Marathon in North Korea beckons La Jolla runner

70-year-old La Jollan Gloria McCoy finished first in her division (women ages 70-90, half marathon) at the Pyongyang Marathon, April 10 in North Korea. “I was only person in my division, so I was first and only,” she laughed during a phone interview with the La Jolla Light.

But that was only the first of a series of astonishing events she said she witnessed during her special trip.

Americans weren’t allowed to enter North Korea until 2010, when the Asian country lifted the restriction. However, the State Department “strongly urges” U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to North Korea due to the serious risk of long-term detention. On its website, 1.usa.gov/1sdvTYe, the federal agency says that 10 citizens have been arrested in the country in the past few years.

Despite the warning, McCoy traveled to North Korea to run its capital’s half marathon. For four days, she only spoke to guides or other travelers. Exiting the hotel where they were staying was forbidden without a guide. Their visits and stops were limited and timed to the second.

“We were very guarded,” McCoy said. “We had two North Korean guides for our group of 15, and we were always with a guide.”

She said the group visited all the buildings any tourist would want to see in a new country — a library, a science center, a museum — and each contained large pictures of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, father and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of the Democratic Republic of the People of Korea. What differenciated these from other public buildings around the world is that travelers are strongly encouraged to pay their respects to the leadership.

“As we walked in, our guides told us that our group was to stop and bow to the leaders,” McCoy said.

She explained that she first heard of the trip opportunity from a friend at the Travelers Century Club, an organization that brings together people who have visited 100 countries or more. As an experienced traveler and a staunch runner (she finished third in her division of the La Jolla Half Marathon), McCoy decided to register through the Koryo Group and visit the country only 100 Americans vacation in every year.

For the first time, during her visit, travelers were allowed to enter North Korea with recording devices. “They allowed cameras and GoPros, but no journalistic-type cameras and no systems with GPS,” McCoy clarified.

She said she only saw the streets of Pyongyang from the shuttle that showed them around the city. She saw no restaurants, no stores. The only places to dine were inside the hotel.

“The streets were new streets; absolutely spotless with no there debris of any kind … no graffiti ... and everything was clean. There aren’t many cars there, people get around in buses and in a beautiful new subway system,” McCoy reported.

The big race consisted of a 6.2 miles-long loop around the city center. The 10K-ers run it once, half marathoners twice, and marathon runners four times. The event’s kickoff at the May Day Stadium (the largest in the world with a capacity for 150,000 people) was attended by 90,000 North Koreans, McCoy calculated, who cheered on the 1,800 international runners. “All the runners went to the center of the field and the applause from the crown was amazing,” she said.

Along the circuit, a uniformed guard was stationed at every 20 yards, McCoy said. “People were doing high-fives, there were people along the entire route of the marathon. They were very supportive and cheering,” McCoy said.

The marathon participants were instructed not to take any pictures of a section that was under construction. “They didn’t want any pictures of any place that wasn’t perfect,” she said.

Would McCoy recommend fellow La Jollans visit North Korea?

“Not really,” she sighed. “Because you are just so guarded and guided that you really don’t have an opportunity to meet the people to understand their culture. There is a difference between a tourist and a traveler … I did not see their everyday life, I did not have that kind of an opportunity in North Korea.”

North Korea tours, including the Pyongyang Marathon are organized by koryogroup.com

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