North Korea is a place that both fascinates and dismays (see the photos). This week I also spent a lot of time on planes, finally able to ‘tick off’ the Americas with Marathon 36 in Ecuador, despite an Achilles injury, and ended the week back in Boston, US, with unexpected time to sort out some admin.
Day 92 – Marathon 35, Pyongyang, North Korea
Today was truly like no other – there are so many conflicting emotions about this place, my head can’t handle it. At 5am, race day began, Marathon 35 of the expedition. Last year the temperature was 25°C, and so I was expecting the same, or similar. Is that stupid of me? Well, yes it is. Today, it’s –1°C. This meant an emergency scrounge for warmer clothes – hat, gloves, compression top, leggings. Thanks everyone.
It was Sunday, but wow… The stadium was FULL of North Koreans.
There was an air of anxiousness, more so than usual. At 8.10am we entered the stadium. The sights and sounds walking into it for the opening ceremony were insane – choreographed clapping, with conductors. Each section of the stadium had silver clapperboards making amazing tunes – loud, scary, brilliant, mesmerising.
In the tunnel, waiting for our moment to enter, we all looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Here goes. Before we could do so, though, we were told to line up in straight, orderly lines of eight. Not being Korean, we were all pretty rubbish at this, and far too excited. When our lines finally formed, we were moved into the stadium like lemmings, to the roar of 40,000 North Koreans clapping and cheering. This was crazy.
The opening ceremony was concluded after a few words from the Sports Minister, and we all huddled together with our little red noses, trying to keep warm. The stadium was a dark, grey landscape of black, blue, or even blacker jackets from the stands. I still can’t fully comprehend this place. The race was grim, if I’m honest – not for any reason other than it was bitterly cold and bleak. The views of the city, though! Words aren’t enough! It even snowed in the last hour of the race. I hobbled my way through, having pulled my Achilles at mile 16.
I have my fingers crossed this is no serious damage. Time will tell on my next run in two days time in Ecuador. Read more about North Korea tomorrow…
Day 93 – Let’s talk North Korea
Today the marathoners and I had one full day to wander around the city of Pyongyang. When I say wander, I mean be chaperoned, and very closely. Here’s my attempt to sum up what I saw, and felt, moving around the city.
The sense of vastness coupled with repression is abundantly clear. This nation has the biggest military personnel in the world, with nearly 10 million serving. Although the streets weren’t littered with soldiers, I could sense their presence. Pyongyang is a puppet toy town. I don’t believe for a minute that people are shipped in to put on a show for us, but the city is so sparse. Supposedly 25 million people live here, but where are they?
As we were whizzing round on our busy jam-packed day, I felt like I was walking through a model village. No litter, AT ALL, no smiles, and their recent history of severe malnutrition is still pretty easy to see. Food, housing, work and basically life controlled by the state. I urge everyone and anyone (maybe not Trump) to visit and to see for yourself.
The city has scatterings of beautiful, pastel-coloured buildings. This almost feels like an attempt at making the city smile. Everything is so orderly, neat, tidy and regimented. If it weren’t such a terribly tragic situation, it would be remarkable. I came away thinking that getting to know the real North Korea was impossible. No one would dare open their mouth to speak to me and risk their life, job or family. On reflection, that is exactly what I felt the real North Korea to be – sad, fearful and in the dark.
We visited a school and we just wanted to play them an episode of ‘Friends’ or ‘The Fresh Prince’. I still don’t know how much they don’t know – if that makes sense.
Everything is grey, in every sense of the word. We (in the West) are so lucky – add in wealth, health, being able to travel anywhere, having love, and hopes and dreams. Apparently 90% of the world’s population never leaves their own country. Travel, freedom and everything that comes with it needs to be celebrated more.
PS: I had a little dance with the locals, too, an anniversary gathering of some sort.
Day 94 – North Korea to Beijing, China, and my next 35 hours on a plane
I arrived back at Beijing at 9.50 this morning, after an early flight from Pyongyang on Air Koryo. Saying goodbye to new friends is once again tough. Thanks guys.
Apart from the long faff at the airport, I spent the afternoon with Adrian, either at the Air Koryo office or at his place. Generally the day was spent putting the world to rights or chatting with Adrian and co about life, the world, North Korea and future plans. You know the kind of day, when everyone has loads of things to do, but the best way to spend our time was to chat, sat in the sun in the alleyway by the office. I think in a strange and far too deep way, that this it what makes us human. Talking about nothing, but yet no time was wasted. It’s rare for me, actually – I’m usually rushing around or have some agenda to stick to.
On the walk back from the office to Adrian’s house I got a real, simple taste of Beijing. As we made our way along the streets there were hundreds of bikes, all littered along the road, pavement and more or less in every possible space. They looked like they had all fallen ill due to some terrible biological attack. It wasn’t just a few bikes knocked over – as the song goes, there are bloody loads of bikes in Beijing, but this was silly. I should have taken a photo. Darn.
I’m on my way to Ecuador via a multi-stop layover in New York and Colombia. I’ll arrive at 4pm tomorrow after close to 25,000 miles flying. I’m writing this at 35,000 feet as tonight becomes tomorrow. Now that I’m losing 12 hours going the other way around the world, I’m all in a haze. A concoction of tiredness, hunger, jet lag and that weird buzzy noise you get on planes. Not really a noise, just the feeling of travelling at 600mph 35km above the earth.
Tomorrow’s post will pick up from where I left off. More flying. I’ll eventually get to Quito, though, and time to tick off my last country in the Americas.
Day 95 – In transit, final leg of the 25,000-mile round-trip to Quito, Ecuador
Following on from yesterday’s post, I’m in another airport. Wow, this journey is long. My decision to fit in North Korea this year was certainly right, but it’s a long way. You never know what will happen and I would hate for Donald Trump to be the reason I can’t get to every country in the world… I’m very glad it’s been a big tick in the box, but let’s look at what my little detour meant.
I left Peru six days ago having one country remaining in South America. I couldn’t quite fit in Quito in time, so it meant a 25,000-mile round-trip in just four days. Here’s how it went:
Flight 1 – Lima, Peru to Toronto, Canada
Flight 2 – Toronto, Canada to Beijing, China
Flight 3 – Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Flight 4 – Pyongyang, North Korea to Beijing, China
Flight 5 – Beijing, China to New York, US
Flight 6 – New York, US to Bogotá, Colombia
Flight 7 – Bogotá, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador
Quito is where I am now. It’s 7pm and I’ve just arrived at this very luxurious hotel, Casa Gangotena. Every now and then I get bumped up to the 5 star pile thanks to the brilliance of my team and the huge generosity of various hotels.
In just under 11 hours time I’ll be waking up, completely jet lagged, with no idea where I’ll run, but ready to complete my last run in South America, and, indeed, the Americas in total. My Achilles is sore and I’ll be running at altitude. Wish me luck. For some reason I was feeling extra tired and in a pretty glum mood. No idea why, but I managed to lift my mood when I realised that I could have a bath, my first of the trip.
It felt so good. I fell asleep almost instantly and as usual when you sleep, you kinda hit the reset button, so I woke up feeling refreshed. It was 11pm, so I was still tired, but hey, I had a bath. Marathon 36 tomorrow. Oh, and I have two interviews via phone at stupid o’clock in the morning.
Day 96 – Quito, Ecuador, Marathon 36
Sore, tired and even more sore. Waking up this morning was tough, especially because I couldn’t sleep due to jet lag. I was in a mental battle before I even slipped on the trainers – and my Achilles was still not right. Leaving the warmth of my bed and out into another unknown playground was still exciting, but with a hint of anxiety for my foot. My trainers are also on their last legs, so let’s just say it got painful. I have about 50 miles left before they’re due to retire and I felt it in the soles of my feet. This, coupled with my Achilles feeling more and more sore every step – it really wasn’t very enjoyable. It was cold when I left the hotel so I wore long sleeves over a vest. At mile 14 it got hot, really hot. I didn’t actually feel it, but I now have some rosy red shoulders. Probably going to be painful in the morning.
This place is beautiful, and being so close to the Equator I was tempted to try and run along it as close as possible. After a while I abandoned that idea because my mind was so tired – yawning while running is getting more and more common. I love running, which is pretty obvious, I guess, but sometimes when it hurts, I love it even more. The accomplishment of getting through it when it’s hard is so much better than when I feel fresh…
I’m currently sat in the bath again. The novelty of having a lovely, big, 5 star bath is brilliant – legs soaking while I edit some photos on the iPad.
I’ve just got back from the Equator line. It’s about 6pm now, and my foot made it through and was stable enough to walk along the Equator for a while. Also, you’ll notice my new, very bright blue, lounge pants. I should say travel pants really. Got them in Peru and now I live in them. Don’t laugh.
So that was Marathon 36. I’m getting excited for Africa now, though I am a bit scared. It will feel very different. A whole new chapter, that’s for sure. Please keep up the support. If you can afford to donate, please do. I have many miles to run, but even more money to raise.
Day 97 – Quito, Ecuador to Boston, US, via Panama City
I touched down in Boston, US at 7pm. Another long day of flying, but I’m excited to be here.
Such a great surprise to bump into Jaun at the airport on the Panama layover. Jaun and I ran together in El Salvador months ago. I was happily strolling along in the airport towards my gate when I heard my name being called. I ignored it twice because it obviously wasn’t for me, right? Wrong. Jaun had spotted me. To our surprise we were both catching the same flight. He was running the Boston Marathon too. This has actually happened a few times since the beginning of the journey. I feel like I have a bunch of new friends all over the world now. I really will do by the time I finish. I’m so lucky – these folk are awesome.
Apart from raising money for Prostate Cancer UK, this trip is about celebrating being out of your comfort zone. Which is certainly how I’ve spent most of the last 97 days, and something I’m very passionate about. This is my message to all the young people and children I speak to in schools and youth centres around the world. If you have connections to schools or similar and want me to speak after I finish the trip, please get in touch.
My general message is about being prepared to push ourselves in the direction of the unknown. This includes being prepared to fail or to mess things up, and celebrating the fact we had the courage to try in the first place. I believe being out of our so-called ‘comfort zone’ is what makes us stronger and generally happier and better people. As long as we learn from our failings, it’s sometimes even better than things going right all the time. I could continue my little rant for quite some time on this subject, but I won’t. Get in touch if you want me to come along and speak somewhere. I really enjoy it.
Day 98 – Boston, US, first of three days
Lemon meringue pie, insanely tasty soup, and a hot chocolate so good I had three.
Today I had a long sleep to try and adjust my body to UK time, ready for when I get back to London. I’ll be there in four days’ time, ahead of the London Marathon on 22 April, before jetting off again to start my five-months Africa phase, beginning in Morocco.
After yesterday’s post about failing and picking yourself up, this brings me on to the frustrating news that although I’ve just arrived in Boston, I won’t actually be able to run the Boston Marathon this year. My team and I attempted for some time to fix my little error. I had a suitable qualifying time for the race, but stupidly missed the deadline to register it. What with the race being particularly strict due to safety and security reasons, changing names of entries or anything like that was just not possible. My team and I spent about three months rallying around various charity organisations to beg and plead for a place. We succeeded twice, actually – we were agreed places on two occasions, only to be let down for various reasons. Although frustrating, I give credit to the Boston Marathon organisers for keeping safety at the top of their list and for sticking to it. Not to worry, I’ll squeeze Boston in next year so I can still complete all the World Majors.
After lots of admin and wading through thousands of emails this morning I took the Amtrak train and the Greyhound bus service to neighbouring states. Rhode Island and Connecticut, to be precise. It was a cold, blustery day, but sitting on trains and buses was a good way to get around while tapping away at the laptop to try and get things done. So many bits and pieces have fallen by the wayside due to the hectic nature of the trip, I’m hoping these few days will make a dent. I found a cafe called Flour Bakery. It’s blooming great! I think it’s going to be my breakfast spot every morning.
British Endurance Athlete | Motivational Speaker | Adventurer
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