I sat down with Will over lunch to talk about running a half marathon against hundreds of school children, city landscapes free of ads and why he probably can't ever go back to Pyongyang.
The Pyongyang Warm-up
SmSh: So how did this all happen?
Will: Well I'm part of a circle of runners now, and one of them posted on Facebook about a race coming up in North Korea, and this year I've been actively looking for weird stuff to get up to, cool experiences. Once I got a mate who was up for going, we did it. It's not cheap. It was 950 Euros for three nights, basically two days, all inclusive from Beijing.
SmSh: Including the visa?
Will: Yeah. Everything. And it's kind of hard to spend money there, because there's nothing to do. You're not allowed to change money, so you're spending RMB while you're there.
SmSh: What can you buy there?
Will: Badges. I got some badges. The colleagues like those. You can buy booze and stuff in the hotel. They have a foreigner shop, which is like a North Korean version of CityShop. Sells weird imported products. They even have a microbrewery, and you could get cocktails and stuff.
SmSh: A microbrewery???
Will: I guess 'cause they don't have any decent beer there. Last time I went they were serving imported Argentinean beer, and this time they had a microbrewery. But I had the worst margarita I've ever bought. Horrific.
SmSh: What's the flight there like?
Will: Koryo, I think. Pretty budget. It's like an old Russian plane, and you depart from Beijing Terminal 2 — the worst one. It was actually better than I expected. The food was rubbish; this awful bean burger, like bean mixed with some kind of gristle. I was surprised it was a burger, I was expecting Korean food. But they had some cool Korean cider.
SmSh: So the whole thing was a group?
Will: Yeah everything is booked through an agency. They gave us some brief instructions and sorted out our visa for us, but they didn't give any proper briefing until we arrived in Pyongyang. The deal with photos wasn't made clear until we met our Korean tour guides. So we got on the plane and tried to take photos but the stewards were like, "No, you can't." But they're trying in vain because everyone has probably three photographic devices on them.
As soon as you land you're escorted onto a bus, and from then on you're with those people. I was with a group of thirteen — mainly expats living in China — and four or five Chinese guys and girls [who are] into running. Apart from them it was people from France, Holland, Hong Kong…
SmSh: Were any of them the runners from the professional race?
Will: No. They must have flown in earlier. But we flew out with them. One of the guys came in third, a Kenyan guy, he said he's done that race nine times as a professional.
SmSh: So it's been open to foreign professionals for a while, but this is the first year it's been open to foreign amateurs?
Will: Yeah, there didn't seem to be any professional international women, but for males full-marathon, I guess about twenty men took part, from all over — a Ukranian guy took third, an African guy got second, and a North Korean won it. Fast times — like two hours ten minutes, two hours eleven minutes.
SmSh: Did you meet any local officials there? Any toasts/banquets?
Will: No, you're really just hanging out with other foreigners. The only time you met the officials was at the race. A lot of stewards there. A lot of military at the race as well.
SmSh: With guns?
Will: Yeah, but you're not allowed to take any pictures of military or police.
SmSh: Are there any massage parlors or anything?
Will: No, there's no bars or anything, aside from the hotel lobby. And there's maybe ten foreigners on the same trip as you who are there. There's no opportunity to deviate from what they lay out for you, which will consist of going to monuments, museums, a school, have dinner and then back to the hotel and you're locked in.
SmSh: If you just wandered out by yourself, that wouldn't be cool?
Will: They have guards outside, so I think that'd be very difficult, but I've heard some people have done it. When I was at the race, I bumped into the British embassy staff. Apparently the UK's got four guys who work there, and they're allowed to walk around Pyongyang, so within Pyongyang you can travel pretty freely, but most places won't serve you – you can go to a restaurant but they won't give you any food. But you can't leave the city; that's illegal unless you're accompanied.
SmSh: It must get crazy outside the city.
Will: I saw a bit of it before when I was there in 2010. In Pyongyang, the poverty isn't so clear. You see some glimmers of it but it's not that obvious — it seems austere rather than poor. But when you go outside you start to realize how poor the situation is.
I remember going to this memorial to one of the Kims, kind of dug into the mountain, and they have this gallery of presents given by other countries. It's obviously from really weird countries as well, like Zimbabwe. There's loads of presents from Robert Mugabe. And there you can see some domestic tourists or pilgrims, and they're a) abnormally short, and b) their heads are really big, they're obviously malnourished. It's quite sad actually.
The Great Hermit Kingdom Race
SmSh: So how about the day of the race, what was that like?
Will: Surreal. The organization was a bit nonsense. They didn't really have a clue how to deal with, like, 250 amateurs that had flown in. They're probably used to managing, like, 10-20 people. They started giving these rules and stipulations about your kit [uniform]. They've got quite strict rules about logos and flags. They specifically said no US flags at first, but when we landed they said no insignia from your country. So we came down in the morning and they inspected all our kit, and various people had to go up and change. One dude ended up running in his jeans.
SmSh: And there was no way that you could buy new kit there?
Will: You could, actually. In that shop I mentioned, they had some clothes. We weren't allowed to wear t-shirts or shorts for the ceremony in the beginning. My mate didn't have a top, and had to buy a mediocre Adidas sweatshirt. It was like 3000rmb. It was quite shabby, the kind of thing you'd pick up in the fake market for, like, 50rmb. Everything in that shop was ridiculously overpriced. Really odd as well, they had tinned Russian sardines that were kept in the fridge. All the tinned products were kept in the fridge. Bizarre.
SmSh: So on the morning of the race…
Will: So we kinda marched into the stadium in our attempt at formal sportswear. They called it "sports suits". And we bowed to the posters of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. So then we walk out and get changed into race gear again and get started. It was kind of a national sports day, so they had this stadium filled with 70,000 people and they could watch various things. So there's like, martial arts, the run and a football game. So as the race starts, the football game was about to kick off, they fired the gun to start the race, and one of the guys booted the ball and it hit a professional runner in the face. They had to stop the race, restart. Quite funny.
But then once the race starts, you're just running outside in the streets of Pyongyang. The race itself… there were sparse crowds but there were people there. Same as normal; waving at you, cheering...
SmSh: Were spectators offering you water and stuff?
Will: Well, they had water stops, but no, people weren't offering water. You don't see any products there or people consuming products the way we do. There's no convenience stores. I don't even know where you'd buy a bottle of water. There's no brands. Even a shop doesn't have a brand. All the noodle shops have the same logo, a little bowl of noodles. But it's very subtle.
You realize, in the absence of brands, [that] brands are what provides a lot of color to cities today. You realize that when you go there. Without the brands, the only kind of color is the political propaganda, posters and stuff...
SmSh: And you beat all those schoolkids?
Will: They were crazy, those kids. They were running so hard...I've never seen people run like that. They're panting and won't let you overtake them. Like, insistent that you're not gonna get past them. They're also tiny. It's like running amongst a horde of people that are waist high, and you can see people tripping up. They're like my waist height.
And they wore this ridiculously dated kit. Obviously no brands. It's like someone found some old kit from the 80s, and it looked like it hadn't been worn since the 80s. Pretty shabby.
I think most of the kids were running 10km. So they kinda dropped out halfway.
SmSh: That's a long way to run for a kid.
Will: Yeah, I don't think it would be legal in England. Some of them looked really young and were doing at least a half, if not the full [marathon]. That definitely would be illegal.
SmSh: So there were 1,000 people in this race?
Will: Some were professionals - probably like 20 foreigners plus some North Korean runners. They were good — the times were like 2:10:00, 2:11:00. Boston was won yesterday in 2:08:00 or something. It's top-tier runners, but it's the same day as the London marathon, so I guess if you're really good you'd have gone to London.
SmSh: So you were running at the same time as the pros?
Will: Yeah normally in a major race they have gates and everyone is positioned accorded to their estimated time. Here was just like a horde of people — Westerners, Koreans, professionals, amateurs and kids — just like jostling around on this start line.
SmSh: So you were the first amateur that finished?
Will: Yeah, so they have the race tape and stuff. You run into a running track with a football pitch in the middle, football game still going on, and there's, like, 70,000 people cheering. And the guy who finished second was quite close behind me, so I was just totally concentrating on the run. You do, like, a 400 meter lap and then burst through the winning tape. If you've seen Chariots of Fire, it's like that kind of thing.
SmSh: And there were, like, 70,000 people?
Will: Yeah. That would be the biggest stadium in England. I think the Olympic Stadium is the same size as that. Totally full. It's crazy. It's a professional race; as soon as you finish there's girls giving you towels…it's really surreal.
SmSh: So you win the race, you get these medals, then what happens?
Will: It's kind of odd because normally they'd give you some refreshments or something, because obviously you've just been running, but they didn't give us anything. So we just sat around. This is when the organization just totally fell through. They obviously just didn't really think about what to do.
So I just had to wait from 10.30am when I finished until 3.30pm to eat. It was kind of a hot day, and when we were in the medal ceremony, one of the guys who ran the 10k just keeled straight over, face first. Fainted. And they sent this golf buggy over, like what they use in football for injured players, took him away, then brought him back like one minute later. He still couldn't walk, they just put a steward's hat on him and then put him onto the podium, just like propping him up under their arms, and he's still half-fainted just so they could get the ceremony done and we could all get out.
SmSh: No food after the race for five hours?!
Will: Yeah. I was stiff for like four-five days after that. And the food they do serve is pretty rank most of the time. I like Korean food in general, but this is a really underwhelming selection of cold dishes and really gristly meat. The hotel food was awful.
Return To China And How The Media Really Works
SmSh: So when you headed back, did you have any idea this was going to be as big of a story as it was?
Will: No. At the time, it was like "oh wow, this is a crazy experience...I can't wait to tell my friends." I had some cool pictures of me being in a stadium with 70,000 people. I put those on Facebook last Wednesday, and I've got a friend who works at the BBC who said "this is an interesting story, we'd like to write something about it."
She ran a story on Thursday morning our time, which was mainly like "local boy done good" — a funny story about a guy from Stafford winning a half marathon in North Korea. And then my friend sent me a link on Thursday evening to a Daily Mail story, and I was like, "What the fuck! I had nothing to do with this!"
And the story had morphed into being about my hair, and "I had to get my hair cut to run in North Korea," or something like that.
There was another story that same week. In a barber shop in London, someone had put a poster of Kim Jung Un with his hair and used that as promotional material, which the North Korean embassy had objected to. So there was this buzz already about his hair. And the picture that the BBC used, my hair resembled Kim Jung Un's [laughs]. I was joking with my tour guides in Korea that it was a bit similar, but I didn't expect it to be a story in British tabloids.
So the Daily Mail picked it up and ran with that story, then The Mirror contacted me, and iTV, the biggest independent TV channel in the UK, and apparently I was on SkySports news, and Telegraph, and then The Independent contacted me and I ended up doing a 1,000 word article in my own words…a few radio shows, I've got an interview on the BBC today.
But I think the biggest stories were really about my hair, and the fact that it resembled Kim Jong-un's, and the notion that I got it cut for the race. When you start reading comments about yourself under these stories…that's a bad habit.
SmSh: Yeah you can't listen to what people on the Internet say, man.
Will: The first time I read it, it really pissed me off but after a few hours I could laugh at it.
SmSh: Yeah someone said "Hair-do – more like hair don't!" That's classic.
Will: Yeah there seems to be two lines of criticism. One is like, hipster hate. And the second trench is dubiously ethical tourism, which I think has kinda got some truth to it. I can see that argument. The hipster hate just seems a bit more personal.
SmSh: Yeah how do you respond to the bit about unethical tourism? You're spending almost 1000 Euros, and most of that is probably going into their economy.
Will: I've thought about this a lot. From my perspective, I think it's quite positive for international engagement. I mean, you don't want to condone a regime, so, for example, for an official figure to go and do that, that would be a condonation that I wouldn't think is valid. But for the wider public to become more engaged with that country, I think that's a positive thing. Ultimately, at the end of the day, they saw us running just the same as their runners. We're competing, waving, smiling, interacting — I think that's only a positive thing really.
And the money, it's not that much. You're not gonna do that much with that. Given the scale of the money, I think the international engagement is probably a more positive thing. But I gotta be honest, my main consideration was like, "this is gonna be a cool trip," that was the main priority for me.
SmSh: Do you think you'll go back?
Will: No. I don't know if I could go back. I was thinking this…You know, they've got rules "no journalists allowed," and now officially I've got an article under my byline in the Indy, so I guess they probably wouldn't let me back. And it's not positive things being said about their country and associated with it.
SmSh: Yeah maybe you don't wanna go back..
Will: Yeah, it'd be risky, cause you probably wouldn't know until you landed there, and then god knows what happens then. Besides, I've been there twice and I don't know what you'd expect to gain from a third time. I don't know how you can top that, really.