This was it – the Pyongyang marathon. To be honest, not something that was ever my dream to compete in, but it was here upon me nonetheless. Life is so interesting – you never know what’s around the corner!
We were given the bad news about the weather the night before. It was going to be the coldest day Pyongyang had had in 20 years. So what was a girl to do except layer up? I knew that the serious runners would warm themselves up, but I was planning on having a sedate stroll around the track, looking at the streets, buildings and people at my leisure, taking the civilised option of taking my time and stopping to smell the roses along the way. So 3 layers of clothes, my lucky cowl and Bali earrings and my duck down coat for after the race was my ensemble of choice.
After an early breakfast, we were loaded onto the bus and taken to the stadium. We got there soon after 8 and it appeared that the stadium was already nearly full. God knows how early the Koreans had been told to turn up. We got out of the bus and immediately saw this woman, so we lined up in front of her.
Seriously, Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! How else can you explain how the most unfit person in this marathon was in the very first row of people entering the stadium? I saw everything laid out in front of me, with no heads in the way spoiling the view. Amazing!
As you’d expect, I kept my cool and behaved with the utmost decorum.
I asked an older guy standing next to me to take my photo. He took my phone and tried his best, but behind him I could see the 3 guides killing themselves laughing. When I took the phone back they told me to have a look at the photos he took:
*sigh* Some people just can’t drive an iphone…
Then one of the guides offered to take the phone and…
More hilarity before they switched the phone off selfie mode and took the shot. Definitely not a solemn, serious, obey-the-rules-of-the-state vibe going on.
After a while, just before 9AM, we were lined up and told how we were to march around the stadium and them onto the grass to face the Sports Minister and hear his speech. The woman directing us seemed a bit stressed. She kept emphasising that we had to stay together in clean lines and not go wandering off. I whispered to the guy beside me, “She must hate having to deal with foreigners!”
Most of what I took next was videos, as the noise and atmosphere were extraordinary. The Koreans clap in unison, which sounds amazing, and a lot of the people sitting near the front of the stadium tiers also had what looked like wooden clappers, which made the sound even louder. When we were given the nod, we walked out onto the track and the crowd went nuts. It was exhilarating. We walked in our lines 6 across, (because we were good athletes who obeyed our stressed woman’s instructions) around the track while sound that was almost solid, it was so loud, washed over us. We were all waving, holding up our phones and filming, just trying to soak it all in. So much fun.
Then we turned onto the fake grass soccer pitch in the middle of the stadium, listened to the speech which, surprisingly, was also translated into English, and then we split up into our various race categories.
I have a video of these people clapping – I’ve been using it as applause whenever my students do something well. They love it.
Then, one by one, we were off! Peer group pressure is definitely a thing – when the rest of the 5KM group set off at a run, I was with them. I haven’t run so far without someone chasing me for YEARS! I ran around the other half of the stadium, out the gate and halfway down the drive before I realised how stupid I was being. I pulled up, let the others overtake me and I settled down to my stroll.
The Arch of Triumph is directly outside the stadium and we ran underneath it. Well, I skipped. It’s easier than running, I discovered. This is based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only it’s bigger, as our guide in the bus last night took great joy in telling Pierre.
Here you can see the dates about Kim Il Sung’s fight for an independent Korea… 1925 when he supposedly left Korea, vowing to fight abroad and never return until Korea was free from Japanese rule, and 1945 when WWII finished and he came back with the backing of the Russians to take over the government.
We kept moving. The street grew quieter.
I looked back. Yeah, I was pretty much last. I decided to wear it as a badge of honour and I went on my merry way, taking photos as I went.
I love that the blossom was out in Pyongyang while we were there. Up until now, it’s symbolised Spring and my birthday – now it’ll also remind me of this trip.
There were still people on the streets watching, but most of the crowds seemed to be getting on with their lives.
Then up ahead, I saw this guy. A chubby Asian dude in a floral tracksuit. I had to overtake him. National pride was at stake. I overtook him, skipping at a fast pace, and then continued on.
Haha!! Eat my dust, floral tracksuit! Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!
I skipped merrily on.
In a scarily short space of time, the people taking the 5KM run seriously were coming back. “FROGDANCER!” I looked up and there was Rick, racing along in his DPRK tracksuit, (incidentally fooling nobody. Anyone looking less Korean I have yet to see!) I waved as he swept past and then continued on.
After a while, I got tired of photographing the candy-coloured buildings and I started looking at the people. Here is a traffic cop.
We saw this quite a bit – lots of flags at the street corners. It seems that it’s either flags or propaganda posters. No advertising though. Not a single billboard or neon sign. It makes the streets seem calmer and far less cluttered.
A couple of kids at a bus stop. I have a shot where they’re waving to me but I liked this one better.
I love this shot. It’s so quintessentially Pyongyang. The women are dressed beautifully in pencil skirts, hair done and their overall presentation is spot-on. I didn’t see one young or middle-aged woman in trousers the whole time we were in the city. The little boy is obviously very cherished and well-cared for, but look at his toy. I think this is part of what Helen meant by saying that going to North Korea was like going back to the 1960’s. Kids played with guns then, too.
School uniform. Not sure why he’s in uniform on a Sunday.
This was a much rarer sight. Every now and then I’d see an older person lugging around things like this.
“Wave to the lady!”
They were giggling.
Kids are clearly cherished. Everywhere we went, we saw beautifully dressed kids being looked after by solicitous parents or grandparents.
Then almost before I knew it, I reached the half-way point.
I was still ahead of my floral friend. He was yet to round the turn, whereas I was now on the homeward leg. I knew that all of those early morning walks from the station to school woere good for something!
Then who do I see but Pierre and Mr Pak? Interesting guy, Pierre. This is his 9th trip into North Korea and due to the rules governing tourists here, he has to be on a tour each time. He’s an extremely gifted photographer with a trick of self-effacement, which meant that he quietly walked around the edges of the group, seeing and gathering the shots that we were all missing. He just wandered around taking photos the whole time, because let’s face it – 9 times seeing the museums and statues must be getting pretty old. He takes shots of people and he clearly has the patience to bide his time and wait for the perfect moment to take the shot. We all got used to seeing him with a camera in his hand, but it was after we got back and he posted some of the photos that he took that we fully realised what a great eye he has.
Anyway, he wasn’t enrolled in the marathon, but he wanted to walk around outside and take photos so Mr Pak went with him.
Soon after this my phone battery ran out. Too many videos. So I pocketed it and just walked in silence, waving to people who were waving, occasionally chatting to them but usually just walking. I stopped and shut my eyes. All I could hear was the squeaking of bike wheels; the giggling of a toddler who was running ahead of his Grandpa; the thudding of runners on the road as the quicker marathon runners ran past on the other side of the road; the distant roar from the crowd in the stadium because someone kicked a goal, and distant singing coming from a crowd somewhere behind the buildings. It was a peaceful feeling, standing in the middle of one of the main roads in Pyongyang hearing all of this.
As I got closer to the stadium I picked up the pace on the skipping. People were lining the footpaths, cheering on the runners. When I got up to the stadium I saw James, one of the guys on our tour. He’d run the 10KM and was now hanging around, taking photos of the rest of us coming in.
You can see from this how cut-throat the experience is. Zoë, one of the tour guides from YPT, stopped to take my photo and we were mucking around. It’s a pity James took it from this angle… I’m positive from Zoë’s viewpoint that my running shot would look absolutely realistic. Maybe…
Once I ran through the gate and was near the track, I realised that I had an opportunity I would never have again. A crowd of 50,000 people, all in the palm of my hand. They’d been sitting there since 7ish and it was now around 10:30. It was getting colder and colder, all they had to watch was a soccer game and various people running doggedly around the track… maybe what they needed was some comedy gold…
I decided to test it out. I ran out in front of the first tier of people and began to race around like I was an aeroplane. There was a roar from the crowd and people started laughing and clapping. The rest of the stadium was oblivious but I’d found my audience. I started to skip, then do the moonwalk. Rapturous applause followed. As I moved in front of tier after tier, the applause followed.
I pretended that I was exhausted and bent down, pretending to breathe heavily. They loved it. A runner came up behind me and, not realising that I was taking the piss, said, “Come on! You can do it!” and grabbed my arm. The crowd roared. I took off with her like a rocket… and then once she passed me, I waved my hand in disgust and bent over my knees again. Laughter and furious clapping in unison from the stands. Clearly, slapstick comedy worked with this crowd.
I worked my way around the stadium like that until, just before the very end with the finish line in sight, I looked at the watch, then looked at the finish line and started running full pelt towards it. The crowd yelled encouragement. It was so much fun!
Once we went up to the stands and found our coats, I plugged my phone into my power pack and we went out in search of sustenance. We found the rest of our group in the beer tent. It was absolutely FREEZING by this stage, with some of the guys with faces coloured lavender from cold. They were tucking into lamb skewers and beer, much to my annoyance, as beer is revolting. My hands were icy and I dug them in my pockets.
Incidentally, Walter finished his marathon with 10 minutes to spare before being locked out of the stadium. What an amazing effort! His first marathon with hardly any training. Unbelievable effort.
Then Matt turned up with hot soju from one of the stalls. OMG. When you raise the cup to your mouth, the alcohol in the steam hits your nose and warms the cockles of your heart. I shared my cup with James. “Christ, this is fantastic!” he said. As we stood sipping, snow started falling. We were all having fun and life was good.
Mr Pak came up with a list in his hand and touched Helen on the arm.
“You came third in the women’s 10KM,” he said. “You have to come to the podium and receive a medal from the sports minister.”
Helen was gobsmacked. “No way!” she said. “I stopped 4 times! If I’d known there were only two people ahead of me I’d have tried harder!!”
Here are the medallists walking onto the field for the award ceremony. You should have seen Rick and Matt – they were so proud.
Helen is the one in the red tracksuit standing on the podium. She was given a medal and a bunch of fake flowers by the North Korean Minister of Sport. What a way to end the marathon!
After we left the stadium to go to lunch, I couldn’t help but notice the stream of Koreans leaving to go home. The poor things must’ve been frozen.
I’ll continue the rest of the day in my next post. I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy the marathon so much but it was a truly memorable way to start our trip to North Korea.