Sweet Coffee and Seaweed
Ramblings from the 2003 Seoul Marathon
Today I awoke 9000 miles from home. Can you imagine how that must feel? I am literally on the other side of the world. And, I will be here for one year. Many friends have asked, as a member of the military, what are you allowed to bring with you so far from home. That answer is very little. Yet among that very little are 40 years of memories of family and friends. That wonderful past goes everywhere. The answer also includes a habit of mine that has consumed me for the last 13 years, and is of course, running. So today, so far from home, I find myself in an unusual, yet all too familiar situation. At the starting line of my 72nd marathon, surrounded by thousands of runners whose speech I can't understand. Yet the mannerisms and the energy engulfing me is totally recognizable. Here in Korea the language and culture may be very different, but the marathon speaks a universal language, and I know it well. Coincidentally I am surrounded by thousands of others who also understand this simple premise.
As the gun sounds the jostling and positioning begin. From the rear of the pack my world again suddenly gains a sense of order. For several months I've been living an exotic and foreign existence. Now, I am back in my element. Doing something that I truly love, and know how to do. That something, of course, is finishing the marathon. Back in the pack, there is much side-stepping and clamoring to find a line to run. And I run alone, an aging, pudgy American, smiling wildly almost insanely, among a sea of Asians. Many seem curious to be near me and get a good look. I hope they don't judge American runners by my gait. If there is one thing in this world that I don't appear to be, it is a runner. Yet there are very few things that I would rather do; so I just do it. Many of the more aggressive Koreans come in close and greet me, using their broken English to share encouragement.
The Han River is off to my left lazily flowing directly through the middle of the metropolis of Seoul. And the locals make the most of it on this early March, pre-spring sunshiny day. A more perfect day than this could not exist. I make a conscious effort to greet those around me, as I meander through the pack. Slowly, using my time-honored tradition of beginning in the back. That way there is no chance of me ever getting in the way of the real runners. I am a foreigner, in a strange land, but on the course of the Seoul Marathon, I have never felt more at home. For a brief moment, I close my eyes and glide. I imagine myself back in New York, or Boston, and all feels right. The energy surrounding me brings a peace to my heart that longs to be home. The aid stations and kilometers begin to pass. Slowly, then quickly; we marathoners know the drill well. Small Korean children, and grandparents alike stare at me. Believe me, an American, especially me, stick out in this crowd. I continue to smile and nod and generously receive the same in return.
Approaching the half I feel terrific. I know how I should feel and I'm doing much better than that. I pick up the pace a tad. At the half runners are spread out on benches and the ground. They are enjoying miso soup with tofu and seaweed, rice and sweet coffee. The Koreans understand and respect the marathon. There is absolutely no hurry today. Each moment is to be savored, just like the soup, and just like their lives. I pause, relax, and partake in the celebration of the day. This perfect day. I thank the volunteers with a hearty kum-sum-di-dah and am on my way. Slowly now I make my way towards the finish. I take time for photos with children who gently tug on my sweatpants and aid station workers who want to greet the smiling American.
The Koreans are beautiful people and I am thankful to share this experience with them, to be a small part of their lives, if only for a short moment in time. The final few miles my legs remind me gently that the marathon is a long run, no matter how slow you go. Still, I devour and relish this time. This peaceful misery is my old friend and I am glad to welcome him. Both sides of the streets are now lined with literally thousands of spectators. They cheer happily, and it seems as if they're cheering just for me. The old American made it in. Across the line I ramble. My heart and soul fills to the brim with that same genuine warmth that I've felt so many times before. Quickly I am draped with my medal, and a pink towel emblazoned with the Seoul Marathon logo. It makes me smile. A young lady takes my arm and hands me a warm box of milk. I smile, thank her and swallow it as best as I can. Right now I wish I were in Pensacola. One of my buddies would have handed me something a bit easier to get down. But I'm not---rather I'm 9,000 miles from home.
Today the marathon brought me home for a few hours. My running friends, enjoy your runs today and know that pleasure of our beloved forward movement is one that is shared all over the world. And, in the end maybe that love will be enough to save us all. Da' Hitman.
This essay was originally published by The Running Journal in June 2003. Team Slug greatly appreciates the kindness Running Journal Editor Bruce Morrison has shown towards us over the years.