“You’re going to North Korea to do a marathon? Is this a joke??” Said my mother – delivered in that tone of voice that she has carefully perfected over a very long time. A voice that is used only when her youngest son confesses to her that he is planning to do something she will not be very happy about.
In fact, most of the people who I told of my plans to partake in the 2017 Pyongyang Marathon responded with absolute bewilderment.
In 2016 I came across an article online about an adventure travel company called Global Village Tours who specialise in unusual travel locations to places like North Korea, Tibet, Iran, Cuba, Chernobyl and so on… I was particularly captivated by their trip to North Korea for the annual Pyongyang Marathon. Naturally, there are only a handful of tour companies in the world offering something like this. I was drawn to GVT after reading their itineraries and getting a sense that they are more interested in giving people a really unique travel experience. These arent your standard group tours. Their guides were awesome, the exact type of people you want to have taking you ‘off the beaten track’ per se, I really cant say enough about these guys. I have always had a taste for the bizarre when it comes to travel, and having just completed my first half marathon at that point, I decided to give it a go. Securing my place in the group with GVT was the easy part – but breaking the news to my family was another thing.
As much as I was aware of the infamous misconceptions that North Koreans may have about the West – I soon learned that we are as privy to similar misunderstandings about their country. A little moderate research of travelers blogs was enough to show a general consensus that tourists are in fact very safe in the DPRK. Crimes against foreigners are virtually non existent – they do have some pretty strict laws but if you respect these you should experience a country that is otherwise extremely warm and hospitable to tourists. So basically, dont poke the bear! A bit of research really did help to put mine and my families minds at ease.
Next up I started my very own Pyongyang Marathon training regime. Only having completed a half marathon before, I knew I needed to really put in the groundwork to get my stamina up. One of the main reasons I was determined to do the full Pyongyang marathon was because the route finishes with a lap of the enormous Mayday Stadium. This is the largest stadium in the world. It boasts a staggering 120,000 capacity and on marathon day it is packed to the rafters with cheering Korean spectators. Many of which will never have laid eyes on a Westerner before! Thats surely a bucket list moment! In order to be allowed on to the Mayday track you must finish the marathon in under 4.5 hours. My training regime consisted of three to four runs a week ranging from 5 – 10k per session. Also plenty of stretching before and after! Towards the last four weeks I upped my runs to a couple of 20k sessions.
I arrived in Pyongyang airport from Beijing on the national DPRK airline Air Koryo. We were met at arrivals by our Korean guides who took us into our hotel in the city. Here we met with the rest of our group who had arrived by train. You can be guaranteed that a trip to North Korea will usually attract some pretty interesting like-minded people. North Korea travel is not for the faint hearted, and we had a really great bunch of people in our group from all over the world. After dinner that night we took a drive in our bus around the Pyongyang marathon route. The streets of Pyongyang are peaceful and clean – at least from what we saw. In fact its a pleasant relief from the overcrowded madness that is Beijing city centre. We had an early night to recover from the journey and prepare for marathon day…
I woke up feeling buzzed, despite a bit of jetlag – ‘Jesus im gonna run the Pyongyang Marathon today’, I thought while trying to rinse myself awake in the shower. We grabbed a light breakfast and a strong coffee and we were off to the city. There are 1500 participants in the marathon so the starting line is quite a bustle – the excitement and trepidation in those early hours of that day is something I will never forget, there was a real sense of anticipation hanging in the Spring air. Before I knew it I was hauling myself through the streets of the hermit nation being cheered on by thousands of locals. As we made our way through the streets, children leaned over the barriers to high five us as we passed. Pyongyang also boasts some pretty impressive monuments and architecture and many of these are dotted along the route.
With the help of a good pace setter and a sheer dose of adrenaline, I successfully made it to the Mayday Stadium on time. I cannot describe the utterly surreal euphoria of that moment, as I joined a few other members of our group in a celebratory lap of this enormous stadium. I was pretty tired coming up on the last 30 minutes of the run but once I reached the stadium I felt like I could have continued all day. There was something very emotive about that experience that words cant really describe. It was overwhelming. I have since completed two more marathons, and neither of them compare to that day. As we lapped the stadium and I looked out at a sea of people, I couldn’t help think of how this country has been renowned for its mistrust of the outside world; and with that I got a really gratifying sense that our being there was a good thing. People that visit North Korea are helping to bridge gaps between two very different worlds. I think this is one of the most important reasons that people should continue to travel to North Korea. We are broadening our understanding of each other, and if change is to come the DPRK – I think it will start with its people.
After the run we had a well deserved lunch and some celebratory drinks before cooling off and soaking our stiff joints at the Mansudae Water Park. That evening we visited several different bars and micro breweries around the capital – there was a real buzz around and both locals and tourists seemed to be enjoying the celebrations.
Although the marathon was my highlight, Global Village Tours put together a really good itinerary that took in all the major attractions around Pyongyang in the days that followed. Nearby Pyongsong is only newly opened to tourists and was really nice to walk around. We also took a trip down to the DMZ – the infamous Demilitarised Zone at the border with South Korea aka. ‘the tensest place on earth’. This place was definitely one of the most bizarre stops on the trip, and certainly lives up to its name. Theres some great photo opps with the soldiers too. Some other highlights were a Korean film studio (where North Korean Bollywood happens) and the Meari Shooting range. Really I could go on all day about everything we saw, from the bizzarre to the downright beautiful. But I wont. A trip to North Korea is best seen through the naked eye, so you can try to make sense of it yourself. In fact Im not sure if I did make sense of it, but what I experienced was a nation of incredibly warm people that have been victim to an unfair history. There is a spirit and rich culture to the Korean people that I hope will stand to them, whatever the future may hold…
by Phil Simms
Global Village Tours will be going back to North Korea for the 2019 Pyongyang marathon – check out the itinerary here.