What I Saw Running 26 Miles in North Korea’s Stalinist Dictatorship

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
April 18 2014 12:37 PM

I Ran the Pyongyang Marathon

What I saw running 26 miles in a Stalinist dictatorship.

(Continued from Page 1)

Pyongyang is different. There is no element of “fun” in this run. All the North Korean runners are here to compete, and I suspect many belong to athletic clubs or teams. For North Korean runners, I imagine a good result at the Mangyongdae Prize could have life-changing consequences; it may mean acceptance into a better club or school, which could in turn lead to a place at a university, and a brighter future for them and their families. When I contemplate the pressure they must be feeling, my four-hour hang-up seems trivial.

* * *

On race day, I take up position side by side with locals at the starting line. Their faces are marked with intense concentration as we set off on the 26-mile race. The mood lightens with the false start, which leads to much laughter from the stands and looks of frustration from race officials. This is one of the few moments where the marathon feels chaotic; the rest of the day goes off without a hitch.

The winner celebrates his victory inside Kim Il-Sung Stadium. The men's race was won by a local Korean for the first time in several years.
The winner celebrates his victory inside Kim Il-Sung Stadium. The men's race was won by a local Korean for the first time in several years.

Courtesy of Koryo Tours

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Unless, that is, you needed to stop to use the toilet midmarathon, something that unfortunately many marathon runners do (as Paula Radcliffe famously demonstrated in full view during the London Marathon in 2005). Most city marathons are lined with portable toilets; otherwise you can jump over the barrier and find an empty stretch of wall.

But in Pyongyang, we’re told not to urinate in the streets, and running off the course is a definite no-no. Instead, there are a few strategic toilets marked along the route in public buildings and restaurants, some as far as 50 meters away from the course and one, unbelievably, on the second floor of a building.

These towers dominate the scenery throughout the course, which is four laps around the city. We also pass imposing monuments, such as the Arch of Triumph, built to commemorate the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, and the May Day Stadium, where the Mass Games are held before more than 100,000 spectators each year. But we also pass unassuming streets that run along gray and dull green tower blocks; the only signs of life or character are a few flowerpots on window ledges.

The aesthetic of Pyongyang is old-fashioned and kitsch, frozen in the 1960s. No neon, no advertisements, no billboards. Everyone is in some kind of uniform. All apartment blocks and fixtures are painted in the kind of color palette that I used to see in my grandparents’ house; the battered old trams, the gray concrete roads, even the grass seems like it’s from a different time. It’s only when we pass the Russian embassy with its satellites and air-conditioning units that I realize no other buildings in the city have them.

Earlier, I’d asked Single Kim if she’d seen much change in Pyongyang over her 25 years growing up here. She told me no, since the economic situation of her country had not been so good recently, there hadn’t been much change. There were exceptions, of course, like new monuments to the leaders or the looming Ryugyong Hotel, a 330-meter tall pyramid-shaped skyscraper, which has been in a perpetual state of construction since 1987. Kim told me that it would be completed in the next two years—but I suspect she’s been saying that for a long time.

The Ryugyong Hotel is visible on the foggy skyline for most of the run. When we run by it, people are gathered in droves, young and old. Many are dressed in uniform or military attire. There are groups of children, cackling wildly as I give them all high-fives and shout “annyeong!”—hi!

Toward the end of the race, the runners thin out, and the faster runners are no longer overtaking me. There are officials on the course to ensure we don’t get lost, but only at certain points. For long stretches I’m isolated, running just a few feet from workers cycling past on bikes or kids kicking around a soccer ball.

The most striking part of the marathon at this point is the silence. Except for the patter of my feet, there’s barely any noise—Pyongyang is not known for its traffic and blaring horns. During these quiet moments I entertain myself by shouting “annyeong!” to large groups of North Koreans who stop in their tracks to watch me jog past. They burst into laughter. I think about sitting down at the bus stop and sharing some of my energy gels with them, but I still need to get back into the stadium within the allotted time.

As I enter the fourth and final lap, time is quickly fading, much like the power in my legs. I completed the first half of the race too quickly; the adrenaline and fear of not finishing caused me to set my pace too high. Now, other runners are overtaking me and my body is ready to give up.

Four hours have passed and I’m still a kilometer from the stadium, with a lap of the track to complete once I get inside. A huge wave of disappointment washes over me as I realize I might not make it. A car of officials pulls up alongside, beckoning me into their car. I politely decline and press on, and as I turn a bend, I see the door to the stadium is still open.

A moment later, inside the massive stadium, I bound onto an empty track unsure if I should be going clockwise or counter-clockwise. Fifty thousand pairs of eyes focus on me as I slowly conquer the last 400 meters.

Will Philipps completes the marathon in the 50,000-seat stadium.
Will Philipps completes the marathon in the 50,000-seat stadium.

Courtesy of Koryo Tours

There are no runners in front of me or behind me. The crowd cheers (and laughs) as I cross the finish line, the second to last runner to do so. I raise my arms in victory, knowing that a few minutes slower and I wouldn’t have been able to finish at all. This is my gold-medal moment. A Mass Games for one.

Will Philipps is an editor at That’s Beijing magazine and a freelance writer based in China.

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