On July 8, our hard training culminated at the Jeju International Triathlon. It was a 4 km swim at Hwasun Beach, followed by a 180 km bike ride east along the coast of Seogwipo and up through the foothills of Mt. Halla. And we finished it all off with a 42 km run through the streets of Seogwipo City.
With over 500 participants on course there was no shortage of high-fives and fist-pump cheers of encouragement — either from fellow competitors or friends and family camped out along the way.
And camp out, they do. Triathlons are a festival around the finish area. While the 1st place winner completes the race in about 8 hours, many athletes are braving on long after dark. The cutoff time for this race was midnight, that’s 17 hours after the 7 a.m. start. People set up tents around the finish line, ready with post-race makgeolli, soju, pork, ramyeon, watermelon, and whatever else their competing friends need.
As for my race day, it felt like I finally was able to start the party. I spent many hours training, blowing up balloons, baking the cake, setting out the decorations, on the swim start line that morning I felt like it was time to pop the cork and let the champagne bubble.
When I started in this sport I couldn’t swim the 25-meter length of a pool. Five doggy paddles into the water and I had to cling onto the side of the pool for dear life. And if I did enter a bike or run race I’d come last. And I mean that: last place, as in my Dad or a race organizer would have go back out onto the race course looking for me to make sure I was still alive.
▲ The author after the warm-up swim prior to the start of the event. Photo courtesy Ahn Byung Sik
But I kept on. It’s old and worn, but true: Life is about the journey not the destination. I had a wonderful journey on July 8.
I swam well — I was even calm enough to enjoy looking at the colorful fish going about their day — and I got out of the water with lots of energy, excited to explore with what lay ahead.
During the bike ride, the island opened up and truly showcased what Jeju has to offer. We toured through finishing villages and up the sprawling foothills of Mt. Halla. Along the coast the ocean’s wind kept our bodies cool and the trees did the same in the mountains, covering us from the hot sun. Madam Jeju was smiling that day, lending us her beautiful landscape to play on.
▲ Photo courtesy Ahn Byung Sik
I won’t lie. Trying to race your bike for 180 km knowing you have to run a marathon after that can get ugly.
By the 100-km mark, I hated my bike. I hated having to eat yet another banana, yet another roll of kimbap, yet another sports gel, yet another anything. I could feel when my energy was getting low and I knew that I needed to fuel my body but the taste of more of the same food was unappealing. And while my body was hungry for energy my stomach wasn’t hungry for food. In a 6 hour bike ride (knowing there is a marathon to run after) I needed to take in a little over 2,500 calories. My guts just didn’t want to do the work to process that many calories. The factory wanted to close, the workers wanted to go home.
But I focused on the present moment of the journey. The sun was shining, the crowds were cheering us all on and if I could stomach it, there was an ice cream waiting for at the finish line.
When your heart’s pounding, it means you’re alive.
The run was a also an interesting exploration. I chased and sought answers to one curiosity after another.
“I wonder if I can keep up this pace.” “If I stop and stretch will that take the pain away, will I be able to start again?” “Two didn’t work, what if I smooched three choco pies with the banana, will that make it more palatable?” Jeju’s International Triathlon made for a great day of discovery.
And the party continued along after my race was done. Everyone stayed until midnight ushering in the last finisher. The group of people I train with suddenly became a family of 500. For the record, in the men’s division Ham Yeon Sik was first to cross the finish line in 9 hours, 35 minutes and 4 seconds. The women’s division winner was Lee Ji Hyun, with a time of 11:25:13.
▲ Ham Yeon Sik crosses the line in 9 hours, 35 minutes and 4 second. Photo courtesy Ahn Byung Sik
Everyone who crossed that finish line, and even the ones who didn’t, all shared a common bond. We knew each others stories: the early mornings to train, the aching legs, the blistered feet, the throbbing sun burnt shoulders, the nirvana, the absolute and unequivocal satisfaction in knowing that you can do anything that you set your mind to.
Seemingly impossible at first, but one step, one small step at a time you can begin any journey you like. And from my experience in Jeju, that journey will never be alone.
▲ Photo courtesy Ahn Byung Sik
Training prior to July 8
At six in the morning the sun rises on two groups of people. It says goodnight to those that have reveled in the ecstasy of late night, and it says good day to those who have dreamt the night away in favor of hitting the road in running shoes to chase the early morning wind.
Since my time in Jeju I have joined the early risers to play, more specifically to swim, bike, and run. Triathlon is a sport that started in San Diego in 1974 when a bunch of nuts at a local track club debated who was more fit, a runner or a swimmer. To settle the argument they threw in a bike ride and set out to race all three sports one after another.
Since then the sport has grown with thousands of races all over the world and millions of participants. It’s an Olympic sport (at the 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run distance) and has a famous Ironman World Championship race in Hawaii every year (at a 4 km, 180 km, 42 km distance).
On Jeju I’ve had the good fortune of mucking in with the triathletes here and it’s been a wonderful ride.
These people, these early morning risers, have been a family to me. I started training with them when I haphazardly meet local professional triathlete Kaon Cho at Jeju Cycle (a local bike shop just west of Jeju City Hall). He invited me along for what he called an easy, leisurely ride of 100 km.
Now, keep in mind what’s easy for a professional is not so easy for an amateur like me.
While Kaon and his training partners cruised up the road laughing and goofing about, I turned my carcass inside out trying my damnedest not to get too far behind and be left as road kill. In fairness, once and a while one of them would loop back to check on me and ride with me for a bit, but if you’re a rabbit it’s hard to ride with the tortoise.
When the ride was finished I thought so too was my relationship with my new training partners. But while wolfing down boxes of choco pies and gallons of Pocari Sweat Kaon said, “And tomorrow, we’re running two hours. Start time is 6 a.m. Will you join us?”
I said, “yes.”
That’s the day I forged my mantra, never quit. And more importantly, that’s the day I was introduced to many of the local characters that make up the athletic family in Jeju.
A typical day begins a bit after 5 a.m. by shoving food into my mouth as I race out the door for the first session of either a swim, bike, or run, after which is a second breakfast and then off to work. Immediately after work (but not before stuffing my face again) it’s off to the next session which is a bike ride or a run or sometimes both.
The weekends are usually the same but with a longer ride (typically 100 to 200 km) and a run right after the ride. While this routine may look boring on paper, it’s filled with wonderful moments with lovely people.
As much as sport can be about competing, for the family of athletes on Jeju it’s about camaraderie, and — just as we did when we were kids riding our bikes all day and scuffing our knees and running wild on the playground — it’s about being a participant in life; when there is a bend in the road, whether on a bike or on foot, we’ll explore it together.
And the island is the perfect playground for those who love to dance in the sun. There are beaches galore with clear water to swim in. Never alone, you can float over colorful coral and say hello the haenyeo (female divers).
There is a heap of beautiful oreum and Olle paths that will take you on adventures through the woods, raise you up to stunning views of the island and ocean, and then lay you back by the sea where you can skip along the lava rock. And the roads: pick your choice — hit the coast and enjoy the ocean view, glide along the rolling foothills and wind yourself around the farms, forests and orange groves, or tackle a climb, peddle yourself up through the quiet switchbacks that summit Mt. Halla.
With so many inspiring landscapes it’s no wonder Jeju is a choice destination for adventure seekers.
If you like having the sun on your face mixed with a little happy sweat please join us! If the distance of an Ironman seems a bit daunting then no worries, start with a shorter Sprint Distance Triathlon of a 750 meter swim, 20 km bike, and a 5 km run. You can finish the whole thing in less then an hour and hit the beach by noon.
At every race you’re guaranteed a shiny medal, a bright colored T-shirt, and a coupon for some type of something or another. What a great deal for a little outdoor fun!
We all splashed in the tub as kids, swimming in the ocean is no different (minus the soap), and if you can walk, you can run. Give the rust on your secondhand bike a good coat of grease and bam! the island is yours!
Shannon Warren is from Newfoundland, Canada. He loves to run around in spandex and is slowly learning to swim without the use of water wings. If you’re keen on a swim, bike or run, give him a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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