UPDATE, February 23, 2015—North Korea has announced that it has barred foreigners from participating in April’s Mangyongdae Prize Marathon in Pyongyang, the capital, citing fears of the spread of Ebola. Last year, some 30 foreign amateurs ran the marathon, including Beijing-based writer Will Philipps, who filed the following dispatch for Roads & Kingdoms’ series with Slate magazine. (Originally published April 18, 2014)
As I wait for the gun to sound at the start of the Pyongyang Marathon, my nerves are overcome by a bout of self-consciousness. Here I am, a foreigner in North Korea, with high-end running gear, florescent sneakers, and energy gels in my pockets. The local runners, meanwhile, sport antiquated uniforms and shoes that look like they might fall apart.
Nevertheless, we say hello and high-five one another in the moments before the race. Then the gun fires, and we’re off.
This year is the first time foreign amateurs have been allowed to race in North Korea
A moment later, it sounds again—false start. But before long we’re running hard, pounding the pavement of Pyongyang in an historic event: This year is the first time foreign amateurs have been allowed to race in North Korea’s premier athletic competition.
For me, running the Pyongyang Marathon—or, more accurately, the 27th Mangyongdae Prize Marathon, named after the birthplace of Eternal President Kim Il-Sung—is a chance to race against the backdrop of one the world’s most reclusive and idiosyncratic countries; a unique way to experience a unique place, and hopefully connect with some of the people who live there.