Essay: What it was like to run a marathon in North Korea

Rebecca High for ESPN

Runners hit the streets of Pyongyang in the early moments of the 2017 marathon. All foreign runners are classified as "amateurs" and are ranked separately from the elite North Korean runners.

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Being in North Korea feels how you might imagine it would feel to be on the moon, as though you have suddenly been transported to another world entirely. You have seen photos of it, maybe, but never really believed it's real.

The first moments driving away from the airport into the heart of North Korea felt like I was watching an oil painting come to life in slo-mo. I was mesmerized by a traffic guard at the center of an intersection, her back rigid, dressed in a trim blue uniform with cap and boots to kill. She moved her head and body mechanically, to no seeming purpose, rotating silently, like a robot. She was just one of many surreal sights I would catalog over the next four days.

I traveled here in April 2017, along with a group of nearly 1,000 foreign amateur runners, to participate in the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon. At the time, U.S. visitors were permitted to enter North Korea through approved tour agencies working with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) tourism department. The country is culturally and diplomatically isolated, yes, but North Korea has opened itself up to visitors to try to prove to the world that it is as normal as any other country.

In addition to the marathon -- this year's race is Sunday in Pyongyang -- I came to North Korea because of an almost obsessive curiosity I had developed about the country when I worked in Seoul as an English teacher from 2009 to 2011. When I visited the DMZ, I peered through eerie, snowy silence across No Man's Land, determined to return and learn more about the mysterious state. Living in Seoul had given me a mixed consciousness about its northern neighbor; a lot of layers of pain and complexity and anger surround both countries still, six decades after the devastating Korean War.

Rebecca High for ESPN

A traffic guard stands at attention in Pyongyang. I encountered her during a rare opportunity to walk a few city blocks at one point in the tour, but the up-close observation was quickly interrupted by my guide, who hustled me back to the bus.

It was in the low 40s at 6 a.m. on the morning of the marathon, with dusky light just softening the streets as we piled into our limousine buses for a 10-minute drive to the Kim Il Sung Stadium. In the 40 hours we had been in North Korea, I hadn't seen the sun at all, so the rosy glow made everything feel friendlier. The faded pastel and granite buildings looked almost cheerful.

The mobile P.A. system crackled as our guides gave us the day's list of rules: "Don't bring your cameras, remember not to take photos." "Wait a sec," I said to one of my bus mates. "I thought we were distinctly told that we could have cameras on this run." She shrugged. Already we were learning that rules in North Korea are subject to change at any time. In addition, our guides actually seemed to have no idea that today's mp3 players have built-in cameras. Almost all of us had smartphones. As we disembarked and waited to enter the stadium, it was utter chaos. "I thought this was socialism. What happened to order?" someone quipped. Then, inevitably, the rumors started that perhaps the guides were in panic mode because the great leader himself would be there. I decided to keep my GoPro strapped to a chest mount under my long-sleeved shirt. At one point, the guide came over and poked my chest. "What's that?" As I stuttered in response she walked away, having quickly lost interest, or perhaps preferring ignorance.

Suddenly, without warning, we surged en masse toward the entrance. As I jostled toward the doors, the stadium erupted into cheers. North Koreans seated shoulder to shoulder filled the 50,000-seat arena. I wondered how impossibly early they must have gathered to be in place well before we had arrived.

The spectators were primarily dressed in either the navy or brown dress of the DPRK socialists, but a generous delegation of women wore colorful, traditional gowns of Korea. "Hanbok!" I pointed eagerly at our guide, proud to flaunt what little remained of my sparse Korean vocabulary. She frowned at me. "Han bok," I reiterated, adjusting my Korean vowels. But she wasn't confused at my choice of language, she just disapproved. "Chogguri," she corrected, grabbing my wrist. "Chogguri. Traditional Korean dress. Han-bok is the word they use in the South."

As the starting gun for the half marathon sounded, we excitedly poured out of the stadium down the steep driveway to the street. Everyone was festive, laughing, waving at our group photographer as we rounded the Arch of Triumph at the bottom of the hill -- an exact mimicry of the Arc de Triomphe in France, only this one dedicated to the success of North Korea in defeating western imperialists.

As we headed downtown, the streets were lined with North Koreans watching, cheering or waving us on. I thought the stadium must have housed everyone in the city, but of course, those inside the stadium were the higher-ranking Workers Party members. Everyone else was in the streets. The capital city of Pyongyang is strategically designed to be a portal to North Korea as a whole, attempting to give outsiders the illusion that the country is just as modern and manicured as any global metropolis. But the utopian narrative is inconsistent, disrupted by the very dystopian existence of its creators, and the dissonance constantly made me feel that I was living in an episode of the "The Twilight Zone."

Rebecca High for ESPN

Kim Il Sung Stadium boasts 50,000 seats and was at capacity on marathon day. As we entered the stadium for the opening ceremonies, deafening cheers gave us a palpable energy that carried over into the streets, which were lined with people watching.

For the duration of the weekend leading up to Sunday's marathon, we were driven around in a giant caravan of buses, as exploring on one's own was strictly forbidden. When we kept passing the same sights over and over, we began to think the driver was taking circuitous routes intentionally so that we would not be able to get a clear picture of something. As our guides spoke over a crackling mobile PA system, I pressed my face to the glass and stared out at women on their knees trimming patchy but impeccable lawns, the muted, overcast skies and stark, leaf-less tree lines.

We passed a small town square of sorts, where pastel-colored apartment buildings were decked with colorful pots of flowers -- but only on the balcony sides facing the street. Further down, in perfect formation, a youthful marching band in full regalia played at stiff attention. As a casual runner, I had never aspired to run more than a 10K, but I figured the trip would be physically challenging as well as mentally stimulating. If anything could motivate me to train for distance, it was the heart-pumping thought of running on streets owned by Kim Jong Un.

I was relieved when at one point we actually were permitted to walk two blocks to a bookstore, which sold hand-painted propaganda posters -- the Communist art deco that still decorates Pyongyang. I was stoked because this was probably my only chance to loosen up before our big run the next day.

Among our stops, we saw the larger-than-life bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, to which every visitor and resident alike must pay respect. Tucked back from the road on an immaculate plaza, there are firm rules for how to behave in the presence of divine mythos: no gum chewing, no smoking, no loud talking, no running. You're also encouraged to purchase flowers from a local vendor as an offering. The honorific bow, however, is not suggestion: It's required. As somber as the occasion was, I felt a giddiness bubbling inside me as I stared at some of my group members purchasing flowers to lay at the leaders' feet. Is this actually happening? Am I actually staring at these archenemies of the United States as my foreign co-marathoners buy them flowers and we all make nice? I made the polite, shallow bow asked of me while keeping an eye on my guides whose eyes were closed as they bowed in reverence. If traveling has taught me anything, it's to be respectful in your host country. Who am I to judge?

Later, we ate at a state-owned restaurant, where the tables already were prepared with cold fried meats, egg salad and naengmyeon (cold noodles). As we sat, the restaurant manager asked our tour guide if any of us would like to go bowling after dinner, as there was a bowling alley in the basement. I almost jumped out of my seat. Bowling in North Korea? Yes!

A Friday evening in the U.S. would be a bustling time for any bowling alley, yet this one was empty. Soon enough, in the lane next to me, an older Korean man in a pinstriped business suit began bowling a steady stream of strikes and spares; it turned out to be my guide's boss, who had stopped by to make sure the travelers were being well entertained. When I complimented him on his game, he laughed and responded in Korean. He had a warm, infectious vibe about him and despite the fact that neither of us understood one word the other was saying, for the rest of our game, whenever one of us got a strike, we'd high-five each other. I felt like I was in some kind of altered state. Am I really in North Korea bowling with a guy who technically works for Kim Jong Un?

During a tour of captured U.S. war vehicles, I became saddened by the delight in which my country's losses were touted here as trophies. My unease must have been apparent because one of our guides dropped back, linked her arm in mine and asked, "How are you?" I already had developed a fondness for Ana; she was young and demure but conversational -- knowledgeable about current global affairs and issues, inquisitive about our thoughts on everything from my psychological well-being to the recent U.S. elections.

I paused. "To be honest, not well," I told her as we left the trophy graveyard and walked into the Victorious War Museum. "I feel a heaviness about seeing all these war relics and hearing about the horrible history between your country and mine. Everything seems hopeless, and I guess I just feel sad, that we cannot be friends because of what our countries have done. But do you think there's a chance for peace?"

Ana nodded slowly. "Yes. But just like you do not have anything against me, I do not have anything against you. We do not have anything against people -- the war is between governments. And we just want to be reunited as our country," she said, referring to something I'd heard time and again: that South Korea should make amends and reparations and join North Korea under Kim Il Sung brand of socialism that has, in their minds, proven so gloriously successful.

"You're a lovely person," I said. "I just wish I thought it was possible to solve the problems of the past." Less than 48 hours into the whistle-stop tour, I felt suffocated.

Rebecca High for ESPN

A brief stop at the Mansu Hill monument with bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Jogging through Pyongyang on Sunday, finally stretching my legs and having a chance to process some of my experiences, was such a relief after my brief taste of North Korean life.

I had decided not to run with headphones. I felt like I wanted to be as connected to my surroundings as much as possible on this run, of all runs. This was undoubtedly the most freeing two hours of the entire weekend. Away from the guides, from the monuments, and up close with the people who seemed happy and supportive, I felt clear and alive.

Seeing some runners ahead of me veer to the curb so they could high-five a giggling group of North Korean students, I did the same. It became the highlight of the run. Whenever my energy flagged or I started feeling mentally drained, I would move toward the spectators and find a few hands to high-five. Around kilometer 15, I headed toward the curb for some high-fives, then pretended to trip from exhaustion and fall into the onlookers. They were delighted. Some women shrieked with laughter. After that, it became my favorite trope, and however trivial it might seem, it was one of the most genuine moments of human connection that I felt in North Korea.

At the halfway mark, I dropped back a few paces to snap a photo of my friends running ahead of me and suddenly I heard an eerie sound that crystallized into music. I heard a fair amount of this music during our first two days in Pyongyang. As the music increased in volume, I was surprised to realize we were running by giant bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. My normally decent sense of direction had pretty much been manipulated out of existence at this point.

As I stumbled into the stadium for my "victory" lap, the arena erupted with the most deafening cheers I had ever heard. Is this how Olympians or professional athletes feel when they're on the field? How cool is this? And then, as I stumbled through my lap, I realized that on the field in the center of the track a soccer match was under way, and a goal had sent the crowd into a frenzy.

Rebecca High for ESPN

In Pyongyang, we ate small meals that involved fried mystery meats and some form of eggs (here, a mayo-heavy egg salad). Locally microbrewed beer was served at this state-owned restaurant. Rice lager was ice cold, and our group quickly drained the taps.

As I finished the half marathon (in 2:21:20, a personal best), I grabbed the towel and water thrust at me, wandering outside to join the finishers cheering on the rest of the racers. I spotted some friends spreading their towels on the pavement nearby and I did the same. In the rare, welcome warmth of spring sunshine, we basked beneath the stadium portraits of the leaders and took photos with each other. We had been lounging for only a few moments when a North Korean security guard approached us and started speaking sternly in Korean. Thankfully, one of our guides came to our rescue and told us we would have to move inside the stadium, no doubt because we were being disrespectful in full view of the Dear Leaders' portraits posted up above the stadium's entrance.

We reluctantly headed inside toward a small section of seating that had been reserved for foreigners. The soccer match was over, and there was zero vending inside the stadium -- a stark departure from any sports arena in pretty much any part of the world: no hot dogs, no beer, no pretzels, no nothing. "They've taken all the fun out of sports," I thought ruefully. A few of the runners started begging our guides for beer. At first they firmly rejected the requests, then one of them admitted there was beer outside the stadium, but we were not allowed to leave. After much cajoling and some cash-fueled inducements, a guide disappeared and returned 15 minutes later bearing plastic bags with the most bizarre assortment of bottles and cans in varying degrees of chilled. Local Taedonggang lager, Heineken and Beer Hanoi were a few of the offerings, and we eagerly shared bottles, sympathizing with the thousands of North Korean spectators who had been glued to their seats in a dry stadium for five hours.

Kim Jong Un, of course, never showed at the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon. Despite the frenzied chaos induced by our guides and the great seriousness with which the event is held, it's a rare occasion when he visits. In fact, the few places in Pyongyang he's shown his face commemorate the occasion with enormous photographs and plaques, such as one we saw while touring a youth soccer academy.

And yet the fear -- or hope -- is always there: that the divine grandson of the Grand Marshal will reveal his benevolence to those of great faith, who strive to give their all for the fatherland. In the end, isn't that a variation of something we all feel deeply? To be lauded and rewarded for the races we run, for the deeds we do, for the effort we put into our everyday lives.

Rebecca High is an editor, former television producer and freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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