Catching up with a speedy guyScores of people are making use of the grounds at Olympic Park in southern Seoul on a recent hot summer’s day. A group puts on their inline skates for a whirl around the park. Cyclists are zipping by, spinning their pedals. A number of people are also doing the simplest form of exercise to stay in shape: running.
In the crowd, a figure dressed in blue sweatpants and a T-shirt, and wearing sunglasses, moves at a trot on the path running along the lake.
At 170 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches) tall and on the skinny side, the runner does not stand out from the crowd, until he passes a couple sitting on a bench. He seems to draw their attention as the middle-aged woman points a finger at him and shouts, “It’s him!”
Lee Bong-ju, 33, is used to creating a stir wherever he goes. After all, he is one of Korea’s best-known athletes. Surprise! He’s not one of those celebrated studly soccer players from the World Cup era, but a marathon runner.
Recognizing Mr. Lee, a mother with a child asks him to stop and pose in a picture with her tyke, a request that is granted with a slight nod and a smile.
The twiggy man lifts the little boy and holds him in his arms as the mother takes a snapshot. “I can show him this picture later and tell him to work hard like Mr. Lee did,” the woman says, with enthusiasm in her voice.
The hoopla surrounding the country’s most celebrated runner seems to work both ways for Mr Lee.
“I don’t mind signing autographs and taking pictures with the fans. I appreciate the support. But sometimes I’m in the middle of a training run and people come up to me and I can’t give them any time. They often mistake that” as a sign of my being arrogant, Mr. Lee says.
In sports such as basketball, he says, it is obvious when one is practicing; that is not the case for runners. Therefore, it is much more common to be interrupted by fans, even during a serious workout.
“It’s not their fault. They don’t know how important rhythm is to a marathoner,” he says.
Nevertheless, Mr. Lee concedes that, compared to years past when he was a virtual nobody, times have changed for the better thanks to several lucrative endorsement contracts, including one with Samsung. Having achieved a level of financial comfort, his goal has shifted from winning medals to setting records.
He presently holds the Korean all-time record of two hours, seven minutes, 20 seconds for the 26-mile (40-kilometer) marathon, which is just one minute and 42 seconds more than the world record set by Khannouchi Khalid, an American, at the London Marathon in April 2002.
Mr. Lee got started in track during his junior year at Cheonan Agricultural High School. He began as a medium-distance runner specializing in the 1,500-meter event when a friend, whom he would only identify as Mr. Lee, asked him to join the team.
Unlike his friend, Lee Bong-ju continued to tack on running achievements (his friend now operates a dog-training center). He switched high schools twice because of athletic scholarships, finally graduating from Gwangcheon High School in southern Chungcheong province.
Mr. Lee remembers his high school days as being quite trying since he came from a family that was not too well-off. On the circumstances of his childhood, he would only say: “It was just tough. I called it the hungry days.”
Park Jong-cheon, who coached Mr. Lee at Gwangcheon, thinks that his pupil’s determination was the single biggest factor in his success. “If you look at his body you know he isn’t spectacularly built. This guy is all about grinding his teeth and keeping on running.”
Mr. Lee’s hunger to win more big races has not diminished over time, despite his healthy string of successes over the years.
His breakthrough came in 1996, when he won a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games. Until then he had run in the shadow of Hwang Young-jo, who won the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but retired shortly before the Atlanta games.
Mr. Lee continuously placed in the top rankings at other international events, such as the Rotterdam Marathon in 1998, and won consecutive gold medals at the Asian Games in 1998 and 2002.
As is true of many athletes, his stellar performance run was due to take a spill ― in his case, literally.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games he fell during a race after completing 35 kilometers and wound up finishing 24th overall. That particular day became a thorn in Mr. Lee’s side and he still remembers it with pain.
“It was a fall into an abyss. I had invited my mother to watch me. I had that much confidence and then I could not deliver,” Mr. Lee says, adding that whenever he thinks back on that moment it emboldens him to do even better.
At the time, his disappointment was so great that he postponed his scheduled wedding to Kim Mi-sun, whom he finally married in April 2002. “I thought I had something to prove to myself and the people that care about me,” he says. Only six months after the Sydney debacle, he won the venerable Boston Marathon, which was first held in 1897.
The marathon competition acquired its name from the historic Battle of Marathon in ancient Greece, where the Athenians defeated the Persians. After the battle, a Greek soldier ran the 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news.
In modern times, the race made its debut at the 1896 Olympics in Athens. Only nine out of a total of 25 participants crossed the finish line, with the winner clocking a time of two hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. Coincidentally, he was a Greek named Spiridon Louis.
Since then, the marathon has evolved as it has captured the imagination of the running public. Sports records are meant to be broken, and the marathon is no different in this respect. Nowadays, the best records are in the range of two hours and five minutes, with seconds often deciding the winner.
What has brought about this reduction in the record-setting time?
Mr. Lee has his own theory, and it boils down to better equipment and better training. “For me, the most important part is the training,” he says.
His typical day starts at 5:30 a.m., when he runs about 15 kilometers. He tacks on another 15 kilometers in his afternoon practice, with a rest between training sessions. In the winter he adds some weight training to his schedule.
“Unlike other sports I am not trying to build up any muscle memory. What I am trying to do is to condition my body so that it won’t be surprised when it gets a workout on the day of a race,” Mr. Lee says.
Drawing a horizontal line in the air with his hand, he adds, “Consistency is the name of the game here. Ups and downs will get you nowhere.”
This month, he is trying to the make his mark again at the World Athletic Championship in France, and he thinks the 35-kilometer mark will be the point of the race where his fate will be decided.
He recently finished high-elevation training for the race in New Zealand, to beef up his endurance.
Mr. Lee is now in Italy for his final round of training before the championship. Even if he comes home empty-handed, however, he says he will not be disappointed.
Having already achieved so much, he emphasizes that he is now running the toughest of all races ― the one against a 33-year-old body. “The day will come when I call it quits but you won’t hear it anytime soon. I’ll keep running.”
by Brian Lee