Danang marathon - Stories

That was the first question that entered my mind when I learned that Danang was going to host an international marathon. The second question was why as a Vietnam vet would I want to go back?

The last time I ran in Vietnam was 42 years ago, and it wasn’t a marathon. It was a midnight sprint to a sandbagged bunker. I was a naval advisor at the time and the run was to avoid two incoming mortars on a small riverboat base near Danang.

Three days after the attack I was a civilian standing outside the gates of the Sandpoint Naval station in Seattle. It was a surprisingly sudden ending to my service in Vietnam. President Nixon had made good on his promise to bring the troops home.

Through the decades that followed I thought a lot about those last few days in Vietnam. There was always a feeling that because I left so quickly, I left something behind. For that reason I decided to go back and run in Danang.

The race was to be held September 1st when normal temperatures are still well into the 90’s. I had no delusion that I could run fast under those conditions, so I set modest goals. I wanted to avoid running my slowest marathon and to avoid having a heatstroke. At the same time, I made the decision to play low my military experience and American citizenship.

The summer went fast and the next thing I knew I was on a plane headed to Danang. As the plane got nearer to Vietnam, I began to feel the same anxiety, worry and fear of the unknown that I felt when I first flew into Saigon in 1970. I was hoping things would be better this time.

The plane landed late at night and as I exited the main cabin all of my insecurities surfaced. There standing directly in front of me, checking the exiting passengers was a portly soldier my age. My eyes went directly to the red star on his dark olive cap, then to the red shoulder pads that were covered in gold stars. He was the enemy. We locked eye to eye. He had a stern piercing glare that intimidated me so much I quickly shied away as I passed him. All my doubts of returning to Nam came back.

As the last person to leave immigration that night it took a while to find a cab, negotiate a fare and head for the hotel. Along the way to the hotel I caught the first glimpses of the city I had abandoned 40 years ago. Even in the darkness you could see that the city was vibrantly alive with activity from countless sidewalk cafes and outside beer gardens. Capitalism had survived the war. All it took to start a business was a table, a few chairs, and a piece of ground. After 24 hours on the road I finally reached my bed and quickly fell to sleep.

Danang marathon - Stories
In the morning I awoke to the sound of a city coming alive. With the dark night and long flights behind me I felt a little more at ease and set off to visit the expo. The expo was the smallest expo I’ve ever attended; just 6 tents on a beach. I was the only runner there at the time and felt guilty that I didn’t buy anything.

Small expo aside, it was easy to see that this marathon was very important to the government and the people of Vietnam.

Everywhere in the city there were huge billboards, banners and signs welcoming the “foreign professional athletes from 25 countries.” In addition there were work groups all over town pulling weeds, sweeping sidewalks and washing walls. They were cleaning up in anticipation of visits by the invited dignitaries who included army generals, local and government officials, as well as the consulate generals from the US and Russia.

Danang marathon - Stories
After walking around town all day, I went to bed my second night in Danang with mixed emotions. I was excited about being in an inaugural international marathon, but concerned about the temperature and humidity facing me, and uncertain where an American veteran would fit into the whole picture.

The anxiety of being in Vietnam returned as soon as I left my hotel at 4:30 AM to walk to the start line. On every corner there were three or four young soldiers acting as the “volunteers” that would provide much of the support for the race. Although I felt a little uncomfortable walking alone among them, I didn’t feel intimidated by them like I was with my contemporary at the airport. After two days in country my view of the Vietnamese was beginning to change.

My 10 minute walk to the start line had me sweating from the humid nighttime temperatures that were already in the 80’s. There were about three hundred runners in the race, with only half of them running the full marathon. I search through the runners for a friendly face but didn’t find one. It was a really subdued group for an international race.

With the temperature expected to reach well into the 90’s with high humidity, the race directors announced over and over that we had the option to quit after the first half. It was an option that many would ultimately take.

Danang marathon - Stories
The start was similar to most marathons where the dignitaries assemble; a few brief speeches are given, and then to the sound of music and the cheers of spectators the runners start.

The first notable thing after the start was the large number of photographers who lined the course. Like paparazzi, they were everywhere; at the water stops, intersections, on bridges and along the beaches. Despite their large presence they weren’t there to sell you a picture. They just wanted to record a special moment in the city’s history.

The crowds, while appearing a bit orchestrated at the beginning, were very enthusiastic in their support. A friendly shouted “Hal-lo,” always with a smile, meant a lot to me as the going got rough. All along the route shouts rang out from sidewalk cafes, beer gardens and motorcycle riders. The race course was literally miles of smiles.

I loved the hesitant, almost whispered “Hal-lo” from children the most. In almost all cases, I could see that the parents were encouraging their children to call out to a foreigner. The parents knew full well what response their children would get. A hearty” Hal-lo” would be the reply, and the children would giggle, smile and proudly beam towards their admiring parents.

In the race itself I needed a lot of those smiles. The heat and humidity made the race brutal from start to finish. If I had a pacing plan, it was gone in the first mile. By the 5K mark I had already gone through 6 bottles of water and the sun hadn’t even come up.

By the time I finished the race I had gone through 50 bottles of water without going anywhere near a port-a-potty. I drank half the water and poured the other half over me. It was almost as if the water evaporated as it hit my tongue.

Thankfully, the organizers were well prepared for the heat and had 29 water stations. They had more people handing out water at those stations then there were actual marathon runners. In addition, medical cars patrolled the course and handed out water bottles to runners in need.

The full marathon course was simply a two lap circle that started at China Beach, crossed over the Han River, went directly through the town center, and returned over the river to follow the beach back to the start line. The only hills on the route were the approaches to the bridges.

Spectators on the first lap were primarily organized groups. The race was a fundraiser for hospitals so their staffs were well represented; along with school children, government workers, and the military. Spectators on the second lap were generally individuals out on the streets to celebrate Independence Day.

Danang marathon - Stories
My personal race started coming apart right out of the gate. At 5K I was already beginning to slow. At 5 miles the sun had risen and I found myself hanging out at the water stands a little longer. The young people manning the stands were incredibly friendly but spoke very little English. One girl, to my surprise, started speaking to me in Japanese. I then, to her surprise, responded in Japanese; a language I once studied while living in Tokyo.

By mile 8 I gave up all attempts to project a finish time and took my first of many walking breaks. As I approached the sea near mile 9 the road was shaded by trees. The trees provided only psychological cooling because there was no wind from the sea.

At the half way mark it was very hard not to take the offer to end the race as a half marathon. I was already 30 minutes behind my original goal and fading fast. I saw several runners quit as I moved straight ahead.

There was a round of applause for me from the spectators as I started that second loop. I guess the crowd thought the old man would give it up. The good feeling from the applause was fleeting though as the temperature continue to rise. A fellow runner told me the heat factor was nearing 100 degrees.

Danang marathon - Stories
The crowds thinned considerably on the second round as the organized groups, along with the paparazzi, disappeared into the heat. The runners continued to straggle farther apart as they continued to run on hot pavement under a burning sun.

By mile 16 I had crossed the first bridge and was back into the center of the city. My running was down to alternating long jogs with short walks. The city was now awake and the sidewalk cafes were filling with spectators drinking their morning teas. I realized that most of the spectators were there to have their teas and not to watch me run. But still, the “Hal-los” and smiles came from all directions and help to distract me from the struggle.

At mile 18, my pace slowed even more. I was down to just short jogs alternating with longer walks. At that speed, I was beginning to see a city that I had missed on the relatively faster first circle. Much of what I saw was the remnants of the American military presence of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Danang marathon - Stories
In many places, I saw crumbling concrete walls topped with barbed wire. I recognized them as the walls that encircled the huge US marine and naval base at the time of my service. It was reminiscent of the Berlin Wall and how pieces of that wall now dot the city.

The struggle to move forward grew increasingly harder as I neared mile 20. At that point I was hot, sunburned, had blisters on my feet, and was totally exhausted. I was looking for an escape plan and found it. I made a pivotal decision to take the racing out of running.

There before me was an outdoor cafe with several young men cheering me on. In the midst of them was one empty chair. Maybe it was heat exhaustion; or maybe it was just the belief that it was my time to perform, but I saw my name on that chair and sat down.

Within 30 seconds I had three beers pushed my way from laughing and smiling customers.

At the table nearest me, two young men, who were about the same age I was while serving in Vietnam,asked me where I came from. when I answered “America”, they seemed surprised, but showed no animosity.

Danang marathon - Stories
Danang marathon - Stories
Then they hit me with the one question that I feared would inevitably come, “Is this your first trip to Vietnam?”

The question was asked in a friendly, inquisitive way, and though I was half expecting it, I had never prepared an answer. I would have been easy to say it was my first trip and leave it at that. But as I looked around at the people listening to the conversation, I paused for a second and then hesitantly replied, “No…it is not my first trip. I was here 42 years ago up on the Cua Dai River.”

I didn’t have to say anything more. It was clear to everyone what that meant.

The two boys sensed the uneasiness in my answer, and wanting to put me at ease, they cheerfully replied, “That’s okay! Don’t worry.”

I couldn’t leave it at that. In an apologetic way I replied, ” We were young, idealistic and impressionable. We mistakenly listened to old leaders who too willingly sent us off to fight.”

I don’t know if the two Vietnamese boys fully understood what I said, but they nodded their heads, and in their eyes I could see that a bond was created between us. It was a link that bridged two countries and four decades. We were friends.

For the next 20 minutes we drank beers, watched other marathoners run by, and talked about what really mattered in the world today; beer, food, and women. During that time, many people stopped by, smiled, took pictures, and tried to speak English.

When the time came to get up and finish the race, it was hard to leave my new friends. During the 20 minutes at that little roadside cafe, I had learned more about the Vietnamese than during the whole year I spent fighting them.

I was a changed man as I headed out to finish the last 6 miles of the race.

Danang marathon - Stories
The twenty minute beer break rejuvenated me, but it was still a struggle to finish. I was able to pull it together enough to run the last half mile in completing not only a great marathon, but also a great journey.

After receiving my medal and grabbing a final bottle of water, I walked over to the railing to see who else was out there struggling to finish. Off in the distance I saw one Vietnamese runner. As he headed towards me and the finish line I looked at him, then at the crowd and finally at the soldiers that lined the finish area. I saw no enemies. All I saw were allies in individual battles to beat the heat, the fatigue and the distance of the Danang Marathon.

I stayed long enough to applaud the Vietnamese runner and then turned to leave for my hotel. As I turned around, smiling at me were my two unnamed friends from mile 20. They had ridden their mopeds to congratulate me and give a final good bye.

The remaining 2 days of my trip in Vietnam continued to be an awesome adventure. People offered me free beers, invited me into their homes and fed me. I even met up with a North Vietnamese soldier my age who took me on his moped to that beach I last ran on in 1971.

When my time came to leave Vietnam I had to depart from the airport late at night. I checked in, went through immigration and proceeded down the ramp to my plane. There at the door once again was the old soldier I found so intimidating upon my arrival. This time I did not shy away as I passed him. I stopped, looked him in the eye, smiled and gave him a big “Hal-lo.” In return, I believe I saw a small childish grin cross his face. With that, I knew I could finally leave Vietnam. There were no longer any enemies there.

Danang marathon - Stories

初めてダナンで国際マラソン大会が開催されると聞いたとき、なぜ私のような退役軍人がベトナムに戻りたくなるのだろう、と考えた。

私が最後にベトナムを走ったのは42年前で、それはマラソンではなかった。私は真夜中、掩蔽壕に向かって全力疾走していた。当時私は海軍顧問としてベトナムに赴任しており、そのときは二つの追撃法を避けるた めダナン近辺にある川辺の米軍基地へ逃げているところだった。

軍が攻撃を受けてから三日後、気がついたら私はシアトルのサンドポイント海軍基地のゲートの前に立っていた。ベトナムでの兵役は驚くほどあっけなく終わってしまった。ニクソンは約束どおり兵をアメリカへ戻したのだ。

その後何十年間も、私はベトナムで過ごした最後の数日間が忘れられなかった。それがあまりにも突然すぎたために私はベトナムになにか忘れてきてしまったような気がしていた。

レースは9月1日に開かれる予定だった。ベトナムの高温多湿の気候の中で、速く走れるなどと思っていなかったため、私は低めのゴールタイムを想定した。私の記録史上一番遅いマラソンにな ることと心臓発作になることだけは避けたかったので、ゆっくり走ることにした。

その夏はあっという間に過ぎ、気がついたときにはもう私はダナンへ向かう飛行機の機内に座っていた。飛行機がベトナムに近づくにつれ、私は、1 970年に初めてサイゴンへ飛んだときと同じ、言いようのない不安と恐れを感じ始めていた。今回は、前回よりもよい旅になることを願った。

Danang marathon - Stories
Danang marathon - Stories
飛行機は夜に到着し、不安を隠しきれないまま私はメインキャビンを降り立った。出口のチェッキングゲートの前に、私と同じくらいの歳の恰幅のよい軍人が立っていた。私は彼の、オリーブ色の赤い星と金色の星に彩られた赤い肩パッドから 眼が離せなかった。彼は私の敵だった。私たちは目を合わせず、私は逃げるように彼の前を通り過ぎた。途端に、ベトナムへきてしまったことへの後悔が頭をよぎった。

最後の人が空港を出て、運賃を交渉しながらタクシーを見つけるまでしばらく時間がかかった。ホテルへ向かう車の窓から40年ぶりのベトナムを複雑な気持ちで眺めていた。外は暗かったが、数 え切れないほどのカフェとビアガーデンが連なって建っているのがみえた。資本主義は戦争を生き抜いたのだ。テーブルといくつかのイスを買い、土地を見つけるところからすべては始まったのだ ろう。アメリカを発ってから24時間後、やっと私は自分のベッドまでたどり着き、すぐに眠りについた。
Danang marathon - Stories
翌日、街の喧騒で目が覚めた。暗い夜と長時間のフライトで疲れきっていたが、EXPOへ向かう元気はあった。EXPOは私が今まで見た中でも一番規模が小 さく、6つのテントしかなかった。私が唯一のランナーだったが、何も買わずにEXPOを出たため少し罪悪感を感じた。

街のいたるところに、マラソン大会に参加する外国人たちを歓迎する大きな広告やバナーなどが設置されていた。道路や壁を掃除する人たちもいた。彼らは政府の役人やアメリカやロシアからも人が来ることを予想して各所を掃除していたのだろう。

街中を歩き回ったあと、私は眠りについた。ダナンでの2日目の夜は、マラソン大会開催への興奮と高温多湿な天気への不安、そして米軍退役軍人がベトナムへ来てよかったのだろう かと思う気持ちとが入り混じって複雑だった。ベトナムにいることへの不安は、レーススタートラインへ向かって4時半にホテルをたった瞬間に戻ってきた。レースコースのいたるところにボランティアと して働く若い兵士が3、4人ほど配置されていた。彼らの間を歩くのは少し居心地が悪かったが、最初に空港で降り立ったときとは 少し違う感情が私の中に芽生え始めていた。2日間この国で過ごすうちに、ベトナム人に対する考え方は変わっていた。

Danang marathon - Stories
スタートラインまでの10分で、私は汗ばんできていた。300名ほどのランナーが参加していたが、フルマラソンに参加するのはそのうちのたった半分だけだった。顔見知りを探したが、見 つけられず、外国人が大勢いた。気温がどんどん高まるにつれ、主催者は途中棄権可能のアナウンスを何度も繰り返し、大勢のランナーがそれに従った。レースのスタートは他の大会同 様、スピーチと音楽、そして観客の声援によって始まった。他大会と一番違った点は、パパラッチのようなカメラマンが給水所や交差点、橋の上や浜辺などあらゆる場所から写真を とっていたことだ。彼らは撮った写真を売るでもなく、ただこの、歴史上特別な瞬間を記憶に残したかったのだ。

観客はとても熱狂的で、ハローと、笑顔で私に声をかけてくれた。厳しいレースの中、それはとても温かかった。レース の近くにあるカフェやビアガーデンからも、バイクに乗っている人たちからも声援を受け、笑顔にあふれていた。小さい子供たちからの 、ささやくように言うハローはとても印象深かった。両親に背中を押され、声をかけてきた子供たちは皆温かいハローの言葉を受け取り、くすくす笑いながらうれしそうに両親の元へ戻っていった。

暑さと湿気によってスタートからゴールまで始終レースは厳しいものだったので、私にとってそれらの笑顔はとても支えになった。5K地点までにすげに6本の水を飲み干しており、太陽はまだ昇っていなかった。

Danang marathon - Stories
ゴールするまでに50本の水を飲み干し、舌で水が蒸発してしまうのではないかと思うくらいだった。感謝すべきことに、主催者は29の給水所を設置してくれてい た。それに加えて、救急車がコース内をパトロールしながら水が必要なランナーに配っていた。フルマラソンは単純なコースで、2つのラップサークルだった。チャイナビーチから始まり、ハンリバーを渡 った後はタウンセンターを突き抜けたあと川を越え、スタートラインに続くビーチへ戻ってくるというコースだった。橋へいたる道に唯一丘があるくらいだった。1週目の観客は組織されたグループだった。レース は病院への寄付を募る趣旨もあったので、学校の子供たちや政府の役人、軍関係者などはよく紹介されていた。2週目は独立記念日を祝う、個人で来ている人が多くいた。

5k地点で、私はすでにスピードを落とし始めていた。5マイル走ったころに太陽が昇り始めた。若い人たちはとても友好的だったが、ほとんど英語を話せなかった。驚くことに、ある 女の子は私に日本語で話しかけてきた。彼女も驚いただろうが、私は東京にいたころに習った日本語で彼女に答えた。

Danang marathon - Stories
8k地点までには、タイムを気にするのをやめ、歩きながら休憩をとっていた。9マイル付近で海に近づき、木で木陰ができている道があった。海からの風が全くないため、その木陰だけが涼しさを与えてくれた。

半分を走りきった時点で、ハーフマラソンとしてレースを終わってしまおうかと何度も考えた。私の目標ゴールからすでに30分も遅れていたし、数人のランナーが途中でレースをやめるのを目にした。

セカンドラップを走り始めたころ、私に観客から歓声があがった。きっと、観客はこの老人がレースをあきらめると思ったのだろう。歓声に励まされて気分がよくなったのもつかの間、気温は上がり続け、他のランナーによると40度を越えていたそうだ。

暑さの中観客やパパラッチはだんだん減り始め、ランナーは焼けるような太陽の下で走り続けた。16マイルに差し掛かるころ、私は橋を越えて街の中心部まで戻ってきた。ジョギングとウオーキングを繰り返しながら走っていると、カフェが人で混み始めているのが見えた。ほとんどの人は、私を見るためではなくコーヒーや紅茶を飲むためにそこにいた。それでも彼らは私にハローと笑顔で声をかけてくれ、応援してくれた。

18マイル地点で、私の走るペースはさらに遅くなっていた。短いジョギングをしては歩くの繰り返しだった。その速度で走っていると、1ラップ目で見逃していたダナンの風景をみることができるようになった。その景色のほとんどが、私が1960年と1970年代にみた米軍の面影を残していた。

Danang marathon - Stories
多くの場所で、私がベトナムに従事していたころにみた景色が見受けられた。ベルリンの壁を思い起こさせる光景だった。20マイルに近づいたころ、私は暑さと足の疱疹と日焼けでひどく疲れており、少しレースから離れて休憩をとることにした。

目の前にカフェがあり、私を応援する若い男性が数人座っていた。疲れていたせいか、カフェの空いたイスに私の名前が書かれているような気がして、吸い込まれるようにそこへ座った。30秒足らずで3杯のビールを飲み干した。近くのテーブルに座っていた、私がベトナムにいたころと同じくらいの歳の二人の若い男性が私に出身地を聞いてきた。私がアメリカと答えたとき彼らは驚いたように見えたが、敵意は感じられなかった。

そして彼らは、私が恐れていた質問をした。「初めてベトナムに来たのですか?」その質問に悪意はなかったのだが、私は全く答えを用意していなかった。初めてだといえばそれでよかったのかもしれないが、私は、42年前Cua Dai Riverにいたことを伝えた。

Danang marathon - Stories
それ以上言う必要はなく、誰しもがこれが何を意味するかがわかっただろう。

私の落ち着かない態度を察したのか、彼らは「いいのさ!気にしないで。」と言葉をかけてくれた。そして私は、「私たちは若かったし、理想 的で流されやすかった。私たちは戦争をしてもかまわないと思う古いリーダーにただ従ってしまった。」

彼らが私の言ったことをすべて理解したかはわからないが、彼らはうなずき、彼らの目に私との絆のようなものがみえた気がした。それは2つの国と 40年の歳月をつないだ。私たちは友達だった。それから20分ほど、私たちはビールを飲み、今日の世界情勢や食べ物や女性の話など語り合った。その間たくさんの人が立ち止まって私に笑いかけ、写真をとったり、英語で話そうとしてくれたりした。

新しい友人を残してレースに戻るのは辛かった。たったの20分だったが、私が42年前ベトナムで戦って過ごした1年よりもベトナム人について深く知れたような 気がした。最後の6マイルを走る私は、2日前ベトナムに不安と恐れを感じながら降り立ったときの私とは違っていた。レースそのものは厳しく辛かったが、最後の6マイルは素晴 らしいマラソンになっただけではなく、素晴らしい旅になっていた。メダルと最後の水をもらった後、私は残りのランナーたちを見に行った。最後のランナーがゴールを迎えたとき、周りを見渡すとそこには 敵はもういなかった。そこにあったのはマラソンの暑さと疲れに打ち勝った人々同士の絆だった。

Danang marathon - Stories
私はしばらくそこに残って歓声を聞いた後、ホテルへと戻った。振り返ると、20k地点で出会った2人の男性が笑顔で手を振っているのがみえた。私がゴールをしたのを祝い、さよならを言うためにここまで来てくれたのだ。

残り2日間のベトナムでの旅はやはり素晴らしい冒険だった。人々はビールをおごってくれたり、家へ招待してくれたりと、とてもやさしかった。北ベトナム軍だった人に出会って、私が42年前最後に走ったビーチまで連れて行ってくれたりもした。

ついにベトナムを発つときがやってきてしまった。チェックインをして機内へ乗り込もうとしたとき、最初に空港でみかけたような軍人がドアの前に立っていた。今度は逃げず、 立ち止まり、彼の目を見て笑顔でハローと声をかけた。彼は子供のように少し歯を見せてこちらに笑いかけてくれたように見えた。私はついにベトナムを思い残すことなく去ることができる。そこには私の敵はもういないのだから。