Written and photographed by Meg Coast
After almost two years of living in Korea, I can hardly say that it is the alien country that it was when I first arrived – but, as a “waygook” in foreign territory, there are still times when I feel displaced and miss the effortless ease of living back home and the familiar things left behind. Unlike my unpredictable globe-hopping, running has been a constant in an otherwise changeable life. Starting with Sports Day races as a teenager and later developing into a regular hobby, running is a habit that has stuck. Regardless of where I am – whether it is the Costa Rican rainforest, swelteringly hot Thai beaches, or along the river in Gwangju – running is a familiar companion that I can take with me. In Korea, it has become more important to me than it ever was back home, possibly because it is one part of my identity that remains consistent and links two totally different worlds that are otherwise thousands of miles apart.
Korea is a wonderfully varied country to run in, with four very distinct seasons – for better or for worse, depending on what kind of weather you like. I think most runners would agree that spring and autumn, offering a nice mixture of sunshine with refreshing breezes and mercifully few kamikaze bugs flying into your face, are the best times to dust off your running shoes and get outside in Korea. Unfortunately, like most good things, they are also the most short-lived of the Korean seasons, so enjoy them while you can!
That is not to say that the more extreme seasons are out of the equation. As a Brit who revels in low temperatures, I love running in the bracing Korean winter and found that, with enough layers, I was perfectly comfortable. When the height of summer sets in and we see temperatures soaring to 34-35 degrees Celsius and humidity rise to a hair-frizzing 100% , most sane runners say enough is enough and either take to nocturnal runs, the treadmill, or give in completely and eat nachos on the couch for a season.
In spite of the increasing temperatures as summer descended in a humid cloud on Korea, I decided it was about time to tackle my first ever half-marathon and, as luck would have it, a historic event was coming up: the 5.18 race to commemorate the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. I am very much a lone wolf when it comes to running, and my past self would be horrified at the thought of taking part in a sporting event where there were other people, let alone in a country as bustling as Korea. However, I have been told that any committed runner should take part in an event at least once or twice in their lives, just for the experience – so I did just that and hoped for the best.
On the day of the 5.18 race, sure enough, there were crowds of people milling around, including the usual hordes of ajummas in lurid tracksuits and golf visors and the uber-fit, seasoned runners whom you somehow never see running outside until events like this. I prepared myself for the familiar feelings of crowd-induced rage, except it never happened; in fact, it was replaced instead with a serious adrenaline high and excitement to be part of a collective event. For those who have not experienced this, Koreans are wonderful at motivating and spurring each other on, be it on a mountain, a game, or a sports event, and I found this to be the same during the half marathon. Everyone, no matter whether they were first, last, old, young, running, walking, Korean, or foreign, was cheered on by both spectators and other runners, and there was a tangible sense of intimacy with those who ran by me throughout the different stages of the race. It must have worked: I somehow managed to be the 8th woman to cross the finishing line and was rewarded for my efforts with a 10kg bag of rice as a prize. What better reason could you need to start running in Korea.