Running, By Way of Introduction

27 04 2009

Running, to me, has always seemed to be one of the world’s most primordial sports, a test of endurance once intrinsic to our very survival as a species. Given this ancesteral link to all humanity, I figured it would be a form of exercise followed the world over. Living abroad in Korea, I quickly discovered such is not the case.

From my experience, I would not say Koreans are actively more health conscious than you’re average American. America’s problem is more in the fact that we have a scale heavy in extremes, from those so grotesquely large to impair walking upright to fitness nuts too obsessive to enjoy anything in life. In each country, there is the sentiment floating out there that one should eat healthy and exercise, but the execution of this practice has its variations.

For example, my favorite form of physical activity, the ancient art of running a long way for no damn reason, has about zero adherents across the Pacific. For the first months I lived in Busan, I spent my runs weaving through sidewalks crowded with uniformed students and hunkered-down grocery sellers, gathering up plenty of strange looks as I sped along.  To them, I seemed a crazed man.

The geographical layout of the Korean Peninsula is shockingly uniform. It has small, low lying mountains pretty much the whole way. Thus, the Korean inclination is to inclines; they go up, not out. Hiking is the national past time for Korea, especially among the older set. To them, the idea of a lazy Sunday stroll is a half-hike, half-climb scaling 500 meters (or more) in elevation straight up the hillside. After a picnic usually involving several bottles of the Korean liquor Soju, they take the return trip down, barely winded. To me, this seems crazy.

While I’m not a stellar runner, it’s the only sport in which I possess some above-average talent. So, it has always been a bit of an ego booster for me, and I felt pretty good cruising by all the slowly walking Koreans on the city streets. But those same 60-year-old ladies I was breezing by on the sidewalk overtook me with steady, paced strides once I hit the mountainside myself. I huffed and wheezed, clamoring over the constant rocky protrusions along the path, a term used altogether too loosely. In my head, I keep thinking that my 5k time would probably destroy theirs but such thoughts gave me small comfort.

Exercise, like most things, is relative. What’s pragmatic in the flat plains of the Midwest isn’t so in Korea’s undulating environment. From this observation and many similar ones, my blog gets its name. I would like to consider myself possessive of a certain set of virtues and capable of certain accomplishments, but the more people I met and more things I do in this life, the more I realize my methods of measurement are circumspect.

Sure, I’m pragmatic, but only relatively so.