Monday, August 19, 2013

Jirisan Traverse

Pretty far off Broadway
Have you ever been in an off-Broadway production? Me, neither. Have you ever been in an off-off-Broadway production? Ummm, well, me, neither! Have you ever been in a production so far off of Broadway that you would need a passport to get there? Well, I have, I played Rafiki in The Lion King for a kid's musical English camp here in Korea. But I'm only telling you this because of what happened after my off-broadway musical performance. I drove six hours, scooping up some folks in Daegu, and headed for Cheolla-Buk-do in the southern part of the peninsula to start a 46km trail race across the entire Jirisan Traverse. May I be permitted to ask a final question? If you were in an off-off-off Broadway production, did you then proceed, without sleep, to drive 6 hours, run through an entire night and into the next day, climbing over 3,000 meters, for 46km, for over 13 hours? I did. I'm just saying.
Now, lest you accuse me of boasting of my effort, let me preface my "race" report by telling you that I was outrun by a husband and wife in their seventies, the latter of whom did all of her climbs on all fours like a giant Ajumma spider. I'll also mention that I fell into such a funk that I began to question my whole existence for a full three hours. I rolled an ankle and screamed profanities across the mountain. I plummeted down to a sub-human hunger that had me dipping canned peaches into a bag of protein powder with chopsticks. I was a freaking mess.
Think I'll just stay here...forever. 

2:30 AM
We started off at 2:30 AM, filing off of a bus, and immediately onto a trail, no starting line, no gun, just go. Robb, Katie, and I started pretty much all the way in the back, thinking we would enjoy the long trek more if we were passing folks along the way. So, we climbed and climbed through bamboo forests, a long line of headlamps could be seen above like a group of clumsy but uniform fireflies. I read somewhere that climbing in the dark wasn't as hard intellectually as climbing in the light. It's kind of true. When you can't see the trail and what you have yet to cover, it allows you to linger in this sort of limbo, where your effort is simply sustained for each successive step. You never get ahead of yourself and look way, way up the mountain with that sinking feeling that we sometimes get in sight of a climb. We climbed for what seemed a couple of hours (was actually only 40 minutes), and after climbing 1,400 meters (4600 feet) we hit our first shelter, and the first clearing of the trip. Looking up into the sky we could see the stars about as bright as you can ever imagine, with all of the constellations strutting in full, luminous regalia up above. Robb and I managed to take this beautiful moment to argue about a constellation, and then we quickly moved on. We ran a good section of ridge, and I broke into song, Hakuna Matata. It seemed appropriate, and Katie joined in, contributing strength in numbers. I was a little surprised that the entire mountain didn't break out in song, but this may be because I had now been awake for a full twenty four hours and my expectations weren't fully grounded in reality.

Robb and I on top of the world!
Most of the morning went great, and when we could, we ran. Lots of good sections of a rolling, rocky spine. Most of it was more of a run/walk scenario: run when you weren't in terrible danger of breaking your ankle off should you misstep. But coming out of our second shelter, I began to have the terrible feeling that any running that we were doing wasn't really giving us much of an advantage in terms of speed. It felt a bit like an old horror movie where you are running and running, but you can't escape the slow and steady psychopath. At one point, I said to our crew, "we are not going to get passed", and we ran, and moved as quick as possible, but it seemed we were never out of danger of getting caught by the power hikers.
By the half way point, we all had slowed to pretty much a hike, and as we tucked in for the climb up to the peak, I was feeling very weak and in terrible spirits. The kilometers seemed to take ages to tick off, and I began the whole process of questioning my fitness, my ability, and my genuine desire to be out there. Meanwhile Robb and Katie were crushing it, and waiting for me atop a few climbs, which, at that time, made me feel even lower, as I felt like I've been training pretty hard. So, it got dark there for a while, and quite slow, and even summiting the peak, for me, was an uninspiring event. Once at the peak, though, I thought I'd pull myself together for the descent, still a good 15km down. I thought I could recoup my losses, get my energy back up, and finish strong. But even the downhills were punishing, the long steep steps down miscellaneous boulders, technical sections which otherwise might have been fun, in my shattered state just piled on the suffering.

I think one of the main problems of the day was my choice of nutrition. To make matters easy (I thought), I just carried Clif Bars-- AMATEUR MISTAKE. Two flavors: Chocolate Brownie and Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Crunch-- two favorites. But when you get you get to your third Clif Bar, they become nearly impossible to eat. I managed to eat four all day, but that's only a total of 800 calories over a 13 hour period. I ate a can of Tuna and some rice as well, also getting a few sodas down, but all in all, I wasn't getting the calories that I needed over the long day out. 

The best I felt all day was when I grubbed down some peaches, 8km from the finish, and then started dipping the peaches directly into Katie's bag of dried protein shake powder. It was amazingly good, and it did the trick. I finally felt better, got to moving faster, and my spirits were lifted. I even managed to eat another Clif Bar with 4km to go which helped me to finish. 

But those last 8km weren't easy. We were basically following the water down and most of the track was boulder hopping, which is very slow on tired and jaded legs.
Boulder hopping, yay...
We all regrouped in the end, raced down the road to the finished, and came in elated but tired, destroyed but somehow invigorated. I immediately said the perfunctory "I'll never do that again" and I even maintained that an hour later when we met up with Murray, who had won the 33km event. But given a good night's sleep and I was insanely inspired to do it again... one day.
Looking like death but strangely happy!
So, every run teaches you something. Here's what this taught me: Koreans are collectively the world's fastest power hikers. What at first was childish frustration on my part of getting passed by so many older power hikers in the second half of the traverse, luckily turned to an awesome reverence for what humans can do. These guys had mountains deep in their blood, and years and years spent in the mountains had given them the wisdom and speed that was now on display. Katie also mentioned the word resilience, and that these were the guys whose long hours building up the Korean nation in its industrial heyday were now the ones kicking some serious ass over some pretty gnarly terrain. I gained a respect for both the mountain and the people on it that I think I had improperly lacked before. It also taught me that I'm not there yet, but it gave me hope. 
Secondly, you truly get to know yourself under tough conditions. I get moody, and grumpy, and fatalistic. I get down on myself and get pretty harsh in the process. All of my life, there has been a voice that chastises and ridicules, and when I'm down in the physical dumps, that voice reaches it highest decibels. But I am learning to quiet that voice with humility and appreciation. Really, shouldn't I move forward with a thankful heart, always in gratitude for what God has blessed me with-- nature, friendship, and the deep down curiosity to keep exploring and pushing my own limits? I want to keep doing these things, but I want to do them in a more joyful way, with a content heart. My suffering at anytime is real and acknowledged, but it shouldn't override my joy for being out there. My whole life should be like that.
OK. Well, that is that. 
All in all this was an epic event and I strongly encourage people to get out to Jirisan to try the traverse. 
I am looking very forward to the next challenge. Yang Yang Songi 100km here we come!

Here's the website to the Jirisan event

Here's the website to the upcoming Yang Yang event.


Dominic said...

Hakuna Matata is a perfect song for long distance running! I don't know if it still exists, but the one ultra I tried in Korea was started at 4pm and I gave up at 2:45 am as my right knee gave up somewhere round 75-80km in.

It's a really beautiful course and all road.

Anonymous said...

Attention getting and hilarious story. Proud of you man!