Racing with Korean Hobbits

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Asia » South Korea » Chungcheongnam-do » Daejeon
May 16th 2011
Published: May 16th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Before I left California for Korea, the Vibram FiveFingers was the "it" accessory for outdoor lovers. Vibrams are a lightweight shoe that fits your foot like a glove so that one gets the feeling of running or hiking barefoot. Running barefoot is supposed to be more natural, seeing as that's what humans did until the invention of footwear. This footwear that keeps our feet soft and supple in its protective cocoon. This has led to our feet being more sensitive to rocks and pebbles in the path and so while some go au naturel, others opt for the safety of the Vibram. Personally, I thought this running barefoot fad was total crazy talk. I enjoyed running in tennis shoes because I felt like I could throw my feet all over the place and not worry about injuries. Plus, if we're going to be honest here, I didn't want to look like some dirty footed hobbit.

Every year Daejeon has a Barefoot Festa (what Koreans call a festival I believe) where everyone sheds their shoes and socks to walk or run a mud packed trail through Mt. Gyejok. I took a bus there from Daejeon Station with a group of South Africans, of which only two felt up to physical activity after a night of soju and tequila. Bright eyed and bushy tailed they were. Angie and Lara were up for some barefoot adventure in matching neon t-shirts and neon socks and looked like they just got back from Thailand. I realized I was wearing my brother's gym shorts, my mom's dress that I made a shirt, and boring black socks. I made a mental note to stop looking like a vagabond when exercising. We left the boys behind to sort themselves out and we walked up the hill to the main stage where we got our numbers for the 7k. I had opted to do the 7k instead of the 13k because it sounded extremely daunting, especially if I was too be sans shoes. It was now time to take off the shoes. The cool air encircled my toes as I wriggled them happily. Not so happily as I stubbed my toe walking up the path to see the drum performers. Not a good sign.

On stage there were about 6 large drums. Beating them with all their might were men and women wearing black matching t-shirts with the Rolling Stones tongue on it. The beat was highly infectious and I caught myself clapping my hands and bopping stupidly. They kept at it for about 20 min; they were obviously ripped. They even added some humor to the show as they ducked behind the drums and then came up wearing lion, monkey, tiger, and horse masks. I was truly frightened by the horse mask. Seriously, horses are terrifying, but that's a whole other story. After their high energy performance, a woman in a outfit I would not call modest took the stage. Silver sequins covered a mesh top and she wore a skirt made of white fabric and seemed to be held up by a rainbow selection of scarves. She started writhing (belly dancing??) and I was convinced it was going to become the dance of the seven veils. My confusion was heightened by her praising a vase wrapped in pink material and then slamming her hands into paint. She then started smearing the paint all over a black canvas behind her. THEN she peeled off some paper that we hadn't seen, and somehow there was a painting of a FETUS. I wondered if I was on drugs and then realized I was in Korea. I didn't know whether to laugh or feel puzzled. Things went from weird to awesome when she started prancing around and throwing glitter on the crowd. The children seemed to like it. Maybe she can be rented for birthday parties.

After a parade of men in windbreakers giving speeches it was time to start the race!! Or amble up the hill and wonder if the race has started. It was odd for about 10 seconds to see mobs of barefoot people walking around, but then it just seemed completely normal and quite nice actually. The trail was packed and I worried that there was no way in hell I would be able to run. It was peaceful walking through the forest chatting with Ang and Lara but I had come here to run like the wind! I decided I would jog ahead of them and soon I came upon all the 13k runner at the starting line. I had met some people from Daegu and they convinced me to just run with them so I didn't have to wait for the 7k people. This sounded perfect since I am completely impatient, Plus I could get away with it since I had nothing on my number declaring which race I was in. I heard no gunshot, no shouting, or applause. Just all of a sudden people were jogging along. It was really claustrophobic in the beginning and this was made worse by the fact that only half the trail was smooth hard mud and the other half was dusty and full of little pebbles. No one wanted to run there but it was what you had to do if you wanted to pass anyone. I wasn't running, I was jogging. I started sprinting between people and soon I had made it up past the stragglers to where the trail was wide open and free. This was perfection. I love running because it is such a feeling of freedom and being barefoot in the sun on a cool path that overlooked a vast green valley as other barefoot people ran beside me felt seriously tribal. I was content.

I reached the turn around point for the 7k runners. The 13k's ran on and for a split second I wondered if I should go with them and continue on this high. I was almost running in a circle trying to decide but I thought I should do what I knew I could. Now I see I should have pushed myself because I could have made the 13k without a doubt. Running back the way I came was not so relaxing and lovely. It looked like Moses was leading his people across the Red Sea. Whole families with STROLLERS crammed the trail as I tried to run through them without killing anyone. An old man threatened to strike me when I caused him and his wife to have to let go of each others fingers (because no one holds hands here. they hold fingers. i mean, c'mon..). No one was respecting my running and I was forced to run on jagged ground. This is the moment I felt like grabbing a sword and just slaughtering EVERYONE. But ya know, it was a really nice day out so that feeling passed. The crowds finally thinned and I could run with speed again. I ran over a stretch where the ground was covered in yellow and red rose petals that had been trampled into the ground and running barefoot over that with no one around was a fine way to end my "race." People seemed confused to see me since it was way too early for a 7k person to be done but I got my medal and two bottles of soju. Because what says health like poison in a bottle?

I dipped my feet into yellow paint and made a poster of my footprints. It looked like baby's first steps. I washed my feet in the freezing creek as I waited for Jean and Dries to come back down the path. They didn't run but had been intrigued by all the things along the way like the blow up elephant with high heels, mud people, and just exploring the forest and communing with the worms. We watched some taekwondo and soon the girls were back as well. The sun had been beating down all day, the free rice cakes were not so good, and we were ready to go home.

Putting my shoes back on felt sad. My feet felt safe again but feeling the dirt and grass between your toes can't be beat. I'm actually interested in this whole barefoot running idea now, but not sure if I'm going to make the leap for a pair of Vibrams. My legs are sore in a whole new way today. Like one knee, a random part of my thigh, and one muscle in my calf really smart. I obviously was working out completely differently than I would in running shoes and I'm not sure yet if that is a good or bad thing. One thing I do know? Being a hobbit doesn't look so bad now..


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