Runner shows tenacity of a bulldogThe other day I had the chance to meet up with Lee Bong-ju, this country’s most celebrated marathon runner, who goes by the nickname “the people’s marathoner.”
Although I have a keen interest in all kinds of sports, marathoning has not exactly ranked high on my list for the simple fact that I did not think much of it. My rationale was, how hard could it be to just run? I mean, the only other significant aspect I could think of was breathing and that’s not hard either, is it?
I guess being fed a steady diet of sports images on TV of extremely fit human forms ― as compared to skinny people engaging in a somewhat monotonous activity ― helped me develop this ignorance. In football you have linemen weighing well over 300 pounds, with bellies like pregnant women, trying to destroy the other guys on the field, and in swimming you have people with the most perfect bodies. Meanwhile, in a marathon you have the average Joe who could be your neighbor running around the block.
Seeing a living legend also failed to impress me. At 170 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches) tall and 55 kilograms (121 pounds), Lee Bong-ju’s physical frame was far from overwhelming.
Nevertheless, within five minutes I got a taste of what it meant to have won the Boston Marathon and two gold medals at the Asian Games. We met at the front gates of Olympic Park in southeast Seoul. Our photographer suggested that we head to the lake, which is about 600 meters (656 yards) away from the gate, hinting that since he had little time to spare, we should hurry along.
We didn’t run but we did move at a good clip. The temperature had risen well above 30 degrees centigrade (86 Fahrenheit), and while I was sweating like in a sauna and breathing heavily, Lee was showing quite the opposite response.
He was not sweating, was not gasping, and above all, was doing all the talking while I struggled just to catch my breath. He was so calm, despite wearing a long-sleeved sweat suit (I wore shorts and a T-shirt). We weren’t exactly walking on the same level.
Marathoners don’t walk like ordinary people. Each step is like a feather carried by the wind. If God were walking in the clouds it would probably resemble the way in which Lee simply seemed to float along. Later, he told me that he trains by running 30 kilometers (19 miles) a day.
“So what keeps you going?” I asked him and he replied, “Determination.” That sounds simple, but consider that this is a guy who recently had 2,004 hairs implanted in his scalp to prepare for the 2004 Athens Olympic games just to pump himself up.
At 32, Lee isn’t exactly young. Since he has achieved so much, one might expect him to slacken off. But he is driven to keep running year after year. His next goal: the 2003 World Athletics Championship in France this month. Aging doesn’t concern Lee, who didn’t see much light before 1996, when he clinched a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Without any real successor in sight, Lee may stick around for a couple of years. He has no intention of quitting any time soon. “I am in for the long run,” says Lee, and he is not talking about his next race.
by Brian Lee