Sunday, December 5, 2010

Racing Through Seoul

I like training for races because it keeps me motivated to exercise. I ran a half marathon along the Seawall here in Gunsan in May, on a warm day amidst a festive atmosphere of music, drums, costumed runners, chanting, and sparkling ocean water. By fall I was looking to do another one, and found one in Seoul in early December. I signed up with 4 other friends to do the half marathon, and one friend to do the 10K. We trained separately sometimes, together sometimes, often running in the dark and cold. Finally race day came last Saturday, so we all hopped an early bus to Seoul. Fortunately it started at 2pm, the warmest part of the day, but still chilly and grey. The course was along the Han River which cuts Seoul in half.

Here are the 6 of us before the race. Luckily we had a non-racing friend there as well to cheer us on and take pictures. We saw a handful of other foreigners, but of course, it was almost all Koreans. And the Koreans all looked over 40, while all the foreign runners looked under 40. It's the same with hiking- you don't see many young Korean adults out on trails, it's mostly the older generations.
There were less people than I thought there'd be, and it lacked the exuberant vibe of the Gunsan Seawall race, but maybe that is to be expected in December. It was still pleasant with a faint buzz of anticipation, music, a dance show, and group stretching exercises.
They started making announcements and people with our same color bib numbers started moving toward the start line. Often you don't have to speak the language to understand what's happening, but the MC still used some English, "Um, now is the half... you know, uh, half." Once we were all tightly lined up, the group massage began! We all massaged the shoulders of the person in front of us, then turned around and karate chopped the person behind us. Then we were off!

The course wasn't stunning, but it was nice to be on a foot-trail along the river, and run under bridges and pass towering buildings and the N. Seoul tower in the distance. It's always interesting to people-watch as well, like the guy in front of me with the Adidas shirt that said "Impossible is nothing." Or seeing a decent number of women runners, when I NEVER see any women out running (where do they train?!). Or just always having to pay attention to not get run over/run into/cut off in the total lack of trail etiquette. I often wish I had a video camera strapped to my head to record the weaving ways of moving Koreans, whether they are walking, running, cycling, or driving.

Anyway, I felt great for the first half of the course, and my half time was faster than in training, but then I got a killer side ache. I had to hobble for a few kilometers and my friends were all ahead of me, but I felt better toward the end and finished strong. My time was 6 minutes faster than the Seawall race, and I think actually the cooler weather was nice since you don't get as dehydrated from sweating. Besides tight quadriceps, I was perfectly warm. I crossed the finish line to cheering friends who also all had good races.

There were bottles of water for immediate consumption then over in the recovery area, there were booths giving away hot tea and hot tofu soup. There were also little cups of makgeolli, Korean unfiltered rice/wheat wine. We thought there'd be a warming tent, but no such luck. By the time we took our timing chips off our shoes and found where to drop them, we were all freezing. When you turn your chip in, you get a goodie bag with your finisher's medal, bananas, a bread roll, and a cookie.

We took taxis back the guesthouse, cold and tired but feeling good. It's a great guesthouse- right in Hongdae off the subway stop, a room for 8 people with a loft, and a nice view from the 19th floor. It took awhile to get all of us feeling warmed and normal, with hot showers and coffee and the heater and blankets and Gatorade and stretching. But we managed to head out for a Mexican dinner of nachos, burritos, and margaritas which we were all pretty excited about.
We wandered through the Christmas-lighted Hongdae area for some drinks. At one point I tried a beer from North Korea- not great with a watery and skunky flavor- but I couldn't pass it up. Sore muscles aside, we couldn't stop ourselves from dancing on a rare night out in the big city.

On Sunday morning we headed to Itaewon for a Western brunch- only my second one in Korea after Daegu 2 weeks ago! I've always really liked brunch, but after living here, brunch is exalted to a whole new level. I don't think I've ever been so excited for a cheesy omelet with mushrooms and peppers, toast, mixed baby greens, and coffee. Last stop was grocery shopping at the international food store before catching the bus back to Gunsan. A few of us went straight to the jimjilbang, or Korean spa, to soak in the hot tubs and sit in the saunas. It was the perfect ending to a full weekend of lots of exercise, lots of food, and time with some of my favorite people in Korea.

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