For the first time since its inception in 1981, recreational runners from around the world will be permitted to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon, taking place Sunday.
According to the handful of tour operators bringing visitors into North Korea for the race, roughly 200 will participate.
Designated a “Bronze Label” road race by the International Association of Athletic Associations, North Korea’s competition is classed with, among others, the Lodz, Nagano and Beirut Marathons. The London Marathon, which will be run on the same day as Pyongyang’s, boasts “Gold Label” status.
It costs $100 to run the full 26.2 miles, and everyone is given five hours within which to finish. A half-marathon is $70, with a two-hour time limit, and a 10k will set runners back $50, also with a two-hour cutoff. Unlike marathons in other cities, where the slowest runners have been known to finish the race a full day later, runners in Pyongyang who exceed their allotted time will be escorted to the finish line.
Tourists are not permitted to go anywhere in North Korea without official guides. Having escorts supervise the international participants registered for Sunday’s race would be a logistical impossibility. Instead, local guides will be posted at water stations along the route to keep people hydrated – and, ostensibly, to keep an eye on them. This being North Korea, “keeping people hydrated” means, at best, “water.”
“Having escorts supervise the international participants registered for Sunday’s race would be a logistical impossibility. Instead, local guides will be posted at water stations along the route to keep people hydrated”
“We have advised our tourists that if they need gel power shots or anything like that then they should bring them with them as there won’t be anyone handing out bananas along the way,” Sarah Davies of Koryo Tours told NK News.
The route is limited to central Pyongyang, without much, if any, deviation from the well-trod officially approved tourist path. Still, it should be quite interesting for both new and returning visitors to traverse this part of the city entirely on foot.
“The race starts at Kim Il Sung Stadium, goes up the hill to the Chinese Friendship Tower, right through the local neighborhood next to Kim Il Sung University, and across the Taedong River,” said Davies, who will be running a 10k. “We run with the view of May Day Stadium along the east bank to the Juche Tower, cross back over the river Taedong, and run through central Pyongyang, including Kim Il Sung Square. We then go up past the Mansudae Grand Monument, and then take a steep, long downhill to the Arch of Triumph and back to Kim Il Sung Stadium.”
After one circuit, 10k runners are done. Those running the half-marathon do another lap, and those doing the full race will need to complete an additional three.
Last year’s race, held a few days before what would have been Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, featured an edge-of-your-seat ending as Oleksandr Matviychuk of Ukraine and North Korean runner Pak Song Chol finished with identical times of 2:12:54.
“It was a photo finish,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager at Koryo Tours and a regular Pyongyang Marathon-goer. “When have you ever seen a photo finish at the end of a 26-mile race?”
In the name of goodwill, the win was given to the visitor. However, North Korea hasn’t always been so magnanimous with runners from elsewhere. After a Kenyan named Nelson Ndereva Ndjeru won in 2000 with a time of 2:11:05, the organizers were determined not to let it happen again. A year later, as it got closer and closer to race time, the North Koreans instructed all foreign runners, a group which included a number of Kenyans, to assemble at one end of the stadium.
“(A)s the Kenyan contingent began stretching, putting on their shoes, etc.,” wrote Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “suddenly, at the other end of the stadium, a gun sounded and the North Koreans took off.”
The Kenyans were, rightfully, “very, very angry at this obvious and juvenile breach of fair play,” Noland said. “Apparently it takes more than a few-hundred-yard head-start to beat determined Kenyans in a 26-mile race.” They chased down the North Koreans and overtook them, with a Kenyan ultimately finishing first.
“Needless to say,” he said, “none of this made it into the pages of the FT” – believe it or not, one of the sponsors of the 2001 Pyongyang Marathon” – and a North Korean officially won the race.”
MORE THAN A RACE
Covering the race with almost-clever headlines – “Kim Jong Run,” for instance – many of the world’s major media outlets have left out the rest of the story.
“The event, which is actually called the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, is just one part of the April Spring Friendship Art Festival,” Cockerell said. “It’s a huge celebration surrounding Kim Il Sung’s birthday that happens every year.”
The first planeload of delegations participating in the 29th annual festival arrived in Pyongyang yesterday, according to state-run Korean Central News Agency. They included the Academy Ensemble of the Interior Troops of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, performers from Bulgaria’s Varna Opera Theatre, an “art troupe” from the National Song and Dance Theatre of Vietnam, a Finnish brass band, a party referred to simply as “a circus of Egypt,” and a delegation from the Yanbian Research Institute of Culture and Art of China (the Beijing Beatles, who were not on the flight, will also be performing, the band’s “Paul” tells NK News).
All performers participating in the Festival have been invited to attend by the appropriate North Korean ministries, departments, and cultural bodies. It’s not hard to understand why some – the Russian Internal Affairs Ensemble, under the artistic direction of Colonel Oleg Plotnikov, for example – might appeal to the DPRK bureaucracy. But at the other end of the spectrum is 38-year-old Benny Prasad.
A musician from Bangalore and the inventor of the 20-string Bongo-Harp Guitar, Prasad played the 28th April Spring Friendship Art Festival in 2012 (the arts portion was canceled last year due to tensions on the peninsula, though the marathon went ahead as planned).
“Those who perform at the April Spring Friendship Art Festival are usually responsible for covering their own expenses. In his case, the cash-strapped North Korean government somehow found the money to fully fund his trip”
Prasad, who claims to hold the world record for “most countries visited in the shortest period of time” – 245 countries, plus Antarctica, in six years, six months, and 22 days – explains that those who perform at the April Spring Friendship Art Festival are usually responsible for covering their own expenses. In his case, the cash-strapped North Korean government somehow found the money to fully fund his trip. Having first traveled to North Korea as a tourist in 2010, Prasad had a pretty good idea of what to expect – or so he thought.
Delegates were grouped by country for meals, which were taken in a large banquet hall in the hotel. But being the only Indian performer there, Prasad found himself dining solo.
“We had to sit where we were told, otherwise food would not be served,” he said. “It was very lonely for me to just sit by myself and eat alone at my table. The second day, the Vietnamese group invited me join them; the third day, the Indonesian group asked me to join them. But, the staff refused to serve me. So, I shared from the other teams’ plates. The fourth day, I was on TV and everything changed. After that, they even made special spicy food for me.”
WITNESSING NORTH KOREA
Prasad chafed at some of the rigid structure he was expected to adhere to, specifically the distance authorities kept between him and the audience. After a show, Prasad typically spends some time mingling with the crowd, taking a few pictures, getting to know his fans. Yet in North Korea, this wasn’t happening. Still, Prasad feels that he managed to make occasional connections with audience members, fleeting as they may have been, through eye contact. He dawdled on his way offstage, moving slowly so he could look into as many faces as possible.
Oh, and he prayed.
“I prayed to Jesus that I would find favor in the eyes and ears of North Koreans, and that somehow I would be able to connect with them through my music,” Prasad said, “and I succeeded in that.”
Of course, someone who describes himself as “a very devout and practicing Christian” is about as improbable an invitee as one could muster up for a junket to a place rumored to execute citizens caught with Bibles. If ever there were a scenario in which self-control was paramount, tamping down the temptation to proselytize while visiting North Korea would be it. Prasad said he “knew very well the consequences that I might face in North Korea for talking about Jesus,” but insists he was “prepared to die for this truth.”
“Someone who describes himself as “a very devout and practicing Christian” is about as improbable an invitee as one could muster up for a junket to a place rumored to execute citizens caught with Bibles”
“When one is prepared to die, then there is nothing that can stop him,” said Prasad. “The North Koreans were sharing their Juche ideology, wanting me to become a Juche follower. But I challenged them.”
When his guides tried taking Prasad to a military parade, he insisted on attending a service at one of Pyongyang’s two state-controlled Protestant churches. When they said the services weren’t until later, he said he’d wait.
“As much as they liked me, they were also very frustrated with me,” he said.
Ultimately, Prasad was not impressed with what he saw, calling the rites “nothing but a 100 percent imitation of an Anglican service.”
Presumably, most of those headed to Pyongyang this weekend aren’t going for the churches. Or the food, for that matter. But if you do plan to eat, Benny Prasad has a suggestion: sit where they tell you.
Registration for the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon is now open, at pyongyangmarathon.com.
Picture: Uri Tours, Flickr Creative Commons
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