What It's Like to Run a Marathon —in North Korea
City welcomes foreign amateurs for first time; Will Philipps tells his story
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Apr 19, 2014 5:14 PM CDT
Runners pass under a pedestrian bridge in central Pyongyang during the running of the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sunday, April 13, 2014.   (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

(Newser) – This year marked the first time the Pyongyang Marathon has been open to foreign amateur runners, and at Slate, Will Philipps has the firsthand story. For Philipps, the race offered "a unique way to experience a unique place, and hopefully connect with some of the people who live there," he writes. Also, "I simply wanted to say I’d done something as crazy as run a marathon in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea." Some 225 foreigner amateurs took part; they were banned from displaying American or Japanese flags. Among Philipps' observations:

  • Local runners' have old uniforms and "shoes that look like they might fall apart."
  • Foreigners were allowed this year, a tour guide told Philipps, because "our leader is focusing on getting our people to play sport and keep healthy." And indeed, he spots people playing various sports throughout the city.
  • The Pyongyang Marathon stands out from Western versions in that "there is no element of 'fun' in this run": Whereas Western races welcome hobbyists, this one's highly competitive.
  • Other than a false start to the race, the day goes "without a hitch." Bathrooms, however, are few and far between in local buildings—including one on a second floor.
  • "The aesthetic of Pyongyang is old-fashioned and kitsch, frozen in the 1960s. No neon, no advertisements, no billboards," Philipps writes. And "everyone is in some kind of uniform."
  • Once Philipps is separated from the rest of the pack, the city is silent. "Except for the patter of my feet, there’s barely any noise—Pyongyang is not known for its traffic and blaring horns."
  • His result? Second-to-last, met with cheers and laughter.
Click for Philipps' full story.