Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Iceman Cometh, at DMZ Trail Run

Holy frozen popsicles! The DMZ trail run was not what I expected it to be.  Covered with ice and snow from start to finish, I lost my snow running virginity before I even had time to light the candles and put on Purple Rain.  But hey, that's the way it goes with those things, right?

So the race's actual name was 제1회고대산-보개산-금학산 전국 산악마라톤대회, but for convenience' sake, and given its location way north of Seoul and almost right up against North Korea, I started calling it the DMZ trail run.  Getting there took almost three hours, and on the train ride up I was surprised to see snow on the ground.  It had snowed in Seoul the previous Wednesday, but just a few flurries and definitely not enough to have staying power.  I was excited at the idea of running through patches of snow; however, I'd soon learn that a little of it down below means a lot of it up in the mountains.

The race kicked off at 10:00 AM, and I quickly positioned myself at the front of the pack with six other men.  With the first kilometer being on road, it wasn't too difficult to keep up, and we ran together as a group.  But this didn't last for long.  The last hundred meters of the road were a steep incline up to the trailhead, and this short bit sorted the seven of us into the positions we'd stay in for most of the race.  At the front were four 'super ajushis' powering up the hill without slowing down, so I already knew I wouldn't see them again until the end.  And in the back was the fifth ajushi, a young guy, and me.  "These are the two guys you're gonna race against," I told myself.  At last week's Happy Trail Run I had placed 7th, and this week, I wanted to place at least 6th.  That meant having to pass one of the two.  

Well we got to the trailhead and the winter onslaught of snow began.  It was everywhere.  Maybe one to two inches on the trail, three to four on the sides.  And courtesy of the sunny days and subzero nights, lots of it had melted and refrozen and turned the already unforgiving climb up to the first peak into a sort of luge track where you'd lose your footing every other step.  Power hiking these steep climbs is already my weakness, but this was madness.  I naturally slowed down and soon the fifth ajushi and the young guy were out of sight.  Oh well.  

I ran most of the race alone, thinking that the guys in front of me were far ahead, and everyone else far behind.  And without other runners around, it was hard to mentally stay in 'race mode', especially while distracted with the winter wonderland that surrounded me.  It was beautiful. Growing up in a country without the four seasons, I'm a sucker for these kind of landscapes. There was one particularly scenic bit on a ridge, maybe just two or three feet wide and with sharp drops on either side, that had amazing views of the snow-covered mountains surrounding us, monochromatic and high-contrast with the intense white of the reflective snow and the dark black of the naked trees.  Ansel Adams type shit. 

Anyway, back to the race.  The climbs were punishing, the descents were precarious, and the flats were... there were no flats.  I think I totaled twenty minutes (out of over two hours) in which my sequence of body movements could potentially be called "running".  Everything else was seemingly endless power hiking going up and "controlled falling" going down.  There were slips, there were falls, and there were a couple jumps into deep powder - just for fun - even if it meant a sock stuffed with snow around the ankle.  I briefly lost my way twice, but thankfully got back on track within a minute or two.

On the final climb another runner materialized out of thin air behind me, and with little left in the race, I pushed the throttle to make sure that he wouldn't pass me.  I was in still in 7th place, and I sure as hell didn't want to take 8th.  This last climb proved to be the steepest: 420m gain over 1.2k, average grade 36.8%.  But I was more than warmed up by then and had kind of gotten the hang of being on ice and snow, so I huffed and grunted all the way up the climb without letting it break my back, and after a while the other runner vanished back into the forest.

The descent down to the finish line was the best: steep but not too technical, and with way more snow but less ice than the other side.  The deep powder made me feel like I could go faster without fear of wiping out, and on the sections that had ropes, I'd grab on, flip around, and sort of rappel down.  And then, when I least would have expected it - the young guy!  He didn't look too convinced with this terrain and was going down quite carefully, so I hopped up on one side of the trail and passed him while yelling the obligatory words of encouragement - "fighting!"  Boom!  6th place!  This advance in position, coupled with the secret weapon mix I always save for the very end of races (I had plugged into my iPod at the start of the descent), really got the adrenaline flowing and I pushed on harder, thinking that maybe the fifth ajushi would be just around the next bend.  But alas, the finish line soon came into view and gathered there were the five super ajushi mountain runners (which, by the way, I'm pretty sure were the same top five finishers at last week's Happy Trail Race).  Still, it was a good last effort and I was more than delighted with my 6th place finish.

Pictures were taken, certificates were awarded, lunch was eaten, and then I began the long train and subway ride home.

Super ajushis in 1st and 2nd
The young guy in 7th
Race director was nice and let me hold a trophy for the photo
Next time!