Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween in Korea, like most things Western, is just a more comical, amusing version of the original. I've seen a lot of Halloween costumes at school in the last week and having seen just about everything I'm going to see, am ready to judge the best costume. Many kids wore dragon suits, Janine wore a panda suit complete with a giant bobbling head, and a few tiny kids wore adorable mouse or bunny suits, but the best costume by far is from the kid who dressed as Jelena Isinbayeva.

Isinbayeva is a Russian pole-vaulter who is likely better at her discipline than any athlete in the world. Isinbayeva is a two-time Olympic champion who has broken the world record 24 times and hasn't lost since 2004. Of course, she is hardly a household name, but when my Korean partner asked the girl what she was, she answered with the Korean word for "athlete". My partner asked "EE-jeen-ba-yay-ba?" and the girl nodded in the affirmative. Somehow, in Korea, Isinbayeva is a household name, though my partner explained her to me as a marathoner. Close enough.

As for me, I desperately bought the first costume I saw at a department store. It's a pirate outfit (hat, sword, eye patch, vest) for kids aged 5-8. It cost me $16 and I can only wear the hat and eye patch. Pictures will, sadly, crop up on my school's website.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I'm the only runner I know in Korea and I generally do a pretty good job of limiting running conversation to pointing out remote locations I've run to and asking people if they want to run with me. That is, of course, unless someone asks a question like "do you run in the winter?" in which case I regale them with story after story of frozen-beard runs in Whitehorse and the time I won a race in a New Year's Day blizzard. Still, story after story about my misadventures on the roads are really no different from story after story about my childhood in Pakistan or Alexander of Aphrodisias, or the time I tried to explain the word 'confession' to some Koreans by referencing Augustine.

Reading this article, of course, was eye-popping, probably the most shocking thing I'll read related to Sunday's New York Marathon all week. It's usually newer runners who think others care about the details of their long run, their marathon, or whether blisters. Worse still is seeking reassurance from people who know absolutely nothing about the sport.

What's bizarre are those in-between people, the ones who aren't very good at running, but let it dominate their lives, such as Cohen. Cohen is running as many as 80 miles a week to run a 3:20 marathon, about as incommensurate as taking 6 years to finish high school unless you're a woman. Still more comical is how running has completely eliminated the rest of his life, and how tragically it did so: he bought a $900 muscle stimulator (I have no idea what that does), takes ice baths, is a germophobe and a nutrition fanatic in the literal sense of the term. This is like watching a remedial student buy or copy an unrelated essay off the Internet in hopes of acing a course.

The only thing I endorse are his stern warnings about the Willis Avenue Bridge in New York, marking the 20-mile mark of the marathon, the sort of warnings I issue regularly to anyone in earshot. The only thing I would add to this would be to remind the children that the last six miles will put the fear of God back into you. That is, of course, if the first 20 didn't do it to you.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The autumn wind is a pirate, says John (The Voice of God) Facenda, but it hasn't quite blustered over the East Sea yet. The weather here has been too pleasant for too long. I never thought I could wear sandals into late October, but here we are. The daily highs are still over 20, and a kid wore shorts to school as late as yesterday. The brisk fall air that I love so much isn't here yet, and I figure it won't be here for another month.

Meanwhile, North Bay got 6 inches of snow last night, Barrie got about 2 inches, and the overnight low in Toronto was -1. I can't say I would give up the option to wear sandals into November, but the fresh snow and crisp air on Highway 11 look really good for some reason.

Speaking of the Raiders, they've won two games this year, but my Broncos somehow remain in first place with a 2-game lead (one game plus a tiebreaker). The Bills, Cardinals and Bears are also somehow in first, though the Bengals and Lions are predictably winless.

Monday, October 20, 2008

This weekend marked a tour of two of the three World Cup stadiums in the Seoul area. On Saturday, I went to the Suwon World Cup Stadium, which is the 43,000-seat Big Bird that could, ostensibly, reside in Beijing's 91,000-seat Bird's Nest. I saw what I was told was the semi-final of the K-league, a game between Suwon and Gwangju in the southeast. Suwon's Bluewings came out flying, scoring in the 7th minute and adding a second goal in the second half to win 2-0. The rowdy crowd sang the entire time, mostly in Korean, though I did understand "Suwon, happy, happy goal! Suwon, happy, happy goal!"

Today I travelled to the Seoul World Cup Stadium for the Something or Other Half Marathon. Though it was billed as a international marathon, it was neither international (all signs were in Korean) nor was there a marathon. The goal was to run 1:24 or faster, which was the third straight time that I was trying to do this on the third Saturday in October (note: I actually ran a 1:21 this March). From about the 4k mark, which was on pace in 15:53, I pretty much knew what was going to happen. I would make it to 10-15 km at race pace and then die an agonizing death.

As scripted, I made it to 11k in 43:48, and then stopped looking at my watch and decided to stick with the navy member in front of me. I hit 15k in just over an hour, but that was all I had today. The sailor I was running with him would put 3 minutes on me in the final 6k, and I staggered home in 1:30. It was a clunker of a race, but what I think is most impressive (or pathetic?), is that I didn't actually jog it in over the last 5k, but fought tooth and nail to run the last 6k in 30 minutes.

Afterwards, I came away with a finisher's medal, a Chinese apple, a 5-lb bag of rice and a small carton of milk. Hauling the rice on the Seoul subway for an hour was only the beginning of the madness today. I later found myself in a car with Riyaad and some friends, blaring the Bee Gees and riding with six people in a small Kia. I've been in cars with six people crammed in, but I've never seen it done with two adults in the front seat. I've also never paid about $7 for hot chocolate, which is how the day came to an end.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lately, I've been inundated by messages to vote from both Canadians and Americans. Note that the following diatribe is in no way connected with my own bumbling of the overseas voting process. Display pictures, status updates and various other forms of careful online posturing urge me to not just vote, but to VOTE!!!! I suppose one benefit of these non-partisan exhortations to vote is that the reader is exempted from brain-dead partisan exhortations, but do we really just want anyone to vote? Consider the sort people that are allowed to vote when everyone can vote, and I don't just mean Americans, as is shown here.

Canadians with half-baked views about all sorts of things marched to the polls yesterday because well-meaning people, possibly including you, urged them to vote. Granted, some of them voted the right way, but others voted the wrong way, and on the balance, people with half-baked or uninformed beliefs tend to vote the wrong way. When you want every voice to count, or endorse some other cliche to that effect, you're counting voices that really shouldn't be counted. They are the raspy voices of lifelong smokers, the booming, intrusive grumblings of small-c conservatives who want their tax breaks, and the unintelligible grousings of community activists, student protesters and Quebecois separatists.

In the future, please only update your MSN, Facebook or Myspace status to urge people to vote responsibly, and to only vote if they're going to vote the right way. I'll start: if you're going to vote for John McCain, Bob Barr, Ron Paul or Chuck Baldwin in the upcoming US presidential election, please don't vote. Instead, stay home and stew yourself in righteous indignation by spending quality time on Free Republic.

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.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

And so it is that I have a hallucinatory, shivery and sweaty fever today, and I have a race tomorrow morning. I feel good enough that I'll probably run the race, but as a result, I'm going to miss the US vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. If you get a chance, please watch it. Here's a hint of what you can expect:



She sounds just like Tina Fey's caricature of her on Saturday Night Live. I don't know if she can even name a single newspaper.