How to Win a Bike in Korea

The race was scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m., so Jared and I arrived at 7:30.

We picked up our freebies: a t-shirt, number, and – my favorite – SLEEVES. Now we’ll fit right in at our next baseball game.

Jared's Korean Sport Sleeves
What started as a joke quickly got serious, as Jared has taken to wearing The Sleeves outside of the apartment.

Then – we waited. The race was only a 6km fun run, but we both had some nervous energy churning in our stomachs. There was a good turnout, including the mayor of Yeongwol and our principal, but we were the only waegooks (foreigners) there.

At 10 to 8, things started happening.

First, everyone saluted the Korean flag. Second, we listened to the Korean National Anthem.

Next, it was time for the speeches. Of course! The race didn’t start at 8:00 a.m. – the opening ceremony started at 8:00 a.m.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Korea, it’s that every event must have two things: a banner and an opening ceremony. Otherwise it may as well not even be happening.

We stood, a sea of blue-shirted fun runners, in front of the silver dome of Yeongwol’s Sports Park, and waited.

Jared and I passed the time by people-watching.

“Did you see that scary woman in the neon spandex?” he asked.

I had. She was a terrifying specimen, in good shape but towering above everyone else. She’d turned up in full makeup, swinging ponytail, and skin-tight yellow shirt.

At 8:10, she took the podium.

Or, rather, the space where the podium had been. Music crackled through the speakers and she shimmied from side to side.

“Is that…’Funky Town?'”

Jared nodded. “It sure is.”

‘Funky Town’ segued into ‘Simply the Best’ as the spandex woman led us through a series of aerobic exercises involving lunges and voracious hand claps.

By 8:30, it was time. Nervous energy depleted, the participants trickled into the street, and although there was no official start line, there were five men with starting pistols.

After a carefully-timed *BANG*, we were away.

Photo from the Gangwo-do Min Ilbo. Spot my flailing ponytail in the top right corner.

It was immediately apparent that I was pretty much the only female who planned to run the length of the course. Most of the others were ajummas and children, keen for a free t-shirt and a few post-race snacks.

Jared sped through the course and finished 3rd overall. I came in 11th (I think), but happened to be the first female to finish.

A man in a Hawaiian t-shirt and blazer shook my hand. “Chukahamnida,” he said. “Yeoja il jom, jajeongko.” Congratulations. First woman, bicycle.

Some permed women hustled us over to the food tent to give us water, cucumber slices, yogurt, and a choco pie. They handed Jared a cup of makgeolli. A man took our photograph.

And then…they gave me a bicycle.

During the closing ceremony/prize giveaway/raffle drawing, Hawaiian shirt man called me to the stage.

“First woman finisher, Lauren, 30 years old.” (Another sure thing about Korea: you will always be asked your age.)

I wheeled it away in confusion. I already have a bike! Couldn’t I just give it to a kid? But which kid? There were so many of them.

Jared spotted a teacher he knew from another school who was leading a group of students. The teacher agreed to confer with his principal to choose a deserving recipient.

Of course, there were pictures:

Fun Run bike
The foreigners forgot to throw up the peace sign. Fail.

The kid was pretty excited/stunned.

And an hour later, there were about fifteen more excited/stunned kids wheeling around, because the sponsors gave away a shedload of bikes in the raffle. Additional prizes included:

  • Boxes of ramyeon noodles
  • A kimchi fridge
  • Crates of soju
  • A spa voucher
  • A box of tofu
  • Korean wine
  • Electric fans
  • Ginseng juice drinks

Jared and I didn’t win anything else, but that was OK, because 1) I already got FREE SLEEVES and 2) our picture appeared in the paper the next day under the headline “Foreigners Eye Finish.”

Gangwon Ilbo Photo
Eye-ing up that finish, while Jared scans for a spot where he can ditch the magkeolli.

Best. Race. Ever.

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    1. One time so far. It’s still better than that time in Mongolia when you went Chinese-style and sported a pseudo-crop-top while walking down the street.

  1. I think that is absolutely the best race story ever! Sleeves and an action shot of a flailing pony tail…what else could you ever ask for?

    1. I was overly excited about them: “Sleeves! Ohmigod! We got sleeves!” Now they’ve been abandoned on the chair next to the TV, but I’m still glad I have some in my possession.

    1. You better believe it. Mine were pink and Jared got pastel green ones (He’s wearing mine in the picture). There’s a whole range of stylish options.

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