Anyways, this year I was determined to run Seoul. After some very uncertain exchanges with the race organizers about the actual race date, I took a huge risk and booked my flights and accomodations last year way before they officially announced the dates. Worse case scenario, it would just be a holiday trip.
I kept the fact that I was running the race close to my heart, save for a very few close friends which you could count on two fingers of one hand. My wife started her research for things to do in Seoul before and after the race, her research skills are legendary, mind you and I drew up a training plan. I was coming back from injury and the meniscus tear wasn't 100% healed. I had to watch out for that but I was still upbeat.
With close to 3 months until race day, I opted for my go-to training plan, the Hansons Marathon Method, which on hindsight, I may have to seriously reassess things. I'll come to that later. And so, the next three months would be spent purely on training, following the plan to a tee. Mind you, the Hansons plan isn't the easiest of plans to follow and with the advanced setting, it gets all the more difficult. Consistency in training is the key to this plan but with family and career to juggle, you'd have to take the word 'consistency' with a pinch of salt.
Suffice to say, the training wasn't easy but my wife kept prompting me and reminding me that if I didn't go through with it, you can kiss your goals goodbye. Yes, I had a goal, it wasn't a lofty one. I knew with my current fitness level aiming for the sky was going to drop me back to earth like a ton of bricks! But that still didn't stop me from dreaming big. One can dream they always say.
Countless mornings upon mornings saw me up at times when a more saner person would be tucked away in bed. The training required 6 days of continuous dedication, no discounts. There were days when I just hated it, despised it even. Why can't I just run for the fun of running, I asked myself over and over, why do I have to be so damn competitive with myself. No answers were forthcoming so it was like that for three months. I put a lot of things aside often neglecting the ones closest to me. She knows who she is. She's been a pillar of support throughout and god knows it wasn't easy for her with me giving so much of my time to training. For the patience she's shown, she's Godsent!
I arrived in Seoul 4 days prior to race day. I wanted to get acclimatize to the weather what with it being the tail-end of winter, yet temps were still in the lows of 0°C in the mornings. I had the company of Choon Yuen and his wife, Yan Leng and Jeanie who were also slated to run the race albeit different distances. It's always good to have some friendly faces when you run in a foreign land. The usual shake down runs and vain photo opportunities were adhered to strictly, that's part of training too, right ... LOL!
Then it was off to explore the place. The wife did a thorough research on places to visit and even though I was running on Sunday, I wasn't about to let her down. I'll share my holiday experience in another post and keep this one mainly on the race experience itself. Before I go any further, let me remind you that the Seoul International Marathon is a Gold Label event, just in case any of you didn't know that. After experiencing the extraordinary and superb organization of the Gold Coast Airport Marathon for 3 straight years, I benchmark all Gold Label races against them. So, I was more or less expecting something along the likes of GCAM, race wise.
I knew from checking around online and from a friend who ran Seoul before more or less what to expect yet, I still had high hopes. There was even a race expo this year as compared to the previous years where you had to collect your race kit from an office block. Things can't be all that bad. While the water stations were spaced out every 5km (minimum requirements for a Gold Label event from what I gathered) and was an issue for my race strategy, with some minor modifications, I could get around that. At least there was an expo and the running vest and finisher tee had an awesome design, so that was something to look forward to.
Come Saturday, CY, his wife, Yan Leng, Jeanie, my wife and me made our way the Jamsil Sports Complex, which was where the expo and race kit collection was being held. The weather was sunny yet very cold, especially when the winds blew. But I was enthusiastic about things. Arriving at the expo, it was a pretty small scale one compared to the likes of Kyoto and Gold Coast but at least there was an expo to waste a couple of minutes with. After the usual vain shots and fooling around acting like little kids we headed for a short sightseeing session and then all of us headed back to our respective apartments for some rest and to prep for the race the next day.
With the temps being what they are in the mornings, I was glad for the shakedown run on the first and second day that helped me decide my final race gear. I was all prepared to run in winter tights and being bundled up but was glad that I could actually run in shorts and with just a base layer and tee for my top, not my usual minimalist race gear but good enough! I finally settled for my Saucony Inferno Split Shorts, a base layer and a Saucony short sleeves tee I purchased at ABC mart two days prior. A beanie for my bald head and a pair of thin waterproof gloves for my exposed hands. My race shoe of choice was the Saucony Kinvara 8, a last minute switch from the almost certain Saucony Freedom ISO. I was as close to what I normally wear as I could be.
The apartment was just a little under 2km away from the race start location and I opted to take a short jog there which served as a warm up of sorts. The weather on race morning was extremely cold. Even the short 2km jog didn't warm me up sufficiently. I was freezing in my shorts and minimal top. I kept saying to myself just to hang in there until race start and the sun would come up and things will be better. While waiting for CY and Yan Leng to arrive, I put on my disposable poncho which provided some help in keeping me protected from the biting cold wind.
We did our warm ups while waiting for race start, which was around 8.10 - 8.15am, I can't really remember. The elites were flagged off first before the rest of us. All 3 of us were in Coral E but with no barricades to keep everyone on their respective corals so we pushed our way to the front. That was the first negative point about the race and we haven't even started yet. I ditched my poncho and within a few minutes, it was show time. This is it. This is all I've been training for. I wished both CY and Yan Leng luck and headed off on my own.
The flag off was quite crowded and I avoided trying to weave my way around the rest wasting energy. I would do this slowly. I was adamant to stick to my planned start pace no matter how disheartening it was to see people overtake you and speed off. I'll catch you back, I thought to myself. I wasn't about to be sucked in by somebody else's pace. I kept to my pace and was feeling fine. Surprisingly the usual aches and tightness I normally feel at the start of my runs weren't apparent. I thanked Zeus for small miracles.
Within a kilometer or two, the crowd spread out a little and I was able to keep to a much steadier run. I slowly upped the pace to my desired pace with ease. The first 15km to 20km of the route would see us making countless u-turns, not something I like but it did give me some comfort knowing that I'd be able to see my wife at least 4 times along the route cos the course would see me pass my apartment at least 4 times.
Now with the water stations being spread out every 5km, I had to make a decision of carrying along a small water bottle with me. I absolutely hate carrying any sort of bottles during a race but I knew from Gold Coast that the weather in a cold country could fool you into thinking you weren't thirsty and by the time you take in fluids, it could already be too late. With 5km apart stations, I was not going to be able to take in fluid every 2.5km so I had no choice but to carry a bottle. I was very conscious of the bottle in my hand. While spreading out the water stations every 5km, the organizers instead decided to have sponging stations every 2.5km! I've no issues with that though I didn't touch a single sponge, didn't see the need for that with the weather being what it was but I really don't see why they couldn't just have water at these stations as well! I remind you again, this is a Gold Label race, ya.
Somewhere just before the 5k mark, I spotted my wife and waved to her. I was happy to see her. Since I was on a specific pace, I couldn't afford to stop and give her a hug like I did in GC. With a quick wave, I continued on my way. I knew I'd see her again around the 10km mark. They were quite a lot of runners all around me with the same pace as me, more or less, which made it hard to maneuver but I fought the urge to weave around them and not waste unnecessary energy.
I reached the 10km mark in under an hour. My pace at this point was steady, consistent and right where I wanted it to be. My heart rate was in the 140's and my breathing was easy. I felt good. This was where I saw my wife for the second time. Another wave and I was off. There would be one more time where I'll see her again, which would be just at the 16km mark before she heads off to the finish area at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium.
At this point, the sun was beginning to heat things up a little bit. I thanked God for the decision to go light. I was consistently taking in fluids and gels right on the mark and kept refilling my small bottle of water at the water stations to see me through every 5km. Just before I reached the 16km mark I decided to ditch my beanie. It was becoming an issue with the sun overhead. Luckily for me, I could just passed it to my wife instead of throwing it away. I saw her waiting right where she said she would be and quickly handed her my soaked beanie which caught her by surprise. With the beanie off, I was feeling so much cooler (pun not intended).
Now, by this point I've been holding my pee for quite a while and it was beginning to be a bother. I looked for portable toilets and none was to be found. Any other time I could just side track behind a bush or tree and things would be fine but not here. We were running a route that took us along city streets and there was not a single opportunity to duck anyway and pee! Even petrol stations were next to impossible to find. I tried to do a Jamie and just pee on the run but no go, it just wouldn't flow! So I held my pee hoping and praying for a porta potty somewhere along the route.
By this time, I was just coming up to the 20km mark and I was still going strong. The Garmin showed that I did the last 20k in under 2 hours, again exactly where I wanted to be with the pace. Then by some miracle, I saw a petrol station up ahead. There was a queue but I had no choice, I ducked into it and stood in line. If I didn't go now, this was gonna affect me later. I lost an entire 5 minutes here just waiting to pee and I was pissed (pun intended)!
I was a little worried the break would have cooled me down and broken my rhythm but was relieved when I got back into my pace with ease. Aside from the usual aches and fatigue of running a marathon, I was still pacing consistently. So there I was trudging along nicely. Somewhere around the 25k mark was where I got my first culture shock. In the midst of a group of runners in front of me, the locals were just spitting left, right and centre not caring if there was anyone behind or next to them. A big huge pile of spit almost got me had I not moved aside quickly. I ran up to the guy and glared at him, not that he gave two hoots. This happened a few times with most of them and I realized that this was the norm here! From then on, I had to keep a close eye for flying spit!
The 30km mark couldn't come fast enough but when it did I was still under 3 hours. Things were going fine so far. At this point I could still pull off a 5:15 pace and I thought maybe this was it. I kept going, feeling hopeful. Then at the 33k mark, it was as if a switch was flipped and everything went downhill, really fast! The legs refused to move. They felt like lead encased in a block of cement. NO, NO, NO, I screamed! I had just 9km to go. That wasn't far in the bigger scheme of things. Please just hold on legs, I begged.
But no matter how much I coaxed them, they were slowing down with pain. The pace dropped from a 5:20 average to a 6:30 and kept dropping. Walk breaks were getting more frequent. The 4 hour pacer came by and left me in his wake. I was cursing. I willed myself to chase him down and I did, for a while anyway before he ditched me again like a rock falling to the bottom of the ocean. I slowed to a walk. I was dejected but I didn't give up. I tried the run/walk method but to no avail. You know things are bad when you walk more than run. The 4:10 pacers flew past me. One thing about the pacers here, their pace was spot on target pace. I gave up all hope at this point for a sub 4 finish, it wasn't happening!
Just as we reached the bridge which was somewhere near the 38k mark, I could see the Jamsil Olympic stadium in the distance on my right. It looked so near and yet I had 4k to go. The pace at one point dipped to 9:00!!! I was practically walking. Each step was just in so much pain that I was beginning to feel numb. Good, maybe if I don't feel pain, I'd be able to run. I was determined to keep the 4:20 pacers behind me. I could see the balloons looming in the distance behind me. With that goal in mind, I managed to get back running, slow but at least I was running again. The last 2km felt like 20km and every inch saw the 4:20 pacers slowly reeling me in.
Then with about a kilometer to go, the Jamsil Olympic stadium loomed ahead. The 4:20 pacer caught up to me. He looked at me, and asked me if I was from Malaysia and I nodded in acknowledgement. He smile, pulled me and said in English, come let's go, 2 more turns! I gave it everything I got and ran, limped, crawled into the stadium and got the shock of my life! The last 300m to the finish was bloody chaotic! There were the 10k runners all mixed up with the marathoners and most were either walking 2-3 abreast, holding hands and just simply blocking the marathoners, some of whom were fighting for time. There was no control, runners crossed the finish and made a u-turn back out to take picture, walk on the track and whatnots. This was the same track that the marathoners had to weave their way through to cross the finish. God, how I missed the extremely organized finish of the GC!
While my race was ruined a long way back and ended with a 4:23 finish, I was so bloody angry for Choon Yuen when I found out that he had his goals dashed by a fraction of what he wanted cos of the chaos at the finish. Once again, I remind you, this is a Gold Label certified race, mind you. I saw Jeanie and Choon Yuen's wife at the finish and told them I was going to get my baggage which was a long way off. Even the baggage area was chaotic and I had trouble finding where my baggage was. The volunteers just couldn't speak a single word of English and there was none catered to help English speaking foreigners unlike in Kyoto which was a 'No Label' race, mind you and that was organized so, so much better.
I'm not 100% sure but the website seemed to say that there would be a finisher tee and yet, we couldn't find any. Even when I met Lim Huat who ran a blistering pace, he was quite puzzled about the lack of finisher tee. I was too tired and dejected to bother at this point. I finally found my baggage counter, found the team and we made our way out of the stadium to find my wife so we could just go home. I was really affected by this turn of events but at least I managed to run the entire race injury free and remained that way after the race. One of the tiny positives I take from this.
As to what went wrong? I have no answers. Even to this day I still have no answers. I put it down to be just being a hopeless runner. Looking back at my training, I did everything that was required of me. Maybe the Hansons plan just isn't cut out for me anymore. I've not signed up for any races and even GCAM17 is a very likely no go so that leaves me some time to dissect what went wrong and revise my training plan for the next one. I'm very much affected by this result but I've learned to put it behind me and move on. With a little bit of tweaking to training routine, I'll get thru this and come back stronger.
Before I end here's a list of the pros and cons of the Seoul International Marathon 2017. I signed up for this purely on it being a Gold Label event. Would I come back again to run this? No, I won't. I'm utterly disappointed by the standard of this race, Gold Label indeed!
- Beautiful running weather
- Somewhat flat route
- Cheap race entry
- No ballot
- Route is over-distanced by quite a sum
- No barricades for proper corralling
- No portable toilets
- Water stations every 5km apart
- Sponge stations were redundant and would better be served as a water station
- The local runners during the race are pretty rude and brash
- The finish is absolutely chaotic mixing with the 10km runner, no control whatsoever
- Hardly any English speaking volunteers to help the foreign-runners
- Glad for the race expo but unless you're an Adidas fan, there really is nothing there.
* Pictures courtesy of Choon Yuen, Jeanie & my wife