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Why a half-marathon in Vietnam sounded like (and became) a good idea

Mary Jo Gervase and Barbara Sauer were running one winter morning in Chestnut Ridge in Orchard Park. Conditions were typically frosty, and soon only the thought of running in warm weather could spur them forward. Their conversation sparked an idea.

“We thought it would be really cool to do a destination half-marathon,” Gervace said. “I thought it would be fun to go to Vietnam, so I went looking for a half-marathon there.”

The two Buffalo residents found one in Da Nang, and they are just back from their trip to the other side of the world. Gervase and Sauer are now part of a exclusive local group to have run 13.1 miles in the Southeast Asia country.

They told some people about their plans in the months leading up to the trip, and the reactions turned out to be memorable. Most people associated Vietnam with the United States’ military action there in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I would say people were stunned,” Gervase said. “My coworker asked, ‘Are you going to be running through rice paddies?’ They have no concept of what it’s like there. It’s a big city - a million people.”

Gervase and Sauer received shots for typhoid and hepatitis, and picked up some malaria pills just in case. Gervase said she couldn’t figure out how much a visa cost because of language differences, so she simply sent in $100 - and a visa came back. “Must have been about right,” she said.

Then they sent in their entry fees for the race, which was about 900,000 Vietnamese dong each. That translates to a little more than $40, since the exchange rate currently is 22,306 dongs to the dollar.

The 10-day trip started with a short flight to New York, and then a 14-hour flight to Seoul, South Korea. The final leg was a 5½-hour hop to Da Nang.

“It’s beautiful,” Gervase said about Vietnam. “I didn’t know what to expect. The beach is amazing. The people are all so kind, so eager to please and help out. You have all of these beautiful hotels around, but a short walk away there are people sleeping on the ground. There are a lot of extremes like that.”

“The standard of living is low in some cases, but you never feel unsafe,” Sauer said. “Sometimes people are living in a tent on a vacant lot, and they are growing food from the ground.”

There weren’t many signs of the war around, but they are there if you look for them.

“I did see some ruins on the Jeep tour,” Gervase said. “Part of a bridge was the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. There was a wall there with holes in it. The caves that the Vietnamese used are still there. Marble Mountain, which served as a hospital, had tunnels too.

“I was afraid they would not like Americans. But the people we spoke to, like tour guides, said they understood what America was trying to do, and there were no hard feelings.”

That surprised Sauer, who is older than Gervase and lived through the Vietnam War.

“I knew we had been on friendly terms for about 20 years,” she said. “They have more than forgiven us. It’s not even an issue. The people in the South feel more strongly about the Civil War than the Vietnamese do about their war.”

Gervase and Sauer caused a bit of a stir merely by walking around Da Nang.

“The kids would just stare at me,” Gervase said. “The little kids hadn’t seen anyone with blonde hair before.”

After a gourmet dinner the night before, the race took place on Aug. 7. Starting time for the marathon was 4:30 a.m., while the half-marathoners took off at 4:40 a.m. The registration process went smoothly, and it was completely dark but well lit at the start.

“We were messed up with the time change anyway, so the early start wasn’t that bad,” said Sauer, an attorney. “And the start was about a two-minute walk from our hotel.”

“That’s when everybody gets up there,” Gervase said. “It was hot, even at that hour, and the city was just coming alive. I think it was 85 degrees when we started, and it usually got to be 98 degrees by the afternoon.”

That sort of heat was accompanied by humidity, exhaust fumes from vehicles, and smoke from fires around the town that had been set to honor the dead. Throw in some particularly bad smells around the fishing port, and the race became a challenge.

But a half-marathon is a good way to see a city, and there were many good views and moments for the two Western New Yorkers along the way. Both of them found out a few days later that they had won their age-groups; they are hoping that medals will be mailed to them at some point. In the meantime, they received a couple of tee-shirts each for their efforts.

The race went to benefit victims of Agent Orange as well as the Village of Hope organization that works with disadvantaged children in Da Nang. Gervase, a social worker for the Buffalo school system, brought a backpack filled with school supplies for those children. The gift was a big hit, and Gervase is hoping to start a relationship between Village of Hope and a similar organization in Buffalo.

Gervase and Sauer reversed the travel schedule a couple of days after the race - and probably felt right at home when they walked off the plane into a heat wave here.

“I’m absolutely thrilled I went,” Gervase said. “I want to go back, but I’d like to try other races too. I was looking at India, but I don’t know if there are any half-marathons there.”

“I’m not going to India, but I’d go back to Vietnam,” Sauer replied.

Race calendar

• The iWacko/Sarah Johnson Memorial 5K Run, Clark’s Park, Wilson, 9 a.m. Sunday Aug. 14, 440-6516.

• Run for Row, 5K, Como Lake Park, Lancaster, 10 a.m. Sunday Aug. 14, 891-3941.

• Jackhammer Trail Series, 3.2 miles, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 16.

• Moonlight Run, 5K, Island Park, Williamsville, 8 p.m. Wednesday Aug. 17, 863-4747.

• Metro 10, 10 and 5 miles, 227 East Ave., Albion, 8:20 a.m. Saturday Aug. 20.

• Sunset Bay Experience’s Reach the Beach 5K, 1028 South Shore Dr., Irving, 9:30 a.m. Saturday Aug. 20, 934-2087.

• Cross Country Crusade, 5K, Knox Farm State Park, East Aurora, 10 a.m. Saturday Aug. 20, 425-2242.

• Janeen Kelly Memorial Run, 5K, Mang Park, Kenmore, 10 a.m. Saturday Aug. 20, 435-1319.

• KIA Memorial Road March, 10K, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 11 a.m. Saturday Aug. 20, 392-7256.

• Peaceprints 5K, Delaware Park, Buffalo, 8 a.m. Sunday Aug. 21, 856-6131.

• TRZ Races, 5K & 10K, Frewsburg Fireman’s Grounds, 9 a.m. Sunday Aug. 21, 397-2519.

• Rally in the Valley, 5K, Fireman’s Park, Allegany, 11 a.m. Sunday Aug. 21, 378-6338.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

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