Moving from London to China five years ago, I hoped that it would be the start of a time of adventures. But never did I imagine that I would be competing in North Korea’s first half-marathon, running through the streets of Pyongyang and entering the city’s stadium in front of 70,000 cheering supporters before being presented with a medal by the country’s Minister of Sport.
Four months earlier a friend at a Shanghai running club had told me that the race was being opened to international amateurs. The chance to run in one of the most secretive states in the world was too good an opportunity to miss, even if it did come at a cost of €900 for the three-day trip.
The flight into Pyongyang was a sign of things to come, as I boarded a dated, Russian plane and we were warned by flight attendants not to take photographs. This was a recurring comment over the next few days.
On landing at Pyongyang airport, we saw a collection of planes so old they looked as though they belonged in a museum.
Passengers whipped out cameras before being sternly shouted down, this time by soldiers.
After going through security we were introduced to our lead guide, Miss Park, who spoke with accented but impeccable English.
“Hello everyone, welcome to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!” she said.
The term North Korea is never used in North Korea, a fact overlooked by our tour operator who had branded themselves “Experience North Korea”. Later during the trip all their printed posters and T-shirts were removed by authorities.
Miss Park clarified more rules about taking pictures before moving on to the race briefing. It was to be a 10km loop, starting and finishing in the main stadium in Pyongyang which would be holding 70,000 people.
Rules, purportedly under instruction from the International Association of Athletics Federations, included no logos on clothes, no flags to be displayed, no shorts for the opening ceremony, nothing to be carried into the stadium, no phones allowed during the run. The list was extensive.
To ensure we obeyed these rules that night we had a clothes inspection which was repeated the morning after. One competitor was forced to run in jeans after his kit was deemed “ineligible”.
We were staying at the Koryo Hotel which Miss Park claimed was five star. It was an imposing 43-storey building, not unlike one you would normally see in second or third-tier Chinese cities. Upon entry it became clear that it was at best a three-star hotel, albeit one with a bizarre collection of amenities. The hotel featured a microbrewery, karaoke club, billiards, virtual golf machine, multiple shops, bar and swimming pool. Rooms were dated but functional and amazingly featured BBC News 24. All electronic appliances or perceivable brands were Chinese. Guards stood outside the front of the hotel to prevent us leaving but largely we were left to our devices once inside hotel.
Dinner was an underwhelming selection of re-heated food. Male waiting staff were stiffly bow-tied in white dinner jackets while women wore traditional Korean dresses. Service was robotic, any request for personalisation was normally met with a resentful stare. Another bottle of water, stare. Change seats, stare. Given we were running the next day I asked for an additional bowl of rice and the waiter stared so ferociously at me that I got the impression I’d taken it directly out of his child’s mouth.
I was up at six on the day of the race, the sun was shining through a haze of smog, which I soon realised was no doubt partly due to the coal-powered power station in the middle of the city. Arriving at the stadium we saw thousands of people pouring in. Nearly all of them were wearing a dreary selection of Mao suits from a muddy palette of brown, black or navy blue.
We were given more briefings, and then the runners, including more than 200 international amateurs, marched in something resembling unison into the stadium, heaving with people. At this point I started to realize how ridiculous the situation was: a motley collection of international tourists from across Asia, Europe and the States parading around an essentially Olympic-scale event. Most people fell enthusiastically into their new role, waving to the crowds, who in turn gladly reciprocated.
After reaching the centre of stadium we listened to a speech in Korean from the Minister of Sports opening the event before having to bow to giant posters of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Following that a brief stretch and we gathered on the start line, international professionals, Korean runners and international amateurs all jostling for position. After a false start, because a football team kicked a ball into a professional runner’s face, the gun went off and everyone streamed out of the stadium.
The Korean runners were dressed in sports kit straight out of the 1980s. Most of them seemed to be wearing skimpy shorts with basic running flats. Despite this apparent handicap they were fast. Outside of the elite Korean runners, most of them were children, presumably young teenagers, which created the peculiar illusion that I was some sort of Pied Piper sprinting through the streets of Pyongyang.
Pyongyang itself is a visually stunning city. Its main function appears to be as a showcase for a nation, endless wide open streets, enormous monuments and memorials to the Kims or in commemoration of the war against the “American oppressors”. Running through it was fantastic, with supporters cheering and waving as I went past.
As I was competing in the half marathon I had to complete two laps of the 10km road circuit before returning into the stadium for a final lap. By the time I entered the stadium I was so focused on running that I barely noticed the 70,000 cheering. As it was an IAAF event, stewards in white coats were in charge of the official timing.
I came to the final lap in the lead and after one hour 23 minutes and 36 seconds, I burst through the tape. It was a personal best for me but not a time in which one could expect to win even a medium-sized event in the West. It was an unbelievable situation: a decent if unremarkable runner winning an event in front of a Wembley-scale crowd. In North Korea. Crazy.
I was immediately rushed off to talk to some local media representatives through a translator, mainly meaningless compliments about their country’s hosting me, before being ushered to one side and waiting hours before the eventual medal ceremony. North Korea’s Minister of Sports presented us with our medals and I had my 20 seconds of basking in the applause.