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Berislav Sokač

’60 thousand people welcomed us at the finish in Pyongyang. An unforgettable experience!’



April 9

A night before the race! It is advisable for a marathon runner to have two nights of good sleep prior to the race – in this case from Friday to Saturday.

I left Zagreb on Wednesday, and had a chance to sleep only one night because of the night flight from Zagreb to Shanghai. This rule of two nights of quality rest before the race is there since usually a feeling of uneasiness and tension is present a night prior to a race. And not only that, but jet-lag hit me. I fall asleep around 21:30, and wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning…

I am tossing and turning in my bed, trying to visualize the race route which wasn’t revealed until Saturday evening. This is what I like to do before the race – I visualize the route I will be running. But this time I can’t. I am still tossing and turning. I am trying to sleep, but it is impossible. It’s too hot. I open the window. I am on the 12th floor. The hotel has 34 floors, and all the windows can be opened. It comes to my mind how in the Western world this would be impossible due to safety reasons. Cold air enters the room. It is 5°C outside. And then, around 1:30 A.M., it all starts. I can hear shouting coming from a public address system carried by some kind of a vehicle. This lasts 2 minutes. It sounds horrifying. The city is in the dark. Although during the day political slogans can be heard all the time – coming from public address systems carried by military vehicles, trucks, or those installed on rooftops – such shouting during the night is quite a different experience. There is a total power blackout. No street lights.

Five minutes pass, and the same happens again. Two minutes of political slogans followed by five minutes of silence. And that lasts for two hours.

At first I don’t know what is happening. All sorts of things come to my mind. I wonder if some kind of an attack is taking place. Was there another nuclear testing, and something went wrong so they are informing people to go to shelters? Or maybe they are just warning people whose lights are still on in their apartments to go to sleep because they have to be on the main square standing at attention at 5 o’clock in the morning? Or maybe they are rehearsing for the festival that is to take place at the end of the month? Or, just maybe, the people in North Korea are exposed to political propaganda even while sleeping? Or maybe, it’s just my mind being influenced by everything I read about North Korea during the months prior to the race?

Around 2 o’clock somebody slams the door on our floor. Then, I can hear other doors being opened. I have a feeling that there is an inspection going on, and that any moment a soldier checking whether we are all still at the hotel to barge into my room. By the way, the whole hotel is wired. They listen to all our conversations, and we are not allowed to leave the hotel without a guard.

I cannot sleep because the news I read about North Korea, concerns expressed by my family and friends, and everything I experienced in North Korea so far are creating noise in my mind. My brain is fully awake, and I have to leave for the race just in two hours. The vehicle with the public address system still plays the same slogans in intervals, but after one hour I do not pay attention to that. And nobody knocked on our door. It was just me being paranoid because I feel as though I am under a house-arrest, without a passport, tired and sleepy, and am about to run 42 km in several hours. I close the window so as not to listen to the babble coming from a public address system, and I finally manage to sleep for two hours.

After a really big breakfast – eggs, rice, fish, meat, kimchi (their spicy cabbage) – we are headed to our bus. On the way to the bus we make a short visit to the hotel store. To our big surprise, on the store shelves we find Kraš products – Domaćica, Bajadera, and Napolitanke. Prices are about the same as in Croatia. Maybe 10% higher. We cannot believe that in spite of a very versatile offer of chocolates available in the West, they sell only Croatian products.

The Run Croatia team wears the Croatia red and white checkerboard elastic tie headbands. Soon, we are being recognized by the group we came with and they start cheering: “Croatia! Croatia!” While on the bus, we shout: “Run Croatia!” Afterwards, our guide, Mi Son, takes the microphone and starts cheering: “Run Croatia! Run Croatia!” The bus ride is pretty entertaining. The atmosphere before the race is really good. Although I am tired and sleepy, adrenalin keeps me awake.

We reach the bridge from which we will go to the river bank where the stadium from which 60.000 people will support 1.000 international and 700 Korean competitors is located. A river of people flows towards the stadium. Some people are transported by buses or trucks. They are all wearing the same clothes – grey or olive green.

They are dividing us into groups. We are entering the stadium at 9:10 to join the opening ceremony. We are not allowed to wear sun glasses. We are not allowed to take photos, or record the speech of a representative of the regime. I wonder if the race will start at 9:30. We still have to change because we were not allowed to take part in the ceremony wearing shorts.

9:25. We have 5 minutes to change and return to the track, and I still have to go to the toilet. And there – so many people are waiting to use the toilet before the race. Slowly, chaos prevails, but exactly at 9:30 the starter pistol announces the beginning of the race. The race time is limited to 4 hours. The countdown has begun with the pistol, and I am still at the loo. I know that I can easily run a marathon in 3 hours and 40 minutes, but still, you never know what can happen during the race. And to come to Pyongyang, and not to finish the race is not an option I had in mind.

At 9:34 I arrive to the track planning to cross the measuring time array that is on my left, but no, the guard first makes me run the whole lap of 400 m. 60.000 people are cheering, drums are playing, the whole orchestra… It is really nice – a unique experience! But I am wasting my time, and that bothers me. I cross the measuring array, and turn on my Garmin to measure time. I am the last one. All other competitors have already left. We will run 4 laps around the city. The sun is strong, with an occasional interruption of wind. We are crossing two bridges, and running through two tunnels approximately 300 m long which is enough to cool down a bit. My pace is good. I spot Goran who is running the 10 km race. No music can be heard in the streets. Just children and adults cheering us. The race is quite quiet, but the streets of Pyongyang are filled with a different kind of music – a multi-coloured music of competitors. International competitors wearing lively sportswear create a beautiful picture on the streets of Pyongyang. Several Europeans working in diplomatic circles are very loud. They shout: “GO Croatia!” The rule of this marathon is that no national colours, flags, or any other symbols of countries international runners are coming from are allowed, but we risked with the Croatia red and white checkerboard headbands. We believed that they won’t notice. We were also told that writings on T-shirts should not be larger than 4 centimetres in height, and 30 centimetres in length. We respected that.

After 16 kilometres, at the Arch of Triumph – a copy of Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only, of course, 10 meters higher than the original – I meet Iva and Patrick, who run the half-marathon. We take photos, make a few jokes, and then my race against time stops. I calculate that I have enough time to finish the race in less than 4 hours. Iva and I take photos. We shake hands with beautiful children.

After 1 hour and 46 minutes I finish 21st kilometre. I am calmer and calmer. I have enough time to finish the race. I start communicating more with people. I enjoy the freedom of movement in Pyongyang. Running a marathon in Pyongyang is the only opportunity for a tourist to experience freedom of movement without a guard. I take a banana that I did not expect to be offered with. This is a nice surprise since in the program it was stated that there will be only water stations every 10 kilometres.

I don’t care about time any more. I have reached 40th kilometre, and have 15 more minutes to the finish line. I deliberately decide to be the last to reach the stadium and to let ovations of the public carry me across the finish line. Iva, Goran and our guide are concerned. They expect me much earlier because they saw me running at much faster pace before. I enter the stadium exactly at the right moment. People are on their feet. I raise my arms. 60.000 people carry me to the finish line. I take my camera out and record that moment. The unforgettable experience! One of a kind! Pyongyang, we made it! But we have another day and a half before our flight. We need to continue controlling ourselves, trying not to be too positive because, at such exhilarated moments it is so easy to lose control.


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