Patriotism is one thing when arguing the merits of Costco, the addition of the letter “U” to the word ‘Colour’ and the correct method of playing pool (whoever invented the “ball in hand” rule needs shooting.) Its friendly banter between fellow english speakers and can cover all subjects, including sport.
The FIFA 2010 world cup was absolutely abysmal for England fans and I can safely say I was given a thorough amount of stick after the first game; a 1-1 draw with the USA. This turned out to be the first of two pretty terrible performances that I had to grin and bear; the second being a blitzkrieg of goals from Germany to send England’s overpaid, over hyped hairdressers back home. Watching Republic of Korea was an unbridled joy in comparison, they played with verve, tenacity and passion and I felt that even in defeat their fans were behind them all the way. This was in stark contrast to Wayne Rooney’s petulant rant to the cameras when England were booed in yet another unconvincing display. Rooney may have had a point: why would your own fans boo the national side after travelling so far? I’m not about to comment about the state of English football, I’m not expert enough to even begin; my focus is really on marathon running.
The 1936 Olympics have gone down in history as being the games where Jesse Owens won gold in the 100m and the long jump, causing a few Aryan faces to blush at the realisation that their race was not as masterful as they’d been told.
One other man who would win gold at those games was ｿﾝ ギｼﾞｮﾝ (Son Kitae), who was running for the Japanese. Son’s real name was in fact Son Gee Jung and he was in fact a born and bred Korean.Son was one of the fastest runners of his generation and between the years 1933-1936 he ran thirteen marathons, ten of which he won, one in which he set the world record of two hours and twenty six minutes.
Due to Japanese annexation, Son was obliged to run with the red dot on his chest for the duration of the Olympic games.
Facing off against Son was the famed Argentinian runner Juan Carlos Zabola, at the start he peeled off the main pack and spent the first twenty eight kilometers in the lead. Son, along with Great Britain’s Ernie Harper led the chase and overtook Zabola with ten kilometers left to go. Son eventually pulled clear and ran into the stadium in first place, Harper taking the silver. Son’s Korean (but running for Japan) team-mate Sung Yong Nam took the bronze.
Upon watching the medal ceremony, it is painfully obvious that Jung is crying when the Japanese flag is raised and the national anthem is played, the medal hanging like a millstone around his neck.
Flash forward eighty years, if you will. It is around seven thirty in the evening and I’m running with all the pace of a potted plant. I’ve been a silly individual and signed up for a marathon with one month to train for it. “Running” with me is Dan, a good friend, running buddy and general guru, and he’s pissed off. I know this because we aren’t even ten miles in and I’m complaining of a million different injuries, and I’m crashing due to a lack of sugar, again.
Not that Dan would ever show he was annoyed, he’s too much of a gent for that and I think secretly he’s snickering internally at the foolhardy nature of my quest.
“Just remember, a marathon is an arbitrary distance.” Says Dan in his trademark Milwaukee lilt, which does as much to confuse me as it does comfort me.
“Its just a set amount of distance, doesn’t mean anything special. Calling it a marathon makes it sound scarier than it is.”
As we approach the last four kilometers, we begin to speed up and my webbed feet start slapping the concrete with alarming volume. You see, I’m not wearing running trainers, I’m barefoot.
Now, I’m too much of a wuss to run actually without shoes or socks. So I’ll fill you in: I’m wearing a pair of black Vibrams FiveFingers. Now, before you say “that sounds like a filthy Italian sex toy” I should elaborate a little more.
Vibrams (or VFFs) are designed to have individual toe sockets and the cushioning is minimal on the sole. The aim is to give the runner the chance to get more feedback from the ground and build strength in the foot, minimising potential problems like blisters and joint pains. I was highly skeptical and to a degree, I still was. I felt that the only way to test them out was to run twenty six point two miles in them and prove Dan’s madness wrong. I would feel utterly vindicated as I lay on the ground, my shins and ankles protruding through my skin screaming at the sky
“LOOK! It’s BOLLOCKS!”
Dan wasn’t going to run with me, and nor was anyone else. This was where the “arbitrary distance” came to the fore; people run five kilometers, ten kilometers and sometimes even a half marathon. People talk about going running, about keeping fit. “Runners” however, are insane. Given the chance to be in near-agony for the best part of five hours on a Sunday morning, when they could be in bed, they’ll be up and raring to go. Most of my friends are people, like me, and the runners I know were all busy with other commitments. So, how did I train for it?
Simple answer: I didn’t. This isn’t a brag, nor a “look at me, I’m a natural athlete” statement, as far from it as possible. I just got lazy and decided that it didn’t matter what time I completed it in, just that I did.
So I drank, watched T.V and went for the occasional run when I felt up to it. My body, courteous as ever, started to give me a few choice memos about the state of my joints.
I’ve been suffering with sore knees for months now, the VFFs alleviate it a little but my knees seem to be suffering from inflamed IT bands. I spent a lot of time in the local Oriental Medicine clinic, getting pins shoved in me. I then had the suction caps applied to not just my knees, but my neck also. It was rather like being caressed by a squid, and left me in a vague sense of weird arousal, even if it did next to nothing to help my knees.
So race day approached far faster than I could have imagined and I decided that I was going to be unable to follow any of the wonderful advice my runner friends had graciously taken time out give me.
I couldn’t sleep in the strange Motel bed and the morning light brought with it thoughts which would be more befitting someone who was about to be taken outside, given a cigarette and a blindfold and shot.
After bandaging my feet a little, taking some water and some very tasteless Dr. You bars (which, for the curious, have as much nutritional value and flavour as polystyrene) it was finally time to get in the starting crowd.
I had my VFFs, long johns, nipple tape, I-Pod with various songs designed to make me forget I was running and my trusty Taegukki flag. The flag is a deft touch inspired by my favourite comedian and runner Eddie Izzard, we’re also both nutcase Aquarians which I felt helped my cause.
The national anthem was sung, the gun exploded and off we went; into the early morning sun of Seoul.
The first six miles flew by, the Han was shining like polished tungsten and the urban sprawl seemed muted by the hundreds of pounding feet on the riverside track. We hit the underpass and as we approached the halfway mark, I swerved a little as I overtook another runner and felt a hot, shooting pain up the side of my knee.
“Not now, you BASTARD! The halfway point is there, bloody there. I can’t fuck it up now!” Other runners, amused by the sight of a man swearing at his knee pointed towards the man with the ice spray and after some walking and more cursing I was on my way again.
Now, people talk about “the wall”. I’ll concede that it exists, I’ll even go so far as to say it would be better put into plural form. I hit so many little walls in the last ten kilometers and the motion of my running had started to resemble a lost orangutan who also had a cracking case of rickets.
Coming up, like a mothership was the Olympic stadium. In it’s belly was the finish line and the end to my body’s torture, I just had to get there first.
Picking up the pace, my feet doing most of the work and my eyes slit determinedly, I entered the last mile with my I-Pod’s last playlisted song (Chariots Of Fire by Vangelis, and I don’t care what you think.)
Once inside the stadium’s grounds we were required to do a half lap of the car park before entering the running track. I held my mini flag rather pathetically as I crossed the line between shade and dim sunlight and onto the red, rubberised track.
Now, in August 1988 I was six months old and my Dad was awake because of my incessant crying. He had also turned on the TV, seeings as he was already awake and was faced with the opening ceremony of the Seoul Olympics. Bobbing me up on his knee he would have seen an old, but still running, Son Gee Jung bearing the Olympic Torch aloft as he ran into the stadium, down the running track and towards the south stand. A publicly proud Korean athlete, once more; smiling into the crowd as he lit the flames to open the games.
In 2010, it is one forty five and I’ve crossed the line in four hours and forty six minutes. My everything hurts, but I’m happy as a clam and the reason was because I did something I didn’t think I was able to do.
I was kindly accosted off the track , and was allowed a king’s dinner and beers afterwards. Not being able to walk the next day made teaching interesting, and I plan to retire starting now.
Shortly after this race I did my research into Son and it turns out he is buried very close to my house in the Daejeon National Cemetary. I shall visit, soon.