Sunday 8th April 2018
I rose bright and early and donned my running gear and track suit. I ate in my room and went down to the lobby to meet the others at 7am.
Everyone had turned up on time and we spent a few minutes admiring each other’s track suits and boosting each other’s confidence ahead of the race.
By 7:15 we were in the bus and before 7:30 we were pulling up outside the Kim Il-sung Stadium. The place was already busy with buses full of runners parking up on one side and lots of local spectators entering the stadium on the other.
It was cold outside so we stayed on the bus for a while to keep warm. After 20 minutes we began to line up outside the entrance to the stadium. We formed a disorganised line behind a lady holding an “Amateur 1” sign. We could already hear the 55,000-strong crowd clapping inside the stadium.
The official name of the race is the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon and it commemorates the April 15th birthday of Kim Il-sung. It was first held in 1981 and opened to amateur international runners in 2014. For 2018 there were about 2000 entrants with about 800 foreigners amongst them.
After another short wait the lady with the “Amateur 1” sign set off walking slowly and led us into the stadium. Initially we did a half lap of the stadium waving at the clapping spectators as we went around. We were led onto the grass in the middle of the stadium.
A group of Korean competitors were then led in alongside us. They were disciplined and they all looked fit. Alongside them we must have looked a total rabble. We all stood there laughing, joking and refusing any attempts to get us to form into columns. We finally stood still for the opening ceremony during which there was a speech and the anthem.
After the opening ceremony was over we walked back to the entrance and took off our track suits, waited around a bit and then finally went back in. We had a practice lap and then we marshalled ourselves behind the various signs that indicated the different races. Nine members of our group were doing the half marathon, five the full and four the 10km.
At 9am the starting gun went and we were off. The Marathon runners went out of the stadium first and we followed behind. We ran out through the stadium gates and into the streets outside, turning immediate right at the arch of triumph opposite the stadium.
The atmosphere on the course was excellent with the Korean and foreign runners encouraging one other and many of the foreigners taking photographs as they ran. The course was easy to follow as Pyongyang’s wide 6-lane boulevards had been closed to all traffic and divided into two sections of three lanes each for the out and back course. There was certainly plenty of space to run.
Given that there were already 55,000 people in the stadium, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that there wasn’t a continual line of spectators on the sides of the road as well. Even so there were large clusters of people on all of the corners and most of us waved as we ran past. It was fascinating to watch first one spectator wave and then, seemingly overcoming their shyness, the rest of the crowd wave until everyone was waving.
Although it was a bit odd to see the DPRK flags everywhere and the military guards patrolling the route as we ran past, everything else seemed strangely normal. It was like any other race I have run in many respects. The mile signs were much the same, the marshals were there to guide us and the water stations were set out in the normal way and manned by very charming ladies who smiled and encouraged us.
The time went very quickly and before long I reached the half marathon turnabout. I wished the marathon runners running alongside me a lot of luck and then, guided by the marshals, turned to head back.
The course back to the Stadium was exactly the same of course, but there were more spectators on the return side on the way back. There were a lot of children too and it was great fun whooshing past them doing high fives with them and shouting “hello”.
The six and half miles back to the stadium passed quickly too and soon I was running the last leg up towards the arch of triumph. It was definitely the best feeling I have had doing a race for a long time and I had hardly noticed that it had started to snow a bit.
As I entered the stadium I was already reasonably-well separated from the person in front and so as I did the lap of the arena it felt that the whole 55,000 cheering crowd were cheering just for me. I finished in under two hours. It was hardly a world beating time and well off my personal best, but it didn’t matter at all.
After the race I spent a happy 2 hours or so recovering in the spectator area of the stadium. We drank a bit of Soju (to keep warm) and watched first the fastest marathon runners and then all the runners in our own group coming home.
Eventually we were all in and we got on the bus heading back to the hotel. We were tired but mostly in a good mood. Our guides decided this would be a good time to sing songs to us so we drove along through the empty streets serenaded by a series of Korean ballads.
We were back at the hotel for about 3pm for a late lunch in the restaurant. Some of us then spent the afternoon at a local pub toasting our success and continued to celebrate in the evening at a celebratory banquet back at the Yanggakdo.
All 18 of us sat together on two tables and then many of us ended up in the hotel bar afterwards, it was the last time I would be seeing the group as they would be heading off very early in the morning to catch the flight back to China. I was returning to Beijing by train.
As I made my way to bed, slightly the worse for wear, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I could have a long lie in. The rest of the group would probably already be in the air by the time I even woke up.
One of the questions we asked ourselves constantly over the three days was “Was the country what you expected?” Most of us, I think, agreed that it probably was. Most of us had already read quite a lot about visiting the country and what to expect there. The number of foreigners going to the DPRK each year is quite small but a lot of them seem to write about their journeys and there are multiple accounts on the internet.
Reading these travelogues you soon understand that the vast majority of tourists follow almost exactly the same itineraries. Their guides seem take them to the same monuments, museums and restaurants. It is pretty clear that tourists are normally only ever shown exactly what the authorities want them to see. I knew all that before I went and it was obvious whilst I was there too. It didn’t detract from the trip in any way though. It still felt like a unique and special experience.
So, finally, here are 13 things about the trip to Pyongyang that I wasn’t quite expecting –
- The Hamburger on Air Koryo was actually quite tasty
- The DPRK was (then) in its own time zone
- Pyongyang Airport was brand new
- There were no questions at all at immigration
- There were no restrictions on bringing food or alcohol into the country
- Most of the (relatively few) vehicles on the streets were quite modern
- Pyongyang at night was even darker than I thought it would be
- Many of the restaurants and museums where we were taken seemed to be deserted.
- The food was very enjoyable but the beer was absolutely excellent
- They ban bibles but allow priests and have churches
- They have a cinema that shows (certain) western films
- The reception that the member of our group who was born in the South received seemed very warm and very genuine
- Many of the local people were friendly and seemed to smile and wave at us a lot