Running North Korea: Inside Pyongyang's marathon

Running 42 kilometres of one of the world's most unknown cities
Running 42 kilometres of one of the world's most unknown cities Photo credit: DPRK

It's not the most famous of marathons in the world, but its certainly one of the most unique - the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea.

The race has been held annually since 1981 and during that time, it's only been won by foreigners a handful of times.

Beginning at Kim Il Sung Stadium and weaving its way along the Taedong River, the course takes participants past some of the city's most stunning landmarks.

This year, I made the trip from New York to do something not many people have - to run North Korea.

Running North Korea: Inside Pyongyang's marathon
Photo credit: DPRK

It started with a pistol cracking the crisp, blue morning. 

"Line up! Rows of five!" barked a North Korean official, whistle at the mouth. His frustration was visible by a gleam of sweat on his brow. 

"Rows of six!" he then spluttered, changing his mind.

In front of him stood 950 foreign runners, anxiously bouncing from leg to leg in part pre-marathon warm-up and part incredulity at what lay ahead: 42.2km of one of the world's most unknown cities.

Behind the officer was the entrance to the Kim Il-Sung Stadium and a capacity crowd of 50,000 locals awaiting the opening ceremony to the annual Pyongyang Marathon, also known as Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon.

"Go! Go! Go!" cried the officer, relinquishing any semblance of order. 

The crowd roared as we foreign runners entered the stadium, walking half a lap to the middle of the pitch for an opening ceremony. Around us, a stadium full of North Koreans - dressed mostly in black - waved and cheered.

View of the city of Pyongyang, North Korea from the tower of the Juche idea.
Photo credit: Getty Images

Conductors at the front of each aisle led the crowd on synchronised clapping sequences and Mexican waves as many of us runners below - phones permanently raised - tried to capture the moment. 

Beyond a few restrictions, such as taking pictures of military, photography was not only legal in North Korea, but encouraged. Most visitors did not need a second invitation. 

The world's most secretive and isolated country uses this running race as a showcase to the outside world.

The runners were ushered towards the centre of a soccer pitch, where we stood facing the VIP area of the stadium.

Running North Korea: Inside Pyongyang's marathon
Photo credit: Simon Hampton

Above us stood two smiling portraits of North Korea's most recent two leaders before Kim Jong-Un - Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

To the right were a hundred or so professional runners. Mostly from North Korea, they stood in immaculate formation, in rows of five as the officer had earlier tried - in vain - to get we westerners to do.

The stadium fell silent to stand as a dozen North Korean military officers entered the VIP area and North Korea's Minister for Physical Culture and Sports, Kim Il-guk, made his way to the podium.

"I declare the Pyongyang Marathon open," he announced, in Korean. The crowd quickly rediscovered its voice and drowned out the English translation.

Around 950 foreign amateurs ran in the 2019 Pyongyang Marathon, venturing to North Korea from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and mainland Europe, among other countries.

No runners from the United States took part, due to a 2017-implemented travel ban.

The race is held as the opening of a two week long celebration that marks the birth of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea's founder.

The last six races have been won by North Koreans; but for the majority of the competitors running in the marathon, half-marathon or 10km events, the experience of simply running in Pyongyang is the attraction.

Runners are taken past the major landmarks of the city and on the side of the road, locals smile, wave and cheer, among them children giving high-fives to runners as they pass.

On a nearby construction site, workers point and look from three storeys up, while parents on the street teach their toddlers how to wave.

Though there seemed to be no possibility of the stadium being anything but full for the opening ceremony, there appears to be genuine interest among the city of three million, and like any city running race, the locals do their bit to get the athletes to the finish line.

Running North Korea: Inside Pyongyang's marathon
Photo credit: DPRK

And so, over the course of 42.2 sweaty, agony-plagued kilometres, it's easy to forget that this is not, in fact, any old marathon, but a rather common event taking place in the most uncommon of destinations. 

Around 13km into the race, the lines of locals thinned out and the pastel-colored apartment buildings of Pyongyang made way for miles of brown, arid farm land. 

News would later emerge of North Korea going through its worst harvest in decades, and in the middle of spring, the sprawling countryside certainly didn't resemble arable land.

Back at the stadium, 50,000 fans were entertained by a soccer match as they waited for the runners to finish.

They made 'ooh' and 'aah' sounds at the match, and waved as the 10km and half-marathon runners made their way in for a lap of the stadium to the finish line.

The quick finishers sat in the sun and watched the rest of the match, while some found their way to the market in the stadium car park where there was cold beer for sale. The crisp morning had long since made way for a balmy day, the air is dry and the beer was quenching.

For the full marathon runners, they knew they must finish the race within four hours if they were to enjoy a lap of the stadium to the finish line. After that, the doors would be shut for the closing ceremony, and the finish line shifted to outside the stadium.

That would be no problem for the winners, with local Ri Kang-bom winning the men's race and Ri Kwang-ok, also of North Korea, claiming gold in the women's race.

In the hours that followed, runners staggered their way round Pyongyang's Arch of Triumph and into the stadium to the finish line.

Crossing a marathon's finish line anywhere is an achievement, but doing it in Pyongyang is an unforgettable experience.

Simon Hampton is a freelance journalist based in New York.