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Pyongyang Marathon

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Firstly, thanks to Flanman and Johan who answered my call re: finding someone who'd been to the DPRK. As much as I was keen to do the Pyongyang marathon for sporting but also personal interest reasons, I naturally felt some concern.  The couple of people I did meet/spoke to, who'd been in, allayed my fears and I'm now so glad I went.  It definitely was a trip/marathon of a lifetime.

I went with Koryo group who have been going into the DPRK for 22/23 years now and are the most experienced, well connected and respected travel group for this region. They were incredibly professional.  You have to be guided in North Korea, whether you go on a group tour or hire guides and drivers.  Naturally, our group was there for the marathon so it was a group of like minded individuals.

Pyongyang is an incredible, and yes, despite stories to the contrary, functioning, city.  In fact it is really rather beautiful.  Willow trees line the river and the blossom came out the week we were there. Although slightly shabby and aging, it is also impeccably clean.  You definitely notice the lack of cars and also the lack of visual pollution (signage).  Pyongyang is the capital and privileged but we did travel down to the DMZ/border and travelled through the country side and villages on the way.  Oxen are still used in the country side and it is sad to see the affects of mismanaged agricultural practices made worse by their susceptibility to floods.  Saying that, it is no where near as bad as our media makes out.  It's funny: some things we saw or were told were weird, and yet, so much was so much more normal than I expected.

We were there the week of the big Kim Il Sung 105th birthday (you would have seen all the media on tv). We saw them cleaning the streets and squares, and practicing their parades. A lot of the women wore their national dresses and we saw them partaking in 'mass dances' which was lovely to see.

The marathon itself was an absolute blast. Perfect weather conditions - blue sky an sunshine albeit a little wind.  We started at Kim Il Sung Stadium and this year they changed it from a 4 loop course to an out and back. They had three distances: marathon, 1/2 marathon and a 10km.  We all entered the stadium in front of a crowd of 50,000 cheering people (the closest I'll ever get to feeling like an Olympian!) and lined up in the centre in groups to 'pay our respects' (ie. bow) to the pictures of the 2 Kims.  The North Koreans are well practiced in lining up - us westerners were rather a bedraggled lot!

The marathon started first and we went left the stadium out onto the main streets of Pyongyang, past the Triumphant Arch, the Kim Il Sung Square (the big square you see in the media when they're doing their military parades) and out to the city limits.  The streets were lined with people and kids clapping and cheering and saying Ppali Ppali (Bali Bali - bit like alle alle/ go go...).  Just like any other marathon, parents/grandparents holding kids and waving; kids grouped together watching and giggling etc...  In fact this was one of the times we were relatively 'free' to see NK society functioning on a sunny Sunday.  

Due to tearing an ankle ligament (again) and having a month off running right in the middle of training, I knew I wasn't going to make the new cut off time of 4hrs. Yes, they changed it from 4:30 to 4:00 about two days before I flew out.  That's just typical North Korea for you - things change. Roll with it.  There was an option to drop down to the 21km but I really wanted to do this marathon so I stuck with the 42.  At about 18km I thought there was a slim chance I could make the cut off - then I turned at the 21km straight into a head wind and realised I'd been running with the assistance of a tail wind. Damn!  Oh well.  

 As much a I hate wearing a fuel belt, I decided to carry one here as there only water to be provided every 5km.   This was fortunate as for a BOP'er like myself (well in this event anyway - The North Korean only put their elite in so the tail end was just foreigners) they started to remove the stations after this and also remove the road marker cones!  Talk about  NK efficiency!    At about 35km the I spied  the dreaded yellow sweeper bus.  Two North Koreans were standing by the door and as I came up they said 'Miss, you need to get on the bus'. I noticed two runners further ahead from me and guessed that they'd decided to keep running so I declined. "No thanks" and just kept running - not sure whether that was a dumb move or not.  They weren't in uniform so I wasn't too worried.  I trundled on as I figured, if I don't make the finish line, I'd rather run back to the stadium than take the bus. With 2-3km to go the bus came past again. I debated whether to run around the non-door side of the bus. This time they were a little more forceful and said 'Miss - you are the last (which I was most definitely not), you have to get on the bus' to which I replied  "I'm not the last and I'm not getting on the bus".  I tried to keep looking straight ahead and not give them eye contact and just keep running. I could see the arms of other athletes who'd done what they were told, resting along the window sill.

So on I went, knowing now that I'd missed the 4hr cut off.  Oh well.  Within about 1km the bus came by and I'm not sure whether there had been a mutiny on board or what but the driver let the runners off.  One guy got off right beside me a said 'well done you for being stubborn. I wished I hadn't got on as now I feel I haven't done the full marathon. We all admired you'.  Ha ha.  So I made it back but they would let me do the last lap inside the stadium. They were already handing out the prizes to the winners.  Never mind I still managed to get a medal so I will now engrave it with: DNF, 41.88km, 4hr 26min.!!!  Just makes it as unique as Pyongyang itself is. Who knows, when these current troubles die down, I may go back and give it another crack!

It certainly was unique. I loved every minute of my trip and I wouldn't hesitate to return.IMG_8217.thumb.JPG.199715a5604ad9492bb716f11fcf72ed.JPG
















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This is such an awesome race report! Such an unique experience.Hats off for your "stubborness". 

I think the most interesting parts of countries is hearing the locals talk about what is "normal". We had a similar experience on tours through Russia - it does sound normal but at the same time its not your normal. And secondly, the difference in how the media depicts these places and what they are really like. 

Glad you enjoyed the experience - its still on my list but I'd like to go to New York Marathon first. 

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