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.

Korean participants in the 2014 Pyongyang Marathon run past the Arch of Triumph, built to commemorate the end of Japanese colonial rule.
Korean participants in the 2014 Pyongyang Marathon run past the Arch of Triumph, built to commemorate the end of Japanese colonial rule.

Courtesy of Koryo Tours

Each Friday Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

PYONGYANG, North Korea—As I wait for the gun to sound at the start of the Pyongyang Marathon, my nerves are overcome by a bout of self-consciousness. Here I am, a foreigner in North Korea, with high-end running gear, fluorescent sneakers and energy gels in my pockets. The local runners, meanwhile, sport antiquated uniforms and shoes that look like they might fall apart.

Nevertheless, we say hello and high-five one another in the minutes before the race. Then the gun fires, and we’re off.

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A moment later, it sounds again—false start. But before long we’re running hard, pounding the pavement of Pyongyang in an historic event: This year is the first time foreign amateurs have been allowed to race in North Korea’s premier athletic competition.

For me, running the Pyongyang Marathon—or, more accurately, the 27th Mangyongdae Prize Marathon, named after the birthplace of Eternal President Kim Il-Sung—is a chance to race against the backdrop of one the world’s most reclusive and idiosyncratic countries; a unique way to experience a unique place, and hopefully connect with some of the people who live there.

As a tourist in North Korea, you have zero freedom, except when you return to your hotel. Foreigners drive around the city in gleaming tour buses, staring at expressionless workers in drab overalls. I hoped that the marathon might let me experience the country on a deeper level.

Amateur runner Peter Lau high-fives local marathon watchers as he finishes the final stretch of the half marathon, just outside Kim Il-Sung Stadium. Many of the tourist runners registered slower-than-usual times as they stopped to interact with locals lining the route.
Amateur runner Peter Lau high-fives local marathon watchers as he finishes the final stretch of the half marathon, just outside Kim Il-Sung Stadium. Many of the tourist runners registered slower-than-usual times as they stopped to interact with locals lining the route.

Courtesy of Koryo Tours

But I had a second motive, I confess: I simply wanted to say I’d done something as crazy as run a marathon in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As Simon Cockerell, general manager for Beijing-based Koryo Tours, the company that arranged my trip, told the Associated Press: “I think a lot of the attraction is the ‘Pyongyang’ part rather than the ‘marathon’ part.” In fact, Simon told me that while his company had brought foreigners and North Koreans together through sports in the past, they hadn’t done anything on this scale. In all, 225 foreign amateurs would take part in the April 13 marathon, running free in the streets of Pyongyang with the whole city welcome to line the course and watch.

Landing in Pyongyang airport the day before the race, we meet our two local guides, both female, who introduce themselves as Kim and Kim. To avoid confusion, the older Kim jokes that we should call her “Married Kim” and her younger colleague “Single Kim.” They tell us how excited they are that foreigners are taking part in Sunday’s race. Their English, much to my surprise, is nearly perfect.

Our group chats with the Kims as we wait for everyone to come through security. It’s just small talk, but the fact that I’m actually in North Korea, conversing for the first time with North Koreans, makes it all deeply fascinating. I suspect for the Kims, however, this is just another day on the job.

We have many questions about the marathon, only some of which the Kims are able to answer. Our tour company told us to expect the unexpected and be ready for misinformation and last minute changes. We were not to bring MP3 players and told that no country names, messages, or national flags could be visible on our running gear. (On race day, however, I saw many people running with MP3 players, and two runners with a British and German flag, respectively. In fact, I later learn it was only American and Japanese flags that were forbidden.) Another runner had to run the race in jeans because the brand logos on his shorts were too large, according to the Daily Mail. Cockerell later tells me that “many of these miscommunications were just teething problems. In North Korea, when there is confusion or uncertainty, the default answer is just, ‘No.’ Much of the information we were given prior to the race turned out to be wrong.”

A major uncertainty is the cutoff time for the full marathon. Months earlier we were told it was five hours, but the day before the race I hear it’s four hours. This is cause for concern: My fastest marathon to date is a leisurely 4:20. I ask Married Kim to clarify. “Don’t worry, you’ll finish the marathon,” she says. I’m not exactly reassured.

The official guidelines we receive, printed on a single side of A4 paper, tell us that the closing ceremony will be at 1 p.m., exactly fours hours after the start of the race. This will take place in the 50,000-seat Kim Il-Sung Stadium, which will also be the marathon’s start and end points. Since finishing is very much what I have in mind, I figure I’ll need to clock in at under four hours or risk not finishing at all.

After our arrival, I pepper our guides with questions about sports in North Korea. “Our leader is focusing on getting our people to play sport and keep healthy. That’s why foreigners have been invited to the marathon this year,” Single Kim explains. On our way from the airport, we drive past vast sport centers, built in elaborate geometric Soviet styles that have recently been refurbished for badminton, taekwondo, and swimming. Earlier this year, the opening of a ski resort in the northern part of the country made news in the West, and during my stay I see many young men and women playing volleyball, soccer, even rollerblading in newly built concrete skate parks across Pyongyang. As for why this year’s marathon was opened to more tourists (previously, only professional runners had been allowed to compete), no one really knew, although some suspect it’s part of a broader campaign to boost tourism and bolster the country’s tarnished image.

Having previously run marathons in London and Shanghai, I’m curious to see how Pyongyang’s will be different. One obvious difference is that although both have elite races for professionals (Pyongyang has been attracting a handful of professional foreign runners for many years), the major Western marathons are also fun runs, open to athletes of all abilities.

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