How They Run

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How They Run

Min Ki-ho, 25, will enter the 10-kilometer run in Sunday's JoongAng Ilbo Seoul International Half Marathon. With thousands of people expected to participate, Mr. Min will likely be lost in the crowd. And that's too bad, for he's a standout: Mentally retarded, Mr. Min also has a severe speech disorder.

Mr. Min is one of 24 people from the Mara Welfare Center in Songpa-gu, Seoul, who will run the race together. Every morning at 10, dressed in their indigo-blue training uniforms, Mr. Min and his Mara mates gather near the Olympic Rowing Stadium in Misari, Gyeonggi province. "For the last two months, we have been running for two hours every morning," says Lee Young-min, Mr. Min's guardian (he calls her "mother") and the founder of the Mara Welfare Center. "The name, 'Mara,' is a native Korean word that means something or someone that is so important to the world as to be indispensable," says Ms. Lee. With a smile, she adds that the name has nothing to do with running marathons.

This isn't the first footrace for the Mara Center runners. In fact, they have participated in every JoongAng Ilbo Seoul Half Marathon since the event began in 1999. The last two times, the Mara runners chose the 5K course, but this year they will try their luck with the 10K.

"I hope our children can gain confidence through the event," Ms. Lee said. If you think these disabled young people might have trouble running long distances, think again. Ms. Lee says, "In last year's race, we all finished well ahead of most of the field."

Ms. Lee, who is physically disabled and stands only 140 centimeters, makes liberal use of a whistle to gather all the Mara students and get them to line up. Once they start running, the group becomes totally absorbed in the task at hand. At their training site, they circle the Olympic rowing lake each day, and typically do it at least five times. It is a tough test, but there are few complaints. Mr. Min says he feels "really good" after a training run.

This year's JoongAng Ilbo Seoul International Half Marathon, of which the main race will cover slightly more than 21 kilometers, is expected to attract the most runners of any event of its kind in Asia.

The students at the Mara Welfare Center will not be the only special athletes taking part Sunday. There are a handful of disabled groups running, including one called Yerimwon, who train in Incheon. The Yerimwon coach and guardian, Lee Dong-woo, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition that he and his students had a hard time deciding to run in this race. "For disabled children," Mr. Lee said, "running a marathon is like standing naked in public."

Song Gyeong-tae, who is blind and will run the 5K on Sunday, says, "If the disabled do not live their lives at least twice as hard as ordinary people, they cannot succeed in this world." Mr. Song, 40, who lost his eyesight to an exploding hand grenade while serving in the army in 1982, knows about determination: He walked across the United States for two months in 1999, covering over 23 states and 2,200 kilometers. And he climbed the highest peak in the rugged Squamish Mountains in British Columbia, Canada, last May. "Now, the only thing left for me to conquer is to run a marathon," Song said. He is running the 5K race Sunday, with the aim of completing the full course in two years.

All three of Sunday's races - the half marathon, the 10K and 5K - start at 10 a.m. at Jamsil Olympic Main Stadium. Eighty expatriates are expected to be in the half-marathon field, according to the event organizers. Grant Pettrie, who works for the American Embassy in Korea as a minister/counselor, will be among them. A marathon enthusiast, Mr. Pettrie says that he has been training on his own for six months, running regularly and cutting down on eating meat.

Coming back from a training run on Wednesday, he says that he also ran in last year's JoongAng Ilbo race. And just two weeks ago, he ran the Chosun Ilbo Chuncheon Marathon. This time he will do the 10K.

"Running a race in Seoul has only positive differences compared to running a Boston Marathon or New York City Marathon," he says. "The volunteers here even bow to the runners, saying something like 'Welcome to Korea.'"

Mr. Pettrie says he really would like to respond to these people with something nice. So why doesn't he?

"I'm concentrating too hard during the race."

by Chun Su-jin

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