|▲ Some of the hillside tracks on Olle 18 are easy to follow, but others might leave you in a farmer's field. Photo courtesyJeju Olle
The Olle trails are not made for those in a rush. Up to 6 hours of walking, often along minimally signposted routes with a parade of muse-friendly coffee shops, does not really help those with newborns to tend, in-laws to visit and football to watch.
Running, while the obvious answer (for the runner), seems almost offensive to the Olle philosophy. It demands intensity, focus, single-mindedness. How much of Jeju’s beautiful scenery can one imbibe while nimbly avoiding ankle-twisting rocks in a farmer’s field?
The answer lay in the running of Olle 18, an 18.8 k.m. route along Jeju’s northeast coast from Dongmun Rotary to Jocheon. I decide to run cityward, east to west, not wanting to subject bus passengers to my post-run redolence.
The journey begins about 20 k.m. east of Jeju City at Jocheon Manse Dongsan, a monument dedicated to liberation from Japanese rule just off the main coastal thoroughfare. As I attack the west, the first few meters are effortless, before I suddenly confront a public toilet. The problem is clear: I have no idea where to run.
I had stared at Daum maps for what seemed like minutes, trying to burn the course onto my retina. Sadly, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and it isn’t going down well. Putting the lavatory mishap behind me, I hit the first five-way junction in Jocheon and decide I must keep the sea to my right until I reach the city.
Jeju’s genius is in its winding village alleyways: Villagers out in their gardens, dogs sleeping, grandmothers giggling. Such distractions only make harder my attempts to spot the Olle ribbons. Being my first time on the trail, the winding village alleys - the real “olle” - have outdone me. At every junction I frantically hunt the them out, not wanting to break stride and running on pure instinct -- into an empty garage.
I turn back and away from the sea, knowing it’s the wrong way. Every wrong turn adds a few kilometers to the distance.
Eyeing a ribbon, I head back seaward, leaving Jocheon and taking a brief sojourn on the volcanic rocks by the sea. Despite the respite, my confidence is dashed. The least I can do, I again urge myself, is keep the sea is to my right. Finally finding my feet, I enter the next village, Shinchon.
Shinchon is quaint and blue-roofed, almost refreshing. The ribbons are just as elusive, but my legs are still spritely and my plight is embraced. Fighting, wending away from the village, the trail rises. As I enter farmer country, my inner compass fails me.
I enjoy hugging the coastline, but I am now foraging inland. The ribbons, glimpsed through boughs at a distance, are like teenage romances: flirting, teasing, always elusive. Suddenly, I realize I am in the hinterland.
Attempting to keep up the pace, I turn and am faced by a large-enough-to-scare-me dog. I immediately dart in the opposite direction, putting as many onions between myself and the mutt as possible. The barking stops, but not before two fields and a wall are cleared.
I want to avoid the angered dog, so I attempt a shortcut. A trail and a farmer appear - two welcome sights. The farmer - bemused, possibly the dog owner - directs me on. With a few cuts and muddied Asics, I again find the ribbons.
Making progress, yet tiring, Wondangbong towers ahead. I plod on through rural tracks that are now familiar. At last I take in the breeze.
There is little comparable to that moment of exhilaration, often on a hillside walk, or a cycle, or - like now - a run. In one gust of wind, or the turn of a corner, everything lifts from within and the mind is freed and carried onward, effortlessly: A second wind.
As I pass Bultapsa temple on Wondangbong, I forego the opportunity to wish for a son and round the crest. As I see the sea and Samyang open out below, my knees rejoice at the remaining 9 k.m. I pass Byeolnang Harbor and the fields give way to Hwabuk.
One version of this tale now recounts how I stumble upon a pensioners’ party and get dragged by the arm into a room full of 70-year-old women, who swing me around, bang drums, cheer and wolf whistle. As I try my escape, the lone man yanks me back in, sits me down, pours me a makgeolli and fills my plate with pork. I love it.
In this version, however, I quickly leave Hwabuk po-faced and face Byeoldangbong and Sarabong. While these are tame compared to some of Jeju’s oreum, after a 15 k.m. run they loom like Mordor. Pounding upwards - driven by a runner’s foolish pride - I cross the ridge connecting Byeoldangbong to Sarabong. Nearly there, my precious.
Sarabong requires one last push and slicing through the summit is invigorating. On the descent I welcome the rush of wind through trees - and traffic. A 3-minute wait at lights is normally enough to raise my heartrate, but now, as sweat cakes my face, I welcome it.
Just stay red for a little longer, I plead, with Dongmun Rotary - and the end - within sight.