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Marathoning In Pyongyang: A Unique Way To See The City


This past month in North Korea, Will Philipps was one of a group of foreign amateur runners who were allowed to participate for the first time in the Pyongyang marathon. Philipps is a British expat living in Beijing. And he wrote about his experience for the Roads and Kingdoms online travel magazine. We reached them via Skype, and he told us that, as you can imagine, there were a few restrictions for participants.

WILL PHILIPPS: It's quite funny. There were lots of rules that we were told before the race. No flags on our running gear. We were told no country names, no MP3 players. But then actually, as it turned out, on the day itself, a lot of people were running with MP3 players. A lot of people had cameras. A lot of people had flags on their gear. So I think there was this idea that it was better to kind of err on the side of caution.

MARTIN: So running a marathon is a unique way to see any city, but it must have been kind of fascinating to just run this route. What did you see? What was it like?

PHILIPPS: Yeah. It was deeply fascinating. I mean, it was none of this kind of party, fun-run atmosphere. But, you know, you can still, you know, go and high-five the spectators. And they're still cheering you on. You know, you can shout annyeong, which is Korean for hello.

And they'll respond to that. So yeah. I mean, there was still this level of interaction and, you know, once you're out there running, it's quite quiet, and it's quite peaceful. It was a unique way to see the city.

MARTIN: What was the high point?

PHILIPPS: Probably the end of the race, actually, because...

MARTIN: (Laughter). Funny how that works.

PHILIPPS: ...Which is probably a common answer here for a lot of runners. Before the race, we were told that there was a five-hour time limit to run the full marathon, which I thought gave me enough time to finish. Then before the race, we were told it was only going to be 3 hours and 30 minutes...


PHILIPPS: ...Which is a considerably quicker time to run a marathon. So I got a bit nervous then because my time was around four hours. I didn't really have a choice. I thought, let's go for it. So I set off a bit quickly. And I think I paced myself slightly too fast. So around about three-quarters of the way through the marathon, I started to get quite tired. But eventually, I did make it to the stadium to the finish line. I think they were just closing the door.

So I ran into this stadium and finished, you know, my final lap of the 400-meter track around the stadium. And there were, you know, 50,000 North Korean faces cheering me on and smiling down at me, and probably having a good old laugh at this absolutely knackered and tired foreigner trying to make his way around the track. It was quite surreal.

MARTIN: Was that a personal best for you, then?

PHILIPPS: It was a personal best. Yeah.


PHILIPPS: I finished in 4 hours, 5 minutes, which is not exactly a world-record-beating time, but it was a personal best. Yeah.

MARTIN: Although, I understand you were second to last in the race, I should also say.

PHILIPPS: I was second to last. Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: (Laughter) ...In the stadium. I mean, it's still a big deal. Just over 4 hours is quite quick.

PHILIPPS: Well, what I tell - well, there were only about, I think, 30 or 35 foreign amateur runners. So what I say is I came in, you know, 33rd.

MARTIN: Will Philipps. He recently completed the marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea. Thanks so much for talking with us about your experience, and congratulations.

PHILIPPS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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