Tuesday, November 1, 2011

38th on the 38th Parallel: Return to ChunCheon

In 1971, on the day I was to receive my undergraduate diploma, I was on a plane headed for the Peace Corps which assigned me to small, incredibly poor rice farming community called Chochiwon in South Korea. For 2 years I lived with a Korean-Only speaking family and taught in a boys Middle School 6 days a week. Everyday I walked the 2 miles to/from school past the rice paddies, snow in the winter, oxen in the summer and accompanied by soon-to-be lifetime best friend Kim Haeng Chong and whatever students we could get to tag along to practice their English. We were living in an extremely impoverished country with the only signs of modernity being electricity that was out more than on and rickety busses filled with chickens, pigs and vomiting adults afflicted with motion sickness. Drinking water came from a well, the bathroom was 2 boards over a hole in the ground and shaving was outside after chipping ice from the pail holding cold water. It was the best 2 years of my life.

My first in country Christmas was spent retraining in a town called Chuncheon far to North near the dreaded DMZ separating North from South Korea. Being North in the mountains the large lake next to the town froze over and ice skaters were everywhere. I bought a pair of cheap figure skates and spent the remaining hours of daylight after class speed skating the one mile course around the lake racing all comers. Everyone wanted to race the American; so for a week I hit my bed completely exhausted from racing nonstop for 2-3 hours. This was a time before Korean speed skaters started winning gold medals in the Olympics . I like to think I helped train some of the fathers of the Olympians.

Flash forward to 2011 October and I have returned to Korea again for a revisit and to run my 38th marathon near the 38th parallel in that same town of Chuncheon. The Korea Foundation, Friends of Korea and the Korean Foreign Ministry had invited 2,000 Korean Peace Corps volunteers from 1968 till 1981 to a week of lavish parties, emotional speeches, reunions with our old schools and even tea with the US Ambassador Kathleen Stevens, herself a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1975. 42 volunteers accepted and returned to an unforgettable week. We were humbled by speaker after speaker from the Foreign Ministry describing how a Peace Corps Volunteer from 40 years ago impacted his/her life and helped Korea become the prosperous country it now is. The final day of the revisit was the day of highest flattery; we were given a chance to mentor Korean's own Peace Corps modeled in 1991 after Kennedy's vision. We spent the day with KOICA volunteers getting ready to go abroad to Kenya, Nepal, Thailand and South America; it was like spending a day talking with our youthful selves. Very emotional.

During the event packed revisit week I was getting up at 3-4 am every morning to run . I quickly discovered the ChongGaeChon as the ideal place to run. ChongGaeChon is an 8 mile long stream cutting through the heart of Seoul. In 1971 this stream was a toxic wasteland fed by the industrial/chemical pollutants dotting the center of the city. Much of the stream was buried as a result and just walking near the remnants of the "stream" and breathing the vapors was a health hazard. 10 years ago Korea decided to bring it back and now it is a gorgeous Central Park-like place that epitomizes the progress Korea has made. The stream was only 1/2 mile from our hotel so I ran it every morning. I expected to be alone but was surprised to see hundreds of Korean out running with me at 4 am.

After the revisit my Korean born wife, Oki, and I headed up to ChunCheon by electric train to scout logistics and to pick up my packet. In 1971 Chuncheon was a days journey from Seoul and a quite miserable experience at that. Now it was only an hour spent watching local tv on a giant flat screen inside light rail.

Korea had become an exercise mecca since hosting the summer Olympics in 1988 . On any given weekend there are a multitude of marathons, bike races, triathlons and even magnificently run ultraMarathon events to choose from on both Saturday and Sundays, all within a 1-1.5 hour light rail ride from Seoul. A partial list of available marathons can be found here. In an attempt to attract the potential 11 million Seoulites most events start at 9-10 am so that the travellers can catch the 6 am train with plenty of time to freshen up and socialize before the race. This was our plan.

Normally I run marathons barefoot, having run the last 18 26 milers wearing God's Shoes. I contemplated up till the last minute chucking the shoes but opted for cultural sensitivities and the cushioning needs of aching calf that had been the victim of inadequate training. I was going to run a marathon shod for the first time since 2006.

Though the marathon had been held for 30 years I first encountered the ChunCheon Marathon in a 2005 award winning Korean film (Marathon) depicting a true story about a 20 year old autistic youth who is fixated on running. He wants to run the Chuncheon Marathon so the film chronicles his life upto and including his running the marathon. The film has numerous gorgeous scenes of the course following the perimeter of the very same lake I had ice raced some 40 years earlier. Having seen the beauty of the course in the film I knew I needed to run the race. I made the right decision.