seoul 2013 (p.2); left with work to be done

I had K-pop stuck in my head the entire marathon. I suppose it is only fitting to have Korean pop music serenading your brain cells while racing through the streets of Seoul, but I'm sure they could have used something more nourishing than "Mother, Father, Gentleman," the chorus (I use that term loosely) to the new Psy single. Unfortunately the only other song my feeble brain could conjure up was the only english line in an increasingly annoying song by a South Korean boy band in which each member of the band sounds exactly the same and they are trying their hardest to accomplish poor imitations of Michael Jackson circa "Bad". This was one of the few races in which I actually pondered the idea of letting my mind focus on the pain and fatigue just to chase away those eye-gougingly catchy melodies.

The race started fast, break-neck fast, like the kind of fast that makes your stomach turn into a contortionist trying to cram itself into your bowels, while your heart begins to race as if you just plunged into an icy lake. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock to the system, especially after a week that felt like we were stuck in a never-ending holding pattern.

The waiting began before we had even left the US. Our flight out of Detroit was delayed two hours because we were waiting for the pilot to show up, followed by another delay after we boarded the plane because of a bag that magically made it onboard without a matching passenger (a big no-no), followed by another delay when one of the passengers on the plane passed out. This was nothing a good book and a bit of patience couldn't handle, especially with the fruits of an unexplored city waiting in the near future, but it did end up kicking off the motif of the week.

Before I draw this theme out further I must interject with the fact that I truly enjoyed my trip to Seoul. We stayed in the Seoul Olympic Parktel immediately adjacent to Olympic Park. My room on the 15th floor had an amazing view of the park grounds as well as a glimpse of the phenomenal entry way that is still in pristine condition some 25 years after the '88 Games. Seoul did a remarkable job (at least from an outsider's perspective) converting their Olympic Village into a sustainable piece of the city. The Village was successfully converted to a condo complex while the Park is a bastion for family outings during the day and a hangout for teenagers in the twilight hours. Even the Olympic Stadium, that ode to concrete where the International Seoul Wheelchair Marathon finishes, is still in remarkable condition. It was remarkable to see a part of the city that still celebrated the honor that it is to host the world at an Olympic and Paralympic event (I briefly spoke to my old U of I coach before I left. He had been a coach for the '88 Paralympics and told me how it was one of his favorite trips of his life). Sculptures representing different Olympic events lined the center of the main road in that part of the city, while the influence of the rings could be spotted everywhere.

Beyond the joy of our location, I also got to do a little of my favorite part of traveling and learn a bit about the culture of a land foreign to me (it was truly just "a bit," but I savored it). My roommate was the endlessly entertaining GD Kim (his name is Kim Gyu Dae, and yes, I often greet him with a drawn out "god damned Kim!"). GD is the newest addition to the team that trains at the University of Illinois and is a native South Korean. This was his first trip home after moving to the States in January and his excitement was contagious. After months of asking myself and others to help him learn english, GD now had opportunity to teach me Korean. In my weeks time I have now extended my Korean language ability from "thank you", to "hello," "how did you sleep," "I would like some water," and "f-ing great!" I also managed to learn and forget "how are you," "excuse me" and "you are beautiful."

Along with my newfound language abilities I got to wonder around a Buddhist temple in Insadong and soak in the traditions of a holiday I have never been familiar with. This coming week is the Buddha's birthday. To celebrate, many parts of the city were lined with strings of brightly colored paper lanterns. At the temple, the open air pavilion outside was roofed (literally) with strings of lanterns, wishes and prayers of members of the community streaming from each one. While there I got to light some incense and say a prayer of my own.

And then there was the food. The Koreans do it right. Every meal was a feast. Traditional Korean lunch; a big bowl of steaming rice and a table full of little bowls and platters filled with anything from fresh fish, to raw crab that you suck out of the shell (the orangey roe is delicious), to pickled peppers and sweet radishes, to varieties of kimchi and bowls of sprouts. Then there is Korean bbq; a pit of coals upon which we cooked succulent pieces of beef, pork belly (buttery and delicious), ox intestine (even more buttery and delicious), and cow stomach (the fourth stomach, to be exact). This is of course served with rice, Korean pancake (I never remember the name but it is delicious) and the normal sides. Combine these meals with plenty of bulgoki and bibimbap (rice with lots of vegetables and egg) and we had quite the week of pre-race nourishment.

Though the periods of activity were definitely great they were always surrounded by large periods of nothing. Our three-times delayed flight into Seoul was followed by a one hour bus ride that was turned into two hours because of traffic. Our trip into Insadong was sandwiched between two hour-plus long trips on the subway that were themselves made longer as we waited for our volunteers/translators to try to figure out, and then explain where certain elevators that we needed to take were (independently functioning people in wheelchairs are still a bit of an anomaly in South Korea and frequently led to misunderstandings and lengthy conversations when trying to navigate various areas). Lengthy commutes led to hunger which meant that sightseeing and wondering constantly had to wait until after lunch, after which we had little time because we didn't want to get stuck on public transport during rush hour. Our group of five athletes was also made twice as big with the volunteers/translators that each foreign athlete is assigned. Our volunteers were amazing and very helpful, but it successfully brought our group to a size where getting from one location to another was like herding cats (as my dad likes to say).

The waiting continued the day of the race. There was the normal waiting that accompanies every race; waiting for the bus to the start line, waiting to get off said bus, waiting until the appropriate time to hop in your chair and begin warming up. Then there was the waiting that was unique to this race. Waiting for the formal procession to bring us to the start line. Waiting for the each of the honored guests to say a few words. Waiting for them to say more words. Waiting for the pre race introduction.

Then, finally, the gun. That was where the waiting ended, quickly and suddenly. Because there was no waiting around once the race started. I jumped out into second place, finding a nice draft and hoping the pace would stay constant for a mile or two so I could warmup again. My muscles were cold from all the starting line festivities. Much to my chagrin Marcel, a young and amazing racer from Switzerland, had other plans. A half-mile in he went to the front and the pace jumped. I was sitting in third, but second place was beginning to lag behind and fall out of Marcel's draft. Suddenly fourth place, a friend of mine from Canada (another Josh) jumped around us and I jumped behind him, suddenly nearing a sprint not even one mile into a 26 mile race. As we were slowly closing the gap on Marcel I got stuck in a rough patch of road and began feeling my muscles tighten. I fell out of Josh's draft as I rattled around and was suddenly passed by more from the field behind. Kota, from Japan, came barreling by followed shortly after by GD, two more Japanese racers, and an Aussie.

The chaos of the start was over before we hit the two mile mark. When the dust settled Marcel, Kota and Josh formed a trio out front, GD and two Japanese racers made up the first chase pack and I floundered in the third pack with the Aussie, a Canadian fellow and a South Korean who would shortly drop off our pack.

After a moment in the draft to catch my breath (I needed a moment of waiting that I just moaned so much about) I went to the front and began to push the pace of my little pack. I took long hard pulls at the front keeping the pace as fast as I could manage. We had a lot of chasing to do and as far as I'm concerned if you are not in the lead pack there is no point in conserving energy. At that point you just have to go.

In this case the "going" showed signs of paying off. The second chase pack was in our sights, and after working a bit harder on some of the inclines we managed to combine our packs somewhere around 9 miles in. Still a bit steamy about how the race started and also wanting to chase away the K-pop, I made sure I was constantly near the front and continuing to take long hard pulls to make sure we stayed on pace. The pace paid off again as we caught Josh (Canadian version), who had fallen off the lead pack, just after the halfway point.

That was when the pace stalled, however. We were sitting in a pack with 3rd-8th place, 1st and 2nd were out of reach, I was needed a break from having to fight through a loose wheel rubbing against my fender for the past few miles (which I finally managed to tighten, but not without giving up a hundred meters on the pack and having to sprint back in), and nobody else seemed inclined on working overly hard.

We remained a pack of six until the finish, stringing out on surges down hills, and clumping back together on the flats. The pulling was mainly divided between myself, Josh, and GD. I felt strong coming into the stadium finish, but found myself flushed out the back on a hard turn onto the track after a steep downhill entrance ramp. With nearly 300m to go on the track I fell into an all out sprint that made up a lot of ground, but not enough to dig me out of my hole. I finished 7th.

It was another race in the process. By that I mean that I learned more about where I stand and what I need to do. It is an ongoing process, really, fraught with lots of working and waiting. The drive I felt before the race is still there. If anything it has swelled a little more.

With my last night in Korea there was nothing to do but have some soju and cheap beer (separate they are disgusting, but combined, divine) and flight for my flight home. Home to train even harder and wait for another race.

(Oh, I did eventually manage to chase the K-pop from my brain. Take that Psy!)