Running in North Korea

running in North Korea stadium
@ Jason Harrison

Ever fancied running in North Korea? Jason Harrison was looking for a challenge, something different. And he certainly found that when he went to North Korea last year to take part in the Pyongyang marathon. Here he tells us about his experiences in the East Asian country. 

Entering a North Korean race

Normally, if I were running a half-marathon the following morning, I would have been tucked up in bed by now. Instead, at almost midnight, I was in Pyongyang, North Korea, with 15 strangers watching a huge procession of military vehicles rolling past. The army had closed the only road to our hotel, leaving us stranded on foot with all our baggage. Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)!

Having completed a number of marathons and ultras over the years, I was looking for a new challenge. I stumbled across an article in a newspaper about the North Korean ‘Mangyongdae Prize Marathon’. The race, which was first contested in 1981, is part of the annual celebrations marking North Korean founder Kim Il-sung’s birth in 1912.

All foreign visitors have to enter the DPRK with an approved tour operator. A quick search online turned up Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company founded by Englishman Nicholas Bonner. They would arrange a visa into North Korea and organise my marathon place. I needed to arrange a Chinese visa, but a few email exchanges and one thousand or so euros later, and I had secured my place.

The marathon (there is also a half and 10K race) was scheduled to take place in April and I started training in earnest. Unfortunately, one week before I was due to fly out, I received a very apologetic email from the tour company informing me that the North Koreans had placed a strict four-hour cut-off on the marathon. Anybody coming in after that would be recorded as a DNF! That would have been slightly too fast for my typical marathon pace so I reluctantly dropped to the half-marathon. It was a long way to go to come away with nothing.

Arriving in North Korea

Before entering North Korea, we had to attend a mandatory security briefing in Beijing. Reps from the tour company talked through what we could do in the country and what we couldn’t do. One list was much longer than the other! It also gave us a chance to meet our fellow runners, as we were being split into groups of 15.

The following morning found us at Beijing airport for the flight into North Korea. Checking in was painfully slow, with North Korean officials pouring over every document and inspecting luggage at random. Eventually we boarded our Air Koryo flight (officially the worst airline in the world by every standard) and flew into Pyongyang’s Sunan airport. Getting through customs was just as slow as checking in, but we finally made it through to meet our North Korean guides who would accompany us at all times while in country.

It was already late when we boarded our coach, which transported us past empty-looking fields to the dim lights of central Pyongyang. Impromptu military manoeuvres meant we had to abandon the coach and walk to the hotel, arriving well after midnight for our evening meal. Our guides, both called Miss Kim, happily informed us that we had to meet in the hotel lobby at 0600 to leave for the run.

Race day

The Pyongyang marathon
© Jason Harrison

The next morning, bleary eyed and nervous of what was ahead of us, we were offered a very strange breakfast of the previous night’s leftovers and one-egg omelettes before being herded back onto coaches. Our destination was the Kim Il-sung Stadium, the start and end point of the races.

The stadium was filled to capacity and 50,000 locals greeted us as we entered the ground. The applause was deafening and I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Despite being told not to, most tourists were taking pictures. I had a Go Pro camera that I intended to carry around the course. We were directed onto the central football pitch and lined up military style in readiness for a speech by some senior Regime official. Then, without any fanfare, we were off, completing a lap of the stadium before hitting the streets of the city. It was already warm, but we had been promised there would be numerous water stations. The roads were wide and had been closed to traffic, which was easily done as there were very few vehicles in Pyongyang.

The route was predominantly flat and would take in the main sights of Pyongyang. We passed the Arch of Triumph and down the recently completed Future Scientists Street. Enthusiastic locals lined the pavements, as I made my way into the iconic Kim Il-sung Square, scene of the giant annual military parades I had seen on the TV.

I was officially hot now and was grateful to see a water station coming up. I made a grab for a bottle, but the local volunteer grabbed it back and poured a small amount of lukewarm water into a cup!

The event itself

We continued through the city and past the infamous pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, construction on which started in 1987 and is still not finished to this day. The half-marathon was an out-and-back route and I eventually reached the halfway point and started back towards the stadium. Despite the rationed water, my next challenge was a toilet break.

We had been warned there would be no portaloos or the like, and we had to look out for any signs on the route. Just when things were starting to get uncomfortable (it’s an age thing), I noticed a hand-written sign and followed a fellow runner into what looked like an office block. In the dim entrance lobby, more locals gestured us up the stairs and we eventually found the desired facilities on the third floor. That was a PB out of the window!

I was enjoying this run, and even risked some high fives with the spectators as I ran back through the main parade square. All too soon I was approaching the stadium and entered for the final lap of honour. The field of runners had spread out somewhat and I entered the stadium alone. As I hit the first corner and came into sight of the crowd, they went absolutely wild! I waved and applauded them back; it was beautiful.

It wasn’t until I reached the home straight I realised there was a football match underway on the pitch and the applause was actually for the local team who had scored at the same time as I entered the stadium! I managed a bit of a sprint finish and then upset a local volunteer by taking a pink towel instead of a blue towel meant for men. As warned, the stadium doors were closed after four hours, locking a number of unfortunate runners outside.

An awards ceremony was held on the pitch. I had not seen a single one before, during or after the race, but North Korean athletes won first place in the men’s and women’s races! Tourists did win prizes in other amateur categories. I received a handsome brass medal and a hand-completed certificate.

Medal from Pyongyang marathon
© Jason Harrison

It was a fascinating trip. North Korea is a complicated country and I am well aware of both the moral implications of touring in the country and the fact that we were only shown what the authorities wanted us to see. Koryo Tours is also aware of this and run a number of charitable programmes in the country.

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Jason Harrison in North Korea
© Jason Harrison