A roadside field guide to places and things along the Pyongyang Marathon course. Today we look at the stadium at the start (and finish) of the race.
Race distance: 0.0 km
On race day, your first impression of the stadium is likely to be one of chaos. Tour buses crowded in a parking lot, groups of runners in their warm-ups stretching and waiting anxiously to enter the stadium on a cold April morning, thousands of locals streaming into the stadium. Just remember these grounds have seen much greater chaos. During the Korean War, American bombers levelled the stadium’s predecessor, once home to the Pyongyang Football Club, the arch-rival of its counterpart in Seoul, as is usually the case between the two cities.
During the First Sino-Japanese War of the late 19th century, the Japanese trapped and destroyed a Chinese army in the Peony Hills above, the commander fighting to the death with his own mother by his side. During the Imjin War of the late 16th century, the roles were reversed. Here a joint Chinese-Korean force routing a Japanese garrison from the invading armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. That should put the morning scrum forming in the stadium’s large southwest gate into context. Bear with it; the chaos will soon lend itself to order inside the stadium where 50,000 spectators await. This is not your normal marathon send off.
The stadium has a long history of mass events. It was here that North Korea’s Arirang Mass Games were born, before moving to the larger May Day Stadium. Here where the art of morphing backdrops of tens-of-thousands of people holding coloured boards was perfected. The stadium once entertained Romanian Nicolae Ceaușescu, forming scenes of socialist industry and agriculture, spelling out slogans not only in their native Korean, but also the Romance language of the Balkans. See the video above from 02:49. In a way, the mass games here may have been more impressive than their larger May Day counterpart. A full-house is always more exciting than one half-filled. And a full-house is what you will get on April 8.
Today, race day, the organisation is much more relaxed. The spectators are leisurely organised by work unit, school, or neighborhoods to attend to cheer on the start and finish of the race. You can see sections of spectators are of similar age – students with students, workers with workers, housewives with housewives. Nevertheless, they are here to be entertained, not to do the entertaining. As you are out running and exerting yourself, they will be watching a football match or two. In years past, there has also been aerial parachute displays and model aeroplanes show. There is usually a brass band playing somewhere. And you too, of course, are part of the entertainment. That motley crew of foreigners, some who strike strange poses, dance, or take selfies in front of normal spectators no doubt make for a different than any other given Sunday.
Then at a certain time, somewhere between 10-15 minutes before the professionals start the race, the mass of runners will be called into the stadium, cheered on by the 50,000. Guided, nay, herded, onto the field and told to stand in formation. Adrenaline now kicking in, and unaccustomed to forming strict lines and rows, the runners will mill about in rough formation (remember the barbarian hoards in the first scene of ‘Gladiator’?) as a formal speech is given by government official from the Sports Ministry as other local government and military dignitaries look on. Despite witnessing this political speech, a regular part of life in the DPRK rarely seen by travellers, you will probably be thinking more about your impending run.
Once the speech is over, the marathon hoard will migrate towards the track. Here you are supposed to group up by running class with those in the full marathon at the leader, those doing the half behind them, and so on. There will be guides who try to get you into the right place based on your bib number and really before you know it, there is the opening shot and your off. The crowd goes wild!
The Run Down
· The Pyongyang Marathon starts and ends in a stadium filled with 50,000 spectators.
· That stadium is the birthplace of the North Korean mass games.
· Korean spectators are organised by work units, schools, or neighborhoods.
· This is your best chance to see a formal speech by a government official, a common event in the DPRK, but rarely seen by foreigners.
In our next post, we'll look at the Arch of Triumph just outside the gates of Kim Il Sung Stadium. For more historic photos of Kim Il Sung Stadium, see our 'Turn Back the Clock Thursday' post from January 19, 2017.
'A Pyongyang Marathon Runner’s Guide’ is a roadside field guide to places and things along the Pyongyang Marathon course brought to you by the Koryo Tours North Korea Travel Guide.
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