Kylene, the organizer, had started the group back in 2009 after realizing the effort involved in signing up for these races online. Unlike in the US, registration for Korean races typically closes over a month before the event, with same-day registration seldom allowed.
I was the only runner of the group into running barefoot. Adrian Jue, an American who coincidentally had stayed at the Pusan Hostel with me, apparently used to be a major ultramarathoner before developing an arrhythmia and having a pacemaker implanted. His heart rate, as I understand it, is incapable of exceeding 180. Such is the risk of athletes, and how we have to cope with our injuries and learn to settle for less… even when it seems like our world is falling apart.
The Waeguks set out around 10 AM, heading towards the Nakdong River, the longest in Korea. I had been expecting a concrete trail alongside trees and the mighty river, but it really amounted to a dirt road (even better for my feet) next to ongoing highway construction. Once I saw that this was going to be a trail run, I decided then and there to risk the Five Finger Shoes.
One of the first things I do when running races abroad is learn how each culture cheers on its athletes. In Japan, a customary “fight!” or “gambatte!” (keep your chin up) on the sidelines is welcome. Likewise, Koreans yell “fighting!” or emit a carefully-toned moan. As is the case worldwide, however, Rocky music will always pass the test of time. A remix of Eye of the Tiger played from the soundstage, accompanied by the standard scantily-clad dancing ladies.
It was much warmer than I had anticipated – the Santa hats were going to be stifling, but such is the price of team spirit. I was even considering tossing the UnderArmor, sticking with a shirt I had specially made for expats in Korea.
Loosely translated, “the foreigner is coming!” Can you guess what I had printed on the back? Fashion wasn’t exactly my top concern as I shucked my Newton shoes and slipped on the Fivefinger KSO Treks, to the amusement of the group: “You’ve got toe shoes!”, “Wow, you’re going to run in Vibrams?”
The start. No guns. Just a simple 3, 2, 1 countdown. And around the field.
Already I could tell the shirt was a big hit among the ajumma (Korean grandmothers) demographic. All read it aloud and laughed, which further drew their attention to my minimalist running style. The 10Kers had started ahead of us 5Kers. Already this was proving to be a mistake; with such a narrow course no clear directions to stay to the left or right, the 10K walkers almost completely cut us off the trail.
I was fighting for positions with two Korean guys and had the advantage: my Vibrams allowed me to pivot on a dime, squeezing between tight gaps in the crowd. Some kids, 5-10 years old by the look of them, bravely tried to match our pace for a kilometer or so before falling behind. They had worn their puffy winter jackets and jeans… to a race.
I hadn’t noticed, but I was actually fighting for 2nd place with this well-built man to my left. He was stubborn (what runner isn’t in a tight course?), kicking it up to catch me, falling back, then finally, around 3.5 km in, pushing ahead to lead by 30 meters or so. I had assumed a few of the 5Kers were out of sight but it turned out we passed them all in the crowd after four kilometers.
A fellow Waeguk was in the first position, with me and my new enemy vying for second. As we made the turnoff and left the 10K runners to do a longer loop, I was slowly picking him off, piece by piece. I was a very poor judge of distance in this race, but still managed to pull out a 17:55.
All in all, I enjoyed my first Korean race. This was more like a “fun run” rather than a professional course with timing chips and kilometer markers. As I understand it, bowls of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) are set up at the finish of most major races.
But, aside from this brief competition in Busan, I haven’t found too many like-minded runners in the land of the morning calm. Vibrams are only now available in major cities in Korea, with running supply shops few and far between. In a way, this makes me appreciate living here even more.
Whereas in America barefoot running is a steadily rising trend, in Korea, I’m one of the few pioneers, a unique runner.