Desperate to rekindle her love of running, Dana Filek-Gibson reluctantly signs up for a half-marathon in Da Nang, where her faith is restored by a bunch of men in short shorts.

If you want to send me into a depression, bring up ketchup, sunscreen or Mexican food. While Vietnam has afforded me many valuable, life-changing experiences, there are a handful of things in this country that, despite my deep longing, are just not the same. Sure, dozens of restaurants in the city claim to sell ‘burritos’ but, as most North Americans can attest, this is a cuisine yet to be perfected in our hemisphere. The same goes for ketchup; unless I have the opportunity to meet and interview the bottle from which it came, I will no longer even consider the condiment.

As for sunscreen, anyone who requires an SPF higher than 15 knows that finding real sun protection in Vietnam means offering up your life savings for a bottle small enough to carry on an airplane. For all the western creature comforts we are lucky to find in Saigon, these are a few things I’ve had to learn to live without.

Likewise, when it came to running in Saigon, I had almost accepted it as a lost love, too. Take a look at Saigon’s streets and you can understand why this is a difficult hobby to maintain. Because I grew up with a father who was visibly offended by treadmills, gyms don’t do much for me, either.

Outdoor running is the closest thing to religion in my family. On my last Christmas before moving to Vietnam, the Filek-Gibsons, decked out in our finest spandex tights, celebrated the birth of Jesus not by exchanging gifts or visiting church, but by exercising together. My parents have devoted an entire room in their house to stockpiling electrolyte pills and recovery drinks so that they will still be able to get in a workout once the world has ended. My father, with a crazy, hypoglycemic glint in his eye, has finished an Ironman triathlon — three times. After the first go-around, he was so enthused about having exercised for 12 hours straight that he signed up to do it again, and again.

Simply put, running events are a big deal to my family, and if Vietnam was going to hold one then I was not sure I could bear it if the race proved disappointing.

Which is why, at the last minute, I began to regret my registration for Da Nang’s first half-marathon. My only reason for signing up was in solidarity with a friend, and perhaps some nostalgia for an earlier, happier time when I was surrounded by people who spoke intelligently of negative splits and hamstring stretches and Band-Aids over their nipples. It would be just like the old days, I told myself. Everyone would wear short shorts, people would do funny stretches and at least one runner would don a ridiculous costume. You can’t, after all, have a road race without a few characters.

No sooner had I paid the registration fee, however, than a creeping doubt emerged. I began to have visions of motorists texting and driving their way across the course while race officials took naps. What if the run turned out to be only a few people and none of us were wearing a stupid hat? By the morning of the race, all I could think of was how so many things that I had hoped would live up to my expectations had tragically failed. What if this whole race was a bust? What if the timing chips didn’t work? What if terrible, upbeat, sugary pop music wasn’t playing at the announcer’s station?

But as the participants gathered at the start line, I looked around and my worries receded. It was short shorts as far as the eye could see. The Taiwanese delegation, covered head-to-toe in spandex, adjusted their brimmed hats, the kind with a billowing, shoulder-length cape attached. Odd, catatonic stretches continued right up until the gun sounded and, as the sun rose over the Da Nang beach, I caught sight of a man in a non la and a backpack, complete with a large Vietnamese flag trailing behind him. These were the people I was hoping to meet.

With the entire Da Nang police force on hand to cordon off our route, spectators began to gather by the street, slightly bewildered by the parade of sweaty faces lumbering toward the bridge. Even so, we had cheerleaders. Old ladies fresh from a morning of sword-dancing in the park gathered at the curb, whooping and smiling for every runner who passed. The man in the non la was praised as a king. To my everlasting surprise, nobody even tried to drag-race down the empty road beside us.

Roughly two hours after the race began I reached the final stretch, dizzy and elated — and not just because of an excess of endorphins. Despite my lack of faith, the city of Da Nang had prevailed. I sped forward, crossing the shadeless finish line, my mispronounced name echoing from the loudspeakers.

Dana Filek-Gibson is a Canadian expat living in Ho Chi Minh City. 

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