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Running With The Enemy ?
xxxxxxBy Dennis Zaborac
February – 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.