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No pain, no gain

Korea’s first Ironman ready for new challenge

He is probably one of the fittest men in the world.

Park Byung-Hoon, 40, is an Ironman athlete. An Ironman race is an extended version of triathlon sport. The athletes swims 3.8 kilometers, cycle 180 kilometers and then run a full marathon of 42.195 kilometers, without any break.

As one can imagine, it is a very demanding sport, so not everyone can pull it off. But that’s why he has been following the sport for the past 10 years.

“It’s a very tough sport. The race is extremely painful, but I enjoy that kind of pain,” Park said.

Park is a pioneer of the sport in Korea. He started out conquering short-course triathlon events in 2000, and stepped up to the grueling Ironman race in 2003.

Since then he has completed more than 50 races, claiming numerous titles including the 2007 Ironman competition in Japan, where he set a Korean record of 8 h 46 min 32 sec. And in the 2008 world championships in Florida, he set a new Asian record of 8 h 27 min 55 sec, finishing seventh at the competition.

Of course, it hasn’t been an easy road for him.

“Each race was a great challenge, I never felt it was easy,” Park recalls, speaking over coffee at Olympic Park in Seoul.
Asia’s No. 1 Ironman triathlete Park Byung-hoon aims to compete in a 5,000-kilometer cycle race across the U.S. in June.  (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
Asia’s No. 1 Ironman triathlete Park Byung-hoon aims to compete in a 5,000-kilometer cycle race across the U.S. in June.  (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

Most people are afraid to take even just a half course-marathon, but Ironman triathletes run a full-course marathon after hours of a grueling swimming and cycling. So it is no surprise that their legs, calves and arms get cramped up completely during the race.

“You want to keep running but your muscles are not working. It happens all the time. But you have to keep on moving, otherwise you never complete the race,” Park said.

He speaks from experience that he always prepares a small needle before going into the race as a precaution.

“When I get a leg cramp, I use a small sharp needle to pinch my skin slightly. And with a tiny drop of blood, my legs soon get back to normal and then I can carry on running.”

Yes, it is brutal, but this sport is really no pain, no gain, claims Park.

“It is a very honest sport because it’s just you and the clock. And the more practice, the better results you can get.”

Park still trains like a Spartan. Five times a week, he trains from four to eight hours. He swims a couple of kilometers and rides from one to three hours. He then runs two to three hours.

Since winning the 2007 championship in Japan, however, Park has had no luck. He could not win a single title, and only managed to claim two top five finishes since then.

Yet the veteran athlete is aiming to bounce back this year. He said with great determination that despite his age, he is still very competitive.

“I’m still in good shape. In fact, I think I’m getting better and better,” he said.

And he has still not lost his love for the sports, but admits he is in need of corporate sponsors to carry on his career.

“My stamina is not an issue. I’m still competitive, but financially it’s getting very difficult,” he said.

“It’s quite sad in a sense that I’m the No. 1 in Asia, but garner little respect. National football team has not won the Asian title for a long time, but the footballers are always well-respected,” he said with a sigh.

But he has not given up hope. And he reveals that he has an ambitious plan to boost the popularity of Ironman race. Park said he is planning to participate in the Race Across America ― the longest cycle race in the world. As the name suggest, in the race the participants ride approximately 5,000 kilometers from the West Coast to the East Cost of the United States.

The annual event is among the best-known cycle races in the world, attracting thousands of cyclists across the world. To win the race, the athletes have to ride as fast as they can over 10 days.

“Of course, my aim is to win the race,” he said. But again the problem is he has to find a sponsor beforehand.

“I believe if I can win the race, the more people will recognize me, and it will help me carry on with my Ironman career. I believe I can pull it off this time, but I can’t do it without support.”

By Oh Kyu-wook (