Monday, September 24, 2012

Ansan Seawall Marathon

The race course
       My second race for September was on the Ansan Seawall. The weather was going to be nice, 70’s with a breeze and a little cloud cover and the course promised to be pancake flat, it sounded great! Needless to say, I was a bit tired starting this race and more than a little worried about the overuse injuries that are creeping up. I decided to give KT Tape a try on my knee since it is so in vogue. Probably 30% of the Korean runners had KT Tape somewhere on their body, thighs, calves, knees, ankles, shins, necks, etc. I’ve also noticed big circular bruises and finally figured out they are from a practice called “Cupping.” I can’t say for sure if the KT Tape made any difference at all, but it is comforting, like a security blanket for a baby, to feel the contact of the tape on the problem area.

Sporting my KT Tape
       This was definitely my toughest race on the mental aspect. The last two races have been in lovely places with constantly changing scenery. Ansan is pleasant enough to look at, but the view never changes. You can see aid stations half an hour before you get to them so it never seems like they get any closer, and for most of the race we could see the tents at the start/finish. I’m also finding that flat races beat me up way worse than hilly races. With hills, the muscles you use and the way you use your joints changes constantly as does the range of motion used with your joints. Sometimes your quads work harder, sometimes your hamstrings, more hip or more butt, lean forward then lean back. It is always changing and giving a reprieve to the parts that worked hardest a few minutes ago. Throughout the Ansan race, I never felt any acute or specific pain, I was just tight, tired, and week everywhere. I also spent the day in bed with a headache on Saturday. My husband and daughter have both been sick, but I’m guessing I have had it before because my glands were a bit swollen like I was fighting something, but I never came down with it. Knowing I wasn’t up to my best running condition, I planned from the start to take the full 5 hours to finish.

       After about 10 miles, I felt like I had been running forever. The thought of 16 more miles made me feel totally defeated. I kept thinking, “I can’t do this, I can’t keep going for over 3 more hours!” Our course was like starting at the bottom of a “Y” with two turn around points and an opportunity to bail out and skip the second part of the course. It was incredibly tempting! My thoughts were turning into a song from Annie Get Your Gun, “no you can’t, yes I can, no you can’t, yes I can, YES I CAN!” It was brutal and I didn’t think it would get worse, then we turned into the wind.

      About this time I was approached by a runner that I had talked to at the race in Cheorwon the week before. Since less than 10% of the runners at any given race are women, and there are probably 3 of us that are blond, I’m not hard to spot so I constantly get waves and cheers from people that remember me from previous races, I wish I was equally good at recognizing them! This particular runner, Mr. Kim, (not the same Mr. Kim from Yanggu, Kim is like Smith over here, but worse,) was so excited to see me again that he decided to be my pacer. As we passed people, or were passed, he would shout to them that he was my pacer and I had run Cheorwon last week, which would be answered with cheers and encouragement. As lovely as this sounds, I really needed to be in my head for this race. I had forgotten my MP3 player and was bored to death, but didn’t have the mental capacity to both run and try to decipher an extremely heavy Korean accent at the same time. Most of the things he told me had to be repeated 4 or 5 times and I still only caught a few points. I did get that he is 65, but I think he was trying to shame me out of my walking break, LOL.
My elf-appointed "Pace maker"

       Around 16 miles, I told him to go ahead, which got me repeated utterings of, “5 hours in, no out! 5 hours IN, NO OUT!” Okay, okay, I got it, the course closes in 5 hours, (although I know for a fact that the gate is kept open longer because every race has times recorded for at least 45 minutes past the official close time.) He finally went on ahead, which gave me immediate relief from the zipper tabs on his fanny pack that had been keeping up a steady rhythm like a drum beat on the front of my skull. Really, he was so sweet and so interested in making sure I finished the race on time that I can’t hold anything against him, but MERCY he was driving me out of my ever loving mind!

       I managed to keep plodding along up the second leg of the “Y”. Not cutting the course and going back to my car was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! Not jumping in one of the sweep vans as they passed was only slightly less difficult. There are always a few runners that stand out, the guy with the full beard, the one with the red and blue fake fur headband, or the guy with a Troll wig. I look for them at the turn arounds to see how far I have fallen behind. At one point I passed the guy with the beard as he leaned on a sweep car to finish puking before getting in. I felt bad for him because I can only imagine how hard it is to quit in this high pressure culture.

       Even though it was a very temperate day, I still felt hot and was sucking down a lot of water. The wind was keeping us from being soaked with sweat, but it also carried away a lot more moisture than I realized. My mind doesn’t work all that well when I’m pushing so hard so it takes a while for all the clues to gel into a thought. I was drinking tons of water, but I was so thirsty I felt like I hadn’t had a sip in days. Then I noticed my fingers were swelling. DING DING DING, I needed salt! I took one salt capsule and gave it some time to sink in. My fingers started shrinking and my thirst seemed less intense. A second salt capsule about a mile later brought my fingers back to normal and I finally felt like I was getting fluids where I needed them. It is so odd to think that salt can make you less thirsty, but when your body is shoving fluids into your tissues in order to conserve electrolytes, you can’t use them. Salt allows your body to use the fluids properly.

Race swag!! A huge box of locally
grown grapes that tasted very different,
had skins too thick to chew, and tons of seeds,
but still hit the spot after the race
       The last turn around was at about the 20 mile mark. In my first couple of marathons, hitting 20 miles was where my heart sank. I felt like I could never eek out 6 more miles when I had only gone to 20 on training runs, but now it is totally different. If I can get to 20, I am home free! Just a 10K back to the car and I have another finish. With this in mind, I stubbornly ground out the last few miles to the turn. Just before the turn, I saw an excited Mr. Kim waving at me and pointing at his watch. I’m pretty sure he thought I had thrown in the towel when I sent him ahead so he was shocked to see I was not far behind him. In his enthusiasm to see me finish, he WAITED FOR ME to catch up to him again and we resumed our pattern of running with him telling me to slow down and walking with him telling me “5 hours in, no out.” Now, as we approached each water stop, he would ask, “Rest one minute?” I would say yes and he was run ahead of me to procure a bottle of water to fill my hand bottle so I would keep moving, LOL. There were times that I could hear, from his breathing, that my 10 mpm pace in the last few miles was not easy on him though. I worried that he had lost too much by waiting for me and waiting on me, but I didn’t ask for it.

       3 Kilometers from the finish I passed the 5:00 pacers. I knew as long as I kept them behind me, I was okay! Mr. Kim was happy about passing them too. With 1500 m left I took one last walk break. Finishing 4:55 or 4:57 made no difference to me, if I needed to walk, there was no reason not to. Mr. Kim had had it with my walk breaks though, and went on ahead with a wave. I crossed the line about 30 second behind him and he was waiting there to shake my hand and say, “See you next week in Gapyeon!” I think Korea doesn’t have a Marathon Maniacs club because they expect marathoners to run marathons all the time. It isn’t a weird group of crazies like it is in the US. Korea has a HUGE “100 Marathons” club and it isn’t unusual to meet someone who has run 200 or 300 full marathons. I think they get a kick out of the American woman toeing the line with them over and over.

On to Gapyeon!

Cute medals showing the dutch influence in this lowland area

More race swag, full marathoners
got 10 kilos of rice, half marathoers got
5 kilos, and 5 K runners got a box of seaweed
The rice was delivered to our club ahead
 of time, poor Sun had to keep
 it until each runner could pick it up!

Friday, September 14, 2012

9th Cheorwon DMZ International Peace Marathon

How often do you get to play on tanks!
The newest tank in our showroom....
         Sunday, September 9th, I found myself loading up on the Seoul Flyers bus once again to head to the DMZ for a race. This time we were running in the Cheorwon area, which I have visited before to see the various tourist sites associated with the Demilitarized Zone. On a typical tour, you visit one of the infiltration tunnels, the Join Security Area (JSA), and an observation platform where you can look at the mountains and an industrial complex in North Korea.

       Despite the very informative tour I took last year, I have learned far more about the DMZ from running in it. In Cheorwon, the rice fields are rich and productive, the farmers that lived in that area when the boundaries were drawn certainly did not want to give up their land that had been passed down for generations. In response to this, a system was set up allowing some people to live inside the DMZ to farm. They live under different rules, with curfews and tax breaks, and under threat since incidences of abduction by the North Koreans have happened. (DMZ Abductions) It seems to be worth it though, since the fields were bursting with heavy heads of rice.

       The usual daytime fireworks announced the start of the Full Marathon. It was a gorgeous day, cool and clear with a light cloud cover, and everyone was in a great mood. The late pack runners trotted on our way as the front runners tore off at a blistering pace. The scenery was typical for Korea, rice fields, small towns and businesses, but ss we approached the imposing gate that marked the entrance to the DMZ, a gutted shell of a large square, ugly building was pointed out to me by a runner keeping pace with me. The building had been the offices for the Communist Party before the war, and now stands gaunt and silent as a reminder of the ugliness that area endured.
There always has to be
 something that is not quite right, LOL

       Cherwon is not as secluded as the area we ran in for Yanggu, it is open to farmers and tourists by permit, but all are carefully watched and accounted for. As we ran through the gate, there were several soldiers with clipboards checking off our numbers as we entered. Their counter parts would later be standing at the exit gate with similar clipboards, making sure no one was left unaccounted for! The small bridges we crossed where what really told you this is the DMZ, high cement fortifications with gun slits and catwalks lined every bridge over even the smallest creek.

Photo by Kerrie Matthee
       Inside the DMZ the rice fields were a beautiful lemon yellow with the heavy heads of ripening rice bowing as they turn from vivid green to a rich gold. It was beautiful in a totally different way from the forest road we race two weeks ago. The beauty, diversity, and vibrant life inside the DMZ never cease to amaze me! Our running route took us through the parking lots of the places I had visited on our group tour the year before, but we passed quickly without stops to spy on North Korea or shop in the souvenir stores. Although the DMZ is brutal and ugly in the dead of winter, this time of year it is a cheerful place and a very fun aspect of this race is the groups of 30-50 young soldiers that would come out to line the road on both sides and loudly cheer for the runners. We could run down the line and get Hi-5s and bright smiles from the boys in uniform. In South Korea, every young man must serve at least 2 years in the military, so the ranks are packed with 18-20 old boys that hardly need to shave yet. As I raced by, slapping outstretched hands, it occurred to me that I am likely the same age as most of their mothers.

       Race support was wonderful, as always, with plenty of water stops full of smiling, giggling, and cheering teenage girls who elbow and tease each other over their attempts to practice English with the winded runners stopping to gulp the drinks being offered. Shouts of, “Where are you from,” rung out at nearly every aid station. I usually answer with California because they all know where that is and many have been there, this is followed by whoops and gales of laughter.

        My race this time was a constant head game. It seemed like every 10 kilometers something different hurt. It started with my knee smarting in the first few miles. Immediately I was panicked knowing if it hurt already, I would never make it to the finish line. I quietly prayed, thanking God for allowing me to come so far, knowing that every mile is a gift and that it was not the end of the world if I had to quit the race. Amazingly, as I approached the 10K mark, it stopped bothering me. Shortly after that, I felt a sharp pain in my left foot. ARG! Another conversation with God, more walking breaks, a stop to stretch, and a salt capsule because it felt like a tiny muscle in my arch might be cramping. Although it stayed a bit tender for the remainder of the run, by the halfway mark, the pain had resolved and I was able to keep running. Next, my hamstring started to feel very tight and hurt, “really?” I also felt way too tired, having stayed up too late the night before and not eaten as well as I should. My heart rate was fine though, so I knew it was mostly in my head and I just needed to find my mojo and get back to business.

You can tell I'm tired, my arms aren't all the way up!
Photo by Carrie Matthee

       The last 10K my spirits rose measurably, but my body slowed. The whole race had been a mental battle, and it wasn’t over yet. Glancing at my Garmin I realized my pace was about a minute per mile slower than it felt. At the start, the pacers were all hanging out together, and as they spread out I started to pace with the 4:40 balloons. Realizing what I was doing, I reminded myself that I needed to run my own race and if my body was up to a 4:40 finish I would catch them later. As long as I stayed ahead of the 5:00 balloon, I would be fine (5 hours being the cut off). Around the half way mark I caught up to the 4:40 pacers at an aid station just past the observation platform. There were three of them and the last one was kidding with me, admonishing me to stay ahead of him, which didn’t look too tough since he didn’t look like he was going to finish 4:40 either. I was trying to work my way ahead of them a bit, which resulted in me being hit in the face several times by the balloon, so I finally gave up and just let them go while I took my time at a water stop that was serving Gatorade.

       We had been running up a gentle grade for quite a while, one of those never ending hills that looks bad from a distance, but is actually very runnable once you get on it. I was worried about going downhill, since that was my undoing at Yanggu, but it was just as gentle as well. My splits are pretty funny, even when mashed up by looking at each quarter of the race or every two miles. I had a rough patch around mile 20, but picked it up form some excellent splits in the last few miles even though, by then, I felt like I was running through tar!

      As I rounded the last corner, about 100 feet from the finish line, I passed the 4:40! Well, at least 2 of them, the guy that had been ribbing me to stay ahead of him was way back in the pack now. I think he was training to be a pacer, since he didn’t have a balloon, and it was harder than he expected.

       After the race we collected our snacks and made one last stop to play on the tanks. Korea race swag rocks! Instead of another race shirt to cram in my drawer, I got a box of energy drinks and 3 kilos of rice grown in the area. I had some for dinner last night and it was very good!

Awesome race swag!

Post race collapse

       My official finish time was 4:36:57! A new PR to be sure, but I feel like Yanggu was still a much better effort since it was hotter and steeper. I have no intention of maintaining this streak through my next two marathons. I need to save my energy next weekend on the Seawall for the following weekend which will be a very mountainous race, but then, I never expected to either of my last two races so fast either!

Maps and full Garmin Connect report

A view of North Korea from across the river

Thursday, September 6, 2012

9th Yanggu DMZ Marathon, South Korea

        The 9th Yanggu DMZ marathon was amazing! The Northern border area is a stunningly beautiful part of South Korea with crystal clear babbling streams, thick forests, and clear air. I was really looking forward to this marathon, but I was also worried about the 5 hour cut off. It was hilly, and hot, and I really had not put in much mileage since China. On the up side, I have been working hard in CrossFit, building strength and balancing my muscles that have become a bit lopsided from years of running and neglect of my non-running muscles.

Maniacs in the DMZ!

       I knew we would be close to the DMZ, but I didn’t expect to run IN the DMZ. Our start and finish was at a military installation with a big imposing gate and loads of barbed wire. The first half of the marathon took us out and back on rolling hills so the first quarter of the race was mostly downhill, second quarter was mostly uphill. The second half of the race was another out and back in the opposite direction, past the gate into the DMZ proper. With 60 years to heal, this once war torn area has become a wild life sanctuary, pristine and untouched since the war. Other than a few service roads, most of it is wild and free from Man. The gravel service road we were on had a low barbed wire fence on either side with little red signs that said, “MINE” in Korean and English, to remind us not to leave the road, GULP! However, the danger lurking outside the wire was quickly forgotten in the beauty of the place.
Look Ma'! No hands!

       I had pressed hard for the first half of the race, knowing the second half would be more challenging. As I chugged up a hill during the second half, I was joined by a Korean runner who spoke excellent English and knew many of the runners in my club. He kept me entertained through those grueling “teen” miles between half way and the 20 mile mark. Mr.Kim was running his 310th marathon and pointed out many runners in shirts from his 100 Marathon club, telling me their stories. Koreans are such amazing runners! He was the one that explained to me that we were in an area that is only accessible by military the rest of the year. He also pointed out his older sister who was a few hundred yards ahead of us. She is training for a coast to coast race across Korea that will exceed 300 kilometers! Following his sister’s lead, I discovered adding a few butt-kicks makes your quads feel much better on the downhills.

       Things were going well at the half way mark, but I was hitting the low part of the marathon. I passed 13.1 at about 2:09 into the race, and looked at the turn into the finish area with more longing than I should have for someone with 13.1 miles left to go. Fortunately, as the scenery changed from beautiful to amazing, my spirits lifted. Reaching the second turn around at mile 20, I started realizing I had a shot at a PR! My pace wasn’t great as it had taken me 3:40 or so to get to mile 20, but I was expecting to be much farther behind at this point and the last 10K would be mostly downhill! I was feeling good (the wheels were wobbling, but not falling off yet,) and the heat wasn’t too bad (I would later learn that the average temperature was 90F!) I just had to keep moving at a steady pace.

       Plummeting down the first hill I heard Mr. Kim behind me say, “Too fast! You are going too fast!” I didn’t care though. I was in it to win it (against myself ) at this point and wanted to make up some time! I waved goodbye to him and his sister when they made a restroom stop and continued on. The runners around me had become familiar; that guy with the blue shirt here, and the camouflage shirt there, we had all passed each other a dozen times as we leapfrogged down the course. I set myself to picking them off once and for all.

       The last 10K had the markers in reverse order. 10K, 9K, 8k, each sandwich board giving me a little more hope for a PR. With 3 miles left to go, the wheels started to fall off . I was just so tired. I hadn’t gotten enough gels down, but the thought of another gagged me. I was tanked up on salt and fluids, but my energy was sapped and the heat was getting opressive as the sun began burning through the clouds. I kept pressing forward though, picking arbitrary things for the next walk break, end of a hill, a tree, a fence post, anything to keep moving.

       With less than one kilometer to go, I felt something in my knee that was not good. I immediately dropped to a walk and the pain stopped. A few tentative running steps seemed okay, so I picked it up again. The knee stayed sore, but not painful, worrisome, but not a show stopper. Fortunately, at that point I could have walked the rest of the way and still managed a PR. Shuffling along I turned the last corner expecting to take another walk break. I had made a deal with myself to run to the end of the guardrail, but when I turned the corner I could see a crowd of people at the turn to the finish line. No way was I walking in front of my entire club! I flew by with my arms in the air yelling, “How do you spell PR!!!!” As I rounded the corner and the finish line came into view, I heard a roar from where my clubs tent was set up, the rest of the group that had been hanging out since they finished their 5k, 10K, and half marathons, were all excited to see their last runner come in. It was so amazing to have such a huge group of people cheering for me!
Yea for strength training,
finally a finish photo where I don't look knock kneed!

       We loaded up the bus for the long, traffic clogged, trip back to Seoul. As miserable as bus rides can be, a bus filled with a happy group of runners is a wonderful thing. Our club calls itself a running club without boarders and there were 15 different countries represented onboard!

       Epilogue: 5 days after my marathon PR, my knee was much better so I ran a 5K on base. As usual, I wasn’t expecting much since I was still tired from the marathon and, although it was cooler, it was still around 75F and muggy at the start. I did not look at my pace, only checking my heart rate on occasion and running by feel. When I got within sight of the clock I was shocked to see 24 minutes still ticking away! My finish time was 24:37, a 5K PR!