Desire for English leads to world position
Park Bok-jin, 60, was elected the Asia representative of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) on May 8, defeating his strong Japanese rival Souhei Kobayashi, who served in the post for about 10 years.
Park is one of four regional representatives of the IAU, created in 1984 to promote ultrarunning, generally 100 kilometers on its standard, more than double the regular marathon length of 42.195 kilometers.
As a so-called grand-slam ultrarunner, he ran the 308-kilometer Ganghwa-Gangneung course in 2005, the 622-kilometer Haenam-Goseong course in 2007 and the 537-kilometer course between Busan and the border pavilion of Imjingak in 2008.
Despite his successes, Park admits he never wanted the prestige.
“Doing what I enjoy has led me here,” said the marathoner.
And his first big dream, which eventually led to his international position, was to learn English.
Born into a poor family, living under the only thatched roof in his entire elementary school class, Park was unable to pursue his love for English freely.
He studied alone through lyrics of popular Elvis Presley songs, transcripts of Queen Elizabeth’s inauguration speech and through faceless voices on Army radio between shifts.
Despite his determination and love for language, there was one place the future grand slammer’s legs could not take him.
“The summer during my first year in middle school, I saw a plane take off,” Park told The Korea Times, recalling the moment he clung onto the wire fence of Gimpo International Airport. “I wanted to learn foreign languages and travel the world.”
However, the ultrarunner was left at a standstill after graduation from high school in Jeonju, the capital of North Jeolla Province. He was forced to walk away from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) because he was unable to pay the application fees, which he remembers was around 500 to 700 won at that time.
But Park’s desire to learn did not stop there. He took off overseas with shoe company" Free as a Bird" (faab), selling running shoes in countries all over Europe, America and Southeast Asia, practicing and learning English.
In 2004, Park was admitted to HUFS under its newest cyber branch. Park never missed a lecture, online or offline. He earned both academic and merit-based scholarships, became the representative for 2,000 undergraduates and won an autobiography-style essay contest.
Be it running or education, Park has taken everything at his pace. It took him 34 years since his high school graduation, but Park crossed the finish line.
The same mentality applies to marathons.
According to Korea Ultra Marathon Federation rules, runners must complete a given distance in given hours. Otherwise, their numbers are taken away and they are forced to return on a vehicle.
“I told them, don’t take away my number. Put an X over it, cross it out with a pen, but don’t take it away,” said Park. “I’ll finish the marathon at my own pace, even if it takes me hundreds of hours.”
He admits the race is physically stressful, but keeps running for a simple reason, “Because it pleases me.”
The Asia leader has recently taken up the “janggu,” an hourglass-shaped drum played with two sticks, for the same reason. He practices the traditional Korean instrument whenever he can, often after his morning run at his countryside home in Yangpyeong, eastern Gyeonggi Province.
For Park, the race is not over even after conquering English, ultra marathons and winning an international position.
At the rate he is going, international janggu player may be his next title.