Ironman Korea

The roped-off area between the cones was filling with lean bodies wedged into wetsuits.  Predominantly black Asian heads where increasingly covered with white bathing caps.  I searched the spectators for my friends, suspecting I’d hear Carrie’s shouts as soon as she arrived.  Finally I saw them walking stiffly down a grass-lined trail to the beach between sheer cliffs, their legs sore from hiking the volcano the day before.  I smiled.  As much as I love my crazy races, having company enhances the experience exponentially.

 

I wasn’t shy about the start.  I maneuvered to the very front, toeing the ribbon in the sand and listening to the Aussies beside me.  An announcement in English, then Korean, then Japanese introduced the pros in yellow caps who stood out in front of the sea of us in white caps.  Three minutes.  I walked to the water to dip in my goggles then took up my spot in front again.  Two minutes.  We all fidgeted, anticipating.  One minute.  Goggles on.  Thirty seconds.  Defog the goggles and leave them off.  Five.  The goggles go back on.  Four.  Deep breath.  Three.  Breath out.  Two.  Time stops.  One.  The crowd presses forward, drowning out the starting sound, whatever it may have been.

 

We surge together, running until the sand drops away suddenly.  I belly-flop ungracefully, tripping as I try to dive.  The goggles come off.  I replace them and swim.  Not fast.  Just with long, smooth strokes.  I’m alone for now.  With 1074 other competitors diving in around me, I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m alone.  I enjoy it for a few moments, before the crowds close in around me.  I follow some feet kicking swaths of bubbles down from the surface.  In the clear water I watch other swimmers out of the corners of my eyes so I don’t have to look up to steer as often.  By turns, I’m clobbered by flailing arms, kicked by an occasional stray foot, and swimming in peace. 

 

Approaching a red buoy marking a turn, a man has been bumping into me repeatedly.  Suddenly his arm smacks the back of my head.  To an outside observer, my next stroke may resemble a return punch in his back.  The term “aquatic road rage” passes briefly through my mind.  I deliberately move away from him as our paths straighten out again toward the next big red buoy.

 

Buoys marking the sides of the in the diamond-shaped swim course were huge yellow spheres; turns were marks with red spheres.  As I glanced up between strokes, light blobs were everywhere.  It took more time to distinguish between similar apparent-sized blobs of close white bathing caps and far yellow buoys.  The morning sun added more challenge.  This was no mindless swimming, staring at the line on the bottom of a pool.  This was constant adjustment – stroke, stroke, breathe with closed eyes toward the sun, stroke, stroke, breathe away from the sun and glance forward, get my bearings quickly, stroke, steer, stroke, steer, breath with closed eyes, open the eyes under water to watch other swimmers out of the corner of my eyes to save the effort of looking forward every other breath.  Long strokes, relax, just a little more effort, but not too much, let the body roll to get the most out of every stroke.  Smooth efficient strokes.  Why do I have a block stuck to my toe?  I kick one foot with the other, feeling around.  From the left foot’s perspective, the right foot is normal, though it feels like there’s a wooden block stuck to my second toe.  It’s gone numb in the cool water.  The wetsuit is rubbing the right side of my neck raw.  I’m going to have a wetsuit hickey – great!  Now where was I going again?

 

Ridges of sand begin to stand out in the murk.  They get imperceptibly closer with each stroke.  Experience tells me to keep swimming until my fingers hit the sand.  The second they do, I’m on my feet, running up the beach.  Defog the goggles and wave to Carrie, who’s yelling for me.  Smile for the camera.  Run around the red buoy and back down the beach until there’s too much water resistance and dive back in for the second lap. 

 

At least the pack has spread out a bit more for the second lap, and it seems far faster than the last.  I keep reminding myself of what Bernard said before the last triathlon I did:  “the swim is just there to be enjoyed.”  Enjoy it I do.  Then I’m running up the beach again, tearing off goggles and bathing cap.  I’m pulling back the reins, slowing myself down, reminding my legs that they have a long day in front of them.  Slick takes some pictures then runs on in front of me.  I’m smiling half at the cameras all around me, and half at his antics in effort to get good pictures of me. 

 

The beach finally ends at the foot of a steep concrete hill.  I keep trotting, pulling my wetsuit off my torso.  At the top of the hill, I grab my bag of bike gear and bypass the changing tents labeled “men” and “wowen”.  At least they tried to label them in English.

 

With ten racks of 100 bikes each, I’m glad I’m on the end row – one less challenge to the bike hunt.  I’ve mentally marked where my bike is by the banners hanging across from it.  In front of it, I tear off the wetsuit; don shoes, helmet, race-number belt, and shades; take a drink of Gatorade; pull the bike off the rack; and run to the exit – at the base of yet another hill.  People cheer as I ride up – and up – the slopes from the beach to the main roads.  People are passing me as if I’m going nowhere, and I again remind myself that these legs have a long day before them. 

 

Since I’m a relatively fast swimmer, I knew this would be the second greatest mental challenge – to let the slower swimmers pass me with their fast bike legs, and not race them, but ride my own pace.  I have to repeat that to myself many times over the next four hours as I curve along the rocky coastlines dotted with white lighthouses and egrets.  I’m impressed by the police directing traffic at every intersection, though passing busses downhill over 20mph is still disconcerting.  Especially when one hand is occupied with a sticky bag of peanut-butter-and-jelly fajitas that I haven’t been able to stow before the traffic hit.

 

I was advised to “eat like a pregnant lady” on the bike.  I promised I would, as long as it wasn’t pickles and cranberry sauce.  So like the swim, the bike kept me busy.  Swerve around the pot hole; hold on tight for the standard Korean elongated speed bump; snatch a bite of fajita and lick up the jelly that’s about to drop onto my hand; downshift for the hill; chew; drink some water; take another bite than re-wrap and tuck the fajitas between the aerobars and the aero-water-bottle between them; relax on the aerobars for a moment; shift again for the downhill.  Brake for the aid station and grab a water; Stow the commercial water bottle in a cage and grab a Gatorade; remove my water bottle; put the Gatorade in the now-empty cage so I have both hands free to remove the bottle top; hold the top in my teeth while pouring in Gatorade; toss the Gatorade bottle into the pile lining the road; fill the rest of the bottle up with plain water and put the cap back on; pour the rest of the water into the aero-water-bottle; drink.  Eat.  Shift.  Hold on for the bumps.  Drink water.  Take a salt and potassium pill.  Drink Gatorade.  Eat.  A pack of rider passes me.  My legs push harder of their own accord.  Pull back on the reins.  Ride your own race, Kirby. 

 

We turn inland – and up.  I should have known an ironman on a volcanic island would not be flat.  I strip a Powerbar of its wrapper.  White paint on the pavement declares 60KM.  One third of the way done.  I take a bite and chew.  And chew.  Drink water.  I follow the ribbon of road through lush fields and forests.  Volcanic crater cones rise on either side.  A herd of cattle eyes our bikes warily.  100KM flashes by under my tires.  People are still passing me, but not as often now.  I keep eating and drinking.

 

At 95KM I pick up my “bike special” bag and dig out the Powergels and PB&J fajitas without dismounting.  I return the bag to the volunteers and pedal on, wondering when the Hill would begin.  David Wilcox’s song toys with my mind: “Halleluiah, the great climb is over…”  It haunts me as I wait for the climb to show itself.  The road bends right, north, toward Mount Hallasan, the 6,000-foot crater on whose toes I’m riding.  It towers condescendingly above me.  I look down and pedal.  As the road bends back left and west, I downshift to counter to increasing grade.  Spectators line the sidewalks.  This must be the Hill.  I stand up – the only way to keep moving.  “Go Donna,” someone yells, I look at him with a cocked head, a universally inquisitive look.  “The O2 Triathlon [in Kunsan a month ago, which I won],” he answers in accented English.  I flash a big smile and nod, glad for the diversion – I’ve gained another few feet while distracted.  Someone else runs alongside and offers me an ice cube.  I accept happily and tuck it into my shorts against my lower back.  Once I reach the crest of the hill, that cube will ice my complaining knee, drip down much of my sweating body, and be far smaller before I accidentally drop it on the hot pavement.  The little things.  I let the song have its way now.  “Halleluiah, the great climb is over, lift up your wings and fly.”

 

The great climb was over, but the insidious ones continue for the next 20KM.  I shift, eat, drink, put on a fresh layer of sunscreen, and pedal.  “120KM” passes beneath me.  I’m two thirds of the way.  Deep canyons drop away far below a series of bridges.  Views over verdant valleys to rocky coastlines and the blue sea beyond would have taken my breath away if I’d had any to give.  A line of cars passes me then slows down as it enters a small town.  I weave between them, passing one on the left, one on the right, in effort to claim all the effortless downhill kilometers I can. 

 

“150KM” marks less than 20 miles to go.  I strip another Powerbar, but can only eat half.  My teeth are growing fuzz on them from all the sugar.  Three stocky bay mares and their foals canter along the stone fence that surrounds their lush field.  They are looking wide-eyed and uncertain about the line of bikes passing them.  I watch their graceful motion as long as I can, swerving across the road.  They’re beautiful.

 

I’m looking for the 160KM mark – 100 miles.  I never see it.  Instead, a line of red cones begins, separating the bike course in the far right lane from the run course in the left two lanes.  Less than five miles to go.  I slurp down one more Powergel and as much water as I can take as I roll down one hill and crank up the next, alongside the run course.  I’m trying not to notice how hilly it is.

 

Two green lines are painted across the pavement.  A marshal is helping the man in front of me off his bike.  The marshal sees me rolling in, not slowing as fast as he’d like and waves his arms in the universal “slow down” motion.  I swing a leg over, hop off, and land running without stopping the bike.  The crowd “Oooo”s.  It’s such a simple maneuver that I do at every race, and yet it still seems to impress people at every race. 

 

No more than 10 steps later, a Korean man grabs my bike.  From a glance at the competitor in front of me who is gathering his run bag from a volunteer, and his bike which is being rolled away toward the bike racks, I gather that I should let him take my bike – that’s how this transition works.  Someone gives me my run bag and points me to the changing tent.  I just dump the bag out  right there on the pavement.  I don my shirt, swing my hat onto my head, wrap a blistered toe with tape, take a Motrin, grab another Powergel and a bottle of water, and start running.  A thrill courses through me as the loudspeaker blasts my name and country, “Number 1020, Donna Kohout of the United States on the marathon.”  I cringe and tune him out – surely this is just another run at the end of a triathlon.  I will not admit to my legs that it’s a marathon.

 

 The course is a three lap out and back along the same hills that finished the bike course.  For some reason the way out seems to take forever.  It was far shorter when I was riding it!  On the way back from the first lap I’m still running at a decent pace, and noticing all the women with numbers close to mine – my competition. 

 

Going out on the second lap I pass a man bending over the grass in the road’s median.  I look away, my stomach not needing any encouragement in it’s consideration of rejecting its contents.  I’m still coaxing it to accept more offerings as I pass each aid station.  A little Gatorade.  Half a banana.  Some Coke.  A Powergel.  Water.  I carry a bottle of very diluted Gatorade with me and sip frequently.  It’s the only way I can keep getting sufficient fluid in.  I arrive at each aid station, grab an ice-water-soaked sponge and plop it on my head as I browse along the table for the other goodies.  Leaving the other end of the station, I make a concerted effort to get myself running again, then squeeze the sponge on my back, arms, legs, and head. 

 

On the second outbound leg I notice Hallasan towering through the haze.  I look at it often.  Or at the small pink flowers on the bushes in the median.  Or at other runners.  There are Japanese twins dressed alike in maroon jerseys and pale green bandanas on their heads.  They’re running together.  Another Japanese man in maroon (I decided I must like maroon jerseys) has his long black wavy hair loose around him shoulders.  He’s stocky and muscular for a triathlete.  A Korean man runs by in bright green shoes and matching jersey.  I remember him from the bike.  Brian gives me a word of encouragement, as I return the favor.  He’s an Army soldier stationed here in Korea with his family.  We encourage each other twice on every lap – every time we pass.  He finishes about half an hour before me.  Neil, a Scot who I met at the Kunsan Triathlon, runs with me for a short ways as I begin my second loop.  He’s on his third, and looks great, though he votes otherwise.

 

The trip back the second time seems so much faster than the trip out.  There are no more pros passing on their way out – they have finished now.  Other women in my age group are still going, though.  I’m pretty sure they’re on their last loop, and I’m jealous.  But I’m still running.  And my Korean acquaintances from Kunsan, who are supporting a bike club member, are still shouting “Go, Donna!” whenever I pass them.  Once, one runs alongside me saying something about ice cream.  I smile and say no, thanks.  I have no idea what he was offering, but I appreciate his generosity; a few more steps have passed unnoticed while we interacted.

 

A long slow sunset accompanies my last trot outbound.  I had hoped to finish while it was still light out, but at least I’ll finish before they make me carry a grow stick.  And the sunset is beautiful.  I’m starting to wonder, though, if Carrie and Slick will find me before I finish.  It’s getting harder and harder to run after the aid stations.  But 18 miles and 20 miles have come and gone.  Those are renowned to be the most difficult in a marathon, but they are just more markings on the pavement to me.  Maybe that has something to do with the 112 miles of biking and 2.4 miles of swimming before this marathon.

 

I slow to a careful walk to round post marking the turn around.  At this point, my hips have no ability to stabilize anything, and I’m afraid of a knee or hip just popping off and rolling away if I’m not very careful.  The computer beeps as it reads the chip strapped on my ankle.  I have passed the last checkpoint and proved to the computer system tracking my progress that I have run the entire course.  The only checkpoint left is the finish line.

 

I take a few last sips then toss away the water bottle I’ve been carrying during the whole run.  I’m less than a kilometer from the finish.  A car honks and Carrie yells, “Go, Kirby!”  I smile in happiness.  My friends have found me.  They park the car on the side of the road and run with me for a few steps.  I tell them I’m done in less than a kilometer.  “What?!”  I have to repeat it a couple times before they’re convinced.  Carrie goes back for the car.  Slick runs ahead to get pictures at the finish line. 

 

Turning away from the road and toward the Stadium that marks the finish, I find the strength to pick up the pace, as if the red carpet I’m running on has given me extra energy.  The music, the loudspeakers shouting my name, the sight of the finish.  Adrenaline definitely flows just a bit stronger.  My smile barely fits under the arch marked with all the race sponsors that was the finish.  Cameras flash and someone puts a finisher medal over my head.  Two wheel chairs wait.  Someone pushed one toward me.  I shake my head.  No way.  Then I try to walk, and realize a wheel chair may not be such a bad idea.  Someone helps me walk to the table to collect my finisher’s T-shirt and embroidered towel.  Someone else steers me to a mat and a masseuse.  The ice she put on my neck as I lay there is too cold.  And the massage too hard.  Painfully hard.  Still, I’m laughing and smiling – I FINISHED! 

 

I lie for a few minutes after the masseuse finished before the shakes start.  My teeth are chattering and I realize I’m freezing.  My friends help me up to a table where the medics cover me with a space blanket and take my blood pressure and temperature.  Blood pressure – 100 over 60.  Normal for me.  Temperature – 36.5.  Slick and I look at each other and shrug.  No idea if that’s good or bad.  I lie there for a while, turning down the IV they offered.  I’m not dehydrated.  In fact, my bladder is telling me it’s time to move again.  Carrie becomes my crutch wherever I move for the rest of the night.  From athlete to invalid in 13 quick hours, I joke.  Slick gathers my finisher’s certificate as I eat soup, potato salad, and bread without tasting much.  My stomach isn’t sure it’s interested in food, but it doesn’t openly rebel.

 

Carrie helps me to the car while Slick carries all my stinky gear and Rick rolls the bikes.  Rick started the race but fell out after the Hill on the bike.  I’m bummed for him, but he doesn’t seem upset at all.  So I go back to being really happy I finished, and reveling in everyone else taking care of the details I usually have to do on my own.  Friends add so much to the experience!

 

Back at the “pension” that evening, Slick carried me down the stairs to our room – with no railing on the rough stone stairs to the lawn in front of our room, I hadn’t a chance of making it down them unassisted.  He set me down on the bed, and there I stayed for the rest of the night.  He also worked wonders, massaging my back and legs with the Man Touch lotion (a source of much laughter in itself), getting ice from the corner store, bagging it and bringing it to me, and keeping Carrie and I both laughing.  Carrie helped by getting anything I asked for, and stopping her typing to turn and listen when we talked.  I just wish she could have gone to the bathroom for me.  I crawled, hands and knees, the first time I went.  The next time, I made it on my feet – teetering with outstretched arms for balance.  Spoiled by listening ears, I was surprised to see the clock pass midnight before we all slept.

 

A couple last snapshots from Monday.  We went to Rick’s hotel to relax by the pool and to pick him up.  There was a couple on two lounge chairs not far from ours.  The man spoke English with a British or Australian accent and the woman was apparently Korean, but laughed at his overt advances.  As we passed them on our way out, he was leaning over her, kissing her neck and ear.  I noticed, then looked away.  I assume Carrie, in front of me did the same.  My vague sense of impropriety didn’t even make it to my consciousness.  Then I heard Slick say, loud enough for all nearby to hear, “can I be next?”  Carrie and I, of course, winced and cringed, then gave in to the laughter.  My first thought was, “for which position?”  I hesitated, then asked.  He’s already gone “there”.  Why not join him?!  Leave in to the fighter pilot to go where no one else dared.

 

One last tourist event before we left the resort area – we stopped by the Chunjiyon Waterfall.  I made it up and over the bridge under my own power, but the stairs down to the base of the falls were too much to even consider.  Slick offered his back.  I hopped on.  Thankfully he only slipped once on the moist hewn rock steps.  That drew quite an “ooo” from the Koreans behind us.  I decided I don’t mind being spoiled once in a while.  I can be lazy with the best of them!

 

(summary from an email)  The most incredible thing about the whole weekend, though, was the folks that went with me to help.  It’s tough to describe the feelings of the race, but the strongest impression I have is from the people who showed me yet again that people are the greatest thing in life – even though for the life of me I can’t seem to get close to anyone – not even as a friend.  Unless they’re far away and only interact via email – and then they’re great friends!  Maybe that’s what I like about races like that – they take away all the facades and bare a person’s soul for what it is.  Funny that after such a physical feat, what strikes me is the emotions that surrounded it.  Not that unusual, I don’t guess.

 

Quote of the week:  “Those who ask could never understand; those who know could never explain.”

 

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