Thursday, March 21, 2013

South Korea Day 2: Dong-A Seoul International Marathon - Race Report and Reflections

Despite a 4.45 am wake up call on my alarm, by 3.30 am my eyes were wide open. The anticipation of either months of training culminating in joy or anguish was keeping me from going back to sleep. I decided it was futile fighting it and rolled out of bed to start my nutrition plan early, perhaps allowing more time for a couple of bananas to settle in before heading out. My pulse rate before stepping out of bed was a slow 28 beats per minute, which was a either a good indication that I was healthy, well rested and relaxed, or perhaps just a little too cold. Some warm water would help, I thought to myself.


The last two weeks of taper had gone according to plan and instead of increasing my intake of carbohydrate foods over the last three days, I opted to try something new by taking in the normal meals and topping up with sports drinks instead to keep me feeling light and avoid digestive issues. The reduction in training volume was welcomed and I followed the schedule I used for December's Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore 2012, but the difficult part was cutting back on the calories. Less training seemed to have me thinking more about food! By the grace of God and a little self talk that all this is worth it in the end, I pulled through the race week with the legs feeling better than ever.

My pacing strategy was to follow the negative split suggested by the Marathon Calculator of MARCO on (  I had pinned pace cards upside down on my jersey to guide me to a 1 minute negative split goal timing of 3 hours and 7 minutes based on race time predictions by ( The objective of this race would be to better my personal best (PB), and if I was smelling a Boston Qualifing (BQ) time of 3 hours and 5 minutes for my age group at the 35 km mark, I would make a push for it. However, that was only the secodary objective, and I had planned another marathon later in the year to give myself another shot at it.

My home made pace cards pinned to my jersey: highlights indicate downslope, red lines indicate hills.
Nutrition wise, I intended to stick to the SCMS 2012 plan of a gel every 8 kilometers, and drinking from every drink station. However, I was aware that this time, the stations will be 5 kilometres apart instead of the 2 kilometres at the SCMS 2012, but I figured that the weather here will compensate for the reduced hydration just fine. The gels were pinned to my shorts the night before, and I hoped that this time, I will not drop any while trying to detach them like I did at the SCMS!

All prepped the night before!
Over the next two and a half hours, I would take my time to gear up, which involved a few more layers than than the usual Singapore races to deal with the 2 degrees celsius foggy morning. In addition the bananas, I regularly sipped from a bottle of Gatorade and took a gel before heading out at 630 am.

Time to brave the cold outside.
It was cold but I trusted my layering and broke into a jog with the drop bag slung over my shoulder to deal with the cold. The apartment we were in was only a five minute jog to the starting areas which I had checked out the day before, and this would turn out to be a lifesave later on. Upon arrival at Gangwanmun square, I could already see a crowd starting to build up. The atmosphere was great but what made movement around the site easy was the abundant flat space.

I found an open space in front of the cultural museum near the bag drop vehicle and proceeded for a 5 min easy jog to warm up, did some limbering exercises and static stretching. Another gel at 7.10 am was washed down with water and I deposited my bag at the designated vehicle. By that time, there was a substantial number of people and I weaved my way to the starting areas, occasionally breaking into short jogs to keep warm.

Fifteen minutes before the flag off I needed to use the toilet but the queues were already very long. A quick jog back to the apartment solved this and still allowed me to settle on front of the group A corrale for runners with bests of less than 4 hours. I took up position at the right side where I told my wife and kids they could find me if they woke up early and were in the mood to send me off. I later found out that the kids had such difficulty waking up that they opted to try to catch me at the finish line instead.

While waiting for the elites to be flagged off, I popped another gel and jogged on the spot to keep warm. We heard the starting gun go off at 8 am sharp and waited eagerly for our turn. There were race formalities, announcements and the usual 'ra-ra' but it was all in Korean. The race announcer counted down to our flag off and we broke into a trot toward the starting gantry. Once through, it wasn't really 'here we go' yet as the crowd prevented the faster runners from taking off too quickly, which might have been a good thing for me as I fall into the category of runners who dislike jumping into race pace on command. Still, I was a little anxious when I split my first kilometre at 4 mins 49 seconds, way off pace for my target timing. I comforted my nerves by attributing the slow start to the crowd and telling myself that I usually finish stronger than expected anyway.

One with the crowd!

The pace in the first 5 kilometres was erratic, usually way to slow or way too fast ranging from 4:12 min/kim to 4:37 min/km. However, I splitted nicely at the 5 km checkpoint on time and was feeling comfortable with the pace. Took water at the 5 km mark as I did not anticipate the Pocari Sweat to be a couple of hundred metres down the road and decided to drink up with whatever they had first. I was running with the 3 hour pacers and they soon took off like they were late for a meeting. I guess they too realised that they were caught behind the crowd and panicked a little.

The next 5 kilometres were uneventful and I splitted the 10 km mark pretty much on schedule at 44 minutes and 52 seconds. By this time, the 3:10 pacers were way ahead of me by at least a couple of hundred metres, and even the 3:30 pacers were infront of me. At first I was a little frazzled and wondered if I should chase them or sit tight and stay with my plan. Perhaps they knew something about the course that I didn't and were taking advantage of it? Perhaps they also knew that the second half of the course would be more undulating than the first half and were making use of the slight downslope? Perhaps the markers were off? I decided to stick to my plan and brushed aside thoughts that I was too slow. After all, they were probably trying to do a positive split which would place them nicely with me at the halfway mark. I set myself a goal to catch them by the 21st kilometre. My halfway target was an easy hour 34 mins, and they should be targetting around that split as well.

Throughout the course, there were people cheering, waving flags, dancing, drumming and I was impressed with the public support and interest in this event. What was great was that unlike the SCMS, much of the route was not barricaded and the spectators were able to come up as close as they wished to the course. Supporters were offering drinks, massages, creams, muscle rubs to participants as they passed by. Some were over zealous and ran onto the course chasing the participants and spraying deep heat on their legs, almost resulting in ugly crashes with runners. I was hoping nothing like that would cut my race short and decided to run outside of the group to ensure a clear path ahead of me.

At the 16 km mark, it was time for my second gel and while I was tugging away at the safety pinned packet, I saw the friends we met up with the night before. They spotted me and cheered me on, taking this photo of me on their IPad.

Trying to get that gel out... oops.... there it goes again!

I looked over and waved back, and as a result fumbled my gel and dropped it on the road. "Not again!" I sighed at myself. My nutrition plan was now one gel short, and I decided to stick to the plan and worry about refuelling when I ran out of gels at the 35 km mark. Maybe I wouldn't need it at that point anyway if I was feeling strong. At worst, I'll drink a little more Pocari Sweat at that station.

Tragedy seemed to strike when I passed the 17 km marker. Up to this point, running was enjoyable and focused. However, a throbbing pain started to build up in the mid section of my right calf muscle. It was getting more and more painful, resembling the symptoms of hamstring tenditinis I experienced during my long run about five weeks ago. I immediately tried to change everything I could change, from placing more mental emphasis on my left leg so that I might be able to relief some impact on the hurting leg, adjusting my gait, and breathing out more strongly on my left footstrike than my right. The hamstring injury last month brought training to a pause and I got worried that if this continued, my pace would be affected even if I do not fall out. I was determined to finish this race, but I couldn't help but wonder if I finished despite the pain, will the damage stop me from running for an extended period of time after the race? If so perhaps it would be better if I pulled out now and race another day. By the 20 km mark, I was weighing my options and cutting back on the planned pace seemed like a good idea. The pain now seemed to have stopped increasing but it was too painful to ignore. I brushed the possibility of tendinitis as this pain was not located near any joints where the tendons were. I decided that I will continue to try to run comfortably and perhaps get a PB even if I do not achieve my target time.

The pain seemed to remind me that while I work hard, nothing can prepare me for what happens on race day, and that is the nature of sports sometimes. God seemed to also be reminding me not to be arrogant and trust my own efforts too much. I prayed in desparation that He grant me a strong finish despite the pain. By the grace of God,  the pain slowly receeded at about the 25 km mark. In fact it went away so slowly I did not even notice it improving. In the process, I split the half marathon on schedule at about 1 hour and 34 minutes and shortly before the 25 km markers I passed the 3:10 pacers.

I was impressed at how the crowd running together was still quite large for the 3:10 group. As I moved from left to right in the running lanes to navigate the turns, I found myself having to carefully weave in between other runners, sometimes rubbing elbows with them. This turned out to be quite good for me as it kept me focused on running to avoid a trip or collision, and having many people pace me up to the 30 km point kept my thoughts on them as I tried to pass them or let them pass, instead of on my own fatigue or pain.

At the 25 km aid stations, they were giving out bananas and having dropped a gel earlier on, I saw this as a chance to lengthen the intervals between my last two gels. Taking a banana for the first time in the middle of a race is somewhat a risk as I've had little chance to try it out in training, but having taken it before workouts hasn't caused any stomach distress and I decided to gobble down half to allow me to get the last gel in before I made my final push at around the 35 km mark.

At the 32 km mark, I noticed that my splits were now consistently faster than my target pace and decided that the goal time was definitely achievable. How far below that I could go depended on how hard I was going to push for the final 10 km stretch, a distance I was familar with. I started breathing harder with every stride, as the possibility of getting the BQ loomed at the back of my mind. I noticed that while many other runners appeared to be slowing down, I was speeding up, and it was a morale booster to be consistently passing other runners at this stage.

I was a happy runner, and forced a few smiles for the cameras in between my huffing and puffing as we went over the bridge after the 35 km marker. I felt that I'd better push harder now than wait for the final 5 km like I did in the Sundown Marathon 2012 and finished with something left in the tank. Between 32 km and 39 km, I managed to run four of these kilometres at an incredible 4 min/km pace. Took the final get at about 36 km and washed it down with sports drink at the aid station.

True enough, and gladly so, I started to feel depleted at a good distance of 39 kilometres. Pushing hard now was more mental than physical. Despite breathing harder, opening my stride and pushing off harder with each step, I noticed that the kilometre splits at the following few kilometres were at a decreasing pace, and I struggled to keep it under 4:25 min/km. I felt the BQ slip away, and stopped checking my watch to focus on giving my best no matter the timing. I shut my eyes now and then as my effort at this point was through the roof, or at least it felt like it.

As the sight of the Jamsil Stadium came into view, the Olympic rings seemed to strike an inspiring note and my morale seemed to be jolted by thoughts of running the track where the greatest athletes on earth once made their mark. Going through the dimly lit tunnel and emerging in the sunlight oval added to the aura and I broke into a sprint, abandoning any concern of how dreadful I must have looked to the other runners who were preparing to smile and raise their arms for their finishing moment. I was not going to smile this time, but run through the gantry like a mad horse, mouth hanging, eyes closed, face grimaced.

The finish was fuzzy. I looked down at my watch after hitting the stop button. It read 03:05:59. I closed my eyes and didn't feel anything at first as I tried to catch my breath. Pulling my beanie over my eyes and nose to warm my eyes and give myself some privacy, I was overcome with a strange feeling of emotion, somewhere between a runner's high and point of collapse."Target time? Checked. PB? Checked... BQ? Nope, but there were no regrets. I had nothing left, and it wasn't going to happen today unless I had something more. Another cycle had culminated in a dream finish, and I was satisfied beyond anything I could have hoped for.

Post race logistics were smooth and we were ushered to a neighbouring track where we returned the timing chip, picked up a plastic bag full of refuleing goodies, and collected the finisher's medal. There were photo and massage booths, but I quickly made my way out to the bag collection area in the carpark as I had not seen my family anywhere since the finish, which was unusual.

 As I sat down to layer up on the carpark tarmac, they found me and we took some photos together. It was a long train ride for them from Geongbokgong, and they were tired. But the girls ran toward me with their arms wide open and gave me celebratory hugs, telling me that one day, they want to run like me too. I couldn't help but wondered if they knew what they were talking about, or if they would have meant it if they knew what it entails. Nevertheless, it was an ego booster for me to have my biggest fans adore me for the moment.

Four months ago I had the opportunity to bring my kids up onto the podium with me to collect a trophy for an age group runner-up position at the Chiangmai Marathon 10 km race. One of my friends jokingly commented that a day would come when I would finish too fast, causing them to miss seeing me finish. Well, it turned out that although they made it to the stadium to watch me finish based on my previous PB, finishing ten minutes faster meant that they were ten minutes too late. The comment my friend made turned out to be prohpetic!

Chilling out after the race. Looking forward to the day I can run with them. 

Making new friends at the finishing area.


My wife asked me if I was disappointed at having missed my BQ by less than one minute, and I quickly responded with a no. It would have been nice, but I knew that the reason why I came this close was because I had a great strategy. Would I have qualified if I ran my first half a little faster than planned? There was a good chance it might have happened, but there was also a chance that it would have prevented me from pushing as hard as I did in the second half. I had to be thankful that I came this close, and improved confidence to run at this pace will encourage me to plan for strategy that will achieve the BQ at my next race. Besides, none of the race time calculators predicted I would run anything faster than a 3:07 marathon based on my current fitness levels.

Five weeks ago I suffered my only major setback for this training cycle: lower hamstring tendinitis symptoms that did not allow me to carry out any running action at all. After reading up on the injury and overcoming the denial phase, I contemplated pulling out of the Seoul race. Reports classified tendon issues to take a long time to recover, and I had to decide whether to carry on training or allow complete rest, which would mean throwing out any hopes of improving my timing from the Singapore marathon last December. I was devastated as the preparation had gone so well up to this point. I was peaking my weekly mileage at just under 130 km that week and had hadn't missed any of my weekly 35 km plus long runs or fallen sick this year. As I pondered alternatives, I came across the idea to cross train intensively while recovering. I estimated that to burn the 1300 or so kcal of my daily running routine, my daily options were to choose one or a combination of (1) 2.5 hrs of swimming, (2) 3 hrs of spinning on the stationary bike. This meant doubling the time I spent working out doing things I considered less exciting than heading out for a run. Besides, the nature of my work does not allow me this amount of dedicated training, and the pool or gym would not be available before work when I usually squeezed in my runs. Would I afford the costs of this option or would it be easier to lower my expectations for the Seoul race? I had a discussion with my wife and she assured me that she will do her best to support me by taking up more of the chores I was responsible for at home to free up the additional time I needed during this period if that was my decision. In the end, I decided that I will try this for ten days, and if I still cannot run pain free, the race goals will have to be trashed. That week was the longest training week ever experienced. Daily trips to the nearby gyms and swimming complex after long days at work ensued. I checked my progress daily and often I was discouraged by how slow the healing process was. My impatience was torturous beyond what I ever imagined. Will I run after ten days? I never stopped thinking about it but never shared with anyone for fear of being rediculed as an obsessed running addict or misunderstood for neglecting my work or family. During this period I found myself talking a lot to God, and drew unexpected strength from stories of elite marathoners who overcame their trials. I thought of what they must have gone through: Ryan Hall and Desiree Davila qualifying for the London Olympics only to drop out from their races, Mok Ying Ren who suffered plantar problems resulting in the pulling out of the 2012 SEA Games, and countless others.

Looking back, the decision was the right one. By the end of the week, I was taking 5 km jogs about a minute off training pace in addition to my cross training. The only problem with these easy runs was that they weren't easy at all. Always interrupted by stretch and walking breaks, and my mind taunted me with thoughts that this training cycle will see no more 35 km long runs, daily strong 15-18 km sessions that I so desired to make all my prior training worth it and my first overseas marathon an unforgettable one. Everytime I took to the track I was haunted by thoughts of re-injury. In short, where I was arrogant and I prided myself in my efforts, this experience humbled me and brought me back to earth.

To cut the long story short, things did get better, and on the tenth day I found myself doing cautious training paced runs around the track. In retrospect, my success in Seoul cannot be accredited to me or my preparation alone. If not for the sacrifice, encouragement and dedication of my wife and kids, those ten crucial days might never have had happened. In addition, there will always unforseen circumstances I cannot control, and that is why I believe in a Being higher than I. But for the things I can, I must, for I will never know what would have been if I choose not to.

Friends and family will likely congratulate me on finishing well. Few will understand the actual magnitude of the achievement unless they are runners themselves. Even fewer will understand that this timing was not achieved on race day, but on the daily grind during my morning runs. Every time I completed a long run or workout that I was tempted to postpone for one reason or another (e.g. work, heavy rain, lack of sleep), I told myself that it was during these that any success I enjoyed on race day hinged upon. When I see elites win races and the smiles on the podium, I know in my heart that these were won not during race day, but during training. Racing makes training worth it, training makes racing fun.

I will enjoy the result for a while, but I don't want it to be something I hang onto for too long. After all, I cannot enjoy the future without letting of the past right?


  1. Congrats Hoong Wei! Hope to be able to run with you someday.

  2. A great piece of literature. Finish Well. Mom.

  3. Congratulations Hoong Wei in achieving a new PB! Seems like you r ready to do another PB at Goldcoast.
    Thank you for sharing your race strategies. Great admiration in the amount of discipline n determination. Speedy recovery!-yingqi

  4. wow just got to read this blog of yr bro! very informative & i share your earlier disappointment too missing out BQ (I did 3:05:38 @ Xiamen Marathon early this Jan). U bounce back well @ GCAM & eventually qualified mths later! With your 2nd half 2013 success I'm sure these breakthroughs open up more coming PBs. Catch up soon ^^

    Andy Neo

    1. Hi there! Glad you've been blessed by the report. It's a gift to be out there and enjoying the run! Your comeback is on track too, so stick with what's working... cheers! - Hoong Wei