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26 Oct 2009

The Human Race – No, today’s entry is not some grand speculation on the nature of being human (that was my last entry). “The Human Race” refers to the Nike-sponsored 10k run I mentioned some time ago. It finally arrived on Saturday, and I ran it along with Hyunjin and 19,998 of our closest friends.

“Last year I was very aggravated and annoyed, but this year I felt good, even happy.”

We did a 10k race last autumn as well, as some of you may remember: the Hi Seoul marathon. You also may remember that I wasn’t too pleased with the experience, mainly because it was like trying to run an obstacle course. Well, this year I was armed with that experience and that knowledge, so I was expecting much of the same going into the Human Race. Also, even though we started running two weeks earlier this year, I think we ended up running less than we did last year. Last year I was in pretty good health, but this year I had problems with persistent colds and other seasonal afflictions. In fact, there was a period of one week almost right before the race that I didn’t run because I was starting to catch a cold. I figured it would be better to rest and get well for the race than run and make myself sick.

By Friday, the day before the race, I was feeling fine, so I decided to get one last short run in, just so I could see where I was condition-wise. My original goal for this year was to run 10k in under 50 minutes, but even back when it was six weeks before the race and I had all that training time ahead of me, I didn’t think it was going to be easy. After those six weeks were up, and after a week of no running at all, I figured it would be more or less impossible. But I still wanted to see where I stood, so on Friday my goal was to run 4k at a sub-50 minute, or 5:00 per kilometer, pace. I made it in 19:45, which is a per kilometer pace of approximately 4:56. But I was also severely winded. Were I running on my own, I might be able to do 10k in under 50 minutes, but I would no doubt collapse at the end, probably in a puddle of my own vomit (you’re welcome for that lovely image).

Running in an actual race with obstacles—I mean “other runners”—though, there is no way I would be able to meet my original goal. So I decided to be realistic. I decided that I wouldn’t push myself too hard, but would find a pace that worked for me and then make a dash at the end with the finish line in sight. My primary goal was just to make it in under an hour—during training I ran 10k at a fairly easy pace in 57 minutes and change—and if I made it in under 55 minutes I would be happy. 55 minutes is a 5:30 per kilometer pace, but from my experience last year I knew the start of the race would be a mess, so my strategy was to run the first kilometer in six minutes and then run at slightly under 5:30 for the rest of the race to make up time.

We woke up late on the day of the race—at least, it was late for me. I think we got up at around 8:30, which was the first time I’ve gotten up after 8:00 in a really long time (“sleeping in” for me means getting up at 7:00). Hyunjin’s eye was bothering her, so she called the eye doctor to schedule an appointment for Monday, but they said she could come in at noon. This was the same eye doctor that I used to go to for my eye problems, so I knew the way and decided to go with her.

After the doctor’s appointment, Hyunjin wanted to have lunch, so she had some buckwheat noodles while I watched. When it comes to eating and running, we are opposites. I can’t have anything to eat for hours before running, which is why I usually get up early and run first thing in the morning. If I have anything to eat and then try to go running, I immediately feel nauseous. Hyunjin, on the other hand, can’t run on an empty stomach. She says she needs the energy. So she ate lunch and I just drank water.

We made our way to Yeouido, but we arrived with plenty of time left, and I started to get annoyed. I guess I just wanted to start running and was tired of waiting around. But the race didn’t start until 4:00, so we had no choice but to wait around. While we waited, I went to a convenience store inside Yeouido Park and bought a 200ml carton of milk. That was my lunch. There were plenty of other runners, all in their red Nike shirts (we looked like a scene out of the 2002 World Cup), though, who had a lot more. I saw a lot of young people sitting around eating ramyeon (ramen), and I even saw two guys drinking beer. Really? Beer before a race? Well, whatever floats your boat, I guess.

When it finally came time to assemble at the start, we made our way out to the main road. Last year, at the Hi Seoul marathon, there were two groups for the 10k race, with 45 minutes as the dividing line. For the Nike Human Race, though, there were four groups: below 50, 50-60, 60-70, and above 70. Hyunjin lined up in the 60-70 group and I lined up in the 50-60 group. There was a lot of fanfare, with a well-known Korean pop group among the notables taking part in the race—apparently Nike invested a lot in this thing. Me, I was just itching to get started. At 4:00, the first group left the start line. The second group—my group—slowly inched up to the start line, and after a few minutes we were off.

It was pretty much like I had expected—a sea of runners jostling for position, trying not to run over other runners or be run over themselves. I was passed by a lot of people in the beginning, as many of my fellow second groupers set out at a pace far too fast for a 50-60 minute run. I knew I would be passing most of them again eventually, and I just watched them go. It was all part of the plan. One thing that wasn’t part of the plan, though, was the excruciating, stabbing pain I felt high in my left side almost immediately after we started. I was surprised because I had forgotten all about it—the same thing had happened last year. This time, though, I knew that it would pass, and maybe knowing that it would pass made it pass quicker. After a few hundred meters of gasping a bit and trying not to look like I was about to fall over, I took one deep breath and the pain was suddenly gone. The funny thing is that this has only ever happened to me twice, during both races I’ve run. It has never happened when I’ve run on my own. I didn’t think I was nervous, but there’s really no other explanation for it.

Anyway, like I said, it passed quickly and I settled into an easy pace for the first kilometer. When we reached the 1k marker I glanced at my watch and saw that it had taken me 5:48. I was pleased, because I was fully prepared for it to take six minutes, possibly more. Now all I had to do was pick up the pace just a little and I would be fine.

As I had predicted, I ended up passing many of the people who had passed me in the beginning. I was surprised at how many of them were just walking. As soon as I saw people walking, I remembered that the same thing had happened last year. I still don’t get it: why would you want to run until you’re exhausted and then walk? I know that there is something called “interval training,” which is basically just that (short bursts of high-intensity exercise separated by intervals of low-intensity exercise or rest), but I’m pretty sure these people were not interval training. Hyunjin and I talked about it later, and she thinks that it was mostly young people who don’t run regularly and thus didn’t know how to keep a pace. It annoyed me to think that young people might be able to do this simply because they are young and for no other reason. It also annoyed me that I was using the term “young people” at all. Next thing you know I’ll be sitting on my porch with a shotgun yelling at the kids to stay off my lawn.

Whatever the case, at any given time, at least a quarter of the people around me were walking. Which is not so bad unless they start walking three or four abreast (which some of them did, God bless their souls), but single walkers are fairly easy to avoid. Slow runners are also easy to avoid. The real problem is a runner who suddenly stops running and starts walking right in front of you. I had this happen to me twice, and both times I had to leap out of the way to avoid running over the offenders.

The fact is—and I talked about this last year—anyone can run a 10k race. 10K races are like creative writing 101 courses. They’re good in that they are the starting point for what could be a life-long love affair with writing, but they’re not so good because, well, I can think of a few reasons. A lot of people came out to the Human Race because they thought it would be fun, not because they are really interested in running. And you know what? That’s OK. That’s great, in fact. Maybe some of those people who ran on Saturday liked how it felt, and maybe they’ll keep running in the future. I am far from being a good runner myself, so I can appreciate that—and I think I can appreciate it more this year than I did last year. Nonetheless, weaving around walkers can try one’s patience.

And I guess there’s something else, something that I maybe didn’t realize last year. While we were waiting for the race to begin, Hyunjin was talking about how excited she was, and how she loved running these races because of the feeling of camaraderie among runners.

“Really?” I said. “That’s not why I run these races at all. In fact, I can’t stand being around all these people.”

“But that’s why we run! To train for these races!”

“That’s not why I run. I run because it gives me a goal to train for—I actually have more fun when I’m running by myself.”

In retrospect, I said those things partly out of annoyance at having to wait for the race to start, and it is also a bit of a stretch to say that running is fun. I don’t actually run because it’s fun. It’s not. I run because it is good exercise, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I’m finished. Sometimes the scenery is beautiful and the weather is nice, but the actual running part isn’t what I would call “fun.” It’s work, plain and simple. But it’s also a little addicting, like work can sometimes be, and I can’t deny that my outlook on life seems to be brighter on days when I run than on days when I don’t.

My point, though, is that I don’t really get the whole “camaraderie of runners” thing. Maybe that’s a failing on my part, but what I’ve seen from the two races I’ve run so far has done nothing to change my mind. I suspect (and hope) that it’s because these have been 10k races, and this might change when I start running half and full marathons, but I don’t really feel any connection to the other people running with me. If I meet someone who likes running I can connect with them on an individual level, but when I’m actually in the race, other people are one of three things: slower people I have to weave around, faster people I can only wistfully watch as they fly by, or the rare runner whose pace is close enough to mine that I can use them for motivation or pace-setting. But they could be a mechanical rabbit for all the camaraderie I feel with them. I don’t know if this makes me a bad person, or anti-social, but that’s the truth. It’s me and the road, and everything else is just scenery.

But back to the race. We started off at the south end of Yeouido Park, ran west, and then ran north across Seogang Bridge. I remember when we passed the 3k mark, a guy running next to me panted to his friend, “We’ve only run 3k?!” I had to suppress a laugh, but only because I know exactly what that feels like. Once over the bridge we followed the river along the north shore until we got to the next bridge, Mapo Bridge, and took that south over the river again. A good third of the race, or at least a quarter, was on those two bridges, I think, and I have to say it was really nice running over them. There was a refreshing breeze blowing, and the scenery was beautiful.

The halfway point was shortly after we got on Mapo Bridge. I glanced at my watch and saw that it had taken 27:48 up to that point—which meant that I had been running an average of exactly 5:30 from the second kilometer through the fifth kilometer. Again, I was pleased, both because I had hit my mark right on target, and because the pace was a very comfortable one for me. I didn’t feel winded or tired at all. I decided that I would keep this pace up until the very end of the race. I did so until the last kilometer, when I tried to pick up the pace a little. I don’t know how successful I was, but I do know that when the finish line came into sight I was starting to breathe hard. For a moment I thought I wasn’t going to be able to make my dash, but then I shoved aside all the doubts and just started pumping my legs. I crossed the finish line at 54:15.

I didn’t remember what my time was last year, but I was under the impression that I ran slower this year (maybe because I didn’t push myself). However, I just looked at that entry and saw that my time last year was 54:20—I beat my previous race record by five seconds! I find this amusing, because the difference between how I felt after last year’s race and how I felt after this year’s race is far greater than what you would normally get from a five-second improvement. Last year I was very aggravated and annoyed, but this year I felt good, even happy. Of course, it has mostly everything to do with my attitude toward the race environment, and very little to do with my actual performance. I guess you could say the same thing about a lot of things in life, now that I think about it.

Last year I pledged to continue running after the race and maybe run a half-marathon this year. Well, we can all see how well that worked out. I did run after the race, but only a few times, and then I didn’t run again until we started running six weeks ago. This year, though, I want things to be different. I plan on running three, maybe four times a week, and I plan to keep it up. I was thinking about starting again today, but we woke up late again yesterday (8:30), and I figured that trying to immediately return to my schedule of waking up before six might be too much of a shock to my system. Besides, in about an hour I’ll be heading out to meet the Gordster for dinner and drinks, and I didn’t want to be wiped out for that. But I will continue my running sometime this week, and I’ll occasionally post updates on my progress here.

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