Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Honam Gukje Marathon in Gwangju

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When my alarm went off at 6:30 AM I actually woke up and stayed up this time. After eating a couple of bananas I changed into my running shorts and singlet and applied sunscreen to what I thought was all my exposed skin. I grabbed my sunglasses and Powerade, laced up my New Balance shoes (veterans of a previous marathon), and left my apartment.

It was cool enough outside that I preferred jogging to Sangmu Citizens' Park (just a few blocks from my apartment building) in order to stay warm. I had the feeling it was going to get rather warm during the course of the race, so I decided not to wear a base layer under my singlet. Since the course was to follow the path along the Yeongsangang, there figured to be very little respite from the sun (which became painfully obvious to me when after the race I noticed two red patches behind my shoulders outlining the space between the edge of my singlet and the reach of my hands).

Being so near to the starting line helped calm the nerves I normally feel on a race morning. I didn't need to worry about traffic or catching a subway, just a leisurely 10-minute jog to a park I've visited quite often. With about ten minutes to spare, I went onto the soccer field with other runners and tried to stay loose until the call for marathoners to come to the starting line (which would be translated for me by the movement of a bunch of people in running shorts and singlets toward the start line).

I got my cue and took my place among the other runners. The crackle of a few fireworks shot into the sky above the track started the race, and within a minute I was across the line and rounding the curve of the track toward the path out of the park. With about 125 participants registered for the marathon, including 6 foreigners, this was the smallest event I've competed in. There was also a half marathon, a 10K, and a 5K being run, but the start times were staggered by 10 minutes. As a result, there was a lot more room to breathe at the start.

Once outside the park the course turned onto the street leading to the river path. When I go for runs I usually use the bike path on the riverbank. The marathon followed the wider service road on the levee along the river. The pictures in the blog show different parts of those paths and I took them during a walk the week after the race.
Sign on the bike path showing the distance to Naju
A small part of the course overlapped part of the half marathon course I ran on March 1, which Lily wrote about in her blog. This was near a visitors' center for the bike path, and a water station was set up in front just as it was for that previous race. I was carrying my own sports drink in fear that I may start to dehydrate in the hot sun I was anticipating, so I skipped the first several water stations. It was nice to see a reminder of that previous race, though, and feel somewhat familiar with at least part of the route ahead of me.

Yeongsangang bike path visitors center, seen from the river bank
Here are some pictures of the view from the balcony behind the center:

toward the airport-a plane landing



the road the course followed
The first twenty kilometers were somewhat of a blur, as usual. I tried to look around a lot to take in the views and soak up as much of the experience as I could. I sort of latched onto a group forming behind a couple of pacesetters for a while, but broke off when they slowed at one of the water stations. Truth be told, however, the memories of the early parts of these races tend to be overpowered by what comes afterwards.

A turning point in the race came at kilometer 21. Just before the half-marathon turn-around, I heard a voice call from behind me, "For Boston!" A few moments later, I was passed by a woman I met while running the half marathon in March. She'd suggested in a group event for the race on Facebook that the foreigners in the marathon wear some symbol of support for the victims of the bombing the previous week. I thought it was a good idea and had taped a message on the back of my singlet. As she passed me I reciprocated her words of encouragement, and saw that she had written a message for Boston on the back of her tank top. A few meters later she crossed her halfway mark and headed back toward the finish line. I nodded toward her in acknowledgement and continued on.

While running along the river provided some wonderful scenery. Mountains that had always been hazy silhouettes in the distance during my previous runs approached closer and closer as I chugged downstream. With the half-marathoners no longer among our ranks, the number of runners on the course decreased dramatically, and the course became much lonelier. The only spectators were the people gathered at the aid stations every few kilometers and the occasional policeman posted at mostly empty intersections.

Everything was new for me on this part of the course. After about an hour and a half we crossed a bridge that I'd noticed on the bus ride to Wando the week before. This brought us to the opposite bank of the river, where we stayed all the way to Naju.

After crossing the bridge I finally took advantage of one of the aid stations. They had a bowl of banana halves at one end of the table, and I slowed down to grab one. A volunteer behind the table greeted me in English: "Hi!"

"Hi! Thanks!" I replied, speaking for the second time that day.

"Fighting!" she called as I resumed running.

As we followed the bike path toward Naju I was surprised to see a farm with a bunch of animals that looked like reindeer. It's nice to come across things like that to help take my mind off of the running, which was about to become much more difficult.

I saw another bridge in the distance and hoped we wouldn't cross it, that the halfway point was closer than that. I noticed banners hanging from lightposts along the street next to the path when we came up an incline onto a long straightaway: 나주. I had seen in the registration packet that the turnaround was in Naju, and I felt a mix of relief and dread to know the distance was about halfway done.

Indeed, near the end of the long straightaway was a chip reader laid across the asphalt just beyond a sign marking 21 km. I crossed the reader and rounded the imaginary corner to repeat in reverse all the ground I'd covered in the previous two hours.

Anticipating a drop in my energy, I forced myself to eat part of the energy bar I'd stuffed in my pocket. Long-distance running makes me hungry in that way that makes eating unpleasant, especially when I'm still running. I remember from my childhood days of team swim practices. After swimming for an hour, I'd be ravenous and could eat bowls of oatmeal and several waffles or whatever else my grandparents might cook up when I walked to their house from the pool. After running for two hours, I know my body needs more calories, but the taste of any sort of food tends to make me feel like I do at the end of a big meal, when I sometimes decide that even though I don't want to eat those last few bites of dessert, maybe later I'll look back and wish I had if I don't.

What I really feel like doing by that point of a race is slowing down to a walk, having a nice, cold, lightly sweetened drink like lemonade, and laying down for a nap for a couple of hours before waking up to eat a nice, big, well-deserved meal. And that's what would be waiting for me at the finish line, just 21 km away.

After getting down half the energy bar, I stuffed the remaining half back into my pocket and took a few sips from my Powerade. In about twenty minutes by my estimate I figured I'd be passing that aid station where I'd had a banana before, so I planned to make myself eat more when I got there.

I really did try to remember to keep appreciating the scenery while I ran, and I did look around from time to time in an effort to immerse myself in the thought of how exhilarating it was to be in the moment of achieving my goal of completing a marathon here in Korea, halfway around the world from my home. Look around you! That's Korea! The effect was more muted than it had been before, as the pangs in my stomach and the encroaching fatigue in my legs sent stronger and stronger signals to my brain.

A group of accidental spectators were gathered along the street in front of the Yeongsangang Culture Hall near the bridge. While they were not as enthusiastic as most of the volunteers at the aid stations, it was nice to see a crowd of people and pretend they were there to offer support for those of us who had decided to spend this sunny Sunday morning trudging up and down the banks of the river for a few hours. In reality, I think mostly they had noticed something going on when they came out of whatever event they'd gone to the hall to see and in curiosity or boredom had gone over to see what it was.

Shortly after that, it was time to recross the bridge to the lonelier side. By now the runners were very spread out, and I often felt like an island with the nearest runners a hundred meters ahead of me, with some unseen and unheard runners quickly approaching to overtake me. During this stretch I really enjoyed hearing the occasional "Fighting!" from the bored policemen manning the intersections.

"Fighting!" I tried to shout back at one point. You have to put equal stress on both syllables, which I mangled in my breathlessness.

When the empty feeling in my stomach and my legs intensified to the point where I felt like walking, I told myself to get to km 30 before I took any breaks from running (which at that point could barely be called running). However, around km 26 I relented and slowed to a walk. I allowed myself to walk to the next km marker, and then I forced myself to run the entirety of the next kilometer, and a bit further. Then I walked again, until I approached the next aid station.

Spectators and volunteers are my favorite part of marathons. Some people find the desire of marathoners to spend hours at a time running incomprehensible. I'm more in awe of the willingness of these people to spend even more time standing by watching people run (mostly slowly) for hours at a time, and cheering them on. Seeing those smiling faces and hearing their shouts of encouragement (even those I can't understand) make a tremendous difference for me when trying to get through those miles after the wall, when the last thing I want to think about is the fact that I still have 8 miles to run. Instead, I soak up the energy they send me and find myself with the energy to run again as I pass them, and walking or running, eventually there's 7, then 6, then 5, then 4 miles to go. And from there the anticipation of the finish line with its celebratory crowds starts to tow me along to the final stretch, where all of a sudden I feel great because I want to get there as quickly as possible and cross the line and have it all behind me.

My parents had been to every marathon I ran to this point. They drove to Chicago to watch me run my first one in 2009, and they were there on the sidelines in the five I ran in St. Louis over the next three years. While they sent their well-wishes to me before this race, I knew it would be much different coming across the finish line and not having them there, that it might feel slightly diminished despite my relief at my accomplishment. So I was thrilled when I came across the line and immediately saw Sarah and Lily cheering from just beyond the finish. Seeing friendly faces is such a joy at that exhilarating and exhausted moment, and these are two of my closest friends here in Gwangju.

After the race I was famished, so we decided to go to the newly-opened TGI Friday's near my apartment building. Lily and Sarah went ahead to the restaurant to order while I hobbled home to take a quick shower. When I made it back, a nice bread bowl of pasta was waiting on the table for me. Friday's is a restaurant I like to go with friends back home, so it felt like a fitting place to be that afternoon.

As hungry as I feel after a race like that, it gets to be a tedious chore finding the energy to make myself eat enough to last more than a couple of hours. I ate very slowly, taking long breaks between bites and enjoying the company on a clear, sunny afternoon. The time I'd recorded is the slowest marathon I've ever run, and I walked more than I have in any other race, but when I got back to my apartment and laid down for a long afternoon nap I felt complete contentment that I'd experienced a marathon in Korea and that I'd been able to share it with some great friends.


  1. Hi,

    I'm new comer in Gwangju, just came on Sept 1. I like to run (not as maniac as I like soccer). So can you share any run event? Or, any runner community? Or simply, route for running?

    I'm Indonesian btw

  2. The path along Gwangjucheon (광주천) is very good for running and biking. You can search facebook for a running group in Gwangju. I know there's at least one geared toward foreigners on there.