North opens marathon to tourists



Runners of the world, unite!

For the first time ever, North Korea is opening up the streets of its capital to runner-tourists for the annual Pyongyang Marathon, undoubtedly one of the most exotic feathers in any runner’s cap.

Tourism companies say they are getting inundated by requests to sign up for the event, scheduled for April 13, which this year will include amateur runners from around the world. The race includes a full marathon — with a handful of world-class, invitation-only athletes — a half marathon and a 10-km run.

The opening of the race to recreational runners is in keeping with the North’s ongoing, but sometimes sporadic, effort to earn cash revenue by boosting tourism, usually with well-orchestrated group tours to major arts performances or attractions the North wants to show off.

Earlier this year, North Korea’s government announced a plan to create special trade and tourism zones across the country and unveiled its first luxury ski resort, aimed largely at luring ski enthusiasts from abroad.

Under the watch of young leader Kim Jong Un, the North has also been giving sports in general a higher profile. Simple recreational sports facilities, such as outdoor basketball courts and roller skating rinks, have been popping up lately in Pyongyang and some other cities.

Much of North Korea remains off-limits to foreigners, but Pyongyang, with its broad avenues and ubiquitous monuments, is more accessible than other places in the secretive and isolated country.

“I think a lot of the attraction is the ‘Pyongyang’ part rather than the ‘marathon’ part,” said Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based agent for the Koryo Tours travel agency. “A lot of the people going along to take part are interested in simply doing something a bit unusual, something that would cause a bit of cognitive dissonance in friends of theirs when they tell them they ran a marathon in North Korea.”

Known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race is sanctioned as a bronze label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and has been held annually for 27 years.

The generally flat, full-marathon course entails four loops around the center of the city of 2.5 million. The race starts at the 70,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium and moves on past the Monument to Chinese Soldiers to the Kim Il Sung University area. After that, the runners cross a bridge over the Taedong River to the east side of the city and wind their way along the river bank to the stadium.

Cockerell said nearly 200 foreigners have signed up for the event, which coincides with commemorations of the April 15 birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. That is an unusually large number, though the North’s famous mass games are also often a big draw. As a practical matter, aspiring runners had to apply through agencies familiar with North Korea’s bureaucracy to get the proper visas. Cockerell said most are joining packaged group tours to see the sights while they are in Pyongyang.

In the past, the main race has been restricted to a select group of elite runners. Recreational jogging isn’t a part of ordinary North Korean life, but past events have included races for local students and junior runners. Though many national teams are reluctant to travel to North Korea for political reasons, times in the elite part of the race have been up to the international standards.

What’s new this year is the decision to open up the marathon, half-marathon and 10-km courses to recreational runners of any nationality. The only requirement for marathon runners is that they finish within four hours; those who don’t will be escorted back to the stadium.