I am a runner the same way some people are alcoholics, in that I’d never define myself as such, but it’s something I do frequently. That I’ve done frequently for a while now.
I flew to Jeju island, “The Hawaii of Korea,” on a Saturday morning this past March. I’d come alone, carrying just a backpack, with the intention to casually run a marathon I’d signed up for four weeks earlier.
Though this marathon was called Jeju International Peace Marathon
, there was nothing international about it. I noted three other non-Koreans. In terms of encouragement, this really worked to my advantage.
I was a triple threat: under 30, white, and female. Even discounting ethnicity, age and gender already rendered me an anomaly in Korea. “You will never see a young person doing any sort of physical activity,” someone told me when I first moved to Seoul. Seven months later, in all my hiking, biking and running, this has been distinctly and almost eerily true.
Running up to and away from each water station every 2.5 km mark was like strutting down a runway. From 100 meters away, the standard cheering volume would increase at the sight of my ponytail. They’d reel me to them with full throated shouts of “o00ooh!” (the recognition I was female and young) followed by “OOOOH!!!!!” (the recognition I wasn’t Korean). “Beautiful! Excellent! Yes!” I heard at every station. “Yeppeoyo!!” They’d remark to each other in Korean, never looking away while I drank a foot in front of them. They called me pretty, but I knew what they really meant was “white.”
Each time I felt myself wilting, there would be another wave of hands held out for high-fives, or locals alerting one another of the pony-tailed waygook, then crowding for a sequence of photos of me running by: waving, smiling, bowing.
The spectators made me run faster. In the villages the trail snaked through, the crossing-guard like volunteers that held out their arms in exaggerated gestures as a double-insurance I wouldn’t go astray, were each pleasantly surprised by me. A few times, running through a village speckled with locals that looked on from their stoop, led to generous offers from personal water bottles. They’d hold them up like a toast, gesturing for me to drink. I’d bow, mid-run, “Gwenchanhayo” It’s okay!!
The final 100 meters finished on the track where we started. The arena, once bustling with people, was now a largely empty field with tumbling snack wrappers. The afternoon had passed, a storm had come, and runners had gone home (probably even flown home) in the time that my body was in motion.
The spectators that were there were ready for me, notified via walkie-talkie from a crossing guard in town. They spread themselves along the track on either side, extending their stances wide in either direction to fill the spaces. They were solid walls of sound and motion, hurriedly pointing, jumping and guiding me back under the hangul banner. It was a homecoming.
I ran across the finish line and into the open arms of a volunteer holding out a towel like a mother would at the beach for her toddler.
I picked up my medal, guzzled two waters, and peed blood.
Back in Seoul on Monday, I called my dad.
Unprompted, he suggested I go on a run to release the lactic acid buildup in my muscles. “Isn’t that what I just did?” I asked him. I couldn’t even hear his response, I was laughing through it. Runners are psychotic.