Monday, July 29, 2013


Jina could see that this summer break, while giving me awesome days at home with J-bear and plenty of time for my own pursuits, needed an additional injection of travel and change of venue. So she graciously (I love you, yobo) booked me a hotel for three nights in Seorak Valley. I kissed Jonah goodbye leaving him in the ever-able hands of Halmoni, fueled up the car, and came to Seoraksan armed with some running gear, a guitar, and a few good books.
Isn't it cool to know that there are places that stamp indelible impressions deep down, places that we feel an invisible pull back to time and time again? In Korea there is Seoraksan National Park. It’s a mere two hour drive from my house, yet the three or four times I get out here each year is not enough. Each and every time I come, I have a deeply personal response. Seorak has a palliative effect, certainly—once here it is easy to leave behind work or the myriad stresses that creep into our daily ventures. But it is also restorative, sending me back home reset, regenerated, and with a dose of zest that I didn't bring with me. God seems to have strategically placed these locations within reach, to periodically lift up the soul, to remember who we are, and to connect with creation with a thankful and joyous heart.

Day 1:
It was raining when I arrived, but I decided to get out anyways and do a “warm-up” run up to Ulsan-Bawi. I ran through a downpour, skipping and hopping over the rocky path, up the valley that gradually brought me to the base of this incredible collection of rock. Ulsan-bawi juts up out of the trees, a giant granite wall standing vigilant at its watch of the eastern sea. Most of the ascent is now decked out in stairs, taking a bit away from the fun and slightly sketchy scrambling that was required in past years. Gone are the old dodgy stairs and the rope sections that gave it a fatal appeal, but it has had absolutely no impact on the views from up top. This view stands up with any natural wonders that I've ever ogled. On this occasion, the white clouds pushing off the East Sea were rushing headlong into the rockwall, and pushing upwards, and rolling back on themselves like waves in the ocean.

I headed down, grabbed a shower at my room, then headed into town to pick up some famous Mansoek- Dalkkongjang. I grabbed a beer, and went up to the room and was, indeed, the luckiest man.

만석닭건장 This is Korean style Saucy chicken at its best, from the outdoor market in Seokcho. 

Day 2: Set the alarm for 4:30, but woke up just before. I jumped right into my gear, made coffee, had some cream bread ala Paris Baguette, and stepped out into the drizzling morning. On previous trips, I had learned that in order to miss foot traffic on the trails up Seoraksan, an early morning start was required. But not today-- there were no more than five cars in the parking lot as I pulled in. I ran the first 4km in the park, through the deep, wide valley surrounded by the all-seeing peaks of Seorak. The path follows a wide, rocky stream, tumultuous with the summer rains and making a percussive melody. My plan was, as in the past, to do a direct ascent up to Daecheong-bong, the highest peak at 1,701 meters, but as I crossed a bridge past the final little store before the climbing truly began, I saw that the gate for my route was closed and locked until the rangers showed up. Rather than climbing the fence, or waiting, I took this as a sign from Providence to hit a different route, one that would add 4km but take me past two Buddhist hermitages where I could fill up on yaksu, the Korean spring water found at most temples. The first section I had done years earlier, climbing this steep rock wall face on a path carefully sculpted out by the monks who traveled the path for centuries. There were moments of torrential downpour, but it lasted no longer than twenty minutes and then settled back into a lazy drizzle. I climbed, and climbed some more, finally reaching a pass that granted access through a causeway of rock shaped by a constant and mighty wind from the coast. Having crossed through this wind tunnel with my hand on my hat, I began descending again, back down through a forest following a crystal clear stream, which, running out of water, I took a risk and drank from. I came across the first hermitage (Seaoh-am), took a breather, filled up my water from the yaksu, and continued on, climbing again steadily as I crossed several ridges. The path was always next to water and the forest was lush with black soil, brilliant greens sprouting everywhere. The birds and chipmunks were playing all around me and I began to feel a bit like a trail running Francis, seeing the glowing divinity of God in the spectacle of the natural world.

Saeoh-ahm, and the yaksu station.

Beongjang-ahm nestled high in the Seorak mountains.

Even when the steep climbing began, I floated up in high spirits, and before I knew it, I crested another pass, this one even windier than the first. As I rolled through the corridor of the pass I could see the Bongjang-ahm, the second Buddhist hermitage, this one bigger and more established than the first. I quickly snapped some photos, took in the immense panorama of the landscape free-falling from the high elevation all around me, and continued my final push, which was supposed to be two kilometers to Dae Cheong-Bong, the highest peak in the Seorak mountains at 1701 meters. Here is what it was like on top:

Insane! I’ve never been anywhere with wind pushing that hard, where I literally had to brace myself on several occasions from toppling over, flying off the side of the mountain. I didn’t hang out too long.
The perfunctory summit photo. 

The descent, in the beginning, was tough. Super steep, and the path made by large rocks made it a gingerly affair of stepping down on tired, near-buckling legs. I had run out of food, and was praying that a shelter, that I rememberd from years past, might just have some food. The other shelters were closed and no one around to sell food. I was getting dangerously hungry, especially considering that a wrong step down the step rock could really do some damage, so when the path turned to staircases, and I could see the top of a building below, I got hopeful. And yes, there was one guy working at the shelter, and he sold me what I will have to consider one of the most satisfying meals of the entire trip:

The best meal ever? nah... but you couldn't have told me that then.

As I was eating these little critters kept me company.

I still had a good seven or eight kilometers to go, but most of the technical descending was done, the grade mellowed out, providing a nice downhill run through a gorge cut out by this creek, that was abounding with waterfalls and little swimming holes, a couple of which I went in, remembering to never forego what the trail offers. And by this time, the morning rain clouds had burned off and it was blazing hot.

Lots of water on the trail, and some great swimming holes!

But I made it back to the car in high spirits, 25.5km round trip, and over 2500meters of climbing. Oh, and it took me over eight hours!
I hit the beach for a little bit that evening, and settled back in the hotel room early for a good night’s rest.
I had put some things out on the balcony to dry, and had secured the lighter clothing with weights, but I ended up losing one sock and one insole for my shoe. No biggie. I had extra insoles waiting for me at home.
Day 3: Having no real plan, I slept in. But halfway in the morning, I had one of those sleep realizations that out of all my gear that was on the balcony, I don’t remember bringing in my hydration bladder. I quickly jumped up, looked around the room and the balcony, but it had flown (reminding of a brand new tent I had bought in New Zealand that had taken a similar flight off my Seoul apartment rooftop several years previous). I made a cup of coffee and went outside and had a good search around the hotel grounds, but to no avail. Alas! Now to find a replacement.
I had a couple of long cups of coffee, did a lot of reading, and got into gear around noon. I headed for the beach, swam some laps in the ocean, and then jumped in the car to head south to Gangneung to check out the Salomon store where I was told sold hydration bladders (they were 69,000 won, costing more than my Nathan bag, so I didn’t buy it), and to go visit So-Zacs, a little café run by a Mi-kookin named Zac and his wife So Jin. Zac is a climber turned trail runner and is putting on a fat-ass trail/road event in late September, so I stopped in and chatted with them, super nice folks, and I had me one of these:
Anderson Valley IPA at So-Zacs in Gangneung. 
 I decided that while I was down there, I would run some of the coarse that he had in mind for the race, so he drove me out to the trail head, and gave me the best instructions he could, and let me loose. Five or ten minutes later, I was lost. The trail was very faint and grown over in many areas, and there were several unsigned forks, and I quickly lost confidence in where I was. I decided to just follow one path out while my shins became bloodied by the thorny underbrush. I finally found a farm road, ran down that for a while, asked an elderly couple what the best way to get back to Gangneung was on foot, and after they insisted I take a bus and me telling them I was running, they finally, with some skepticism, pointed me in the right direction. I ran, made into a section of town, gave Zac a call, and he guided me back to the café. So, it ended up being a 15km road run, but I think I now pretty much know the general layout of Gangneung. As Thoreau said, "Not til we are lost, in other words, not til we have lost the world, do we begin to fin ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."Sometimes we have to go somewhere alone, get lost, meet new people, to remember who we are. I hopped in the car, grabbed an E-Mart pizza, cranked some of this, and drove back to Seokcho, where I slept like a rock.

Final day on the beach!

Day 4: Last day of vacation. Slept in, had a couple cups of coffee, read and wrote, packed up, and went to the beach to do this. And reflect. Seorak had once again, like a long lost friend, crept in and brightened me up. What an amazing place. If you can, go there during the week, when there are less people out. I drove back refreshed, complete with energy reserves for a return into the wonderful world of the everyday, replete with diapers and baby formula, wonderful J-bear and my unsurpassable wife. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Gangchon 50km Out and Back

"I am running 50k."
"You're what?"
"Shhh, keep it down! I said I'm running 50km. Gangchon course out and back."
"Why are you doing that? You know from experience how much it hurts, and you've not been training properly."
"Hey, I've got a pretty decent base and I've been doing 60 to 80km every week for the last two months. And besides, I've been listening to a ton of Talk Ultra podcasts and Ultrarunner lately, so I know what I'm doing!"
"But that's gonna hurt."
"Listen, I'll be fine. I've gotta plan. I'm going to keep it real quiet, take it super easy on the climbs, and enjoy a nice leisurely day out on the mountain. My legs never need to know the full extent of what I'm embarking on."
"You're a bit daft, aren't you?"
And the plan ensued, meeting Yann at Gulbong station for a quick chat, before we could no longer delay what lie ahead. 50km, over 3,000 meters of climbing, and right in the middle of a summer day that could, if feeling particularly unfettered, pummel us with a simultaneous heat/ humidity blast.
I stayed on plan, never kicking too hard in the kilometers leading up to the first climb. I kept a steady but sensible pace up the first section, while watching Yann tearing away around the first corner, and I even power-hiked the steeper sections of the first climb. The weather was wonderful, maintaining in the low 20's, a nice veil of clouds protecting us from the fiery disc above. I kept my cool on the long descent, never dipping below a 5:30 pace, and felt great as I rounded the corner at kilometer 12 to begin the second ascent. Gnawing down a Clif Bar, I once again walked the steep sections and breathed easy as I met with Yann at the top of the climb. That would be the pattern, the speed rabbit would fly, I would trounce along at a respectable pace, fooling my legs into thinking we were just out on a leisurely stroll.
The descent down into the village showed the carnage that was wreaked in Gangwondo the previous week, a la jangma, the rampant Korean monsoons that nearly took out Andy and I on our Indiana Jones-esque run the Sunday before. The road was washed up, over, and out. In some sections, the creek had diverted onto the road, and showed no sign of re-joining its former path down the mountain. Looks like some work for the engineers if they ever want to have their annual mountain bike race here.

  So, that made for a slow descent, but as slow and easy was the MO of the day, I was not complaining, only marveling in the perverse way that the human mind marvels at scenes of great destruction. Got down into the village, took a dip in the river crossing, and made our way up the "final" climb, where I once again walked sections, whistling, enjoying the scenery, and being ever-mindful of the blessing of mild and dry weather we had. Pulled into the turn around at just under three hours, a very respectable time for such a leisurely day in mother nature. Yann, ever-patient, ever-waiting, said nothing, just waited at the tops of the climbs before setting off on his blistering pace (can't wait to see the times that this guy throws down in races over the next few months!).
Tossing back a Coke and a tin of Pringles for that much needed sodium re-uptake, we filled our hydration vests and quickly set off in the opposite direction. No problem, I told myself. I was on fresh legs, and just beginning the run of a normal day at Gangchon. My plan of simply not acknowledging what I was doing was working like a charm. I thought I might even take some time off the laps on the return trip, and have one of those curious instances of finishing stronger than I had started. Hardy had-har.
I began the ascent nicely enough, took in the always encouraging expressions from the hikers (ah, jeongmal dea-dan-he! really amazing!... Why, thank you for noticing!) Another hiker threw out his thumb and said with force and conviction, "Nice guy!" Awww shucks. My legs seemed to still be under the impression that this was meant to be enjoyed. I even kicked up the pace a notch and felt pretty darn fantastic. At last I saw the summit and kicked a little harder, knowing that I had plenty of downhill ahead on which to recover. False summit. Really? You got fooled by that again? One more kilometer to go, and my legs, for the first time all day, began writing protest songs that they would sing into my darkening mind for the rest of the day. I tried to shrug it off, but an involuntary groan escaped me, an indicator, that I know all too well, that the struggle was about to commence. Not good-- this was the first climb of three with 20km left to cover.
I made it down the next descent well enough, but was slowed down by places where the road was washed out and covered with fallen trees, which made it difficult to maintain any rhythm. I finally made it down to the creek crossing, and perfunctorily I jumped in, remembering some sage wisdom I once heard for ultra distances: "Never pass by cold water and give yourself something to regret later." The cold water is invigorating, it shrinks the capillaries in the legs momentarily for a numbing effect, and it lowers core body temperature. Emerging refreshed, albeit a little soggy, Yann and I run through the farming village and make our way back up the second return climb. This time the earbuds go in, and the power hiking begins over the rough, washed out road.

As I got to towards the top, this track began to play and my legs followed, and I felt like I was flying up the hill, sweat flying off my face in this mad burst of energy, I could see the summit, and so I dug in, leaping up the climb like a spirited antelope, I could almost make the summit just as the last banjo note rolled over and.... what the heck? Another false summit! No!! I know this run too well to be fooled by these mendacious bends on the trail. Granted, it had been a while since I've run this direction, but I think my falling into the trap was born out of the state of suffering that my mind was beginning to enter into. But, not time for such thoughts, move forward. relentless forward progress, thanks Bryon Powell.
I carried myself up and over the climb, and then cursed my way down the short but steep 1km descent, rounded the corner, and set in for the final 6km climb and 6km descent to the finish.
I won't bore you with further details, but it involved many minutes with my hands on my knees, staring at the earth, praying. There was a phone call by my wife, who was waiting patiently at the finish, and I think I yelled at her, telling her I was dying. There was another creek submersion, but it took me five minutes to crawl out of the man built ravine and finish the final kilometer. But I did. And that's what it is all about in the end. Finishing.
I'm not sure I'll ever run a pretty ultra distance. I'd like to. I'd like to have that kind of run where everything goes your way, and the dark spots come and go and clear away in enough time to enjoy the final kilometers. I'd like to find that magical, hidden gear that many ultrarunners say appears somewhere late in the race, a sixth gear of your soul. I'd like all of that, one day. But for now, I know that I can finish, even amidst the suffering, and I guess there is something pretty in that, after all. And as for pretending that I'm not running far, I'm not sure this is the best strategy. Sure, it helps to keep out the negative thoughts early. But in another way, ultrarunning requires a certain level of engagement with your body, the environment, and how these intersect to make it the raw, emotional experience that it is. I'm still learning how to trust and persevere with joy, while going through the suffering.
Enjoying the afternoon with family-- a great reason to finish!