Running In The Land Of Curly Aunties
2014-03-19 13:08:45

by Omar Agoes

On my birthday last week, I hopped on a flight to Seoul Korea to tick one box that I thought I should do in life; to complete a marathon.  I guess you can call this a birthday present for myself – and of course I was also running to help raise funds for Ody; the unfortunate eight year old orphan who became disabled two months ago.

This was my second time to Korea.  Both of these times was to join a race.  Two years ago I came here with our sailing team to race in the Jeju International Regatta.  In that race, we never reached Jeju Island.  A large storm was forecasted to hit the area and to my relief, they called off the long race from Mokpo to Jeju.  This time I am back to Korea to race in the 2014 Seoul marathon. 

On both occasions, I noticed one thing about Korea.  So many of the ‘aunties’ here have short permed curly hair. It is the one obvious feature about this country.  As you see these middle aged women pass by, traveling in a pack, making lots of noise – all with short curly hair.  Someone told me that this haircut was a way to conceal a receding hairline.

The marathon was on Sunday morning 16 March 2014.  I arrived Friday night,  had a birthday dinner alone and rested well following the advice that one should be well rested before a marathon.  From the very beginning, I have had trouble with this marathon as most of the information is in Korean.  The website itself has very limited English.  Registering for this race online is one confusing experience.  Despite the fact that the Seoul Marathon is a “Gold” standard event, the website was far from “gold standard”.  It would mention something like this on entry fee payment: I notify about payment. Check below for details Overseas credit card payment is for the customer seems to be to decompose.”  A good part of the website is a translation software malfunction. 

The good news was there was a phone number, and the guy on the other line speaks good English and actually solves the participant’s confusion. He must have been on the phone constantly.

A marathon starts one day before.  The day before, you hydrate yourself silly by drinking loads and loads of isotonic drinks.  After that, you “carbo-load” by stuffing yourself with pasta like there’s no tomorrow.  I had two dinners that night alone in a candle-lit restaurant. This romantic restaurant was the closest source of pasta to my hotel.  I was the PIG in the middle of romantic diners on Saturday night.

The race starts at 8 at the   Gwanghwamun Square, a large square in the center of Seoul.  The temperature was about 7 degrees Celcius that morning.  There were 24,000 participants and the atmosphere in the morning was amazing.  I was wearing thermals, gloves, head cap, compression pants, and a windbreaker.  The local participants were wearing a singlet, pair of shorts, and a trash-bag.  Yes, a trash bag.   The trash bag is so you can throw it away after you start running, which is what I did to my cheap wind breaker and gloves.

The atmosphere at the start was festive.  There were cheerleaders, people dressing up in costumes, families cheering their loved ones, and some K pop hip hop music to hype you up. 

After doing several running events before, I have always known my bladder never cooperates. The toilet queue is super long.  No matter how I prepare for it, I always need to pee just before the start.  I always find ways to hide behind a tree and pee, but this square has no trees and lots of police officers!  So I started the race with a full tank.  At the first U turn on 3 km, I see people running back to the course after hiding behind a building.  Behind that building passing a police officer that looked away on purpose was a bunch of people peeing in the garden. God bless that police officer for letting us pee illegally.

The first half was in the city center with the course zigzagging with 4 U-turns within the city.  It passed an area along a small river that is an old fashioned trading market.   As they were opening, I can see that they were selling used goods.  Used pants, jackets, rice cookers, bike wheels, you name it; it was like second hand heaven.

But if you wanted a used jacket or sweater, you don’t need to buy one.  Just hang out at a marathon course; it is littered with people throwing it on the roadside, you will be spoilt for choice in every size.   I don’t think this area is a popular part of town; if I came to Seoul as a tourist, I would most likely miss this spot.  This is the part I like about running, because you are going slow, you get to see more of a place.

In the run, some of the organizers tie balloons on them. A red balloon with a white cross is a running medic.  And there are yellow balloons with numbers on them.  These are called pacers.  They run at a constant rate and will finish in the time that their balloon indicates. I had my eye on the 4:50 balloon (which means finish in 4 hours and 50 minutes).  My goal was to keep that balloon behind me, and then I am safe. 

The Seoul marathon has a five-hour time limit.  I chose the wrong race for my first marathon, I didn’t know of this time limit until three months before the race.  When you don’t finish in time, a sweeper bus will clean up and take away all the participants and disqualify them.  This sweeper bus has been in my nightmares. My mission in the past four months was to make sure I beat this bus!   

I always hate the first 3 km of running.  It always feels heavy and uncomfortable.  It’s a drag.  That morning I still felt that drag when I saw the 7 km mark.  And I thought to myself; gosh…I need to go through that another five times more! 

There are water points at every 5 km.  Volunteers pour water and isotonic drinks in little paper cups.  About a kilometer after the water point is something that makes me cringe, volunteers offering you wet cold sponges to cool yourself down.  I am cold as is; the thought of cold water dripping down the back of my neck was just giving me goose bumps.

On the last stretch of the zigzag course in the city, we enter a spacious road.  This felt better as the sun was shining and we were not in the shades of buildings anymore.  Unlike running in the tropics, having the sun here in cool temperatures is a delight and not something you dread.

I hit the halfway mark with the sun alongside.  Still feeling strong, by this time, I have taken two of my four energy gels and I took one salt capsule.  Hydration is crucial in long distance running.  When you get dehydrated not only does your energy levels drop, but your muscles can cramp.  As a sailor, I knew first hand at how dehydration affects your mental and physical performance, but as a runner, I didn’t want to find out how cramps felt like.

Long distance runners burn a lot of calories as they run.  As you consume the calories, it needs to be replaced along the way. When your leg muscles run out of glycogen (stored calories), it causes sudden fatigue and loss of energy.  This is what runners call “hitting the wall”.  

Energy Gels deliver calories to your body efficiently; it is basically dense sugar goo.  The label has wonderful flavors stating “lemon sublime” or “strawberry banana”, but they all taste the same, they all taste like crap.  I have been tempted to feed a four-year-old boy with one, but I think it would make him go ballistic and all hell would break loose beyond control.

My pace got slower and the 4:50 balloon has long passed me.  I see my GPS watch and my average pace assured me I would be in before 5 hours, so I kept going.  It has been three hours and your mind starts having thoughts.  One of those thoughts that crossed my mind was heart attacks.  Two weeks ago in Singapore a 45 year old male dropped at 10 km of his marathon and died from a heart attack.  I have had an earful from my immediate family on why I am doing this.  They asked me numerous times have you checked with the doctor? Are you sure you want to do this?  You are on high blood pressure medication for nine years, is it safe?

And just as these thoughts pass; near the 27 km mark, the guy ten meters in front of me collapsed.   He was on his side and unconscious, his hat was next to him and he looked still.  Runners around him were shouting in Korean, which I assume was calling for help.  Police officers were running to the scene.  I hope that man survived. I hope he was simply suffering from no more than just a heat stroke. 

After almost four hours of running I still felt great.  When I passed the 30 km mark, I was smiling.  This is the longest I have ever run in my entire life.  The longest run in my training was 30 km. I felt good.

But that is until the symbol of Korea was suddenly running along side me.  A short curly hair auntie in a red shirt was right beside me tied up to a yellow ballon that has 5:00 on it!  This un-assuming stocky auntie was my reminder that I really suck, and curly short hair aunties kick ass!  I tried to keep up with her for the next ten minutes until I realized that she still has plenty of legs and I don’t. 

In running, pacing is important.  If you go too fast, you will pay for it later.  I paid for it by keeping up with that auntie.  From 35 km after, I was going slower.  I still felt good but was just slower.  People say that a marathon starts after 30km, that guy was right.  I felt constantly thirsty and a water stop every 5 km seem too long.   

Along the roadside you start seeing people crouching frustrated, or looking in pain while holding their leg.  One guy in front of me just started running funny and eventually limped on one foot before dropping down on his bum, as if one leg suddenly came off. 

One interesting thing was how marathons weed out individuals.  While I pass by; young fit looking people were sitting on the roadside, and yet I was still running with aunties and overweight uncles along with me.  Your pre conception all fit looking people are stronger was just shattered. 

I passed one overweight middle-aged man at 38 km who had two people with their hands behind his waist as if pushing him with invincible energy.  This was the highlight of my marathon experience; I called it ‘collective suffering’.  We are no longer racing, we are on the same boat, we are collectively using our willpower to reach that finish line. That remaining 5 km to the finish line is between our ears.

However, when I was very dazed and tired, I must admit to one thing.  This Korean girl with a ponytail in a light green top passed me.  I don’t know how she did it, but how do you still smell so nice after 38km?  That beautiful scent was so refreshing that I kept chasing her for another 300 meters and ran out of juice.  Unlike the auntie, she not only kicked my ass, she managed to smell great at the same time.

We finished inside the Olympic stadium treading almost one round of the oval running track.  Running in that stadium was nothing short of glorious.  I ran half of that track with my arms up fingers pointing up as if I was Carl Lewis in the Olympics. I can see the spectators rolling their eyes thinking, dude….you are in the back of the pack.  I was just so thrilled that after 5 hours 2 minutes and 21 seconds of running, and after four months of training, and a lifetime of dreaming of doing this, I beat that damn sweeper bus!