Can you think of any place other than a TCC event where you would learn about a marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea? No, neither can I. That is the privilege of TCC membership…sharing travel experiences and opportunities that in other settings the response would be, “Why would you ever go there?”
My information came from Kevin Hughes, past president of TCC. Knowing I am a runner, he sent me information on the race and contacts for registration. Wow, what an opportunity to see North Korea and participate in a race. OK, and gain one more country on our list. I contacted Koryo Tours in Beijing and all the logistics were arranged by them including race registration.
The race is scheduled to celebrate the birthday of President Kim Il Sung, supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. DPRK is commonly referred to as North Korea; 2016 is the third year the race has been open to international runners. Kim Jong-un, the current ruler, has announced his country will have 2 million visitors by 2020 and the attractions for these visitors will be sports events and film festivals. Not sure that will happen.
On Thursday, April 7, down an unmarked alley in the nightclub area of Beijing, I located the elusive Koryo Tours office. The room was filled with runners high on endorphins being briefed on the rules of being a tourist in North Korea. We were to take no religious or pornographic material, wear no clothing on the streets or in the race that had large logos or USA symbols, under no circumstances were we allowed to leave our group and our guides, and always bow to statues or pictures of the leaders.
On Friday morning we flew from Beijing to Pyongyang on North Korean Airline, Air Koryo. Air Koryo, once rated the worst airline in the world, recently acquired two Russian-built Tupolev Tu-204s for international routes and provided us a safe flight.
Going through customs all bags were thoroughly searched, every item taken out and placed on a table. I had a moment of panic as my Vanity Fair magazine was taken out and perused by the inspector. Lingerie ads and some photographs may be considered pornography to them. But the magazine was tossed back in my bag. For a minute I thought after all my planning I may not be allowed to enter, but no problem.
We were divided into tour groups of about 15 and each group had two English-speaking North Korean guides. Our guides met us and again emphasized we were to always stay with the group and the guides except, of course, when we were in our hotel rooms, (which were probably bugged).
Riding to the hotel I observed the streets were new, absolutely spotless with no debris of any kind…no graffiti. There were kiosks selling snacks and toys, but I saw no supermarkets or department stores. The buildings resembled any modern city with tall skyscrapers. Our hotel, Yanggakdo International, is the second tallest building in Pyongyang with 47 stories. It was built by the French and opened in 1995. An American student tore down a political banner in Yanggakdo International in January 2016 and is now serving 16 years hard labor in North Korea. The hotel was comfortable but the food was terrible. For nutrition and well-being I ate bread and rice and my hand-carried granola bars.
Our group spent Saturday seeing the sights with no diversion allowed from our pre-planned itineraries. Our first adventure was a ride on the metro. Entrance to the underground was down a 360-foot escalator. The metro consists of two lines and the cost is about 1 cent USD and is also a bomb shelter. The stations have beautiful murals depicting socialism and its past leaders, Kim Il-sung, and his son Kim Jong-il. Beautiful ceiling lights in the stations resemble a colorful array of fireworks. Continuing on we visited Juche Tower for a panoramic view of the city, the Triumphal Arch, celebrating liberation from Japan in 1945, Great Peoples’ Study House where staged students sat with glazed looks at computer game screens, Mansudae Grand Monument with its 60-foot bronze figures of Kim ll Sung and Kim Jong-il. All visits carefully monitored.
Race day arrived and after a light breakfast and inspection of my running apparel by the guides, I was on my way to the start at the May Day Stadium. This is the largest outdoor stadium in the world with a capacity of 150,000. The local crowds were arriving by foot, bus, bicycles, but very few cars. Runners converged into the underground tunnels for entrance into the stadium. With six bands playing and cheering from a crowd of about 90,000 the runners entered the stadium. In the midst of the runners I felt what it must be like to enter an Olympic Stadium to the roar of the spectators. But this was North Korea and the spectators probably had no choice but to be there. We circled the field and lined up in the center field as the cheering continued. We were quickly moved to the start and at the sound of the gun we left the stadium for the streets of Pyongyang. Runners carried iPhones and GoPros recording their adventure in North Korea. Spectators lined the streets along with guards positioned about every 50 yards. Water stations were situated along the route and toilet facilities were designated by arrows pointing to facilities in buildings, no Porta Potties. North Korea Soccer League teams played on the stadium field to provide entertainment while runners were on the streets of Pyongyang. Photos were allowed on the course with the exception of a construction area. Runners were told, under no circumstances could they take photos in that area and guards were numerous there. The government wanted no pictures of manual workers and unfinished construction.
Crossing the finish line was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. I had run in North Korea. My race number and tee shirt were my prizes. Of course, I won my division because I was the only female runner in the 70-99 female division.
I am so proud too, that my fellow TCC members, Steve Fuller and Wilbur Williams also had the opportunity to run in the 2016 Pyongyang Marathon. I am thankful that I live in a country that allows freedom of adventure and travel.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolute free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Albert Camus