A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 6th Edition
135.7 miles raced in 2007
Race: Hangang Marathon
Place: Seoul, Korea
Miles from home: 6930
Course Difficulty: 8.5 out of 10
Course Enjoyability: 2 out of 10
Weather: 60s and higher; headwind in both directions; smog
Finishers' Medal: 7 out of 10
Donations To Date: ~41k
I am sitting in Dulles airport, one of my least favorite airports around, thinking I am about to embark on just my third international trip ever. Then I realize how wrong I am. In my calculations, I realized I was not counting my trip to Florence, Italy in 2000 to study law and my trip for work to Hong Kong in 2004. Somehow, I neglected to count numerous flights to Canada, a trip to Sint Maarten in 2002 after the bar exam and my flight to Grand Cayman just a few months ago. I guess, while those are indeed “international”, my feeling seems to be that unless I am crossing a huge body of water, I am not traveling “internationally”.
So, sitting here, the very first thing I notice are the flight attendants. Quietly sitting together, sharply dressed, the Korean Air flight attendants are in sharp contrast to many of the other attendants of the airlines I flew last year. Their uniform is one that some could wear to an informal dinner party. With the same cute ribbon in the hair, their taupe and teal outfits are accented by a sash around their necks. I realize I am already put at ease and in a much happier place than usual. This unease does not come from the fact that I am afraid to fly; to the contrary, I think the act of “flying” is wonderful. In fact, if I had my druthers (and I think I saw some in the duty-free store) I would have obtained a pilot’s license by now. Rather, it is all the things that accompany “air travel” that turn my stomach: having so much out of my control is not my idea of an ideal situation.
I am hoping this trip is quite foreign, to tell the truth. The lack of white people I see sitting in my area right now makes me quite happy. I have nothing against my country or my race but if you are going to a foreign country it is nice for it to be, well, foreign. That said, already around me I see a general lack of garish shirts, guts hanging over bellies, slouching posture, and a general bad attitude. I know, of course, that many of the Korean faces I see around me are just as American as I but it reminds me I am going to a place that is NOT America. Now, I did pack some food for the trip because I wanted to make sure that I had food which would sit right with me before the marathon. Heck, I usually do the same if I am driving two hours away to Delaware. So by doing so it is not my fear that the Korean food specifically will set me off but rather my desire of familiarity in the fuel I eat before a race. But, that aside, I want to experience as much of my non-American experience as possible.
With regard to my experience, it is no secret that I am shooting for a 2:55 in this marathon and the cards are stacked against me. That is nearly a 5 minute personal best, run on a course I know very little about, after crossing the International Date Line and dealing with what is going to be quite a case of jetlag I am sure. But I have faith I will be giving that time a serious shot.
Knowing I had a long flight ahead of me I specifically requested an aisle seat from the airline ticket counter lady. While that was not available she did give me the center seat on the exit row. If you are unfamiliar with air travel, this seat has extra leg room. I was pretty excited about that and gladly accepted. Once on board I busied myself reading a book written by a close friend of mine and was soon lost in it.
“Dane Rauschenberg?” broke the silence. I lookedup and the other male runner joining me from the U.S., Mike Aldrink, stood in front of me. Mike and I had run a few marathons together and were on familiar terms. I was not aware that this North Carolina resident was flying out of Dulles but here he was!
“Mike!” I said. “Where are you sitting?” He looked at the empty seat next to me and said, “It looks like that one!” What are the odds that of the 500 or so passengers on this monstrous airplane that the seat I switched to was right next to him? We were soon chatting like old chums and exchanging stories (more like Mike was patiently listening to me prattle on. I think he wanted to fall asleep and I was his Sominex). Before long we settled in and were either reading or watching movies (I fit in four separate ones. Man The Good Shepherd is long and depressing.) Mike snoozed a little bit but I didn’t really get a chance. I was hoping that by not sleeping I could then sleep that night in Korea. So up I stayed.
By the time we landed, met with other runners from the U.S. (Andrea and Becky) and a few runners from Hong Kong, hopped on the long bus ride to the hotel (a good 80 minutes) I was quite tired. While also hungry, I only had a short time to get ready for a late night interview with an affiliate of ESPN (which I was informed I was doing when I got to the hotel). After spending some time trouble shooting the internet, I was left with just a few minutes to shower and prep before I headed downstairs
In the interview room I met some of the other invited runners who were also giving interviews. To be honest I always feel like a little bit of a sham when I am invited somewhere and I sit with 2:30 and 2:40 marathoners. I feel they deserve to be there. But they say they are just as impressed with me as I am them. So, I guess it takes all kinds.
Luckily, my experience in interviewing allowed me to be able to field questions which appeared to be out of left field and I think that I impressed them nevertheless. Well, actually the translator told me that I was a good interview so that pleased me. I was told they will send me a DVD of all the interviews which will be just an awesome gift.
I slept pretty well that first night which made me feel I had done the sleep thing right (I had been up for 25 hours when I finally hit the bed.). No coincidence, Mike and I roomed together. When we went down for breakfast the next morning we saw Lisa and Peter from Australia and sat down with them. Becky and Andrea soon joined us and we all shared stories. After breakfast, I realized a casino was calling my name just down the hall (Dane hearts blackjack). So, I played a few hands to satiate my desire and then Andrea, Becky, Mike and I ventured into downtown Seoul and wandered around a little bit. No purchases were made but we got to see the more Americanized side of Seoul in one little section. (Seoul and its surrounding areas house over 10 million people and we realized we were barely seeing a sliver of the town).
Before long we had to get back to the hotel for an athlete’s luncheon. We decided to grab a taxi rather than walk and were shocked that it cost all of 3 bucks for the fours of us to go about two miles. While tipping is frowned upon in Korea I could not help but give the drive a fiver (or 5,000 won).
At the luncheon I met Trent and Brad (two more Aussies) as well as many other runners. These two were running their first marathon ever. Quite a way to go and what a way to travel for your first marathon ever, I said!. Then again I saw Trent had run a 65 minute half so I knew he was going to do just fine. I was then asked to speak on behalf of the runners, and not having had anything prepared looked like a little of a fool, I thought.
Next up was a tour of the course. Well, the majority of us did not really want to make the hour plus trip to the course, drive the course and then come back. Besides, they gave us a detailed map and elevation profile, so what could go wrong? Stay tuned.
Some more relaxing, some more blackjack and then to dinner Mike and I went. We were more or less in energy-reserve mode and only went to a rather expensive pizza place in the hotel. It was tasty indeed but if either of us had been really hungry it would have been expensive as heck. We went up to the room and began prep for the next day. While I immediately feel asleep (no surprise AT ALL to anyone who knows me) I did wake up at 2 AM like a bolt. I tossed and turned for 2 hours before finally falling asleep for two more hours.
We had to leave at 7 AM for the hour plus trip to the race which started at 9 AM. I am not sure of the geography of Seoul and the relation of the airport to the hotel to the race start but I am unsure why everything was so far from each other. Do not get me wrong, the hotel was top notch (although I will never understand why in higher priced hotels you have to pay for internet but in a Motel 6 or Fleabag 9 you get free internet, free breakfast and women come to your room for free. OK, the last part is a lie but my point is made) but it is odd why the logistics were the way they were.
Mike and I both ate sparingly (which was even more than both usually eat the morning before the race). We figured we had a good two hours before the race started which should be plenty of time for the food to digest. A little race strategy was discussed even though I seemed to be one of the only few who really want to race this sucker. Of course, with a recently obtained 2:29, Mike’s going hard and my going hard are two different beasts. But you would never know unless you asked him. Real affable fella, that Mike.
We talked about how nice we were treated and I mentioned that without a doubt this was some of the best treatment I have received in a marathon. We received gifts bags with new shoes, shorts, singlets and socks. Going against all the rules of marathons I put them all on without ever having wearing them before and decided to give them a shot before the race. I will admit I did not have as much trepidation as most would in doing so, given my ability to run in just about any brand of shoe and in any style. But given I was hoping to set a personal best, this was risky indeed. Plus, I had something to blame if things did not go right!
We arrived at the race and immediately walked to the invitees’ tent. Nothing too special but at least it was out of the sun (which was up at 5 AM and was already much warmer than we were hoping for it to be. Not hot. Yet.) A bathroom break or two, some final preparations and before we knew it, time had come for us to line up behind the respective flags of our countries and be introduced. This was quite an honor. I, with my new friends, were representing the United States. A big smile broke onto my face.
At the starting line, we milled around for a few minutes and the urge to use the bathroom was huge. I found that to be great; it meant I was properly hydrated. Before I knew it, the starting gun went off and away we went.
I usually give a course description before I describe my own personal race but the two go hand-in-hand so I will hold of on that for now.
After the gun, we began down this long stretch of road which was situated right next to a long body of water. I am pretty sure this is where the rowing events of the 1988 Summer Olympics were held. It was just beautiful. I purposefully started out very fast for a reason (I was with the lead runners for the first 1k); you see, I HAD to use the bathroom. I knew the time spent in the bushes would bring me back down to my pace, so going out faster than necessary was just fine. After watering a nearby tree, I rejoined the group of runners and felt so much better. In hindsight, I am not surprised this was the only time I had to pee.
As we looped around to the other side of the rowing pond, I could see the rest of the runners were about to begin. Given a 3 minute headstart as “elite” runners, I knew there would be a few racers at least who would eventually catch me and pass me during the race. I was going to make them work for it, however! At this time I also noticed that there were no mile markers; only markers in kilometers. I had only run one previous kilometer-only race and I did not find it all that pleasing. As quickly as the kilometers go by, there are just too damn many of them for my tastes (42 for 26 miles for the uninitiated).
So, by necessity, I started doing math in my head. The first 3k I had done in 12 minutes, which meant 4 minutes per kilometer. I will have to double check that math but I knew that if I ran that the whole way I would run a 2:48 marathon. Delusions filled my head but I beat them back. My plan was to run this as long as I could and then settle back into a more reasonable pace (more along a 4:05) and hold on for dear life.
First 5k: 19:42
In only 3.1 miles I already had the first people passing me. What machines. They had made up a minute per mile! My instinct was to follow them but I used my head. They are just better runners today, I thought. Already I was 18 seconds under a 2:48 pace and that would not hold up. So I had to run smart. So I concentrated on the fact that we were running up some hills that I did not remember from the course elevation profile we were given. I figured perhaps there were just some slight miscalculations but as long as it was all down hill later, I was fine right now.
I pause here to describe the course elevation for a very specific reason. We were given information which showed the course was relatively flat for the first 10k, with a slight rise to 15k. Then we ran flat again until the 19k mark where it went up 120 meters over the next 5k. After that (which was around mile 14) we had a gentle downward slope leading to nothing but flat until the finish. Because of this course, and my love for downhill racing, I was running a very “course specific” pace. Pushing a little harder than I normal would up the hills, I knew any energy I lost would be made up doing down the other side.
Second 5k: 20:26
At 6.2 miles I was still cruising along just great. A few more runners had passed me but I also passed a few who had seemed to have gone out too fast. After the initial run around the rowing pond we were spit out onto a highway for the next few mils. With the road shut down on one side there were next to zero spectators. Everyone around me did not speak English. I can honestly say that given my desire to run fast, the zone I was in, the fact that I was constantly doing math for each kilometer I passed and the nagging feeling that these constant up and down hills were NOT on the course elevation made this unlike any other marathon I had ever run. In spite of the fact that I was literally alone for the most part of this race, was the fact that I have never felt so figuratively alone. I did not know where I was, did not know where I was going and could not ask anyone if I got lost.
At this point I began to slow down. Not much at all but considering we went down a steep downhill before a turnaround at 15k, I should have broken 60 minutes for the 15k. Some of it was the fact that I took my first goo, had to do an immediate hairpin turnaround and the water station was located right at the Marker which made it hard to drink and hit your watch at the same time but I managed. As I crossed the 15k mat, I smiled. I have only one run 15k race before and it was in the middle of a 5k and a marathon in 24 hours, but I just broke that time in the first 9.3 miles of a marathon. But I could have been faster. Why did I slow even with the downhill? Because something was not right. There was not supposed to be a downhill of this size on the course at this point. It went exactly contrary to the course description.
When this doubt creeps into your head, it is hard to shake. In order to feel better and less wary, I prepared by slowing down a little bit on the hills which was completely against my nature. But who knew what lay ahead, I thought.
I have to admit I missed my exact time but it was around 21 minutes or so. Or more accurately, a minute slower for this 5k then the rest had been. By now I was in full panic mode. Except for a slight uphill between 16 and 17k, this entire 3 miles had been nothing but downhill. Relatively steep downhill. What was going on?
Halfway point : 1:26:00
Still going downhill we passed the 21.1 k mark, and I could see a long, straight, slightly- sloping- downhill ahead of us. Maybe everything was evening out. Or maybe not. Before long I saw the leader coming at me. A Kenyan who ran won the course last year was leading a pack of a few and then just a few meters behind them was rookie Trent! Holy mackerel. I shouted for him and myself got a boost just from seeing him. Not too soon after that I saw Mike striding along like a gazelle. That too got me pumped as Mike is easy to pick out.
Mike is 6’2’’ and towered over the rest of the competitors (whether you think it is politically correct or not there was not a single competitor in the race who matched Mike’s or mine height. Simply a fact). Mike had said he was just out for a nice long run but it looked like he was doing great.
A few more runners passed me in the opposite direction and each one passed on a surge to me. Down to the turnaround I went to shouts of “Go handsome boy!” from the Korean girls on the sidelines, followed by a collective gaggle of giggling. I blew them a kiss which only intensified the laughter.
Not too far up my run I saw Leisa from Australia. A holder of a 2:58 PR I felt confidant that I was still on pace for a sub 2:55 given how strong she looked and how far I was ahead of her. It was now that I realized that the long straightaway had been far more downhill on the way down than it as on the way back. I pushed on however, and got to the point where I prayed that we would stray from the original course and begin the “downhill” the elevation profile promised. My prayers were not answered.
All my fears that we were indeed running and out and back course, retracing our steps up the original course were coming to fruition. I knew I was in trouble.
A 22 minute 5k was completely fine with me given this first steep hill that we began with on our return trip home. I just wanted to get to the 30k mark not too far from the two hour limit which would have meant a 2:48 time.
Not too bad. Given how bad I was feeling, this still meant I was going to run a 2:52 if I could just get my kilometers back down to 4 minutes. But by now, the sun was beating down through a cloudless sky and while I have raced in MUCH warmer temperatures the high 60s we were running in now was not conducive to making up time. Especially when the hill would just NOT. STOP. GOING. UP! The next 2 kilometers (or 1.2 miles) took forever. The water stop we encountered on the way down had disappeared. You could see hundreds of cups crushed on the road but either the tables were bare and the volunteers just stood there or the tables were gone altogether. All I could think about was how I, running at around a sub-3 hour pace, was dealing with a lack of liquids and how I could not even begin to feel how bad runners after me would feel with this disappearance of fluids.
With 4.2 miles to go I was beginning to feel the wear and tear of the race to the fullest. We finally had crested the hardest of the hills. I knew this and was hoping for some deep down reserve to push me to 7 minute miles again which would give me a shot at a personal best. A 2:55 was an impossibility but not sub-3. It was very hard to relinquish that 2:55 goal after working so hard to attempt it but one must know when to adjust their sights. My time was now. Unfortunately, that was when the wind started.
What had been a headwind on the way out, had somehow shifted 180 degrees and began blowing in our faces again! The kilometers began to creep by. I began losing a minute per kilometer. There was nothing I could do. At one point, I came to a stop. Usually when I am trying to find energy where I do not think there is any, I will take a ten count to walk. But this time, I simply came to a dead stop, put my hands on my knees and bent over.
In addition, the smog and the air pollution from all the cars on the other side which were just idling in traffic began to accumulate. Breathing was mostly good and clear on this course but right when you needed it the most, it was lacking. Not sure what to do about that other than press on and look for the kilometer markers. Ah, the kilometer markers.
I knew each kilometer meant .6 of a mile so I began focusing on that idea and that idea alone. Before I knew it I was at 38k. Only two more Ks until I could do a split time on my watch. For some reason, that was a goal which I knew would please me even when I knew the time would be disappointing. I was right.
1.22 miles to go. That was all I had to do. But why were people running back at me? I knew there was 10k earlier in the day but these people weren’t in that race, were they? That was hours ago. After I dodged one or two, reality hit me. There was no one running at me. I was 100% hallucinating. Uh oh.
I could see the finish line marker ahead. More accurately I could see the gigantic Adidas sign hanging from a balloon. But right ahead was a huge archway. Was that the finish? I surged ahead, passing 3 people in the process, but as I turned onto the street and ran through the arch, it hit me I had .2 of a mile left. A quick look at my watch told me I could break 3:10 and qualify for Boston but I had to motor. All three people who I passed just a few hundred meters back now passed me. I had no gas left to fight them off. I had a chance at a 3:08 but I staggered across the line in 3:09:02.
Spent, I wandered a few feet forward where Gi-Ye our translator met me. She handed me a glass of Powerade and asked me how I was. I told her I needed to get to our tent. Quick. I meandered back and saw the rest of the finishers in our tent in various degrees of disarray. The next hour was mostly a blur. Between resting and getting a massage, I had the foresight to walk out into the crowds and trade my 50 States Marathon Club singlet to a random racer who had some singlet with Korean writing on it. I had no idea what it said but I loved it.
Then I put my body down on the concrete in our tent. I would say I laid my body down but it was more or less a “it’s gonna happen you better do it now” sort of thing. With Mike right next to me (he experienced horrible sickness syndromes as well) we just were doing everything we could to feel better. When we were told it was time to take a group picture because we had to hurry back (some of the poor Australians had a flight THAT NIGHT) I jumped up because I did not want them to be late. Big mistake. I teetered over to a plastic chair, fell into it, leaned forward and unloaded the contents of my stomach on the floor. Three times. Then my body went into absolute cramps. I remember Becky asking if I wanted a medic and much to my displeasure I told her yes.
My calves cramped up first and worst. I begged people to press my toed towards my knee to alleviate the pain. Both Chris, who was our point of contact from the beginning of this entire endeavor and just a wonderful guy, and Andrea took turns working on my feet. I felt like such a wimp but it was all I could do to fight cramps. Before I knew it, medical personnel were over me and taking my blood pressure and speaking of taking me to the hospital. This was NOT going to happen. I knew my body. As horrid as I felt, I knew that having vomited I was going to be ok. I just needed the cramps to stop.
I am pretty sure that the only thing that kept them from taking me to the hospital was not my assurances that I felt better but rather that the blood pressure was normal. Little did they know that for me, “normal” is high. I was not about to tell them. Finally, after hard work by everyone (or maybe just the passage of time) the cramps subsided and I hopped up. I received a small round of applause which made me feel like even more of a doofus (I mean, everyone else had ran the same damn course I had!). So we gathered up our stuff, I snuck around the back of the tent for another bit of vomiting (no one needed to see that) and started walking to the bus which was just “right over there”. Half a mile later we were on the bus. But before we got there, Peter, an ex-pat from York in Great Britain who now lives in Hong Kong, and Brad the bloke from Oz, were ever so gracious in letting me throw and arm over their shoulders to assist me in walking. Before long I was walking on my own and feeling the best I had in quite some time. I am just glad those phantom 10k runners didn’t come back.
That evening, after we had gotten some snack food in us and both Mike and I felt better, we grabbed the ladies and went down to find some good old American fast food. Salt and fat was what we all needed desperately. We found a Bennigan’s and ventured inside (although Burger King and KFC were only a block away, we found out later, and that was what we were really craving. OH well). This was like the American decompression chamber. It was like coming back to America but not all at once. I saw some of the first white faces of the entire trip inside. Baseball caps on indoors. A complete sense of entitlement exuding from their auras. You can definitely see why, when this is what our tourists are like, Americans can be disliked so much abroad. But to be honest, each culture has its good and bad points. I could write an entire blog on just that with the few cultures I have experienced. But I digress.
Mike and I headed back to the casino after dinner and I did fairly well for myself. I kinda bookended the trip with good around the bad marathon in the middle. Don’t get me wrong, the course was quite pretty in places. It was also quite desolate. Whether the blocking of the roads contributed to the lack of spectators or general disinterest or the fact that it was so far out from Seoul proper, I do not know, but it was an enjoyable scenic marathon. And if we had known it was all hills on the way back it would have been easier to deal with as a race. This is why I wished I had taken the tour. You know what they say about hindsight!
So I pondered how critical I would be of this course when writing this recap. Do I bite that hand that feeds or wash over the negatives? I figured I can actually do neither, pay homage to the race and still give the accurate account that I always give to my readers. I don’t sugarcoat but I always am fair.
So here is the straight scoop: the course was one of the more challenging I have ever done. Without a doubt the, unknown course elevation played a huge part in how I handled running it. There is no mistaking that the slightly warmer than desired temperature attributed to so many problems on the course. This could easily be remedied by starting the race at 7 AM instead of 9AM. Given the jetlag that I was doing my best to ignore (and will not blame for a lack of performance,) I had to admit it affected all of us. As such, leaving at 5 AM to go to a race at 7 AM would have hardly been the worst thing in the world. And finishing at 10 AM instead of noon could have made all the difference in the world. The hills would have still been there but the disappearing water stations and the bright sun ahead would not have been.
We were asked to tell the world about the Hangang Marathon and I am happy to do so. This race has serious potential to be a great race. They could make a few course modifications and it would be world-class. I would be happy to meet with the race organizers to give them this feedback. Obviously, it is not the worst course in the world. Trent, running in only his first marathon ever, ran a 2:24 and took second place overall. Granted he has talent most of us could only wish for, but it shows that it is not an impossible course. Small changes, beginning with the starting time of the race and the organization of information for non-Korean speaking racers, would greatly increases the overall enjoyment for al participants.
But the one fact remains above everything else was the willingness of our hosts to make everything on this trip as enjoyable and easy as possible. The Hangang Marathon went to great expense to get all of us runners from across the world to come experience their city, race and culture. It is no secret that Asian culture is a friendly and accommodating one, even when those of us not as steeped in how to do the delicate dance trample all over the toes of our hosts in the Korean two-step. Nevertheless, they went above and beyond the call of duty and I can only say thank you.
I am happy to be heading home to where my friends and family are but will undoubtedly miss Seoul and my experiences there. I made many good friends (I had all the race participants sign my running singlet) and made memories to last a lifetime. Although my goal to step foot in every country in the world means I will not make too many repeat trips to any country, I can see myself once again gazing upon the hills of Seoul.
My only regret from this trip was that we did not make it to the Seoul Tower located just two miles from our hotel. (On a clear day you can see all of Seoul from here but our lethargy following the marathon kept us from climbing the hill to experience it.) But rather than see all of Seoul, I was happy to stay down in Seoul itself. From the small run Mike and I took the morning of our fourth day in Seoul right before my plane left, where we ran into some of the more “Korean” sections of town (where we got some of the only pictures I took from the trip) to immersing ourselves in the market the day before, I feel it was much more fun to be “in” Seoul then looking down on it. I do not feel I have experienced enough to full appreciate what I would be seeing.
You too will feel the same way if you ever have a chance to go to Korea. From the flight there to hotel service to the way everything is run, you will be just as sad to leave as you are happy to get home. I am honored to have been chosen by the 50 States Marathon Club to represent the United States on this trip and can only hope I gave back one tenth what I received.