I traveled to North Korea to run in the Pyongyang Marathon, and it was fine

The World
Alec Ash starts the Pyongyang Marathon. April 10, 2016.

The Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea, started in 1981 but has only been open to foreign amateur runners since 2014.

I ran in this year's race — the 29th marathon, held on April 10 — along with a mix of North Korean runners, foreign professionals and international tourists.

It's relatively easy to get into North Korea as part of a package tour, but by running the marathon you can see more of its capital city at your own pace, without a tour guide next to you. The marathon was opened up to tourists as a sign of North Korea's desire to show off to the world that it can host international events, even as it shutters itself off diplomatically.

The course loops four times around downtown Pyongyang, beginning and ending in the May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world, and where North Korean holds the Mass Games athletic event every year. We ran over the Taedong River and past Stalinist monuments: the Friendship Tower, the Arch of Triumph, bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Yong-il.

North Koreans came out to the streets to cheer us on. I saw kids sucking sweets, blowing bubblegum, giving us high fives as we ran. Grannies gave us encouraging gestures, and residents waved at us from their balconies. I also ran past an army squadron performing a drill, and a cheerleading team performing a routine.

Many American amateurs were running in the race, despite the antipathy between the two countries. Our tour guide routinely talked of the USA as the "American imperialists."

We were visiting just months after US tourist Otto Warmbier was detained in North Korea for taking down a propaganda poster inside his hotel, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. That's a caveat for any prospective tourist, and there are arguments that tourism to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is unethical as it helps to fund the regime.

There were various restrictions for us runners. We were told not to take photos of construction sites, which are run by a branch of the military, or on the racecourse itself, but that was widely ignored — many of us took photos on our phones during the run. We also couldn't run in kit with large logos or national flags.

The most worrying restriction for me was the four-hour cutoff time for the full marathon, after which the medal ceremony began. My time was a little over four hours and I was one of the last amateur runners to make it into the May Day stadium before they closed the gates for a final lap, while the crowd of tens of thousands looked and cheered on.

A North Korean won the marathon this year, and since 2000 it has been a mix of home team and international runners who get the gold medal. Those foreign professional racers come mostly from African countries, Russia and China.

Sporting achievement has always been important to the DPRK, whether it's soccer, gymnastics or this marathon. Our guide told me long-distance running is a symbol of the endurance of the North Korean people, and of their revolutionary spirit.

While the atmosphere in the stadium felt forced, the race itself saw glimpses of everyday life and humanity, as Pyongyang residents came out to watch the run in the same way that Bostonians did on Monday.

Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing. His book "Wish Lanterns," about young China, is forthcoming.

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