Written and photographed by Ryan Thompson
They were dressed in an array of colors and strapping up for what looked to be a cross between a rave and a midnight jailbreak. I finished tying my shoes and looked around. Everyone had hydration packs and headlamps, too. A thought flashed through my mind: what was wrong with these people? They looked ridiculous and were about to do something by choice that most people wouldn’t even pay for. After glancing in the mirror, I realized I looked even more ridiculous than any of them. Wide-eyed in the darkness as the roosters started their daily routine, I scrambled to get my body and mind ready for what could be a ten-hour journey.
I was at the starting line for my first-ever trail run on Jeju Island. I had only completed one marathon in my life, so the 100-kilometer had previously never entered my mind. I entered the 50-kilometer category. They call it an ultra-marathon, though 50K is only about eight kilometers more than a normal marathon. What makes this race “ultra” is the 1500 meters of elevation gain up, and then back down, Mt. Halla, the tallest mountain in South Korea.
People living and working in South Korea might compare my decision to participate in this race to the following: If you are already going to pick up your life to live a six-hour plane ride away from family, why not make it 14 hours? No one in my daily life seemed to understand the reason why I was training for this. However, here I was, surrounded by 500 other people that completely understood. This was a subculture I was now a part of.
Queue to the “Rocky” soundtrack for the starting line. Bang!
Trotting along within the first few kilometers of the race in a single-file line, I heard some loud discussion up ahead. As I got closer, I saw a circle forming and thought this couldn’t be good. One voice said, “We need to go this way,” and another disagreed. Everyone was checking their Garmin GPS watches as I stared at my bare wrists. Pitch-black and lost in the middle of the woods isn’t how I imagined the start of the race, but our lives rarely go according to plan. For the longest time, I laughed at the sheep lingering about. However, after missing that marker, I had an epiphany. We are all secretly sheep that want to be led. Luckily, I “sheeped” myself behind a few people who looked like they had half a clue. We made it to the first checkpoint with minimal time lost.
Unfortunately, I fall victim to most motivational and goal-oriented talks of people who have “the answers.” Cliché, but true, babble is what you are about to read. One of the rolodex reasons why I run long distances was echoed by a fellow runner.
As we traversed down the mountain terrain, I said, “I am going to ask you a question that everyone asks me: ‘What is wrong with you? Why do you want to run that far?’”
She responded with “Oh, I don’t know, probably the list of all corny answers. I run to push my limits.”
Absolutely. I started running two years ago for that reason. Challenging a path of least resistance voluntarily is a privilege in many of our lives today. If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you didn’t forage for food today or struggle to fix a broken wheel on your wagon while moving everything you own. Our food is served to our faces; we are totally removed from the farmers, truck drivers, and wholesalers who grind and package it. Our wants are one click away. Do you want a new TV? Click. Do you want a drone? Click. Boredom is not something you should be feeling. If you are, go for a run.
As the journey continued, the single-file, tight-knit group of 500 dispersed as we ascended Mt. Halla. This gave us breathing room but no time to stop. “Name of the game is to keep moving forward,” I told myself. Life cliché after cliché. The beautiful views were tough to take in as competitors had to hop and skip over rocky terrain. Finally! I reached the summit. I took a quick look around and then was on the move again.
While I was training for my first marathon ever in South Korea last year, someone told me it was a tremendous accomplishment because she had heard only one percent of the world has ever completed a marathon. In my opinion, it isn’t much of an accomplishment because most of the world doesn’t want to complete a marathon. In general, I would say that if someone wanted to complete one, they could. Can anyone break a world record? No, but maybe I think that just because that is what my life experience has been. If I broke a world record, my words might echo, “Anyone can break a world record!” Isn’t that how it usually goes? We think we are so special, but at the same time, we believe anyone else can accomplish the things we have because we aren’t special at all.
The trip down the mountain felt good and hot ramen at the checkpoint felt even better. There wasn’t much time to stop and chat before I was into the woods again. It was midday, so no, there were no pitch-black deep-forest sheep-following issues as before. However, there were new obstacles to overcome. The next check point was approaching, and by my calculations, there should have only been about 10 kilometers left. My plan was to get a few bananas in me and lock in for a triumphant Rocky reenactment. Suddenly, I overheard runners around me talking about there being 20K left. Mental crippling suddenly came out of nowhere. Well, it looked like my gorilla calculations weren’t accurate. Not only was I discouraged about the distance, but my mind went from the thoughts of my incredible time to me being the worst ultra-runner ever. From hero to zero in the blink of an eye. Nothing changed in reality, only my reality. I settled into a long, pissed-off trot.
Failure was never an option. However, my slogging jog soon became a walk that could have been taken out of a survival movie. Negative thoughts continued to creep in. No one was passing me, and I certainly wasn’t passing anyone that was moving forwards. Swearing to myself and fully believing I was in last place was my current state. To top it all off, a small 70-year-old Asian woman came gliding by me; dove behind a group of trees for a brief second and came out with a walking stick. Nothing like a 70-year-old woman running circles around a 30-year-old man in an endurance race. Life cliché number 3219: life is your own race. Blocking out the pathetic vision of this warrior woman twice my age, half my height, and three times as much mental strength, I soldiered on. The best part of all; she was clueless to my perceptual story. Accepting the reality of things, I found myself reduced to an all-time low speed, but at least I was moving forward – the only positive I could hold onto at the time.
Some call it “runner’s high,” and for the last few years, I have been chasing something similar. I call it a manual roll. As I crossed the finish line of the Trans-Jeju race there was no filled stadium, just a few finishers and family members looking on. If completion was the victory, what a sad story it would have been. However, the corny cliché rang true again: The journey is the reward and not the destination. There were many early mornings waking up to train for the runs and the random moments of fatigue, bent over gasping, chugging strawberry milk, and wolfing triangle kimbap. And yet, I look back on those times fondly. Funny thing is, I didn’t do half bad for my first-ever trail race, finishing in at 80th place out of over 300 competitors in the 50K Trans-Jeju trail run.
Completing that race meant very little to me. What I like to think meant the most was the person I became along the way and the transferable life lessons learned and retaught. Jeju was a beautiful island, and that was the first time I had combined travel with an athletic achievement. If you find yourself bored at an all-inclusive resort during your corporate vacation like I did years ago, maybe training for an athletic vacation is for you. Completing an athletic accomplishment is a lot like long-term travel. Rolf Potts says it better than I ever could in his book, Vagabonding:
“Thus, it’s important to keep in mind that you should never go vagabonding out of a vague sense of fashion or obligation. Vagabonding is not a social gesture, nor is it a moral high ground. It’s not a seamless twelve-step program of travel correctness or a political statement that demands the reinvention of society. Rather, it’s a personal act that demands only the realignment of self. If this personal realignment is not something you’re willing to confront (or, of course, if world travel isn’t your idea of a good time), you have the perfect right to leave vagabonding to those who feel the calling.”
See you on the starting line for the Trans-Jeju next October.