Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Who runs Seoul? Hint: it's not you

Anyone who has ever run a large road race has seen people lined up near the front who don't belong there, but I'm sure you've never been shoved aside by people out for a Sunday stroll interrupted by a 20,000-person road race. The only way out was to elbow through 20,000 fluorescent-wearing 20-somethings, and that's what they did. This is hardly news, of course.

Between the bruising here, not to mention the late-afternoon sun, the lingering smoke from the fireworks and the sharp 90-degree turn after about 30 metres, it was a hell of a start. Still, it was a nice chance to run on two major highways as well as two bridges.

Nike also scored an interesting place for a road race, a concrete square by the water next to some tall buildings, with a highway and subway bridge way above. As ugly as Seoul can be sometimes, the starting area looked pretty good by the water, and looked even better looking across from the south side of the river.

This was as large of a race as I've ever run, and with only about two lanes of highways and bridges made available to runners, the staggered start was nice. I'm pretty sure that I saw the tail end of the last group 500 metres into the race as I finished. There were no elite athletes, so people with towels tied around their heads in the tradition of the Korean jjimjilbang were right up at the front.

The fastest marathon run this year by a non-African is Iaroslav Musinschi's 2:08 (faster than Ryan Hall), but in fifth place is South Korea's Ji Youngjun, who ran a 2:09. The last non-African to win Boston was also a Korean, so clearly the talent at the high-end is there. Despite all that, the winner ran 30 minutes, women running 48 minutes were in the top 10, and my time of 40 minutes got me into the top 20.

All this proves, of course, is the power of about a few hundred dollars in prize money. Any race that offers this would get about a half dozen guys at 30 minutes. With all of Nike's money and their commitment to putting your footprint on your souvenir T-shirt for free, maybe next time they could do this, but I wouldn't be holding my breath.

Purists might turn up their nose at a race of this sort, but this makes sense only if you're capable of running about 28 minutes as a man or 35 as a woman, in which case you would've had no competition whatsoever. Otherwise, it was great fun, with none of the heart-tugging about charity (why does my run have to be for some sort of cancer or terminal illness?) or other platitudes about having had the courage to start. This was taking 20,000 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who weren't really runners but hopefully in some sort of shape, finding out how hard it is to run a 10k.

When you get 20,000 people running a race, even in a city the size of Seoul, many people you know just happen to be running the race. Purists will be heartened to know that their 37:59 or 42:11 will seem that much more impressive after hordes of people have tried their hand at it.

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