“Why would anyone want to participate in a running event in one of the most isolated countries in the world”, I was frequently asked when telling about my travel itinerary for my 3-week trip in Asia. North Korea, officially named as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has a reputation of representing a totalitarian, Stalinist dictatorship with an extraordinary personality cult around Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader” which was passed on to his family members with Kim Jong-un now being in place as the supreme leader of the DPRK.
It was great curiosity surrounding this country that led my way from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea on April 11, 2015. Due to the fear of Ebola, the borders had been closed for four months when the severe restrictions were finally lifted in March this year. Besides, the marathon was already considered as cancelled. I could not believe how fortunate I was to hear about the event being held as planned. Supposedly the country badly needed foreign currency and made elaborate moves to expand tourism. At the airport a mixed crowd consisting of hundreds of foreign running & travel enthusiasts were impatiently waiting for their departure with Koryo Air, the only one-star airline in the world that is not even allowed to land on European territory. During the flight, countless thoughts were invading my mind. Would the North Korean ground staff search my personal belongings as one could read all over the internet? Who would be there to get me out of trouble in case of any wrongdoings? When entering the Pyongyang airport terminal, all my worries turned out to be pointless. Apparently we were entering during peak time and the resources were just not enough for a proper security check of all foreigners entering the country. Besides some interested looks and questions, I did not receive any complaints at all. Surprisingly, foreigners could take their smartphones, GPS watches, action cameras and other once restricted devices into the country. My sense of alertness quickly disappeared when we finally met our local guides Ms. Pak and Mr. Oh who would be responsible for showing us around for the following days to come.
After days of sightseeing by foot in Beijing, I was desperately looking forward to some recovery time in order to survive the upcoming run in good shape the next day. However, our guides had different plans taking us first to the birth place of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung followed by a spectacular mass dance in the city center. Korean students assembled with the men being dressed up in suits while all women wore the most magnificent costumes in bright colors shining from afar.
In the evening we finally checked in at the Yanggakdo International Hotel which is considered the most luxurious accommodation in the area. A closer look revealed that the best days of the hotel are long gone as only some of the available elevators were actually operating. As a result, it would easily take 20 minutes to go up or down given the amounts of guests during that time. Rumors have it that the rooms are bugged and conversations would be frequently listened to. When I heard that the amateur marathon start was scheduled for an earlier time in the morning, I did not worry about the least and tried to give my mind and body a well-deserved rest. There I was – waiting to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon being opened to the public for the second time in history.
On Sunday, an early wake-up call by the receptionist kicked me out of my bed – earlier than I expected as they had to reach out to more than 600 runners which is quite a challenge to tackle. After a quickly prepared breakfast at my room, I went down to the entrance hall where we runners gathered to get our numbers and attached them onto our t-shirts. The rules regarding the running outfit are quite strict as brands or symbols are not allowed to be too prominently shown. When all organizational details were fixed, a bus took us directly to the front of Kim Il-sung stadium where the start would take place.
Inside the stadium, more than 50,000 Koreans were waiting for us foreign runners being equipped with silver and golden paper microphones, exhibiting impressive choreographies. A warm-up on the football field represented the perfect opportunity to meet and mingle with runners from various destinations and even to take pictures together with a couple of locals who were far from shy. I was surrounded by a sea of digital and GoPRO action cameras – no North Korean officials seemed to have any objections to that. As my body had still not recovered from the exhaustion of the previous days, my only goal for this marathon was to finish within time and enjoy the run to the max. After 4 hours the stadium gates would eventually close and prevent slower runners from finishing as I read on various blogs about last year’s event. Then the start of the marathon finally came closer with the North Korean audience cheering us on even more enthusiastically by varying their choreographies while the runners clapped as a sign of gratitude.
I slowly moved out of Kim Il-sung Stadium passing the spectacular Arch of Triumph which resembles the 10 meters smaller Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France. A full marathon consists of 4 rounds of appx. 10K around the city center including the Friendship Tower, Eternal Life Tower, Kim Il-sung University, through the Kumrung tunnel, crossing the Taedong river and returning back to the Arch of Triumph. Locals from soldiers, over elderly people to kids were gathering next to the course to support us and greet runners with a heart-warming high-five. Some were even shouting out English phrases such as “Nice to meet you” which also hints at the good education system of the country as it boasts one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world. Halfway through the race, the professional runners overtook us who started later in time than the amateurs. Usually it is not allowed for foreigners to move around in the city that flexibly as was the case in the marathon with no guide being next to oneself.
At no time was I thinking about achieving a new personal best, it was all about making once-in-a-lifetime memories to take home to my friends and family. During the race I found myself talking to other runners next to me which is not a typical behavior for me. Even though I worried about my physical condition beforehand, the time was flying by and I covered the distance with ease when I finally crossed the finish line. Local assistants were manually writing down the individual runners’ times which appeared to be a quite chaotic process. At the end of the day, I found out that no one registered my official finish time – which would have been the worst in my career as runner. All I cared about was the unique experience I had during the Pyongyang Marathon, making many new running friends and discovering a country that is penalized in the international press as freak country with an oppressive regime in place.