Race season has arrived.
So, my friend Bishop calls me a little under a month ago, and tells me he’s running a marathon. A marathon? I ask. Yeah, he says, totally nonchalant. A marathon. Twenty-six point two miles. I’m thinking: Sure, okay, the guy’s eight feet tall, kind of a superstar, does well at the things he tackles. But he smokes. And it was only about two months ago that he told me he was starting to make it to the gym. And in that short time, with those lungs, he’s going to run a marathon?
I tell him he is not running a marathon. He says dude, come on, it’s only like, ten miles. No, no, Bishop. Twenty-six point two miles. Ten miles, another ten miles, and then over half of another ten miles. You’re telling me you’re running a marathon, there should be none of that spring in your voice. Only fear. Are you running a 10K? I ask. Yeah, yeah, a 10K, he says, a marathon. Ah. No, no, I say. A marathon, minus twenty miles. Things are beginning to make sense, now.
The confusion was mostly a product of Korea’s definition of a marathon. If you tell a Korean you are running a 5K (3 miles), you are running a marathon. And you are a rock star. If you tell a Korean you are running a half-marathon, in the auditory canal, half somewhere sunders from marathon before the information is processed by the brain, and you are running a marathon.
Short story long, I invited myself to come run with him. It would be a terrible, terrible mistake, I knew, because I was and still am in no kind of racing condition, but I’d done this oh-I’ll-do-this-after-preparing-a-little-more stuff too often, for too long. Perhaps this is the product of growing up in a highly competitive environment, where sister constantly debased a slightly—a slightly, I insist—inferior athleticism; where father never slowed his pace through three feet of mountain snow for two little girls, but rather warned against excessive complaining; where mother never surrendered a game of Monopoly or Life, no matter how old you were, because that sure as hell wouldn’t teach you anything about losing.
So, in effort to battle my procrastinatory tendencies—functioning, I know, mostly to disguise lack of perfection—my brain braced itself for potential mediocrity, and I asked Bishop to sign me up. My self-esteem buffering mechanism (this may or may not be the technical term—I’ll have to consult my psychology textbooks) began functioning immediately. The handicap floodgate opened. I’m in terrible shape, I told Bishop. I haven’t run six miles consecutive since I’ve been here. And I want to point out, I told him, that your legs are about three feet longer than my entire body, thus enabling you to cover twice the distance, in half the time.
True, but I’m a smoker, he says to me.
Over the next three weeks, I stepped up the running, for sure, but not as much as would have been sensible. I decided to not kid myself. I wouldn’t be competing in this thing—no time to prepare—but would view the Hadong 10K as a warm-up for the rest of the season. A kind of kick in the butt. A motivator. I invited the girls from the office to come along, and Susan, our newest teacher, after gentle prodding, accepted the offer. She’d been in the gym most days of the week, it seemed, and would come run the 5K while Bishop and I stumbled through the 10.
On the Saturday afternoon before the race, Susan and I hailed a cab, nabbed a 4,500 won bus ticket, and were on our way to Jinju, where Bishop would meet us and then take us the rest of the way to Hadong. We’d been in phone contact to coordinate a meeting time. He was visiting with some friends, he said. When Susan and I arrived at the bus terminal, Bishop was not there. I called, and he said he would be there as soon as possible. We waited and watched a cute Korean girl run around her mother’s—or sister’s, maybe?—little concession stand. Eventually, I heard a voice, and turned to see Bishop’s six-foot-plus gargantuan frame ambling toward us. He had a Korean man and little girl in an adorable purple coat in tow. He introduced them as his Korean family; she was a student, and he her father. I felt a bit envious, I admit. None of my students’ families had offered to adopt me at any point. Soon, a little boy ran over. He, too, was part of the family. Suddenly, we were being herded toward their car. The father would give us a ride. At the curbside, we met the mother. She spoke no English, but smiled profusely. I wondered at how long the family would have to wait there as the father took us wherever we were going. But no, no. We would all go. Bishop, Father, Mother, Susan, a little girl, a little boy and I, plus bags, crammed into a five-seater. No trunk utilization. The ride was cozy, for sure, and by the end, we all felt like family.
We caught a movie in Jinju (This is where Bishop goes to escape the sometimes stifling and contemporary-culturally negligible offerings in Hadong). As we sat in a little smoothie shop, waiting for the flick to begin, Bishop asked Susan if she was artistic. If she liked to make things with her hands. We both thought it an odd question, but with Bishop, the juxtapositioning of his comments sometimes makes sense only in the end. Susan said no, not particularly artistic. Oh, he said. Would she like to cut his hair that night? Mouths dropped. Eyebrows lifted. No, not particularly, she said, as we both examined his head and struggled to discern what was there that needed to be cut. He turned to me. Would I?
Seriously, Bishop? No.
He made up for strange barbershop requests with homemade dinner back in Hadong. Susan and I sat in the teacher’s room of his school while he labored in the kitchen, refusing assistance. We looked up oddball marathons over the internet. The Death Valley ultra: 130 miles through the lowest, hottest point in the United States, 130+ degrees of hydration-zapping, heat exhaustion-inducing heat waves. No, thank you. We found a YouTube clip of some fools “running” up Mount Everest. I repeat: fools. One race runs along the Great Wall in China, and we thought, hey, we could potentially make it out for that one. Ha. Like we’re that hardcore.
Dinner was fabulous. Homemade salsa. Mexican-style chicken and cheese and chips. I ate up heartily, fueling up for the six miles the next morning. Throughout dinner, Cha’s drunk friends trickled into the room, and a spattering of broken English was thrown around. Mostly a lot of “Hey!”s, and high-fives, and “I’m Sorry!”s, but entertaining company, to say the least.
We’d planned on staying in a motel, as Bishop’s place is rather small, but 10,000 people were signed up to run this race, and there were no rooms to be had. So Susan and I squeezed into Bishop’s twin bed—I gave her the okay to push me out if I tried to spoon—and Bishop splayed out on the floor, bless his heart. We would wake up between 7:30 and 8:00, we said, because Cha would pick us up at 8:30 (he was the only one who knew where to go), in time to make it to the registration booth and starting line by 9:30.
At 8:30 the next morning, un-running-attired Bishop was cracking up over YouTube videos, and Cha was nowhere to be found. I’ve mentioned before that I have a few serious anxieties, two of which are (1) being late, and (2) not knowing where I’m going. They’re interconnected, obviously, and the anxiety began welling up inside me as we milled about Bishop’s apartment, race garb on, numbers pinned to our shirts. Would he be here soon? I wanted to know. Should we leave without him? Would we be late? Would they hold the gun for us—Americans—if we weren’t there by 9:30?
We ended up leaving just before 9, at my humble behest. I suggested we run to the event to “warm-up”. Really I just wanted to make it there in time. It was easy to find, because small swarms of sneakered people were heading in the same general direction. When we arrived, we couldn’t find the registration booth. We walked around, searched, and I became anxious once again. How would we find it? I wanted my race shirt. I stopped and asked two men who were stretching. Eo-di-ae—and I mimed signing a paper—iss-eo-yo? Where do we register? I speak English, one replied bluntly. Oh, I said, and laughed. Can you tell me where we sign up and get our shirts? There is no registration, he said. Just run. We ended up hanging out with these guys right up until the gun went off. They were customs officials. Ha. Good thing we are all upstanding Korean visa holders.
The race was fantastic. Bishop bolted ahead from the start, and I secretly cursed his giraffe legs, but Susan and I settled into a nice pace, and had a nice pre-season warm-up run. We passed the 5K sign, and were both surprised we’d already run that far. Before we knew it, the 9K sign was moving from the front to back of our peripheral vision. We ran along the river, and there were few hills, and as two of only a few Westerners in the race, I think we attracted a little attention. People would fall in step with us along the way and yell, “Hello!” or “Where are you from?” or flash the universal sign of goodwill: thumbs up.
Near the end of the race, a man who I found out is from Changwon struck up a conversation with me, and we ended up sprinting through the finish line together. There was just such a convivial, familial atmosphere to it all. We had come from starkly different worlds, but that day, we were runners, and here, in Korea, we ran together.