Immediately, I felt a stab of irritation. Here we were at kilometer 8 out of 21, and there was, no doubt, another runner anxious to slam me with all of the English that he knew. Jeesh. But, I plastered on that good 'ol foreign ambassador smile and turned to greet my new "friend."
Friend: You America?
Friend: Ah, why you run slow?
Me [with gritted teeth, trying to keep myself from pointing out he's barely keeping up with a woman]: Race long.
Friend: Because you wear this! [as he pinched a bit of my under armor and let it slap back against my skin]
Me: No. Because I want to run slow.
Friend: Because your body... [didn't catch what he was trying to say]
Me: Yes. Very fat. [I've given up adding in the sarcasm. It never translates]
Friend: Laughs and jogs to the side to get water.
At least he only stuck around for a few minutes, I thought. How on earth did I get involved in this on a cold, windy Sunday? Well, my friends, let's start from the beginning.
7:30 a.m. I arrive at a parking lot to meet with Gurye Marathon and the other three members of the Gurye Running Club. We pile into a car and make our way south of Gurye to Suncheon. Me and one other are running the half, the remaining three are running the full. I listened to them talk about times and race logistics on the way. And then argue about where to park, etc.
8:15 a.m. I climb out of the car and come face to face with hundreds of runners. The race begins and ends at a track stadium outside of Suncheon National University. SNU students, wearing very American letter jackets, were passing out water and hand sanitizer, directing people traffic and organizing the bag drop off. As we made our way through the crowd of men slathering each other in Vaseline (that's an attractive sight in the morning), the local politician shaking hands and the speakers blasting Korean pop music, I decided that this was going to be epic.
8:40 a.m. I met Red Jumpsuit. A woman running the 10-k that has some connection with Gurye Running and/or the running club, who took me by the arm and would not let go. We spent the next 20 minutes running across the field so she could introduce me to her husband, daughter, daughter's friend, husband's friend, friend from the office and about a dozen others. At 8:59, I decided to remind Red Jumpsuit that the race was about to start.
9:02 a.m. The half marathon lines up for take-off. I'm immediately pushed to the front by running club members. As a group, we count down from 10. Then the politician rings a gong and we're off. Everyone takes off at a sprint. Except for me. I'm like a rock when I run. I know exactly how fast I need to go. And so I went at my own pace as people dressed in shorts, racing tank tops and throw-away gloves zoomed around me. It was cold and the wind had a bite, so I was in under armor, shorts, top and gloves. I may as well have been in a snow suit.
The course was pleasantly flat, but rather dull. It was entirely on a closed highway through the country. I live in Gurye. I've seen enough farm fields and mountains to last a lifetime. But the water stations were well placed, and the SNU volunteers at these water stations screamed at the top of their lungs as we passed, so that was good. Of course, I had many awkward conversations along the way. One man from the running club was trying to get me to go faster. I politely told him "Goodbye" and played the stupid card.
But then I found my running angel. It's weird, but every major race I've ran, it seems that I find someone, somehow, who runs just a tad faster than me, who always shows up right before I start feeling defeated. And somehow, this someone, pushes me throughout the rest of the race. And even though we cross the finish at the same time, they're not to be found after the race. I'm not going to go into the whole fate/religion thing; let's just call it magic. By magic, I met White Hat just before the halfway/turn-around point.
White Hat didn't say much. Just the occasional straight/right/left ahead stuff. He even let me draft a bit. As I was turning around (at the halfway point, you just, literally, went through a chip timer and turned around), White Hat grabbed my arm and said, "Wait." as a race volunteer gave me a brown hair tie. "Uh, thanks." Not sure what to do with it (because my hair tie was working beautifully) I slipped it on my wrist. Maybe it's a little bonus for being in the top 10 women at the halfway point.
With the help of White Hat, my last half of the race was fast. Eventually we caught up to another woman. With my eyes locked on her broad back, I muttered 여자 (woman). White Hat understood. We crept up behind her and then blasted past. But the woman was a fighter and fought back, re-passing me. Then, in a very stealthy way, White Hat put his hand out and said, "Wait." We stalked her. Me, completely exhausted from the fast pace, started to falter. But White Hat would have none of that.
I think it was the fact that he was sacrificing his time for me that did it. For sure, he could have taken off, leaving me to finish the last 2km by myself. But he didn't. So, somehow, somewhere I found some more energy and tried desperately to hold on. Eyes still locked on Broad Back.
The race finish was back in the stadium. We had to run about 2/3's of a lap. Broad Back, with her coach next to her, sensed the danger in my position. (Taking people from behind is a lot easier than holding leads) He did a call-response thing (Coach: "Ya" Broad Back: "Geun"). Ya - Geun, Ya - Geun. Back and forth. Jeesh. This was getting ridiculous. If it's that important, you can have it.
But, at that moment, White Hat said, "Go." And Red Jumpsuit hopped out of the crowd and was urging me on. I couldn't let White Hat's time sacrifice be in vain! Somewhere, somehow, I found a gap, squeezed through and sprinted past Broad Back. I didn't stop once I passed her. I kept going. Fearful of her response. And I forced my exhausted legs to push and kept my depleted torso tall. And that's how I finished the Suncheon Half Marathon. Sprinting at "full" speed across the line. With the crowd in uproar at the intense finish.
Red Jumpsuit was there faster than I gave her credit. I gave Broad Back a hug and muttered 미안합니다 (I'm sorry!). But, when I looked around for White Hat, I couldn't find him. And Red Jumpsuit was tugging on my arm (no doubt anxious to introduce me to someone). I had to give up. That's just how my running angels work, I guess.
I finished 7th of 60 women, which earned me a jar of honey. I think 1st - 5th places got jars of kimchi. Darn. Missed that one. Oh Korea. My time was 1:37:40 according to the text message the race sent me. (Probably the most organized race I've ever been to) My goal had been 1:45:00, so I was very pleased.