PYONGYANG, North Korea >> A horde of foreign fun-runners took to the streets of Pyongyang today for an annual marathon that has become one of the North Korean capital’s most popular tourist events.
Officially called the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race became an instant hit with tourists looking to run in possibly the world’s most exotic locale when it was opened up to amateur foreign runners in 2014.
Like everything else in North Korea, the race has a political backdrop.
First held in 1981, it is part of nationwide festivities leading up to the April 15 “Day of the Sun,” a national holiday marking the birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and the country’s “eternal president.”
Later this week, North Korea is expected to open its doors to foreign journalists to further publicize the holiday and show a new residential area of Pyongyang with several high-rise apartment buildings. The country is expected to put on a major parade on April 15, and North Korea watchers are on the lookout to see if it will display its new long-range ballistic missile.
But for many a devoted marathoner, running in Pyongyang is more about bucket lists than politics.
This year, more than 1,100 foreigners took part in the full road race, the half marathon or the 10-kilometer (6-mile) run.
The course took them past such Pyongyang landmarks as Kim Il Sung Square and the recently completed Scientists’ Street high-rise district. All runners finished in Kim Il Sung Stadium before tens of thousands of cheering North Koreans. While the runners were off on the streets, the crowd in the stadium was kept entertained by a soccer match.
“I don’t know if you would say it was on my bucket list, but it was certainly something out of the ordinary,” said Philippe Sacher, a 38-year-old from Munich, Germany, who ran the half marathon. “I want to see for myself.”
Curious Pyongyang residents lined the streets to look at the colorfully clad foreign throngs.
Many yelled “Hurry! Hurry!” as the runners passed by.
“I think many of them only know what they have seen in their media and have a mistaken image,” said Pyongyang retiree Choe Yong Su. “But seeing is believing.”
The marathon also includes a race for elite runners recognized as a bronze label competition by the International Amateur Athletics Federation.
Just a handful of elite runners joined this year, mostly from Africa, and North Koreans won the men’s and women’s marathon golds.
To the delighted roar of the crowd, the first runner to enter Kim Il Sung Stadium was Pak Chol, who finished in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 56 seconds. Jo Un Ok, who took the bronze in last year’s Beijing Marathon, won the women’s race in 2:29:23.