Kim Jong-un, crowds and contraband: Inside North Korea with the Pyongyang marathon winner

The chance to run in the secretive state, policed by minders performing clothes inspections, was too good an opportunity to miss for William Marks, who tells of his unexpected triumph

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.

William Marks, the victor William Marks, the victor
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.

Red more: Kim Jong-ale: How did Ushers brewery of Trowbridge end up in North Korea producing Pyongyang's number one beer - and what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people

Harry Potter actor suffered 'severe flu-like symptoms' on a flight from London to Orlando

Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
News
news

Rap music mogul accused of running two men over in his truck

News
Gywneth Paltrow proposed that women seek out a special herbal steam-treatment service
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Arts and Entertainment
tv

First full-length look is finally here

Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
Tax now accounts for ‘nearly 80%’ of the price of a bottle of whisky
news

Arts and Entertainment
Peppa Pig wearing her golden boots
film

"Oink! Oink! Hee hee hee!" First interview with the big-screen star

Life and Style
tech

Biohacking group hopes technology will lead people to think about even more dystopian uses

Arts and Entertainment
film
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Film director Martin Scorsese
film
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Regional Gas Installation Manager - South East England

£36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Gas Installation Manager is r...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service and Breakdown Engineer - South East

£29000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Service and Brea...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Manager - Alconbury

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for an Engineering M...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee