Sunday, October 05, 2008

I arrived at the Seoul Olympic Stadium yesterday morning with the goal of avoiding the sort of humiliation for which Canadians are famous in this stadium. I haven't run much at all this summer (about 40-50k a week) for a variety of reasons, such as laziness, moving to Korea, going out too much, and Ramadan. My 10k started and finished on the track at Olympic Stadium.

From the moment I got off the subway, I knew that a Korean road race would be very different. As is the case pretty much everywhere you go, there were people hawking things on the street. This would be called a race expo in North America, but the name expo implies some sense of order and class. Instead, old men and women sold sunglasses, shorts, shirts, hats, various medicinal substances, and I paid a dollar to an angry old man for a shot glass-sized cup of coffee.

The Olympic Stadium is cavernous, seating 70,000 people today, and it was filled with thousands of people running one of four races. There was a woman handing out small flags. There's something about Koreans and flags: they just don't know which ones are important. A boulevard nearby commemorating the '88 Olympics has the Thai, Zimbabwean, Botswanese (Botswanan?), Qatari and Icelandic flags, among others. I spied an Uzbek flag, almost 5,000 kilometres from Tashkent, and I had to have one. After all, when else in life, aside from Independence Day in Tashkent on September 1, are you going to get your hands on an Uzbek flag?

The race started and I was behind a wall of people. I was relaxed, though, because before the start, the announcer, unbeknownst to me, had instructed everyone to massage the shoulders of the person in front of them, and then to turn around and return the favour. The first kilometre was in 4:35 as I dutifully followed a burly lead blocker through the crowd, but then I discarded him and settled into a 3:43, 3:46, and so on. I ran the next 6 kilometres between 3:43 and 3:46, passing people the entire time. I hit 5k in 19:32, feeling very strong if rather slow, and in about 35th place by my count.

At 6k, I started talking to a black guy I had caught up to. It turned out he was an Ethiopian. I wanted to say, "you're the slowest Ethiopian I have ever met", but I didn't. Instead, we chatted briefly about Haile Gebrselassie before I kept going. Even that split, with all the talking, was 3:46, taking me through 7k in 27:04. I hit 8k in 30:38 and passed the last person, putting me 25th. I ran the ninth kilometre in 3:29, which didn't seem right for how much I was labouring, since I could mail it in on the last kilometre and still split about 18:20 for the last 5k. Needless to say, the last kilometre was a tortuously long 4:23, in which I kicked hard enough to come up just short of the guy in front of me.

I finished in 38:30 by my watch, identical to the chip time sent to my phone about an hour later. It wasn't the best race I've ever had, but it wasn't the worst. As I finished, a cover band from the Eighth Army of the United States Forces Korea was singing Play That Funky Music. It's disconcerting that I rely on those funky white boys to keep me safe from the Korean People's Army, whose motto, coincidentally, is Play That Revolutionary Music To Glorify The People's Republic And Our Great Leader.

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