heck rubs a cramp?!) and I yelped and rolled away from them in an evasive maneuver that would make my wrestling coach proud. I pulled the cramp back out, and the medical staff was now encapsulating me trying to hand me ice packs, water, towels (what?) and I had to assure them it was just a cramp and no, I don’t want to go to the medical tent. I stood up, hobbled, sucked down a Powerade and saw Ryan Sandes was watching all of this. I felt the warmth of embarrassment while I tried to play it cool, shake his hand and have some casual conversation. No, that screaming guy imitating a hot dog rolling around at 7-11 was someone else. It turns out he didn’t run today because of a nasty fall he took in a race in China, but he was still out here supporting all the runners as they came into the finished.
Ignore the crystallized salt all over my Runivore shirt. Jisoo (I found out his name is) and I chatted for a while after the race. He’s super friendly and totally deserves the win over me. We later had a beer and laid around in the sunshine talking about life in Korea, and I convinced him to come out to Taiwan for a race.
My friend Kang Hee was waiting for me at the finish. He told me I did great, and I almost beat Sasha.
“Yeah, he came in a few minutes ago,” Kong Hee told me, “he’s in the shower now.” That cheating bastard. I burst into the group shower (I guess that’s a thing here in Korea) to the gaping looks you give a tall foreigner who just burst into your shower. He saw me and he laughed that “I never did catch him after all, huh?” Yeah, you never did go to the 3rd checkpoint, buddy. You cut course. We talked about where he went on the river and I watched his face drop. He realized what happened, and the remorse washed over him along with the ice cold water.
Sasha went to the race director and admitted he cut course along with the blue-shirt guy. Even though blue-shirt guy didn’t own up to it, there was enough evidence and they were both be disqualified, putting me in 6th place and Jisoo in 5th. I felt bad for them, but Sasha told me later that he knew he did something wrong, and that he wanted to go back but got too competitive and neither he nor blue-shirt wanted to stop and turn around to find the correct way. We compared gpx data and saw that I indeed ran 5k more than him and finished only 7 minutes behind him, so at least there were no arguments about it. Looking back on it, he didn’t even bring it up for the rest of the trip, and always had a positive attitude about the race, talking about how great it was.
I sat around drinking Hite beer and trying to work up enough of a waddle to play soccer with the local kids in the stadium. All the while, we cheered on the runners as they made their victory lap around the track into the finish line and chatted with anyone who passed by.
Hyon, Del, and Jeongho were running as a team of 3, and messages to Kang Hee weren’t looking too promising that they would be able to finish in the cut-off times. I occupied myself by hitting on a Korean girl who grew up in Michigan and drank probably few too many Hites. To my surprise, I was given a 1st place (for my age group) trophy. A big black brick that I joked would never be allowed on the plane.
We checked the live results to see Hyon, Del and Jeongho made it through the last aid station with just 2 minutes to spare. This means they just need to make it along the 8k flatter sections into the finish. We packed our gear as the sun set and prepared to receive our friends. The clock ticked by, bordering 14-hours and I was still kicking the ball around with some kids, achingly pretending (or sometimes not pretending at all) that they juked me out. Kang Hee came running on the field yelling that they’re here and I tapped the ball back to them while the six of us jogged in the victory lap together.
Lots of pictures were taken and stories told, but time was an issue. We were now hours and hours north their homes in Busan, they had to work in the morning, we’re all starving and it was already dark. We had a quick dinner at a local kimchi-guk then hopped the train south to Seoul, where I watched one-by-one everyone fall asleep while I read my book.
Different people got off at various stations, and we said our goodbyes. That’s when I realized how badly I need to come back, and remembered Mr. Ahn’s offer. There’s no doubt in my mind that I will return in October to run with these guys again. The doors buzzed that they were closing, so our goodbyes were quick, and soon enough it was just Sasha and me heading to Seoul to soak our aching legs in a bathhouse hotel.
We stayed at the Dragon Spa by the station, sleep-walking between the hot and cold tanks to relieve our weary bodies before scrubbing off and heading to the communal sleeping pads. You wouldn’t think that a giant room filled with pads on the floors and tens of people snoring a chorus in uniform spa clothes would be an ideal place to sleep, but as soon as I laid down my mind shut off like a light switch. We had talked about having a bottle of soju to celebrate, but clearly, we didn’t need it. Maybe I should have bought it and just given it to you, Xav. But no, I didn’t. I remembered I couldn’t bring liquids in my carry-on so I decided I’d just pick it up from duty-free after security.
I shook awake at 9 am not knowing where I was or why I’m wearing these funny clothes. I tried to stand up. I ached. I sat back down. I stood back up again, and Sasha and I wiped away the crusty eye-rheum and went down to look for wifi to tell us how to get to the airport.
Arriving at the train station at 11:00, we missed the 11:05 train to Busan and settled for the next train: 13:30. It’s a 6-hour ride south along farmlands and mountain towns where I had plenty of time to reflect on this trip and really appreciate everything that these wonderful people, yourself included, Xav, have done for me. We passed thriving suburban towns with couples happily walking along bike paths and farms draped in plastic greenhouses. One thing I noticed was that most of the mountains we passed had some kind of shelter at the top or path leading up to the summit, and it got me thinking. In the past year and a half I’ve traveled to Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan and New Zealand and despite seeing some starkly different and shockingly similar cultures, there seems to be one universal truth about human nature: when there’s a mountain, there’s a trail leading to the top of it. Something about that urge to stand on top of it brings us together.
We finally got to the airport with just an hour and a half to spare. Sasha and I gave alternating posthumous could-haves that may have made our trip back more comfortable, but we still squeezed into the airport with just enough time to pick up your soju and board the flight.
As my bag rolled along the conveyor x-ray, I watched the TSA agent’s hand lift from the mouse and signal to his staff.
“Is this your bag?” the woman with the best English asked me. I agreed that it is. “Open it, please,” I asked what she wanted to see and she pointed to the big black square on the screen. I proudly held up the first place trophy and handed it to her.
“No,” was all she said.
“What do you mean, no?”
“No. You can’t take this.”
“This is my trophy, not a weapon. I traveled to Korea to run in this race.” Sasha collaborated on my story, displaying his Korea 50k jacket, showing off our finishing certificates.
“No. Too heavy. You can hit with his.” She made some awkward swinging motions with it. I offered my power bank for comparison of weight and girth, argued to be shown regulations that say that things you personally believe are heavy are not allowed. “No,” is all she said.
I checked our boarding time. Our flight will begin boarding passengers soon, and I still need to get through immigration and find my gate. They handed me back my trophy and told me to check it in my luggage. I literally sprinted back to the Tiger Air counter who look very flustered to see me again and I demanded my bag be checked.
“Great,” they said, “that will be 59,000 won.” Over $60 US to check my bag. I look in my wallet to see 40,000 won. They ask for a credit card, and I show them my wallet is completely devoid of bank cards, or any cards of that matter. I ask for mailing services and check my watch to see that my flight has begun boarding–I still need to get through immigration. They tell me there’s no way to mail here.
I felt the thunk of the trophy hitting the bottom of the garbage can deep in the pit of my stomach. I stopped to take a quick picture and ran back to TSA where I was offered priority screening, with a little extra attention to make sure I wasn’t hiding any bricks anywhere (I’ll admit I considered it.) Immigration went smoothly, and we made it to the gate right as they were closing. I was literally the last passenger to board the plane.
And that’s when I remembered I never bought you your soju. I swear, I had every intention of doing it, but things got in the way, Xav. The good news is, I’ll be back in October–I wouldn’t miss it for the world–and hopefully be smarter with how I get to the airport and how I transport my trophy.