Foreigners Reflect on Running the Pyongyang Marathon

A soldier stands guard as runners pass during the 2017 Pyongyang Marathon
A soldier stands guard as runners pass during the 2017 Pyongyang Marathon | © AP/REX/Shutterstock

Amid the nuclear bomb threats, missile launch testing and continued political tension with pretty much the rest of the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had a celebration.

Held in the capital city of Pyongyang on April 9, the Mangyongdae Prize Marathon (also known as the Pyongyang Marathon) has been run every year since 1981 as part of the festivities to commemorate the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il-Sung, culminating with the “Day of the Sun” on his birthday, April 15.
Of the approximately 2,000 participants in the 2017 Pyongyang Marathon, nearly half were foreigners. Shane Horan, 31, is an international tours manager for Beijing-based Young Pioneers Tours. He’s been to North Korea approximately 30 times, but ran his first marathon there earlier this month.

Shane Horan (left) ran the 2017 Pyongyang Marathon

“For a first-time marathon runner it was an incredible experience running into a stadium with 50,000 Koreans cheering you home,” Horan said. “North Koreans, for the most part, are incredibly warm and welcoming people. I think a lot of runners gave up on their time early on to dish out hundreds of high fives and hand shakes to the locals watching on.”
The race, which first permitted foreign participants in 2013, starts and ends at Kim Il-Sung Stadium. Runners go through the heart of Pyongyang, reach a halfway point (which varies whether they’re running the 10k, half or full marathon) and turn around back toward the stadium. They pass landmarks including Kim Il-Sung Square, Arch of Triumph, Grand Theatre and Mansu Hill, where 72-foot bronze statues of Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il overlook the capital.

Pak Chol of North Korea (above) won his third consecutive Pyongyang Marathon

Spectators lined the streets to wave at and high five runners who sprinted by.
“It was a highly energizing experience,” said half marathon finisher Gabor Holch, a 46-year-old Hungarian who has lived in China since 2002. “There were crowds cheering along the streets of Pyongyang and even though we knew many of them were instructed to be there, the interest between the locals and foreign runners was genuine.”

Runners high five spectators during the 2017 Pyongyang Marathon

Pak Chol, a 27-year-old North Korean, started the men’s race with a commanding lead en route to his third Pyongyang Marathon victory in two hours, 13 minutes, 56 seconds. Compatriot Jo Un-Ok won the women’s race in 2:29:23.
Horan said traveling to North Korea, though strongly urged against by the United States Department of State “due to serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement” is an eye-opening experience.
“It’s not a country of mindless brainwashed followers,” Horan said. “It’s a living, breathing, emotional land full of people with hopes and dreams just like you and me.”

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