Sunday, March 15, 2009

It began at 6 this morning. I was sitting at a table in the locker room of a sauna in central Seoul, where I'd spent the night in a dorm for $12, eating a stale bagel from the night before next to a couple of men who were on their second beer already. Nothing about the moment made me want to go out and run a marathon, but I'd already pinned on my bib, and the start line was much closer than home.

The marathon is very, very unpredictable. On days when you think you're on and have every reason to be confident, something goes wrong. On this day, when I had no reason to be confident, I stood shivering at the start line, arm hair standing on end in the cold, and wondered if this race would stretch out to 4 hours. Of course, this would be my first marathon without a hitch. Speaking of stretching, I couldn't help but notice the warm-up leaders the fine people at the Seoul International Marathon obtained for the almost entirely male field: what looked to be high school girls wearing impossibly short plaid skirts and dancing to K-pop.

In the interest of not repeating the mistakes of the past, where I started racing 30k from home, I decided to not look at my watch for the first 10k. The first 10k became 15, 20, 30, 35, 40, 42 and then 42.2. You'd have to be a dolt, however, to ignore the clock every 5k. Instead of running 22 minutes per 5k as I'd hoped, I was hitting 23s, but the important thing was that they were coming easy. There was no Gatorade at this race, only a peculiar "ion supply drink" called Pocari Sweat. However, they made up for it with bananas and choco pies (Jos Louis in Canada, freedom pies in America) at 20k and 30k.

At 20k, I was nervous about the second half, but I focused on hitting the 25k water station, then the 30k choco pie station, then running on Nikes and a prayer to 35k. I focused on keeping the same pace until 40k, and after amusing myself with the kilometre-long water station, it was all-out until the end, which came at 3:23. The goal for this race was to run a good race and to pass the road kill instead of being passed by people I'd left in the dust some 30 kilometres earlier. I did just that, passing a longhaired fellow in a spandex triathlon suit at 39k, having last seen him 25 kilometres previous on the other side of Seoul.

As MC Hammer once wrote, "it's good when you know you're down". It was wonderful to approach Seoul's Olympic Stadium going all-out in the final kilometre, passing an army of weary men to the left. The only thing better would have been to run a half-decent time, but there's always next year. Congratulations to Richard, whose pessimism won him a package of ddeok (it is a kind of traditional Korean rice cake) or the indigenous Korean food of his choice.

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