Thursday, 29 April 2010

Korea - The first half-marathon

Hello everyone!

I've now been in Korea for 5 months. FIVE! I was in a bit of shock when this little thought crossed my mind the other day. Time is flying. In my original plan, I would only have one month left before leaving for South Africa for the World Cup. The price of flights from Seoul to Jo'burg scuppered that utopia quite quickly, but even if they were cheap I would probably have stayed out here. I love it here, and am having a great time. I still have so much more to do and see as well! The two stereotypes we have back in Britain regarding Korea are munching on dogs and mocking Kim Jong-il. I'm yet to do either. Plenty of time, though. Mmm, German shepherd...

I celebrated this mini-anniversary in an unorthodox way - I ran a half-marathon. This was on the other side of Seoul, in a place called Hanam, and started on the Sunday at 9am. It was remote. No subway went near the place. It was going to be impossible to get there from Siheung on the day, so I decided to splurge a little bit and get myself a motel as close as possible. What I plumped for was the one acceptable-looking motel down a backstreet, called Motel Napoli, and indeed it didn't seem to possess the 'love' element of its near neighbour, the Hotel Cream. These establishments were in Jamsil, home of the Olympic Park.

This is a part of Seoul I had not seen before, and I was surprised by it. It was spacious, clean, green - everything other parts of Seoul isn't. The weather was good (it didn't last, as I'm typing this when the afternoon temperature is 6'C), so I spent my early evening sat in a beautiful park reading a book, and then pondering stuff. It was when I was sat on this bench that I began to think that I was at home, and very content, in Korea. May have been the blossoms. It's a shame that there are no nice green areas like this in Siheung, save for one tiny park.

A half-marathon is 21km. More like 21.0975, actually, but if you can run 21,000metres you should really be able to squeeze out an extra 10. Either way, it's long, so you are supposed to carb-load the night before the race. I hate doing this, it makes me feel sick beyond recognition, but it does help tremendously. I went to get some bibimbap from a local cafe-style place. An old Korean lady sat nearby heard me order and didn't know the type of bibimbap, so hung around whilst I was waiting for it. We tried the ever-fun 'I-speak-bad-Korean-and-you-respond-in-bad-English' game for a while, and then, when it arrived, I offered her some of my meal. Sharing culture, you see. Not this time though - she didn't like the look of the leaves, as I seemed to have ordered a salad version of bibimbap.

I like to think, and act, as if I know what I'm doing when it comes to ordering food. I eat out enough to practice, really. I know what the basics look like on the menu - bibimbap looks like 비빔밥 - but if there is more than one version, it becomes a guessing game. I was out for dinner on Monday and had similar issues, and I normally end up picking a random/cheap choice from the menu and eating it regardless. Seems to work quite well, as all Korean food is awesome.

Bibimbap crushed, I then went to a corner shop and bought some more rice-related food (it was kimbap, that triangle on the right) and ate that as well. And a doughnut. And a bagel. I don't know where I put it all. But come Sunday morning I was ready for action. After another bagel. Gotta keep those carbs topped up. I got on a bus to Hanam from Jamsil, then immediately realised that the bus right in front was going directly to the specific part of Hanam that I needed to go. And that my bus wasn't. Never been a fan of doing things the easy way.

The bus was taking its sweet time as well. I ended up gambling an getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, which looked exactly the same as the middle of nowhere anywhere else in Korea - grey four-storey buildings on either side of a narrow road with lots of colourful Hangul signs all around. I was hoping for a taxi, and one duly popped up. Sweet.

I was directing him in Korean - again, I like to think I can do that, whereas in reality I'm just a nuisance for them - when he had to stop at a red light. On the right was a large banner with Korean writing and the current date. 'Ma-ra-tonn?' my taxi driver enquires whilst pointing at me. 'Half' I say, before saying the Korean equivalent - 'ha-puh'. He breaks into a big grin and starts chatting away in Korean. I smile and nod, say 'neh' a lot, and pretend to know what he's saying. Then, without warning, he loudly utters this gem of a quote - 'I have confidence in you!' Remember his English was non-existent before this point. To say I was blown away was a gross understatement. I just burst out laughing. He carried on: 'You best!' I didn't even have the chance to correct him. 'You do your best!' he cried, and then sped off through the traffic light, which was still glowing bright red, and weaved his way through other cars to get me there quicker. What a hero.

By the time I had got myself together and done a brief warm-up, it was game time. It was a lovely day, the kind of day I have been craving out here. Just not today. 9am, and it was already warm. Of course, the 'Korean time' I mentioned in previous blogs kicked in, so we didn't start for a while. Lots of shouting on microphones in Korean, then BANG, and we're trotting over the starting line under a plethora of confetti. Away we go.

It was a beautiful location for a run, definitely worth the hassle of the previous 18 hours. The race was called the Hangang Marathon, which translates as the River Han Marathon. It wasn't lying. We ran along the river for pretty much the whole way. The sunlight shimmered off the water, the air was still, and the only noise was the pitter-patter of thousands of feet. And my iPod, of course. I have missed running outdoors, but one of the positives of the gym is that I can work out how fast I'm going. I have no perception of speed outside, so had no clue if I was on track.

I realised I was going slower than I should have been when I saw the first km sign they bothered to put up. I felt like I was getting close to 10km. Bit of a shock when it said 7km. Especially as the heat was rising and we had moved onto the road. A hilly road. I didn't anticipate the number of slopes on this route. It's by a freaking river, it's supposed to be quite flat, right? No chance. The road bobbed up and down for another 6km or so before we did a U-turn and headed back.

It was at this point that I hit what professional sports people describe as being 'in the zone'. It was bizarre, and stimulated by a song by Lifehouse. Really bad American pop band, and I have no clue why the song was on my iPod, let alone my playlist. But I felt my legs loosen, my blisters stopped pestering me and I got quicker. And quicker. I pretty much sprinted 14-17, and soon it was the final km. Once I realised where I was going, I started to sprint. A lanky man in black leggings, who I'm pretty sure from his accent afterwards was German, was in the distance. I had been using him as a pacemaker earlier in the race, and struggling to keep pace with each enormous stride. Target = locked. My knee began to feel awkward, but I was going to finish. And I was going to beat this guy.

Sure enough, with about 100 metres to go, I sprinted around him, and just about everyone in my vicinity. They obviously didn't know about my sprint finishes. I saw the clock was at 1 hour 50 on the final straight. I had passed under it at about 2.10, so I knew a PB, my realistic aim, was in the bag. Sprint, keep kicking, it doesn't hurt, blah blah FINISH!! I checked my momentum by accidentally running into another runner, then swore at how much my knee hurt, before moving to get my goody bag. They give you milk, which as everyone knows from Anchorman, is a bad choice on a hot day.

1 hour, 48 minutes and 19 seconds. Got to be happy with that. The overly-ambitious target was 1 hour 45, but considering my knee has been flaring up of late, I'm very content with my time. What I was less happy about was that it took me over 3 hours to get back to Siheung. Still, it was a lovely day, and we went to the park to chill and enjoy the spring weather.

What's that, you say? A weekend without alcohol? Don't be stupid. One of the first things I was given after the race, just after the milk, was some makkoli, and we didn't stay sober in the park. Dream on, folks. For once, I feel I may just have deserved it though. Roll on May!

Love you all


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