Chul Hyun: Life is a Marathon not a Sprint

On March 10 in Barcelona, Spain Dr. Chul Hyun will run his 118th marathon. It’s an impressive athletic feat by any measure. It’s also a metaphor for the way he lives.

“Life is a marathon, not a short-distance race,” Chul writes in his new memoir, I Just Came to See You, which he will discuss at the Palisades Free Library on March 23 at 4 p.m.

“The goal is to enjoy the running and finish safe,” he says. “Just because you start running slowly doesn’t mean you will finish last. And even if you finish last, it’s much better than not finishing. It’s important to remind yourself that you don’t have to run faster than others. We are competitive by nature, but a marathon is a race with yourself more than a race against others.”

He is a formidable competitor. A gastroenterologist, Chul has been in private practice for 30 years in Englewood Cliffs and is affiliated with Englewood Hospital. He has campaigned for the early detection and treatment of hepatitis B and stomach cancer, which disproportionately affect Korean Americans but are often overlooked by physicians in the U.S.

Chul was born in Seoul, Korea, where he lived until the age of 14 before moving with his parents to Taiwan and Japan. In his senior year of high school in Okinawa, he was captain of the track team, chairperson of the National Honor Society and graduated valedictorian of his class. Inspired to become a lifelong student, he decided to attend Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. His parents moved there as well.

Thus began a succession of universities and degrees: a Bachelor of Arts from Johns Hopkins; a PhD from the University of Rochester, where he met his wife, Miki, an architect; post-doc studies at the University of Chicago; a medical degree from the University of Miami; an internship and residency at Georgetown; and a fellowship at Yale. In 2001, Chul and his family moved to Palisades from Long Island as his practice in Englewood Cliffs grew busier and his commute more complex.

Along the way, Chul became increasingly interested in community health and the racial and ethnic disparities in treatment. In 2019 he enrolled in a Master of Public Health program at Columbia.

“In my formal education and postgraduate training, I don’t remember taking a course discussing the roles of nonbiomedical factors in medicine or health outcomes,” Chul writes. “It wasn’t until I was in private practice for ten years that I realized the critical functions of socioeconomic and cultural factors in medicine, along with the roles of politics and social policies that are at play. Looking back, I see how blind and naïve I was throughout my training at all the institutions, regardless of how excellent they were.” By coincidence, Chul and Miki’s daughter, Sarah, had also enrolled in the MPH program at the same time. When Chul invited her to lunch and she already had plans, he was reminded of the time his father surprised him in his senior year at Johns Hopkins by showing up unexpectedly.

“Sarah, it’s so strange how I can vividly recall his sudden visit that year,” he writes. “He appeared lonely, and I can now feel an abundance of his love and warmth. He explained why he had come, saying, ‘I just came to see you.’ I did not know then that those simple words could embrace so much of my dad’s love and care toward me.”

In his mid-40s, Chul set a goal: to run a marathon before he turned 50. He completed his first marathon 20 years ago, at 49.

These days he can often be found running along the trail in the Palisades Interstate Park from the Alpine Police Station to Edgewater, a distance of 16.2 miles, roundtrip —meditating, reflecting on the past and imagining the future, or simply not thinking at all.

“Running has guided me and has been a unique energy source,” he says. “Training gives me time to enjoy being in nature and time of my own. Marathons let me unwind and be free.”

They also allow him to battle his physical limits, and to practice mind over matter.

There is that wall a marathoner hits around the 20-mile mark, when his body starts to grow exhausted and he must decide whether to slow down and walk or carry on. “It’s brain running as well as physical running,” Chul writes. “It is a fight within me, a mental game. My body is covered in sweat, and my heart pulsates. I feel alive.”

“If you are a runner, you understand what I’m talking about.”