An Epic Tale of the Triumph of Will Over Utter Stupidity

barefoot running korea marathons merrell running

A Bad Decision

I had signed up for this on a whim. A friend of Anna's was running the 10k and asked if we'd like to spend a weekend out of the city, enjoying the rural areas to the South, and oh by the way, there is a race if you want to sign up. Not one to say no to a challenge, I signed up. As one to inflate any challenge that comes my way, I decided to run the full.

It wasn't until a week before that I realized I didn't have any real running shoes, just my Merrells, and that I had never run more than 40 minutes in them. That week, I tried to train up to a reasonable distance, going out for a 40 minute run, and two 1 hour runs, waking early and following the running trails along the river valleys that wind through the towns outside of Seoul. I knew I wasn't entirely ready, but I thought I could push through, and I at least knew my feet wouldn't fall apart.


Lead Feet

Somewhere in the mid-thirties, a squat Korean man passed me, keeping a quick, steady pace. Something about his momentum inspired me and I matched his pace, somehow staying with him for what seemed like hours. When I realized we had run a mere 2km, I felt my feet rebelling again and I slowly lost him, retreating to my careful shuffle.

I was frustrated. Clearly, I had the ability to run faster, so why couldn't I move my feet? I wasn't tired. My feet hurt. My bones hurt. My legs were fine. My heart was fine. Every time I sped up, I felt my body leap joyfully forward with the wind and refresh, only to crash back down, punishing me for trying.

A Beautiful Place to Die

The area we were staying was famous for its green tea and Asian pears. Hadong was a rural province, and proud of it. They made a lot of the fact that things here were slow and wholesome. We toured a recreation of an ancient manor, wandered around traditional street markets, and finally made our way to a beautifully quaint cottage on the tea tree slopes, overlooking the river I would spend most of the next day running along.

It was gorgeous, and I'm sure if I hadn't been wincing in pain every step of the way, I would have felt spiritually uplifted by the view alone.

The morning of the race, I put on my shirt and race number, which had the timer chip attached to the back. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and was frigid and blustery. The energy was high and the race organizers had even gotten some scantily clad (and clearly freezing) cheerleaders to lead a warmup for the runners. Tents offered tea, hot dumplings and kimchi to the runners.

The marathoners went first and the course looped around the starting area before heading out along the river, so for the first half hour we were running with the 10k and 5k runners.

A Little Over-enthusiastic

I had started off feeling amazing and made good time at about 5:00 per kilometer, which would have put me on track to finish in 3 hours 30 minutes. I later found out I was probably going faster than that, since I was passed by the 3:30 pace group, which meant I had been ahead of them before my pace slowed.

Feeling great, I was running along, happy to reach the 10km mark, when suddenly my left arch cramped, feeling like it was tearing. It was a familiar feeling, so I wasn't worried about an injury, but I knew I had to slow down. The cramping kept coming back, and then my ankles started to hurt. I fell back, and even reverted to a heel-strike running form, which is asking for injury when running without cushioned shoes.

All I could do was keep things as gentle as possible and ask my feet to hold on.

Because I knew I was not going to quit.

Running the Numbers

After I saw the half-marathoners turning around near 18km, I started to wonder if my miles-to-kilometer calculations had been wrong. If I was right, they should have turned around at 12km. I recalculated what I thought I had to run and came up with 50km, instead of the 42 I had originally been planning on. Suddenly, things started to feel a lot worse.

Then, at 36km, the 4:40 pace group paced me, urging me on in Korean. I was done, but I tried valiantly to keep with them, to no avail. I had been muttering a Buddhist prayer to myself for half the race, begging divine aid, but now I was too tired to spare the breath. Besides, my desperate pleas were starting to make me feel really emotional.

I came to big hill and something snapped. I was fed up with being slow. I was fed up with giving in to pain. I was a Warrior, and I was going to run like one. I RAN up the hill, on my toes, knees high, wind in my hair. It felt glorious. I knew I'd collapse again soon, but I didn't care.

Then I saw that the distance markers were listing the half-marathon distances as well as ours, and their numbers were much closer to the end than they should have been. Summoning what little sense I had left, I did the math in my head. I knew 3.1miles=5km, so I managed to find the miles to kilometers conversion factor, then multiplied that by 26.2 miles (the distance I knew for a full marathon). I came up with 42.1km.

I kept running.

I passed the 4:40 group and they went wild, cheering me on like I was their champion runner.

The kilometers flew by. I still felt the pain in my feet, but my body didn't seem to think it was anything more than a sensation anymore. There was no cramping, no sign of impending injury. Just the running.

I saw the giant white balloons that marked the finish and I leaned forward into the run. The last kilometer was a straight run to the finish along soft gravel and sand where I knew I could roll my ankle and end up on the ground. I picked my way carefully to the end, ran through the finish, and stopped, hands on my knees. I refused to sit down, but I marveled that I had finished without hurting myself. One of the Koreans who understood English heard me say so and laughed.

I wandered into the tents to look for the post-run snacks, expecting a bagel or a banana. Instead, I got a plate of tofu and kimchi.

What I Learned

Somewhere around 28km, I figured out why I was out there. There were a million reasons not to run, and most of them were very good reasons. These included:

Ultimately, there was only one reason I was going to finish the marathon, and that was simply:

I learned that there are many times in life when you're not perfectly equipped to handle a task. You are not meant to succeed. Maybe you weren't born into a business family. Maybe you don't have the business sense you need to avoid financial ruin. But you've decided to build a business and earn your independence.

Or maybe you're a pasty pale kid with no muscle to speak of. But you've decided to become a ninja.

Or maybe the girl of your dreams is so far out of your league that going after her would be social suicide. But you have decided to do it anyway.

In the end, it's that one decision, tiny and frail, that makes the difference. Maybe you won't do it 'the right way' and maybe it will take you years, but eventually, you'll pull yourself through the mud and the thorns to the sunlight on the other side of the swamp. So what if there were privileged folks who knew about the nice easy trail bypassing all that difficulty? There are those who will say it's not worth the trouble if you don't have the map. They forgot that someone had to draw the map.

Do it anyway. Make your own map, the hard way if that's the only way you know how.

I was out there, running with no clue what I was doing, but I was going to finish in whatever way I could manage.

And I did. Not because I was capable of it, but because I decided to do it.

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