The Pyongyang Marathon, North Korea
The following is my own opinion and not that of Kyoto Tours.
At the age of 5, I flew for the first time for a family ski holiday to Austria. I remember the experience vividly. My blue leather shoes, the in-flight magazine and the strange sensation in my stomach, courtesy of the turbulence.
It may have been a few decades since I took that inaugural flight, but today I was feeling that same uneasiness about flying, something that I had not felt in a long time.
My uneasiness wasn’t due to the airline being banned from both American and European Airspace. It wasn’t the fact that the airline was the lowest ranking airline in the world, (the only one to receive just 1 star). My uneasiness was because of the unknown that lay ahead and the stories that I had heard about the country I would be visiting, the notorious Democratic Republic of North Korea.
As we sat on the runway in Beijing, a patriotic video of loyal North Koreans, dancing and singing played on the in-flight entertainment system.
We had been warned that as soon as we entered North Korean airspace that photography was not permitted, the concern being that we may be trying to take photos of military installations. This would be the first of many warnings on when and where we could take photographs, and even though I am not always the best at obeying rules, the stories I had heard, scared me enough to ensure that I followed them.
Despite the safety record of the airline our plane took off without a hitch. There was a real sense of excitement, coupled with an element of nervousness that myself and my fellow passengers seemed to share.
It became quickly obvious that the people I was flying with, were not your average mix of travellers. On my left sat a young Australian man named Simon. When I asked him what he did for work, he casually said: “ I don’t really work anymore”. The confidence in which he answered, didn’t give me the impression that he had given up on life, more that he had been successful and no longer needed to prove himself. Intrigued, I asked a few more questions and found out that he had started a successful software company in Australia as a teenager and it had been bought out and he was now living in Singapore. Not only was Simon a successful businessman, he had also ran a marathon on the North Pole, something that I am keen on doing after I finish running a marathon on every continent. He showed me photos and told me about the grueling run, as we crossed into North Korean airspace.
I looked to my right. Sitting next to me was a very tired looking Zimbabwean gentleman. He seemed much more focused and less energetic than anyone else on the flight. Maybe he was conserving his energy for the big race ahead. I introduced myself and learnt that he was planning on winning the North Korean marathon! He had recently won the South Korean marathon in Seoul, and he now had his sights set on securing the double. We joked about how, if he wins in North Korea, he would be the uncontested champion of Korea!
I spoke with other passengers seated around me. Many countries were represented. There were lots of different European countries and surprisingly many Americans, Australians, and a few people from Asia, and one Russian.
Koryo airlines is infamous for its in-flight cuisine, in particular it’s burgers. No one is certain what kind of meat is contained in the burgers but there is a great deal of speculation. Some people joke that it is dog meat, some say pork. When I asked the air hostess what kind of burger it was I simply received the reply “meat”. I had one bite of my ‘meat burger’ before putting it aside and wondering what other culinary delights this trip would offer.
As I walked to the restroom, I saw one of the passengers shredding pieces of paper, tearing it frantically with their hands. Maybe the passenger had realised he had inadvertently brought something that he shouldn’t have in his bag. I wondered what it could be, maybe a religious text or an offensive Email.
As we flew over the North Korean countryside, I peered through the small window. I saw sparse fields, no roads, just tracks. The country looked rugged, mountainous and worn like a medieval township. As we made our final approach into Pyongyang I started to see more life and development. There were tower blocks, roads and large buildings, on first glimpse, Pyongyang didn’t see much different to any other city.
As we landed with a heavy bang, something fell from the plane and a few of my fellow travelers, tried taking photos. The eagle-eyed air hostess saw and told them to delete the photos immediately. I wondered if this would be the first of many reprimands for our group.
As we taxied to the airport terminal, I was impressed with how new the building looked. The aircraft that we had flown on was quite the contrast.
With everything that you hear in the Western media, I wasn’t sure how we would be treated by the immigration officials and the North Korean people. My initial thought was that we would be hated and treated with suspicion and scepticism.
One of the advantages of having two passports is that I can choose which one I use. As I thought North Koreans would be less hostile to a Brit, I used my UK passport. It didn’t seem to make a difference…. the officers I, and others encountered, treated everyone equally well. They were all friendly and seemed happy that we had taken the time and effort to come and visit their country. I compare this with my experiences with some other countries where I have been aggressively interrogated and made to feel unwelcome.
Immigration lines don’t generally move fast, but in Pyongyang they were slower than the line at the DMV on Zootopia. On entering North Korea, you are required to produce a list of everything you are bringing into the country, including the titles of all books and magazines. If this isn’t bad enough, you are then asked to hand over, every electronic device, including phones, iPads, memory sticks, SD cards, laptops and provide all passcodes and passwords so the officers can check to make sure that you do not have anything illegal that may undermine the government or make their leader look bad.
Now I’m not stupid enough to bring something into North Korea that may be deemed hostile to their nation, (for example the movie: “The Interview”). However what worried me was the ‘unknown unknowns’, items that I didn’t realise were banned that could potentially get me locked up for 15 years or more. There was a plethora of items that are disallowed including:
+ Offense images of the leaders
+ South Korea Songs
As I was waited in line, taking in every detail of my unique surroundings. I suddenly had a thought. In my possession was an item that was on the banned. I realised that I had the song ‘Gangnam Style’ by the famous South Korean singer Psy. I had been in North Korea for less than an hour and I had already realised that I had a contraband item within my possession. As much as Gangnam Style helps my running, I didn’t want to risk finding out the consequences of having it on my phone, so I quickly deleted it with a sense of relief.
As the passenger in front of me walked forward to the impeccably dressed North Korean official, I stood waiting, next in line to be questioned. After what seemed like a long time I was directed to place my bags on a conveyor belt. Another officer took my devices and memory cards, asking for my passwords and passcodes as he did. A third officer diligently looked through my bag, inspecting everything, putting each item to the side before stopping at my Fitbit, looking at it’s USB connection and asking me quizzingly what it was. Ashamedly, I thought he may not know what a pedometer was, so I told him the device was a watch. Pointing to my wrist, he replied in excellent English: “You have a watch”. I told him that this watch also measures my steps, “Ahh…….. like this” he said, as he proudly lifted his sleeve and pointed to his North Korean version of a Fitbit!
With a sense of relief, I walked into the arrival section of the airport. Maybe I had been lucky, some other people I later spoke to had had a closer call. An African runner, one of the favourites to win the marathon, had a number of unflattering photographs on his phone. He was taken into a room, interrogated before having his phone confiscated and destroyed. I spoke with another girl who had also had her photo taken because of some offensive text messages her friends had sent her. I had wondered if I was being paranoid, not telling my friends that I was going, but after what happened with these two individuals, I was glad that I had played it safe. Despite losing their phones, at least these runners didn’t lose their freedom. I wondered if during this trip we had been shown more leniency than normal so that North Korea could highlight its better side.
As I boarded the bus to the hotel, I had my first glimpse of North Korean life. The streets were busy with mainly military personnel, walking to the airport on there way to work. As the bus drove down the road, I looked out of the window to see manual labourers and their children working by the side of the road, planting grass methodically. There was a rustic tidiness about everything but something that I couldn’t put my finger on, seemed amiss.
My face was glued to the bus window, everything seemed so familiar but so different at the same time. It was like putting on glasses that warped your vision, showing you an elongated perspective of the world outside.
The apartment buildings reminded me of my trip to Russia, grey in colour and uniform in shape. The only colour, and uniqueness were the plants that people would place on their balconies. What really stood out to me was the lack of signs and advertisements. With marketing and advertising being so prevalent in the west, we become conditioned to seeing it everywhere. The incessant advertising and branding from businesses, will slowly…… drip….. drip….. drip messages into our mind. Only when I lived in Thailand, and I couldn’t read the advertisements, did I realise the effect that this sub conscious consumerism has on us.
Despite the hotel being in the middle of Pyongyang, we were isolated as our accommodation was situated on an island in the middle of the Taedong River which ran through the middle of Pyongyang. The 50 stories of the Yanggakdo hotel loomed in front of me as I exited the bus and walked to the check in counter.
As I entered the massive hotel, I walked past a huge fish tank which contained an unwelcoming selection of sharks . As I waited for the key to my room, I looked around and was impressed to see some of the facilities the hotel offered including:
+A banquet hall
+A bowling Alley
+Massages and Spa
+Barber (where I had a cut throat shave)
+Casino (with blackjack and roulette which I lost at!)
+A revolving restaurant
+And in true North Korea style – A very mysterious 5th floor that is rumored to used for surveillance.
After checking into my room, the first thing I noticed was a 1950s looking ‘radio cabinet’ with protruding wires. I did wonder if this ‘radio’ was connected to the 5th floor where maybe I was being watched.
The Book Shop.
When visiting a country, I feel a sense of guilt and regret if I don’t see the famous sights like the Eiffel tower in Paris or Angor Wat in Cambodia. I much prefer experiencing the real essence of a country. By experience simple things, such as bookshops, barbershops or a local market I feel as if I am exploring the city from a locals perspective.
Everything that I did in North Korea was being strictly controlled and orchestrated, so there was little chance to see the real North Korea. Going to a bookshop, however, provided an interesting initial alternative to the more well known sights of Pyongyang.
Like all shops in North Korea, the exterior of the bookshop looked like a generic brick building with no signage or advertising indicating that the building was a book shop. The inside however was like any bookshop that you might find as you roamed a new city… The only difference was the selection of books, mostly written by Kim Jung il, including some titles such as: ‘Strengthening the Party and enhancing its role in the Basic Guarantee for the Victory of Revolution’.
The shop sold a number of hand painted, propaganda style posters depicting war against the West. Others were more peaceful, showing the countryside, painted in a unique and interesting style. I expected everything to be very cheap, but prices varied greatly with some books, presumably subsidised, and other items such as the posters, selling for $60
After perusing the shop for some time, I went outside to watch the locals of Pyongyang. The busy high street was similar to any street in England or America, with people going about their day to day business. Impressively, bicycle lanes, stretched as far as I could see through the city. Everything seemed so normal and no different to our everyday lives back home, this was until I walked down the street and saw tens of thousands of people, in perfectly straight lines, practicing a mass games style routine for an up and coming birthday celebrations of their founding leader Kim ill Sung.
After visiting the birthplace of Kim Jong Un I went back to the hotel for dinner and my first night in North Korea. As I closed my curtains I looked out over the city from my room on the 19th floor. There weren’t many lights on in the buildings, but it wasn’t pitch black, contrary to the rumors that I heard before arriving. As I lay in bed I could hear a boat dredging sand from the river, a valuable resource needed for building, due to sanctions that are in place on North Korea.
I awoke the next morning after a good night’s sleep. As I looked out of my window into Pyongyang I could see a large number of people doing some kind of group exercise in perfect unison. I would shortly be doing my own form of exercise as I had been given authorisation to go for a pre-breakfast run.
Everywhere I went in North Korea I had 2 minders following me to ensure that ‘unexpected things did not happen’. Within the hotel I was free to go anywhere I pleased (expect the 5th floor). I was also given permission to go on a run without a minder as I made the excuse that I needed to warm up before the marathon the following day. It was a wonderful opportunity to be free from the constant watchful eyes of our minders. It was a fresh morning and as I followed the path of the river, I could see signs of the problems within the country. The metal chain that once fed through the concrete posts, had been removed and presumably melted down to be used elsewhere, leaving just a hole where it once hung.
A boat full of stern looking military personnel slowly chugged down the river, I waved as they passed, not one of them returned the gesture.
As I turned the corner I saw the dredger that I had heard the previous night, working away, with another soldier overseeing the operation. Despite all the military personnel that I had seen, I was surprised to learn that North Korea has the largest military in the world per capita and the third largest military in the world by numbers.
I was excited and intrigued to see Pyongyang’s subway as it would give me an opportunity to be surrounded by locals. As much as our trip may have been choreographed, surely the North Korean government could not control the hustle and bustle of the capital’s morning rush hour?
As I entered the station, I was quickly guided to the escalators by the ticket operator. Locals stared at me with intrigue as we passed each other on the escalators, as I descended deep down to the train platform.
As I stepped off the escalator, I was blown away by the beauty and workmanship of the station. It was stunning, even more so than the opulent stations I’d seen in Moscow. Mosaic-like paintings adorned the walls, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling, illuminating the platform like fireworks. The thick, supporting pillars were made of marble with a gold trim. This metro station was definitely the most beautiful that I had ever seen in all the world, and it didn’t even compare to cities like London or Washington DC that were simply functional in nature.
On each platform a framed newspaper was displayed, allowing commuters to keep up to date on the daily (government controlled) news. One of the interesting things that I learnt about Newspapers in North Korea is that they are treated with a great deal of respect because each one has a picture of Kim Jong Un on the front. Consequently it is forbidden to fold or crumple a newspaper as it is considered a sign of disrespect. With these strict rules, you might wonder, like I did, how one would throw a newspaper away? You do so very carefully, placing it next to the trash can. There is in fact an entire government agency in charge of disposing with old newspapers.
A train could be heard approaching and as it entered the station, a rush of air overwhelmed the room. Commuters streamed off the carriages, and as the last commuter left, I stepped on.
The train was full but not as full as a London rush hour. The passengers seemed a little unsure as to what to make of me. As a seat became available I sat in the middle of 2 Koreans. Using charade-like gestures, I asked if I could have my photo taken with them. They obliged and seemed much more curious and interested than their photo made them appear:
As we hurtled through the underworld of Pyongyang, I asked my minder which station was his favorite. Without hesitation, he pointed back to the station we had just come from. Cynically, I wondered if we were only going to see the best stations, but at each stop I poked my head out of the door and looked to see stations that were almost as stunning as the first.
After visiting the war museum and seeing history from North Korea’s perspective, we headed to the giant statues of Kim Jung Ill and Kim. Here I watched as North Koreans, both rich and poor would revere the statues like a shrine.
We were encouraged to show our respects by laying flowers in front of the former leaders. As we took photos, we were forcefully informed that we should not take any that would crop off the head of the leaders. We were told to be very respectful, which also meant novelty photos were out of the question.
As our group approached the imposing statues to pay our (forced) respect, we were told to bow on their command. As they motioned for us to bow, I heard a sigh of horror at our shambolic attempt of bowing in unison.
As I slowly walked back to the bus I saw a newly married couple having their wedding photos taken in front of the statue. Seeing this happy couple, made me realise, how despite the huge, contrasting cultural differences that divide us in the west with North Korea, in reality we are all remarkably similar. The wedding traditions and clothes the couple wore, were almost indistinguishable from a western wedding. One of the things that I love about traveling is noticing the different ways of life and questing the way I live my life. But in also noticing the similarities, it highlights how alike we all are.
As we drove the route of the marathon, I sat next to one of the minders. He told me how in North Korea when you run, it’s often as part of a team. Unlike a team race in the rest of the world, in North Korea the winning team is the team that has the fastest of the slowests team member. This results in the whole team supporting each other with the slower runners given more encouragement and help.
On the route back to the hotel, we were lucky enough to encounter a group of locals dancing in this street. It was magical to watch this performance and one of my highlights of the trip:
Back at the hotel I used the final dinner before the race to load up on carbs. I was unable to find fries or hot dogs (which helped me achieve a personal best in Rio), but the North Korean beer was flowing and I settled for that and noodles with kimchi instead.
I woke up startled by my hotel room phone ringing. “Hello?” I answered. Thoughts raced through my mind….. had I slept through my alarm? On the other end of the phone was my minder, Mr Lee. He happily informed me that it was time to wake up. Half asleep, I looked at the clock and noticed it was 5.45am, 15 minutes before the 2 alarms that I had set myself, which allowed ample time to get ready!
I got dressed and did a quick workout before I heading downstairs for my final meal before the run.
With previous marathons that I’ve completed, the day normally starts off very quietly, as I am the only one in the hotel running the marathon. But in this hotel in Pyongyang there was an air of excitement as everyone seated in the banquet hall would shortly be running.
Normally I would have oatmeal or some other western breakfast before a big run, but being in North Korea my culinary options were far more limited. I didn’t want to risk some of the more exotic options of noodles and pickled vegetables. Instead I opted for some fried eggs with a side of toast, washing it down with two cups of kefir yogurt which filled me up nicely.
As we made our way to the buss, I thought about how the marathon was starting in the gigantic May Day stadium, the biggest stadium in the world with a massive 150,000 capacity. I wondered if the stadium would be full of spectators, or would it be more like the stadium for the Melbourne marathon which was almost empty.
At the start of a marathon you normally see streams of bleary-eyed runners heading to the starting line like zombies. Here in Pyongyang it was not runners, but residents of Pyongyang, all dressed eerily similar, briskly walking towards the stadium where the marathon would start.
This increased my excitement as it meant that the stadium would likely be full! I thought to myself how we would be starting and finishing with more spectators than any football match or Olympic event in history as this was the biggest stadium in the world! No other vene could hold more people. The thought was exciting and daunting at the same time.
As our bus stopped in front of the stadium, our driver parked and maneuvered our vehicle between other busses like a skilled tetris player. Mr. Lee our minder said that when we reconvened it was important that our group stay together as it was critical that he didn’t lose any of us as “we all looked the same” He wished us luck, waved and walked away and at that moment we were tourists in North Korea without a minder!
As I waited in the tunnel of the stadium, I learned that I would be the first group of amateur runners to enter during the starting ceremony. My group were instructed to form a square, 10 people by 10 people. Luckily I was in the front row, allowing me to be one of the first people to enter the stadium.
When I was younger, on Christmas day, my parents would tell my brother and I to wait at the top of the stairs as they prepared the living room into a wonderland of gifts, food and festive cheer. That excitement I had as a boy, the anticipation and wonder, reminded me of how I felt. My brother and I would patiently wait, until we heard the familiar song of ‘O Come all ye faithful’ before rushing down the stairs to the arrival of Christmas.
It was dark, the only light was literally at the end of the tunnel. The energy was electric mixed, with an element of uncertainty. No one knew what to expect, but we did know at the end of the tunnel were tens of thousands of people and the start of the marathon. The crowd behind me pushed forward with anticipation, the officials were quick to respond and ensure that everyone was in their place for the start of this epic show….and that’s one thing about North Korea, they know how to put on a show!
Suddenly, with no warning we were let loose. We started marching forward toward the light and sounds at the centre of the stadium. We walked with enthusiasm and excitement, our heads held high, looking all around, like a meerkat.
My eyes adjusted to the light as we approach the mouth of the tunnel, I could hear a band playing and cheers from the audience as the children at the start of the parade made their way out into the field.
I looked around in marvel at the sheer number of people, clapping and cheering, taking up my entire 360-degree view. I was blown away. I’ve been to sold-out concerts at Wembley, the biggest stadium in the UK, but here I was in the CENTRE of a stadium, twice the size of Wembley. I had never experienced anything in my life like this before, it was so surreal. We waved at the crowd who enthusiastically greeted and cheered us on. I had cynically thought that the spectators had been forced to come and watch the marathon, but if their excitement and waving were any indication, they genuinely looked happy to be there.
As we reached the second corner of the stadium, people in front of me started to run. Had the race started? I hadn’t heard a starting gun but maybe in all the excitement, it had already been fired.
As I started running, I had the ominous realisation that I only 4 hours to complete the marathon. We were informed, before the race started, that there would be a very strict 4 hour cut off with zero tolerance. After 4 hours the doors to the stadium would be closed and our race time would be recorded as ‘DNF’ (Did Not Finish). As much as I wanted to take in the atmosphere of this once in a lifetime experience I knew that I also needed to do my utmost to ensure that I finished the marathon within 4 hours. As wonderful as starting the race in the stadium would be, imagine the feeling of finishing, with over 100,000 people cheering you over the finish line!
As we crossed the Taedong river. The stadium that we had just been standing in, towered over us in the background. With all the excitement, my pace was quick, and I forgot about the mistake that I made the last time that I ran a marathon in Asia which resulted in me coming last!
In the sea of North Korean runners, I found 2 familiar faces, James from the UK and Mattieu from Belgium. I had run with James the previous morning along the river and we spoke of our, reason for coming to North Korea and what our friends and family thought of our decisions. James, like the vast majority of people that I had asked, said that he he hadn’t told his family yet and he would inform them about the trip only after he arrived back. Others, had creatively told family they were travelling simply to ‘Korea’ and they just assumed it was South Korea. I would estimate 4 out of 5 people that I asked, didn’t tell their friends and family which I found interesting and grateful for my easy going parents who I did tell.
As we ran, Mattieu, from Belgium causally mentioned that he had completed a 75 Km endurance run but had never completed a marathon in under 4 hours. He was hopeful that he could complete this race in under 4 hours, I could see he was determined to do so. James was definitely a stronger runner than I was, aiming for a time of 3 hours 45 minutes. After each marathon that I have completed I have cared less and less about my finishing times, opting to enjoy the experience and take in my surroundings during these unique runs. This time however, I really wanted to finish the marathon within 4 hours, I had come all this way and trained hard I didn’t want the door of the stadium to be closed in my face. My last marathon in Zimbabwe was completed in 4 hours and 2 minutes and every single one of my training runs had been considerably over a 4 hour pace, the only consolation was that those training runs were on undulating trails. With the flat roads, the support of the crowd and the prospect of being stranded in the middle of North Korea, I pushed on optimistically.
There were no porta potties for this marathon. We were told that there were 4 locations along the route where we could use the restroom. We passed a road with a sign, pointing ominously down a long road towards a tower block, indicating the first restroom. As I looked far down the road, I didn’t see anything that resembled a rest room and I wondered if the rest room was maybe in one of the apartments down that road.
We crossed another bridge, as we made our way back around into Pyongyang before descending into a dark tunnel. As we emerged from the tunnel, directly in front of us was the iconic Ryugyong hotel. Resembling a James Bond villain’s hideout, this hotel is the largest building by far in Pyongyang. As impressive as it looks, it is mysteriously unfinished, despite construction starting in 1989.
A quarter of a mile down the road we encountered our first water stop. I wasn’t expecting much as we had been told that there wouldn’t be any energy drinks, only water, but to my surprise, bananas were also provided by the helpful volunteers. As we raced on, hydrated and energized, we ran past the North Korean version of the Arch de Triumph. We were spurred on by the curious locals, who didn’t seem too sure about how to react to us, despite our waves and attempts at high 5’s.
At around mile 5 we had been warned that there was some construction work taking place along the route. The construction, was nothing out of the ordinary, it appeared to be some new apartment buildings, but for some reason North Korea seems very sensitive to any construction. We were warned that it was very important that we didn’t take any photos during this section of the race and that we would be detained if we did. As is often the case when running a marathon, one does not always think clearly. I made a mental note to be extremely mindful, when taking any photographs during the race, I did not want to end up being a: ‘DNF’ (‘Detained, not Finished!)
As we completed the first of 4 laps of the city, James updated us on our time. Ominously he warned us that we were running at a lightning pace. If we continued at the current speed we would finish the marathon in 3 hours and 20 minutes! Optimistically, I remarked “at least we have a few minutes banked” but we all knew that it didn’t work like that. Running faster than your training pace almost always means a crash and burn scenario as you hit the wall. As this realisation occurred, I attempted to slow down as best as I could, but the energy and excitement made it difficult.
The second lap of Pyongyang was much the same as the first. The biggest difference was from the North Koreans lining the route and how they reacted to us. On the first lap, the kids who had been brave enough to wave and attempt high 5’s would get an unapproving look from the military or their parents. On the second lap, it was as if they had realised the futility of their scorn and now allowed the kids to embrace the new, “high 5”, word that they had leant. It was such a wonderful sight to see, dozens of happy kids lined up, making “high 5 trains”. I’ve always appreciated anyone that shows any support to a marathon runner, and I wanted to reciprocate by high 5ing all the people that held their hands up. With the sheer number of kids it was difficult to not be held back by the enthusiasm of all the hands pushing against yours as you ran.
The half marathon runners finished after the second lap and at this point, there was a noticeable decrease in the number of people on the course.
Despite the decrease in runners the support from the crowd was still strong. It was interesting to spot a small number of foreigners, along the route cheering us on. I wondered who these foreigners may be, my only thought being that they must be ambassadors or diplomats.
We soon started to pay the price for our initial lightening speed and to make matters worse the sun started to make the running conditions harder. Mathieu and I made the decision to stop briefly at the next water stop located at mile 15. The 60 second pause was a welcome rest but we had now lost our momentum and we needed to build it up again. As we continued to run, I calculated in my mind, how many minutes we had banked during our first 2 laps. We were about 20 minutes ahead of schedule, so even if we ran the next 11 miles 2 minutes slower, we should be fine, but that was a big ‘IF’, with our pace slowing and the conditions becoming more and more difficult.
As we ran past the stadium for the third time, there was a sense of satisfaction that we were on the final lap. The next time I’d see the stadium would be running into it to finish…..assuming they let us in! As I continued to run I thought to myself: what if the doors to the stadium were closed before I finished? Would I be stranded on the streets of Pyongyang!? This prospect of potentially being stranded on the streets of Pyongyang was daunting but it helped increased my pace at least!
Mathieu and I soldiered on, motivating each other to keep going. When one of was feeling the pain, the other would intuitively motivate the lagger to keep going.
Each mile compounded the pain we were experiencing. I could feel my pace declining with each step. As the sun’s heat intensified, our speed and motivation continued to wane. My focus and goal was directed at the next drinks stop, allowing me to hydrate myself before a big push towards the finish line.
Like an oasis in the desert, I could see the water stop in the distance. With each step, I closed the gap, and the thought of some much needed, refreshing water spurred me on. As we got closer, something didn’t seem right. Normally there would be a bottleneck of runners at the drinks table, like at a busy intersection. Runners didn’t appear to be taking any drinks, they were approaching the table and continuing on. As we got closer we could see the problem…..they had ran out of water! The oasis was an illusion and the prospect of some refreshing water was quickly evaporating.
My motivation was at an all time low, it’s not like you can stop at a 7-11 to pick up a water in the middle of Pyongyang, it was illegal for us to even have any North Korean money.
There was a glimmer of hope. Around the corner was a open air shop, selling snacks to the locals. It must have been the only shop along the route that I noticed. I had $10 in Chinese currency that I had brought with me in case of an emergency.
Mathieu continued to run ahead as I decided to try my luck at the shop. I very much doubt the lady I encountered at the small shop had ever spoken to a foreigner before. As I made a charade like gesture, tilting my hand to my mouth, she instinctively understood what I needed (or maybe it was because I look dehydrated!)
As I handed over the $10 in Chinese money, I wasn’t sure if she would accept the foreign currency. She looked at the money but seemed more concerned with how she was going to give me enough change. I didn’t care for any change, I was just happy to find some refreshingly cold water. As I gestured for her to keep the money she looked overcome with joy and appreciation. I wondered to myself, who was more appreciative, me or her? After a few sips of much needed water, I ran as fast as I could to catch up with Matthieu. I handed him the bottle and he did a double take asking me “Where did you get that from?”
As we approached the stadium it felt like a dream…..in more ways than one. Do you ever have those dreams where you are running but don’t appear to move, despite how fast you try to run? At each gate of the stadium, we were directed by race officials to continue on to the next door. As the stadium was so big, this unintended sick joke seemed to go on forever and was difficult to deal with psychologically. Finally we were ushered to an open door. In the distance we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, beckoning us forward. It was the final stretch, the last quarter of a mile. The darkness of the tunnel was a stark contrast to what lay in front of us. As I entered the stadium, a gigantic roar, like a jet engine lifted us. I looked all around to take in the incredible sight of the May day stadium full of people.
Nothing can describe the feeling of having over 100,000 people cheering you on to finish a marathon. It was like nothing that I had ever experienced before. Brass bands played and the crowd clapped and pushed us on as we rounded the corner and accelerated for the final stretch.
It was an unreal feeling to cross the finish line. I felt a mix of relief, satisfaction, pain and exhaustion. As I basked in having achieved one of my goals for 2016, I looked around to see Josh our English guide who came to congratulate us which was a welcome sight.
As I took a few seconds to rest and to take in the moment, a North korean women, dressed in traditional, colored dresses presented me with a medal.
Normally after a marathon the only thing that I want do is shower and rest. Today though, I wanted to make the most of this unique experience. I slowly, hobbled up to the stairs of the stadium to take in the view. There weren’t many seats available however the area by the finish line had a VIP section where some North Korean generals and other top military were sitting, each with their own table. I saw a seat and table without anyone sitting at it and asked the General sitting behind me if it was OK to sit down. With a friendly smile he gestured for me to sit down. I sat watching triumphant runners cross the finish line for 13 more minutes, before the 4 hour cut off was strictly enforced. As I sat watching, I thought to myself how surreal this was. I was sitting in the biggest stadium in the world, in North Korea sitting in the VIP military enclosure.
After a huge lunch to refuel, I had the opportunity to visit a water park. As much as I wanted to rest, the prospect of meeting some North Koreans was even more appealing, especially as our minders were unlikely to be swimming behind us, watching everything we were doing.
On entering the water park you are greeted by a life sized model of Kim Jung il, standing on what appears to be a movie set. The scene is of a white sandy beach with palm trees and sun umbrellas and Kim Jung Il smiling and pointing out into the distance. I would have taken a photo but we were specifically told not to by our minders.
Apart from this beach scene at the entrance, you could have been mistaken for thinking that you were in any Asian water park. It was a wonderful opportunity to let our hair down after being on edge and preparing for the marathon over the past few days. I relaxed in the jacuzzis, played catch with some locals and tested out every water slide (on my last ride, I slide around the final corner too enthusiastically and almost flew off).
That evening myself and other runners from countries all over the world including Russia, Belgium, England, USA, Malaysia, Australia and Denmark, met in the revolving bar at the top of our hotel and toasted our amazing experience.
I had obvious doubts about coming to North Korea, but I can honestly say it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. As the skyline of Pyongyang moved slowly around us, I wondered where my next adventure would take me and how it could top this.
I realise that many people have a negative impression of North Korea . I understand why this may be. Instead of focusing on the negative, I prefer to look at the positives and to broaden my perspective by looking at things from a unique viewpoint. It is always easy to be critical, instead I want to make a note of the positive things that I saw including:
+Teachers and scientists in North Korea given high social status and the best apartments by the river. They are celebrities.
+The Beautiful Subway
+Pyongyang is a very clean city with almost no litter.
+The city had a large amount of green space, the most of any capital city in the world
+Bike paths were an unexpected occurrence within the citycentere.