The man with the golden run

Lucy Hine talks to the Korean shipyard worker with the world at his feet

Between 8am and 6pm each day Shim Jae-duk is one of the 45,000 workers at DSME’s Okpo shipyard on Geoje Island, near Busan in South Korea. But outside these hours he reclaims his self-dubbed alter ego, “Golden Legs”.

The polite, gently spoken Shim surprised himself when in 1992, with his breathing poor, doctors told him his lungs were in bad condition and he decided to take up running to improve his health.

More than 20 years later, he is an accomplished marathon and ultra-marathon runner, competing at home and on the international circuit. He carries his own gold-coloured business card bearing his nickname in honour of the limbs that have carried him this far.

Underneath his unassuming exterior is a fiercely proud, laser-sharp individual who has carefully studied his craft and honed it meticulously.

Shim joined DSME in October 1986 straight from high school, fabricating the interiors of deckhouses on commercial ships. Today he repairs the hand-held welding machines used in the yard.

Training must be fitted in around his job. He is usually at work by 7.15am, but his day starts much earlier, when he gets up at 4.50am to do warm-up exercises and a short run. The legwork continues after work. Translator KH ‘Shimmy’ Shim (no relation) interjects to confirm that he has seen Shim running on the ring road in the evening.

If a mountain marathon is scheduled, he will run up in the local hills, but otherwise he will head to the fitness centre for a treadmill session lasting from one to 2½ hours.

Shim runs an average of three marathons a month. The Monday after a competition weekend is strictly a rest day. But training always starts again on the Tuesday.

Shim did not launch straight into marathons. His first attempt at the full 26.2-mile distance was one of Korea’s three international events, the Chuncheon International Marathon, in 1995.

He doubted whether he could complete the course, but finished in an impressive 2 hours 39 minutes 5 seconds. That was it: He was hooked. Here, he felt, was something he could excel at.

Perhaps he should not have been so surprised. Shim grew up in a small village near Mungyeong, in a mountainous region in the heart of the country. Although he did not excel at running, he recalls walking everywhere and helping hunt wild animals and birds on the steep slopes.

His body would appear to have become naturally adapted to the off-road terrain. He has been largely injury-free, with only bruises to deal with. A close encounter with a tree branch last year set him back only a few days.

He has done more than 220 marathons and 50 ultras, including the gruelling 246km Spartathlon in Greece, which he has completed twice. How many half-marathons, 10ks and mountain marathons? “Countless,” he replies.

His most memorable event was the 2006 US Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run. Running on a tight budget is not easy and Shim showed up after a four-leg flight as a virtual unknown.

It was the first time he had met US ultra running pro Karl Meltzer, but in typical Shim style he set out to beat him. Seventeen hours, 40 minutes and 45 seconds later, he had, finishing a good 18 minutes clear of ‘Speedgoat Karl’ and setting a course record.

It was an important win. Trail running shoe specialist Montrail asked him to join its athletes’ team and he received other invitations from manufacturers to try their products. It put his name on the map.

It has not all been plain sailing. The first few times he stepped up to the ultra distance he did not know what and how to eat during the gruelling events, so he was losing out to other runners. Typical of his determination, he then systematically experimented with chocolate, Korean rice cakes, drinks and other foodstuffs, while measuring his performance data. He has now homed in on a particular brand of energy gels, Korean food, dates and ginseng tea.

Similarly, he was not content with the running backpacks available. So he made his own using a small, thin, red nylon mesh bag traditionally used to carry onions. The lightweight design is the best fit for his body.

Shim still has many dreams of what he wants to achieve and which races he would like to enter. Last year, at the age of 45, he set himself a target to keep running marathons competitively for the next 10 years. After 55, he explains, it is hard to improve race times, so it will be important just to enjoy running and a little more family life.

He is not lured by the bright lights of the big world marathons such as Boston, New York or London because they represent an expensive trip that would pay the entry fee for many Korean mountain marathons. However, he is open to offers that would help him compete.

Shim does have one burning ambition, though: the iconic Western States 100 at the end of June. He ran it in 2007 and 2011, but this time he wants to win.

While the international distance running scene clearly has its allure, Shim is also firmly committed to ambitions at home. A member of the DSME Marathon Club and the Geoje Island Marathon Club, he is fresh from placing fourth in one of South Korea’s top events — the Dong-A Seoul Marathon, which he completed in an impressive 2:33:55.

DSME has his attention by day, but for Shim it’s all about the running. As staff show TW+ the features of the Okpo shipyard on a 3D model of the area, Shim flashes a beaming smile and silently traces a line along the miniature hills ringing the pint-sized version of the yard. He’s pointing out his five-hour mountain training run from his home.