Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Seoul International Marathon: Be careful what you wish for

Race Report

15 March, 2015

Preamble
The intent of this race report is mainly practical:

1. To help people decide on whether or not they want to race in the Seoul Marathon
2. To help sort out some of the logistical issues I faced and couldn't find online
3. To give a sense of what the race atmosphere was like

Finally, I hope it's entertaining and even fun.

Be careful what you wish for
Having only completed one full marathon, I wanted to try another – this time in a cooler climate, and ideally a new country. My performance in Singapore’s Sundown Marathon on 31 May 2103 was sub-par, even bordering on shameful (in my mind). The night conditions were far hotter than the dawn I was used to training in, and I didn’t train enough in the first place. I wasn’t proud of my achievement, so wanted to stack the odds in my favour for the next marathon. My formula:

1. Train in hot conditions, compete in cool conditions
2. Train much harder, longer, and better
3. Avoid injury, burnout, and family conflicts due to potential overtraining

After a bit of research, I narrowed my choice down to Seoul and Tokyo, but went with Seoul as it was during my son’s school holiday and Seoul doesn’t have the lottery system (limited entries) that Tokyo does.

My wife, a beginning runner, wanted to try her foot at a race or two, and so she decided to join Seoul’s 10k while I did the 42.2. We made this decision in October 2014, giving us a full 18 weeks to train.

Further, we figured this would be a good chance to see a new country (I had been to Korea but not South Korea!) as well as bring our two small kids and my wife’s parents.

Registration
If you do not live in Korea, the most obvious way of registering for the Seoul International Marathon is the website, http://seoul-marathon.com/ . It may be one of the worst race sites I’ve ever seen, especially if you can’t read Korean. The language selector is of little help – many of the links you click on after changing it to English lead to Korean pages.

It is very confusing, with phrases like, “Log on to our official website and click the button for registration.” Wait – I thought this was your official website.

Another was, “Payment method: Bank Transfer”, which makes me think only telegraphic transfer is possible – but in fact they take credit cards. Even after having a Korean friend look through the site, she believed the same thing. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to do a bank transfer only to discover later that they indeed did accept credit cards.

So no credit cards, right?

Bank transfer by credit card??


 Another one, more amusing than it was problematic, was the header, “This is Dong-a marathon department.” Thanks for letting me know.

I thought this was Boston Marathon department


Eventually, I figured it all out, and registered us on the site, paying with my MasterCard. It was pretty cheap, only 50,000 won, or US $48. I received a confirmation email but couldn't find more info about race pack collection or anything else. Normally, after registering for a race, you’ll receive numerous reminders, promotions, updates, and generally reassuring communications. But from “Dong-a marathon department” we received nothing else.

So two weeks before the race, I called the number on the site, and surprisingly, somebody answered. He spoke good English, and he told me I had not paid for either my race or my wife’s! But I had booked flights and a hotel for myself, my kids, wife, and her parents (many thousand dollars)!

Luckily, there were still full marathon slots open at that time (again - two weeks before race day!), but all the 10k spots had been filled. We pleaded with him, but he wouldn't budge. My wife was disappointed, but at least I had secured my place.

Travel
Flying to Korea from Singapore is easy enough, and so is getting a taxi (van in our case) to the hotel. We opted for a serviced apartment, as there were six of us, and my wife and her mom like to cook. We stayed in Fraser Place Central, Seoul (http://www.fpcs.co.kr/ ). Turns out this was a perfect choice – right near the race pack collection and the starting line (we didn't even realize that when we booked)!

I absolutely recommend Fraser Place Central, especially if you are with your family. It's near the start line and is a great hotel with very helpful front desk staff. But be careful - there are two other Fraser Places in Seoul, so make sure you book the right one.

I made sure to arrive two days before the race to give myself adequate rest and enough time to case the joint – figure out when, where, and how this thing was going to start and end.

Race Day Logistics
Even before flying off, we realized there were a few things to worry about such as what I’d wear while waiting for the race to start (the temperature was about 1 degree Celsius), how I’d get back to the hotel from the end of the race, how my family would find me at the finish line, how we’d meet up then, and more.

First problem – the cold. I know, I know, I chose this race for this very reason, but when the forecast temperature is just at freezing, you know you need to wear more than your tropical super-light shirt and shorts. I remembered at the Gold Coast Half Marathon (July 2014) people wore flannel shirts and jackets while waiting for it to start, and chucked them on the ground at about km 2 – they were later collected and donated to charity. That sounded like a good idea. I wondered if such a setup existed in Seoul.

But here in Singapore, I don’t have any cold weather clothes suitable for running. And I wasn’t about to go buy some just for the 10-15 minutes I’d be waiting at the start line in Seoul, only to throw it in the gutter, never to be seen again.

Was there some indoor area for us to wait in? Were there heaters there? Did they have Australia’s charity system? I checked the website – nothing. I searched Google for some reviews – only a few, but nothing about the weather or how do deal with the freezing start.

My wife finally agreed to come with me to the start, and take my jacket when the gun went off. OK, problem solved.

This event started near my hotel, and ended far away at the Olympic Stadium (remember Seoul in ’88?) by Jamsil station. How were we going to work this out?

There was a lot at stake. had been training hard for 18 weeks, waking up at 4am many days, with many trips to the podiatrist and physiotherapist (solving old injuries), and all the other sacrifices that come with getting your body and mind race-ready.

I had been reading numerous books on marathon training, nutrition, races; I had reviewed many marathon race plans; I had done countless entries into race pace calculators. My mind was awash with numbers, times, splits, heart rate zones, dates, times of day, when to wake up, when to go to sleep, when to schedule my long runs, short runs, tempo runs, and more.

I replayed the horrors of my last marathon, vowing to never commit such a traumatizing and grievous act against myself. I had to redeem myself. I had to pull myself out of the depths of marathon failure that I thought I had fallen into. I would not fail.

So back to logistics: I wanted my family to see my cross the finish line, because this was going to be a monumental event for me.

But how?

The day before the race, we took the train to the stadium (43 minute ride) and walked over to the stadium. There were dozens of race volunteers walking around, starting to finish off the last of the setup. We asked the first group of volunteers we saw where the race would end, and whether or not my family could watch me finish. They couldn’t understand us. We asked the second group of kids (all in their early-20s). They couldn’t understand us either. But eventually, we did find where it ended: Inside the stadium.

In the train station near the stadium - my wife and two kids posing in front of a baseball team's backdrop

The finish line was set up, with TV cameras pointing at it, and the usual barriers and banners around it. But could my family stand right there at the finish line? One English speaker told us they could. Another told us they couldn’t, but they could sit in the stadium. A third said they couldn’t even go into the stadium.

Basically, nobody knew. And I wouldn’t have a phone on me during a marathon, so reaching each other was going to be hard. At least we knew where it would finish.

TV cameras trained on the finish line

I told them to be there approximately 4-4:30 hours after the start (8:30), so that meant they should wait there between 12:30 and 1pm.

Race Pack Collection
With the help of the hotel concierge and Google Maps, we were able to find the Dong-a building where the race pack collection was. Now this wasn’t your typical race expo with rows and rows of the latest running products, shoes, watches, and more. Just a boring old building with hardworking staff handing out simple, plain plastic bags.

The Dong-a Building

There was no queue, no commotion, and no hype. It almost felt like this race wasn’t going to happen or we had been conned into some tiny or even non-existent event. Were we getting our money’s worth?

The hallway to go pick up the race pack. Exciting.

The race pack included a nicely printed race program (in the form of a magazine), the bib (with a letter E, indicating my start sequence – A was first), a timing chip, a long-sleeved Asics shirt (with nothing printed on it), and some Sensodyne toothpaste (?).

The race pack. Note the blue back in the top left.
There was also one other thing – a blue, heavy, large plastic bag with a drawstring. It had a sticker in the corner with my bib number on it and some Korean writing, and a big number 77 and “7:30”. Aha! This was a jacket dump bag for me to give to them before the start, which presumably they’d return to me somehow at the finish line. I guess.

I told my wife she didn’t have to wake up early and come to the race start, and that I’d chuck my jeans and jacket in the bag – problem solved. Hopefully.

The Start Line
Just two train stops away was Gwanghwamun – the race start location. I arrived at 6am, even though the flag-off was supposed to be at 8am. I’m always paranoid about being late, especially in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. Furthermore, I wasn’t going to carry my phone, the train pass, or any wallet. I just carried some big bills under the insole of my shoe for emergencies!

It was just at one degree Celsius. I was wearing jeans, the long-sleeved Asics shirt, and a sweater on top of my running clothes. I was frozen. It was dark and desolate. There was almost nobody there. There was nowhere to stand, nobody to talk to, nothing to do. Except freeze.

But then I saw a Starbucks (there must be more coffee places in Seoul than anywhere else in the world). I went over to it, and to my dismay, it was closed. But right next to it was a Holly’s Coffee, a big local chain. I went in, found a seat (nobody was there) and waited. And waited. Then at about 7:25, I pulled my jeans and sweater off, put them in the blue bag, and headed down. I thought that time on the bag was when I had to dump my bag, and the 77 was where I had to put it (like a box).

As I left the coffee shop, I saw rows and rows of trucks pulling out, each with a big white number on it. Quick, find 77! Suddenly, 77 drove out – what were the odds – and I ran up to him, franticly waving my bag in the air. He crossed his arms, forming a giant X, and floored it, clouds of diesel smoke trailing him. I guess I missed the 7:30 cut-off time. They were rolling out fast. “Well, at the worst, I’ll just lose these clothes, no big deal,” I thought to myself.

“I missed my truck! Where can I put my bag?” I frantically exclaimed, to one of the volunteers working. He understood, but couldn’t speak English – he gestured to his right – I ran there. I saw a crowd of runners, probably 60-70 of them, in a mad frenzy. They were passing their bags over their heads to a lone worker, perched on the back of the covered truck, aimlessly throwing them into the back.

More lost runners like me queued up, and when it became apparent that they wouldn’t all fit in the truck, a mad rush ensued, and I was one of the first to get aggressive: I just launched my bag over everybody, past the poor bag-loader-guy, knowing if it landed in the bed of the truck it would get a spot at the finish line. It was an amusing scene, in a country as orderly and clean as South Korea. Bag spot secured.

You would have thought that with all that rush, the race was about to start. But no, we waited for a good 40 minutes at the start line, shivering in unison, freezing as a group. Small tents were set up on the side of the road which offered wind protection and heat-generation-by-the-herd capabilities. You can have one or the other: your space or a tiny bit of warmth. I opted for the latter, and crowded into the tent, consoled by the other equally cold runners. I like my space, but not in what felt like Antarctic conditions.

Opposite the tent was a mobile outhouse unit that contained at least 10 urinals and 4 toilets on the men’s side. It was like a trailer – not a bad idea, and certainly better than the normal port-a-potties you see at races. Lines were stringing out of it, into the race start area.

Next to that was a giant aluminium cylinder full of something really hot to drink. I left my warm-ish spot in the tent for something even warmer (or so I thought), only to queue for about 7 minutes, and only to start believing if I could just warm up to hypothermic levels, I’d be happy. Ötzi the Iceman was never this cold.

Styrofoam cups full of black and white powder were lined up on the table in front of the tall silver cylinder. I grabbed one, clueless as to what it was, and filled it up with boiling water from the silver thing. It was some kind of hot chocolate coffee stuff. Not good unstirred, and hotter than the core of the sun.

So hot that it was totally undrinkable and ironically amusing. You want a cold race? You got it! Oh, too cold for you? You want a hot drink? You got it! I was getting everything I wished for – in extremes. I chucked that thing on the ground, next to a wall among dozens of others (they’d clean up the cups) and scrambled back to my tent of sheep.

Soon, the masses of people started moving, and we left the tent. It was a slow walk. There were some guys next to me with Chinese flags on their shirts. Desperate for some human interaction, I reached out, “Ni hao ma?” I asked. “Hun hao, hun hao!” they replied, smiling and nodding deferentially, happy someone noticed their nationality.

Considering my bib had an E on it, I was in the last start place. Like most races, the faster runners start in front. Upon registration, I had the option of sending my past race results to them to determine my start spot – otherwise you get thrown in the last one, E.

The crowd continued for maybe 20 metres, before the Korean national anthem came on. We stopped, turned towards some invisible flag (I never saw it), and resumed. In three to four minutes we were up to a trot, passing the start line. It was official!

I hit the start button on my Garmin 910xt, and fell into a pace. Tried to, at least. There were too many people, too slow, too close. I couldn’t get my pace up. I was shooting for a 5:55 pace, which would have had me finish in 4:09:39. It wasn’t happening. Plus, I was staying cold at this glacial speed. I still envied Ötzi – I’m sure the glacier they found him in moved faster than this (and was warmer).

The Race
The first few kilometres snaked through what appeared to be Seoul’s central business district: wide roads, tall buildings, and huge digital billboards. It was still cold, the sun had only been up a few minutes, and the pace was too slow to be really warm. Police dotted the route, about one every 20m, which I thought was an amazing feat.

I found myself running next to a man, probably in his early-60s, and said hi to him. He spoke great English. He worked for a government agency that educated people in third-world countries on environmental issues, and was about to go to Indonesia.

As we ran, he pointed out landmarks, and told me facts about the city. “The area we’re going through used to be very dirty. The river was very polluted. Now it is nice,” and “See these uneven bumps in the road,” gesturing to high undulations in the asphalt created by buses or heavy trucks. “In Korean, this is called ultung-bultung”. I made note, as one wrong step and you could twist your ankle.

He was a seasoned runner. He said he had done more than 60 marathons which I thought was very impressive. Later, I realized by “marathon” he meant “running race”. Nevertheless, he said his record marathon time was 3:30, but that he’d finish this one closer to 4:30. He kept telling me to slow down and save my energy. The biggest rookie mistake in running a full marathon, as we all know, is going out too fast in the beginning, and he was trying to help reign me in. Thing is, I was never going to finish within my goal of 4:10 at this pace. A 6:30 pace produces a 4:34:16 marathon.

I said bye to him and broke away, up the curb onto the sidewalk. This was at about km 6, right along the beginning of Cheonggyecheon-ro, and it was still crowded. Oddly, nobody else was running along the sidewalk. This gave me a nice clear path to run at my own pace.

To my left was a canal, nicely landscaped with sidewalks, trees, and plants. On each side of the canal was a road going opposite directions. On the other side I could see the elite runners going the other way, having completed our stretch and presumably done a U-turn at the end. Bridges crossing the canal, perpendicular to our road, were closed off by police, totally preventing any through traffic.
The buildings were all selling machinery, lots of textiles, construction supplies, and other industrial materials. They were like very run-down malls that only sold one thing, like cloth.

Coming from Singapore, I’m used to drinking a lot of water. I knew my body didn’t need the kind of water I needed in the tropics, so I tried to reduce my water intake, but I must have drank too much because I had to use the bathroom, badly, and I wasn’t sure where to stop.

At about km 9 I saw a line of people scrambling into an old, dirty textile mall. The queue snaked into a dark, narrow hallway, with the men’s bathroom at the end. The wait would be long. But to my right was the women’s, and I wasn’t sure if it would be kosher or not to go in there. In the US or Singapore I wouldn’t care – there weren’t any women around anyway – and I lunged towards it and the guy in front of me said, “No!” and made the X sign with his arms like lorry driver #77.

Another Korean guy behind me said it was ok, and he ducked in. I followed. Then after that, the entire queue piled in. I was out of there in 60 seconds, feeling a bit guilty that a few guys who went in before I did were still in the men’s line. But it’s a race, right?

The crowd had thinned a bit out on the road and I could see I wouldn’t have pace problems due to the crowd – but I knew I’d have other pace problems. Not being too slow, but killing myself early by going out too fast, now that I could.

I realized my past few KM had been at about 5:30 – too fast for my goal. I was shooting for a pace of 5:55, for a finish time of 4:09:39. But I had to make up for lost time in the beginning and for the bathroom break.

Soon, at KM 11.5, we did the U-turn, and were doubling back on the other side of the canal. It was depressing to see the thinning race crowd behind me. Of course we all like to think we’re towards the beginning of the pack, and the sight of a huge majority behind you is good for your ego. But in this case it felt like I was at the end.

On the right side of the road the shops turned into almost a flea market of junk and the oddly interesting artefact. I spotted an old Massachusetts license plate, among other things. I noticed the same police officers that had been on the other side had now crossed over the bridges to our side, dutifully keeping the traffic out of our way.

Approaching 14km (I like this point as it’s 1/3 through the race) I started to get anxious. By that point I had been putting in solid 5:35-5:40 splits, which finally brought my average down to my desired 5:55 pace. But I knew that accelerating my pace early on to make up for a loss before that was about the worst race strategy possible. My judgement and [very limited] experience told me I’d be able to sustain a 5:55 pace until only about km 28-30, maybe 32 if the stars aligned. A better bet would be to bite the bullet and slow down, so as not to risk bonking at 30, and still be able to put in a semi-respectable finish of about 4:20-4:30.

But no, I know myself, I’m not that wise or restrained. I would rather push it, risk it, raise the stakes! I kept up my pace.

At the halfway mark I needed to hit the can again and really couldn’t wait. There were two toilets right there, and I waited, and waited, and waited, for the guy to come out. Finally I had my turn, and ended up putting in a dreadful 6:59 time for that kilometre.

I kept going, feeling good. The crowds along the sides of the road thickened. Hundreds of students, mostly all girls, had these giant foam hands they held out, which people high-fived. I hit every single one I could.

Eventually, I saw some balloons ahead. Those had to be the 4:15 pacers. I caught them and hung with them for a while. If I could finish with these guys I’d be satisfied. They chanted, military-style, in Korean. One word they kept repeating sounded like, “Hwy-TING!!” Turned out to be a Korean-ized version of “fighting”.

Soon enough, we hit KMs 28, 29, and 30. I felt great. I looked back. The balloons were a distant sight. I didn’t even mean to but I had passed what I thought would be my support group.

Yet again, the number of spectators increased. More girls with foam hands. More “hwy-TING!”. Old people from a retirement home on crutches and walkers were out. A homeless guy hungover in the gutter was cheering. I was high-fiving cops. People had set up their own refreshment stands on the road giving out Coke, juice, water, beer, soju, fruit, candy, and all kinds of things. One woman handed me a gel. Another, candy. She said to me, an obvious foreigner, “kuài diǎn!” or “hurry up” in Chinese. Odd but fun. I replied with an appropriate “Xie xie ni!” Even the Chinese were in on the fun.

Another old man, this time easily in his late 60s or early 70s, and I found ourselves running side-by-side, at the same pace. He exclaimed a strong “Hwy-TING!” I echoed it. We did it again. People around us followed. The spectators cheered. Everybody was hyped.

This excitement had me increasing my pace, and at km 32 I waited for the bonk. But how could I bonk when I felt so great? At this point, the casualties started mounting. Guys nursing cramps dotted the curbs. Others, whose paces had degraded into a deathmarch, started looking like zombies. Yet more simply slowed down.

I usually am the one suffering at this point, habitually too fast in the beginning, unable to pace myself. But not this time. I thought only the very experienced runners and the pros put in reverse splits in their marathons. Incredibly, nobody had passed me since about km 30. I was passing everybody.

At km 34 I really let it go. 8km left was nothing. I wasn’t going to bonk. From km 35 on out I’d end up doing an average of 5:01 all the way to the finish line.

I started yelling my own hwy-TING chants, to nobody in particular. I cheered at the spectators who cheered at me. At a drink station, which incidentally are about 50m long to prevent traffic jams, they were handing out sponges. I yelled, “YEAH! I LOVE SPONGES!” with over-the-top enthusiasm and excessive excitement. The kids manning the station laughed and cheered me on.

At KM 40, with only 2 to go, the time read 3:52. That meant I would have had to run the last 2 km of this marathon in 4 minutes each if I was to finish in under 4 hours. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be possible for me. I regretted the time lost in the beginning and for the toilet breaks. But what could I do, except hammer it from here on out?

I accelerated into a near-sprint. It became almost dangerous as I had to navigate the walking dead and other casualties you find at the tail-end of a marathon. Over a bridge. Past Lotte World. More sponges. More yelling. More excitement.

At around 41.5 I came up behind two guys who were holding a third between them, as he limped his way in. A good show of sportsmanship, especially since they were probably all strangers. But that didn’t stop me from exclaiming my excitement through more top-of-the-lungs yelling, “Hurry up! Let’s go! Almost there!” It was a mix of much-needed encouragement and enthusiasm, in this field of silent plodders, and uncalled-for and insensitive pushing of those who clearly are at their limit, almost hubristic.

But I didn’t care. It was my celebration of success, my realization of personal victory. It was never about ‘just finishing’ but finishing respectably, or I daresay fast (for me). It was vindication. It was redemption from my own deathmarch in 2013, resulting in the pathetic (for me) time of 4:57.

About 100m from the finish line
 The race ended in Jamsil stadium. To get in, the route crossed through the parking lot. Barricades kept the thousands of spectators away. I increased my already-fast pace (I did km 42 at 4:50) to a real sprint. A man in the crowd, clearly also American, said loudly, “Well he sure looks confident!”

We entered the stadium arch, and had to do about ¾ a lap. I took this a probably my one-and-only chance to do an all-out sprint in an Olympic stadium with thousands of people watching. I pretended I was in the Olympics, and actually angled my body around the first corner, leaning in, following the inner-most lane.

On the train back to the hotel

My result

A happy finish at 4:02:33 by my Garmin; official time of 4:02:30. Average pace of 5:43. I didn’t think I was capable of that at the time.

4:02:30


In summary, I had a great race. I underestimated my own training and potential. I knew the weather would help, but I underestimated just how much it would help. I overestimated how much I thought I needed to drink.

I wished for a cold race, and froze at the beginning. I wished for a fast race but set a pace that was too conservative.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

See my full Strava record of the run here.

Rating

What I liked:

  • Amazing drink stations (long and not crowded; raisins, bananas, water, Pocari Sweat)
  • Great crowd
  • Alcohol
  • Cool weather
  • No narrow roads, paths, sidewalks - we had two lanes at all times, minimum
  • Totally flat route
  • Hwy-ting!
  • Cheap entry (compared to Singapore)
  • Easy race pack collection


What could be improved:

  • No finisher shirt
  • Not very nice medals
  • Difficult registration process
  • Poor pre-race communications (email)
  • Basic user experience problems on the website
  • Not the most scenic route

10 comments:

Unknown said...

This was an awesome review. I'm running Seoul in less than three weeks and burst out laughing when you ragged on the website. It's so terrible! Now I'm worried about my own registration situation...

Andrew Patterson said...

Ha yeah. Well they were organized when I got there. Let me know if you need any help...

Rebecca Ilham said...

Hi, Andrew,
I'm rereading this post as I tried to get into pre-race mental state (I'll run Seoul next week).
Thanks for all the details - they certainly helped me when I decided to register. By the way, there will be an expo at the Jamsil Stadium this year :)

Andrew Patterson said...

Hi Rebecca,

Good to hear it helped. You will have a great time! Lari lekas!

Andrew

Monty and Emily said...

I agree that this post was very helpful and funny. I am running the Seoul Marathon in two days and have lived in Korea for nearly 4 years. This will be my second marathon. I am glad to hear you describe the course as "flat", since the elevation chart makes it look like there are two hills at the 16km and 35km marks. There is a much better website (seoul-marathon.com) for registering and getting information. Koreans love racing and do often tell you about how many marathons they have run, before explaining they are referring to a 5km marathon or a 10km marathon. Best of luck in your future races!

Andrew Patterson said...

Yep, I'd call it totally flat. The uphill at 16 (more like 16.8) is near Insa-Dong and I don't even remember it. The one at km 35 is the bridge before Lotte World, no biggie. That's where the casualties start to happen - look for the zombies there. Hope you trained well! (I'm referring to my Strava run profile here: https://www.strava.com/activities/268341272)

Nat said...

Hi!
I was researching on Seoul Marathon and saw your detailed review! May I ask, when is the registration period?

Andrew Patterson said...

No idea - check their website: http://seoul-marathon.com/ I tried to find the registration dates but couldn't. They redid their website but it's as bad as before.

Nat said...

Hey thanks so much for the reply! I emailed them and they replied pretty promptly that registration will open some time this month, though no specific dates were given.

Andrew Patterson said...

Great, Nat. I remember having the same issue when I registered. It opened pretty late. Where are you flying in from?

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