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North Korea’s annual marathon was opened to foreign tourists for the first time in 27 years, as runners took to the streets of Pyongyang in a unique, but surreal race. Officially known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, Sunday’s race included a full marathon, a half-marathon and a 10-kilometer run, and was watched by tens of thousands of North Koreans who came out to cheer on — and high-five— the runners, reports Eric Talmadge at the Associated Press.

Tourists who competed in shorter race distances stand in front of a sign
that reads "Long Live the Shining Revolutionary Tradition of Our Party."
AP / David Guttenfelder

North Korean runner Pak Chol won the men’s event in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 26 seconds, while fellow North Koreans, twins Kim Hye Gyong and Kim Hye Song finished in the top two places of the women’s event. To get a spot in one of the races, foreign runners had to apply through an approved tour company, which then organized the travel, visas, and marathon entry. While 225 amateurs took part in the races this year, they had to be quick: to avoid abandoning the race, the marathon had to be completed in four hours, the half-marathon had a time limit of 2.5 hours, and the 10-kilometer had to be run in 90 minutes.

North Korean spectators watch from the roadside in central Pyongyang
as runners pass by. AP / David Guttenfelder

Talmadge reports that the runners, which represented 27 countries, “were followed by a truck blaring patriotic music,” which sounds like less than ideal conditions for focus. Runners of the marathon, which is recognized as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federation, finished in the city's Kim Il Sung Stadium, where 42,000 spectators kept busy by watching soccer games and martial arts exhibitions.

North Korean spectators watch from the stands of Kim Il Sung Stadium at the
start of the marathon. AP / David Guttenfelder

The reactions from foreign runners were generally positive. Speaking with the BBC, runner Vicky Mohieddeen, said the marathon was "really quite funny." Will Philipps, a British expat based in Beijing, told the Guardian, "I thought 'this is too good an opportunity to miss, a great one to tell the grandkids, let's go for it'. Jen Skym, a Briton living in Hong Kong, who is also four months pregnant, ran the 10-kilometer race and told the AP, "I really wanted to do this race because of the location...The scenery was fantastic, and there were so many people watching. It was good motivation to get back into running. I really enjoyed it."

Young North Korean runners rest after finishing their race AP / David Guttenfelder

There were, however, a few rules. U.S. and Japanese flags were not allowed to be carried by foreign runners, and clothing deemed too political or attention-grabbing was also banned. After all, this is still North Korea, where anything outsiders see and do is a highly controlled undertaking. According to Talmadge, one runner wore blue jeans for the 10-kilometer race, but whether that was a political statement or simply based on a lack of clothing remains to be seen.

If you're suddenly inspired to run a marathon, or at least a lengthy race, in North Korea next year, there's some more information here.

North Korean spectators watch and cheer from the stands of Kim Il Sung Stadium as runners arrive at the finish line. AP / David Guttenfelder


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