Saturday, March 24, 2007

TR Korea

Trip Report
Mar 14 –20/07

Seoul International Marathon
Seoul, Korea
Sun, Mar 18/07
Marathon #283 – Country # 81

Note: Photos for this trip (and all Maddog’s trips) are posted to

This marathon/trip was not initially included in my 2007 race calendar although it is one I had wanted to run for a few years. It was only in late 2006 when I learned that a good friend from NYC was planning to run the race did I become interested. I checked my calendar and figured I could squeeze another race into my schedule in March. In fact it would be right after my hometown marathon and I figured I would be in good shape? So I started planning – and immediately ran into a few minor problems. Registration was closed for the race! I contacted the race director and presented my credentials and asked if he could make an exception for Maddog? He quickly and kindly responded by welcoming me to visit his country and to run his race and assigned an English-speaking volunteer to assist me in the registration and to book a hotel near the start line.

Thus on Wed 03/14 I departed on the long trip to Korea – I left home at 5am and 28 hours later (Thu 10 pm) landed at Incheon Airport. It is a new, ultra-modern airport located about 50 km from the city and is very nice and efficient. By midnight I was through immigration and customs and dropped off near city hall in downtown Seoul. I had a map showing me that my hotel was about 3 blocks from city hall but I couldn’t find it – I couldn’t even determine which direction it was in? The guidebook had warned me that it was very difficult to find your way around Seoul – they didn’t lie!

Seoul is a big city with a population of 11 million that is 25 % of Korea’s population. When you add the suburbs the population increases to 21 million and 47 % of the country’s population – it is the most densely populated city in the world! Few of the streets have names or street signs. Buildings and homes do not have street addresses! The city is divided into 25 districts (gu) and 522 smaller neighborhoods (dong). A building is identified by a name or number and is located by knowing the district, neighborhood and number/name? Confused yet? My hotel was brand new and nobody knew where it was? I finally went to another hotel and asked for directions. They didn’t know where it was nor did two taxi drivers? Finally a kind local resident (on his way home from a bar) walked up to me and asked if he could help. He called my hotel on his cell phone for directions and then told a taxi driver how to get me there! It was indeed only 3 blocks from city hall! I made it to bed about 1:30 am and I had a tour guide meeting me at 8 am for a tour to the DMZ! Surprisingly I was awake and ready at 8 am!

I was the only English –speaking client for the DMZ tour so I had a private tour guide. As we left the city and drove north along the Han River I noticed double chain link fences topped with barbed wire on both sides of the Han River and the Imjin River that flows into the Han River from North Korea. As we got closer to North Korea there were military guard posts located every 500 m along the fences and manned 24 x 7 by the South Korean army! Then we started to drive through tunnels and overpasses that were filled with dynamite/explosives so the roads could be blown up in the event of an invasion. The South Koreans are very concerned/paranoid about being invaded by the North? The DMZ is 4 km wide and the only buildings located inside the DMZ are the JSA (Joint Security Area) that straddles the ceasefire line and two ‘propaganda’ villages that face each other across the DML. On each side of the DMZ there are two ‘Civilian’ zones that are 3 km wide. On the South Korea side there are a number of sites open to tourists and one farming village. We visited the Imjingak Tourist Pavilion in the civilian zone where we saw the Bridge of Freedom and the Dora Observatory (Observation Post) where you could overlook most of the DMZ. Then we boarded military buses and were escorted into the DMZ by the South Korean army because the DMZ is heavily mined and booby-trapped for tanks/vehicles, etc. We visited the Third Tunnel in the DMZ – a tunnel that was discovered in 1974. The North Koreans dug the tunnel through a granite mountain to provide an invasion route into the South. They obviously dug it for Korean soldiers because the height of the tunnel is about 5 ft 6 in. If I hadn’t worn a hard hat when exploring the tunnel I would have knocked myself out several times when I forgot and tried to stand up! It was an interesting tour but I guess I just don’t understand the fear and practicality of the North invading the South – at least today?

At the end of the tour my guide dropped me off in the Itaewon district that is south of downtown. This is where the US military base is located so the district has lots of shops and bars that cater to international (and English-speaking) tourists. I toured Itaewon and then tried to find my way home – and got hopelessly lost! I quickly discovered that the easiest way to ‘find’ my way around the city was to take the subway to a known or clearly marked location and venture off by foot from that point until I got hopelessly lost again and look for the subway. Fortunately the subway is modern, efficient, easy-to-use and cheap – 90 cents per trip! I can find my way anywhere in Seoul – via the subway! I finally found my way back to downtown Seoul and the hotel where registration was located. I picked up my race packet and got some final information from the race volunteer that I had communicated with. I was disappointed to learn that there were no age groups or awards in the race. I decided there was no incentive/reason to hurt myself and would run smart and easy!

On Sat I had booked a city tour and again had a private tour guide since I was the only English-speaking client? We visited many of the main tourist sites in the downtown area starting with the Cheonggye Stream – a stream that flows through the center of Seoul. It had been covered by roads and buildings for centuries but 6 km of the stream were uncovered and the stream restored in Oct 2005. Many fountains and waterfalls were added to the stream along with lights so it is a pleasant place to walk/jog in downtown Seoul. Then we drove past Cheongwadae (the ‘Blue House’) where the President lives to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace. Gyeongbokgung was the primary palace of the Joseon Dynasty and was built in 1395. It was burned down many times by the Japanese and many of the buildings have been restored in the past decade. There are several other palaces in the downtown area that have been restored. The only ‘original’ buildings or sites remaining after many wars and destruction are the four gates from the original fortified walls of the city! After visiting the Jogyesa (Buddhist Temple) built in 1395 the guide left me in the Insadong district where many souvenir shops are located. I tried to find my way (on foot) to the Seoul Tour south of downtown and again got hopelessly lost. After a few hours of wandering aimlessly I finally had to go down into the subway to find my way to the Hilton Hotel to meet my friends from NYC. We planned to meet again for dinner but I got so lost and pissed off (at getting lost) on the way back to my hotel that I decided to eat at my hotel. I had spaghetti Bolognaise that was excellent but the meat certainly wasn’t beef – and I was scared to ask what it was?

Sun was M-day! The race started in downtown Seoul and finished at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium in SE Seoul. The weather was milder than the freezing temps that had been forecast. It was sunny and 2 C when I lined up with 24,000 runners for the 8am start. I figured I was overdressed with tights and a long-sleeve T-shirt? Edson and I were both seeded in the B-corral which meant we had 4,000 runners in front and 20,000 runners behind us at the start. I looked for him but could not find him - in fact I only saw two ‘white’ runners during the entire race! I had already decided to go out at a 3:45 pace (5:20/km or 8:30/mile) and see how long my legs would last? The course was crowded and required lots of elbow swinging to maintain space for the first 15 km! I was surprised and concerned when I found myself following the 3:10 pace group for the first 5 km? When we passed 5 km in 26:52 I confirmed that I was on pace but they needed to speed up which they did. Then the 3:20 pace group passed me. I followed them to 10km in 52:23 and then the 3:30 pace group passed me? I concluded that the Koreans followed a strange (and difficult) race strategy. They started out slow and picked up speed and needed to run negative splits to attain their time goal? Not many runners can do that! Most of the 1st Half was run in downtown Seoul and about 10 km was along both sides of the Cheonggycheon Stream. I had been advised that there would be distance markers, clocks and water every 5 km. It was difficult to get water because of the sheer mass of runners. At 11km I noticed that there was in fact distance markers every 1 km and that helped me manage my pace better. When I passed 15 km in 1:18:35 the 3:40 pace group passed me and I kept them in sight for the next 20 km!

I passed the Half in 1:51:08 – a little faster than planned but I felt OK and decided to hold that pace until 30Km and re-evaluate? I reached 30Km in 2:37:47 and felt good. I thought about lowering my pace but decided to wait till 35km. The 35Km marker was on the Jasmil Bridge across the Han River. As I ran the gentle climb over the bridge and passed 35Km in 3:05:24 my legs started talking to me! That was the farthest and fastest I had run in four months and my legs were tired! I did not want to crash so I slowed down and let my tired legs set the pace as we jogged the final 7 km to the Jasmil Stadium. Only when I entered the Stadium did the old bod give me one final short burst of energy to let me sprint the final 200m on the track to cross the finish line in 3:46:28.

As soon as I crossed the finish line two sports reporters converged on me requesting an interview for the local papers. It took me five minutes to get through the finish chute and collect my finisher’s medal. And although the logistics of the race were well organized it was a long and confusing maze to navigate to find my drop-off bag and refreshments. Then the next problem was to find a subway station to get back downtown? Nobody spoke English but thankfully they seemed to understand “subway” and kept pointing in the same direction. Thirty minutes later I found a subway station and returned to my hotel for a much-needed hot shower! After the shower I evaluated my results: I was happy – I had finished close to my target time – I had run the entire marathon distance w/o any problems and w/o any cramps – and I had no aches or pains after the race! It was time to explore some more of the city and meet my friends for a celebration beer!

After a very tasty beer my friends wanted to eat an expensive (Western) buffet dinner at the Hilton but I wanted to enjoy a Korean dinner of BBQ beef so I set off on my own to find a good Korean restaurant. I enjoyed the BBQ but did not like the Kimchi (pickled and fermented cabbage and other veggies served as a side dish). Not my cup of tea – nor was the Korean tea they served with dinner. But the Korean beer was good!

Since Mon was my final full day in Seoul I figured I should explore more of the city and take more photos to share with my readers. I also had the hotel book me a ‘sports massage’. Although the masseuse didn’t speak English I managed to explain what I needed and she did a good job of ‘flushing’ my legs w/o any pain/torture – until she got to the left foot! When she dug her knuckles into the plantar fascia I almost flew off the table. She didn’t need to understand English to know “that hurt like Hell”! However she was able to fix the problem/injury in spite of my screams. I believe it is part of their universal training – to ignore screams/cries and pleas of mercy! But it worked! The legs and foot felt so good after the massage I was able to climb up Mt Namsan to the cable car station to take the cable car to Seoul Tower. Mt Namsan is located in the center of the city south of downtown and most of the mountain is preserved as Namsan Park with lots of trees and hiking trails. Seoul Tower is located on top of Mt Namsan and rises 360 m above sea level and offers a 360-degree panoramic vista of Seoul and on a clear day one can see the seacoast and mountains in North Korea. Travel tip: One of your first visits should be to Seoul Tower. After you see the physical view and layout of the city it is much easier to get your bearings and find your way around the city. I never got lost again after I left Seoul Tower!

My flight left Tue afternoon so I woke early and did an easy 10Km run along Cheonggyecheon Stream. I met two Kenyans trying to loosen their legs after the marathon and ran a few miles with them. After a shower and breakfast I returned to Insadong (w/o getting lost) to buy a few last-minute souvenirs and headed to Incheon Airport for the lonnnnggggggggg (another 28 hrs of travel time) trip home. I arrived home at 1 am on Wed!

Now I have only one week to recover from jet lag, write my trip report (finished!), and run some training miles to prepare for the next international marathon/adventure! “Where is that” you ask? Hint: the Sports manager and I are headed back to South America.

Stay tuned for the trip report!

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