Written by Alicia Allen ETA’09-11
Sports and exercise have always been an important part of my life, and after I reached my end in competitive soccer, I transitioned into triathlons. The intention to become a triathlete far preceded my first triathlon; it was not until my university offered a triathlon training class to give me the instruction and support I needed that I started competing. Even months later when I arrived in Korea, I was still very much a novice.
Before I was placed on Jeju, I learned that Jeju hosts Korea’s Ironman race. Once I was officially on my way to Jeju, I decided, without reservation, that I was going to compete. The fact that this feat seems daunting if not impossible to most — an Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bike, and a full marathon (26.2 miles or 42.195 km) run — inspires me. If I flatter myself, my initial decision to compete despite my lack of experience and training can be considered a testament of my determination. To be more realistic, this was actually an inflated fantasy; I was quite foolish and naïve to presume I would be capable of completing an Ironman, especially when I had never even run a half-marathon.
Being naïve and the procrastinator that I am, I really didn’t start full-on triathlon training until March of 2010, after winter break. Most beginner Ironman training plans are six months long, and the “beginner” label assumes that you have significant endurance experience. Practical couch-to-Ironman training can take years. I maintained a decent level of fitness in the fall doing occasional running and swimming and regular taekwondo, but lapsed into a relative coach potato during the cold winter months. I basically figured that if I swam, biked, and ran a lot, I’d be able get to the finish line. Due to my independent character, I never considered looking for Seogwipo’s triathlon club, Halla Triathlon. The fact that I needed help, support, and instruction never crossed my mind.
I may have found them eventually, but I was lucky enough to be at the pool during one of Halla Triathlon’s group workouts. They immediately welcomed me and waived the membership fee simply because I was the club’s youngest, only foreign, and only female member. These ajusshis (the dentist who has run over 40 marathons, the guy who smokes a cigarette at rest stops, the firefighter whose niece is one of my students, the guy who eats the fat I tear off samgyupsal meat, the club president whose day job is making Jeju orange boxes, the smoker, the “German”, skinny Jo, and funny Jwa) all became my triathlon uncles and oppas — my Jeju family.
They help me order triathlon gear. They make me swim stronger, bike farther, and run faster. They feed me after workouts, even accommodating my distaste for seafood and fatty samgyupsal. They inform me of races, register me thereafter, and transport me to the starting line. They race with me, they cheer for me, and they take me home. They marvel at my swimming ability and tease me about my bike position. The tell me to learn Korean faster and they teach me the Jeju dialect. They take care of me. They support me.
My first Korean triathlon was the Jeju Superman at Jeju’s Sunrise Peak. There I met the Jeju triathlon community and even the pro-triathlete who later won the 2010 Ironman Korea. This community is tightly knit — I see the same faces at every race — yet like the Halla Triathlon Club, they quickly accepted me.
That race has been my favorite race experience to date. Haenyeos, Jeju’s women sea divers, managed the swim course rope. The bike course was entirely on the coast, windy but gorgeous, and the finish line was at the base of Sunrise Peak. Throughout the race, people yelled “Alicia, FIGHTING!” so often that “fighting” started to seem like my last name. As for the race itself, I’m a great swimmer (first male or female out of the water), a good biker (first female to finish the biking portion), yet a weak runner. Unprepared for the 18 mile running course, I finished the women’s race in third.
My second race was the Jeju Olympic Triathlon, a shorter and much more manageable distance for me. The swim and bike were great, but the run was still a mental battle just to get to the finish line. My triathlon fitness then was significantly better than it was in college; I dropped my previous time of 3 hours 18 minutes to 2 hours 31 minutes.
Three weeks later was my big race: THE IRONMAN. The race day weather was on the verge of a storm and windy enough that the swim was canceled. Even so, this was my first time biking 112 miles and my first time running a marathon, not to mention consecutively. After the bike, I was running, slow and steady, but running, and was ahead of my one age group competitor. When she passed me at mile 16, I crumbled. The stress, both physical and mental, crushed any confidence I had of finishing. My father, who had planned his trip to Korea to coincide with my race, gave me a pep talk that helped, but what truly got me to the finish line was the Jeju orange box man. He ran and coached me through the final eight miles, which was more support than I could have asked of anyone.
I extended my grant for a consecutive year intending to re-attempt Ironman Korea. Now that I’ve graduated past novice status, I’m competing with goals and expectations, specifically with my sights set on my age group’s one Kona World Championships qualifying spot. I’m continually getting better: I’ve addressed my weakness in running by completing two marathons, while also maintaining my training regiment with Halla Triathlon Club. I’m extremely indebted to this triathlon club and group of ajusshis. Because of them, I can speak Korean while running, makgeolli has become my post-workout drink, Jeju has become my home, and I have become a better triathlete.