An American in North Korea: What it's like to run the Pyongyang marathon

Nearly 1,000 foreigners pounded the pavement of Pyongyang on Sunday, as part of North Korea‘s annual marathon.

The event draws in a handful of elite runners as well as curious amateurs looking for a glimpse inside the notoriously reclusive nation. They navigate a route through the capital city that ends with tens of thousands of cheering fans in the imposing Kim Il Sung Stadium.

Brian Sloan, an American who traveled to North Korea to take part in the marathon, said this year was very different than the first time he participated in 2014.

This time, he had his camera with him for the whole race.

“It’s exciting to see a country that is still mostly closed to the outside world and especially interesting to see the changes happening there,” Sloan said, citing increased cell phone use and more cars on the road compared to his first visit.

“It’s exciting to see a country that is still mostly closed to the outside world.”

Sloan traveled with Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based tour company founded by Briton Nick Bonner, who has brought thousands of westerners to the country.

In 2014, North Korean authorities for the first time allowed amateur runners to take part in the race. At the time, they were strictly forbidden to bring cameras along the route to record the experience.

This time, Sloan says, the runners were allowed to snap away along the route, but were advised not to take photos of construction projects or military personnel. 

He said the foreigners with his group came from diverse backgrounds, and included a D.C. lawyer who had also traveled to Sudan and Iraq, an older American who had been to North Korea six times, a woman who works for Goldman Sacks in New York, and a couple of librarians from Portland. 

“There were certainly some hardcore runners in the other groups, but mostly just people who were generally fit and saw an opportunity for an interesting run,” Sloan said.

His tour group had a chance to become the first westerners ever to stay overnight in the city of Huechang — a four-hour drive from Pyongyang over rocky, mountainous roads. 

“We saw countryside that westerners have never seen and that is an exceedingly rare experience. I’ll probably go back next year and combine the run with a tour of a different part of the country,” said Sloan. “There’s no reason not to.”

Runners finish the race in the imposing Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang, Aprl 10, 2016.

But despite Sloan’s optimism and the positive experiences recounted by many along the route, there is no denying that Korean policies towards westerners have been harsh.

U.S. college student Otto Frederick Warmbier was sentenced in March to 15 years hard labor for tearing down a political banner in a hotel. 

The U.S. State Department called the move “unduly harsh” and called for his release “on humanitarian grounds.” 

Tensions are high on the Korean peninsula in recent weeks, since North Korea reportedly conducted several ballistic missile launches. The UN Security Council has vowed to closely monitor the situation and “act as appropriate,” but cited “grave concerns” that the tests would threaten international security.

School girls wave to runners alone the Pyongyang Marathon route,  April 10, 2016.

Sloan said the heightened tensions were addressed by his guides, but changed little in the way of security protocol. 

“We were told that hostilities were heightened at the moment so we should err on the side of caution,” Sloan said. “It meant not to bring in any bibles or religious materials and to do as we were asked by our guides with respect to bowing to statues of the leaders, and generally acting in a respectful manner.”

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