After a great summer season of trail running with my Tralua regulars in Sligo, Ireland, I came to South Korea’s unique Jeju island for my toughest sporting challenge to date: the three-day, 100 km stage race at the heart of Trail Run Jeju 2015.
Gavin MacArthur, Guest Writer
We started early, setting out over sealed road for 1km before veering off into the dense deciduous and pinewood forest that covers the foothills of Hallasan. Following a trail that narrowed at times to a single track along the course of an old concrete aqueduct, the going was downhill and quick but very tricky. The forest floor was thick with roots and rocks of all sizes, so the chances of tripping or turning an ankle were high.
Over the next 8-10 km, the trail broadened into a clay and haematite pebble path with many rocks, ridges, outcrops and boulders. Despite the leg-sapping, mental fatigue-inducing nature of the trail, the woodlands were so beautiful. As the ground rose or fell, close-packed groves of shadowy deciduous trees and low- growth bamboo gave way to stands of tall pinewoods, where diffused sunlight made the air seem to glow.
By the time I reached the water station at 16 km, my legs were locking up from the choppy, rock-skipping running and my ankles were aching. The water station was great fun, as the Korean runners already gathered there really did their best to encourage and include me in their exchanges, with smiles, catch-phrases and hand gestures covering for the lack of fluent English.
Leaving the station, I soon hit a single track boulder way with frequent climb sections on rock stairways. Within 1 km, the boulder way became one continuous stairs and the 1,000+ metre climb began in earnest. Lung-dragging fatigue quickly set in on the stairway and all I could do was breathe, take a step, plant the hiking poles I had thankfully decided to bring along; my progress eventually slowed to a crawl of 25min per km at one point.
When I finally ‘summited’, I began a long, slow slog across rock pathways and wooden walkways that wound their way over the hills and rills of Hallasan’s plateau: easier than the stairway but still hard work.
The descent along the Yeongsil trail began easily enough on a wooden walkway, but pretty soon the trail broke up into boulder pathways, dirt track and sharp descents through dwarf brush and dead thorn trees. Once the descent turned into a stairway again, all thoughts of running it were banished by the discomfort in my knees from all the down-stepping.
Now, it seemed sensible to just keep it slow and save my legs for day two.
“Sleep came slowly last night, but that’s more to do with muscle pain and bone-deep fatigue than nerves at this point.”
The second stage took us into the remarkable volcanic landscape around Gasiri to the east of Hallasan, where we ran over steep-sided hills on a now-fertile plain that was once a steaming malpaís of lava flows and ‘parasitic’ volcanic cones.
We jogged the first kilometre along a clay trail through meadows of tall Asian pampas grass, dodging larger rocks and the occasional photo-taking runner. However, the trail got way more challenging very quickly, taking us up and down the wooden stepways of Saseum and Darabi, two of the island’s better-known ‘parasitic’ volcanic cones. These hills are more pyramid than drumlin in shape, so they slope steeply from foot to summit.
Sitting on the dusty ground with the sun beating down on my head and my legs and back aching from two days of climbing, I took a moment to consider just how fortunate I was to have the health to enjoy the challenge, and how far I came since running my first 10km road race in 2012.
The day started windy and cold on the foreshore to the north of Sunrise Peak, the unique sea-bound volcanic crater connected by a thin strip of land to the main island of Jeju.
Within a few kilometres we left the main road to join up with a section of Jeju’s ‘Olle’ network of coastal walking trails. I also managed to catch up with my new friend, Paul Tiedemann from the USA, and we started to click off the kms together.
As the sun rose higher I was glad to see that a certain amount of cloud was still hanging around, keeping the worst of the sunlight off us. Even so, the temperature was well above 20 degrees centigrade by the time we reached the half-way check point and water station at 16 kms.
Paul and I traded leads with a few really tenacious runners over the next 14 kms, which included some scrambling over rock and shingle foreshore and leg-sapping sand. In the last few kilometres, Paul picked up the pace and forged ahead of me, to ensure not being passed again by other runners. Close to exhaustion from three days of racing, I was in no position to keep up so I held my pace and ground out the running over the closing kilometre.