Þrímenningar í maraþoni í Norður-Kóreu

birt 28. maí 2018

Þrímenningarnir Davíð Stefán Guðmundsson, Magnús Ragnarsson og Erik Figueras Torras gerðu sér ferð til Norður Kóreu til að hlaupa maraþon fyrir skömmu. Þeir félagar settu saman ferðasögu sem lesa má hér að neðan. Sagan er rituð á ensku en er engu að síður verðug lesning fyrir alla hlaupara, sérstaklega þá ævintýragjarnari.

[The first part of the text below is personalized with Eric''s perspective. Nevertheless, the text has been written by the 3 of us, Magnús, Davíð and Eric]

Davíð Stefán Guðmundsson - Sprettur Sportsclub - 42 ára
Magnús Ragnarsson - Árbæjarskokk- 54 ára
Erik Figueras Torras - Hlaupahópur FH - 50 ára

In the Metro, a newspaper article about Sunday''s marathon.Marathon dayWe were already dizzy since we had lost two full nights before the marathon (trip to China, and whole-night trip China-Pyongyang) and the nights spent in the NK hotel were on a rock-hard bed with a very foul-smelling bathroom. But the main adversity so far had been the food in NK. If you looked at the dish steadily you could almost see things moving. It was always cold dishes, and they tasted always "bad".Therefore, I was eating a lot of the "Costco food" that I took along. Carbo hydrates power bars, powders and you-name-it stuff that I was pushing non-stop into my stomach. Magnús and Davíð in the meanwhile claimed that beer was the only way to load up on carbs.

The night before the marathon I woke up at 1.40 (I can still see the numbers of the watch) with some very weird waves of heat. First very hot, and then I was shivering cold. And this is the way I spent the whole night, having frustrated vomiting attempts (I´ve never been good at it) and diarrhea. And constantly having these weird waves of heat.

Like everything in NK, we had clear instructions from the international travel agency (run by UK staff) about what we could NOT do. And they had been very clear in that if we had any health issues, not to run. You don''t want to end up in the NK "healthcare system. You are not in the Boston marathon".

45.000 North Koreans at the stadium
I didn''t have any breakfast but as soon as everybody else was ready we were taken by bus to the stadium. We are talking of a BIG stadium with 45.000 North Koreans all neatly sitting and clapping and waving as the choreography mandated. It was insane that less than 1.200 runners (only 200 for the full marathon) were leaving and returning a stadium with 45.000 people cheering at us. All smartly dressed. And they didn''t move from their sits for 6 and a half hours!

We stood waiting in the entrance of the stadium hearing the crowds. From a long corridor where they were making us form Korean perfect lines. It is very crowdy, body against body. Small space. People shouting at us in Korean and blowing whistles at us. Difficult to make us obey a the choreography like the locals do. I hear my fellow travelers mention that they feel like Messi before entering a screaming stadium.But I am feeling bad, I can tell that another heat wave is coming while I am squeezed between all these people. I´ve been thinking the whole night and morning that, clearly, I cannot run the marathon, but still some weird force is forcing me to ignore the evidence. And then all these people are looking at me from above. I don''t understand.

They talk to me in Spanish, in English. Magnús comes and says [in Icelandic] "Eric talk to me in Icelandic; tell me your full name". I realize that I am laying on the floor. I just fainted. They are raising my legs. I hear comments like "look how white he is" - "it must be the heart" - "he must be having an epilepsy attack". One of our two NK guides (they always come in pairs to control one another) comes to tell me that I cannot run.

Fainted at the stadiumBut they have opened the portal and the thousand runners start moving. Confusion. They raise me up and I hear an unbelievably loud cheering. But I don''t look up, I don''t see anything. Magnús and Davíð are carrying me. Then we stop on the grass and we stand as the opening ceremony goes. I fall down again, one of the fellow travelers is a medical doctor from Argentina and talks to me in Spanish, asking all sorts of questions that I can´t answer. I am shivering with cold, literally shaking without control, and people are talking again of an epileptic attack. And they all take their coats off and wrap me up with them while lying on the grass with raised legs.The guide has talked to a somber and intimidating official (there is military everywhere) and they tell me that they are bringing stretchers and taking me to the ambulance.Waiting in the tunnel to the stadium, moments before I faint.

Then confusion starts again. The ambience sound has changed and they make us all move towards the starting positions, to take our cloth off and start in a few minutes. Our group hasn''t even warmed up properly for the run! I try to convince everyone around me that I am okay now. I try to stand up and promise them that I am fine. It is clear to everyone that I am not. I am white-pale. Later I learned that I had been laying some 45 seconds out of touch with reality. Crying I beg them to let me start and only run 5k. I promise that I will turn around. And I feel a new heat wave coming. But there´s confusion, many hands around me, I see Magnús and Davíð talking between themselves, also confused and concerned about what to do. They have told me many times that I am not running. And I have told them that I am running.

I don''t know what happened really. I am not a strong person. I may have a strong will, but when it comes to physical stuff I am weak, I am always careful. Rather the quitter type. I am always prudent. But this time something happened that still now I can''t explain.

In the confusion, and afraid to see the portable bed coming towards me, I rip off my warm clothes and I mix myself in the starting line with the rest of the marathon runners. And it is then when I hear the words that I will never forget; I overhear Magnús and Davíð agreeing that they will let me start and Magnús will stay with me if (when) I drop down. Or come back with me at 5k. In perspective I see now that I was utterly egoistic. They gave up whatever hopes they had for their marathon to coach me. But in the middle of the stress and confusion this didn''t process.I came to realize this some hours later.PUM! I''m still not totally aware of what I am doing when we all start moving. But now we are running. Davíð on the right, Magnús on the left. Both very close. Both asking all the time how I feel.

But I guess the movement, the fresh (and polluted) air makes me feel a little better. And there we are running. Since 1:40 in the night I´ve been awake fighting vomit and diarrhea, and here I am running with my escort of body guards. They are deciding the pace. They are asking me all the time if it''s too fast. But the speed isn''t the problem; I could (should) be running much faster. As a matter of fact, they are slowing me down. But they know better, they are seasoned marathon runners and they see on my face what I can´t see.

And off we go..
We cross the 5km turning point and we keep on running. We cross the 10km turning point and we keep on running. We cross the 21km turning point and we keep on running. In a very polluted air (a huge carbon energy power plant right in the city... I wish they used nuclear energy for electricity instead). With the growing kilometers my initial joy starts to disappear. By km10 I start realizing that I am missing things that I had on me: I don''t have my running cap on my head, some pollution comes into my eyes and I realize that I´m not wearing my running sunglasses, etc. It all got lost in the initial confusion.

Davíð, my personal hero.And Davíð and Magnús aren''t slowing me down anymore. My stomach won´t take any water (they only offer water, no Powerade) or any power gel. I didn''t have any breakfast, and any of the "moving-things" food in my stomach went out during the night. So that, by the time we reached 20k, I run out of energy. Flat out. All those people telling that the marathon starts in km32 were wrong; it starts in km18. Or at 1.40am the night before. And I started feeling quite cold. Every now and then the ambulance (a funny looking white old van with a red cross) would drive by and I would look in the other direction.Meanwhile Davíð is cheering us nonstop. Using all sorts of mental tricks to keep us focused and running in the empty windy streets with a gray polluted air. There were people all along the run (suspiciously evenly distributed throughout 21km back and forth), but this was no NY/Berlin marathon. North Koreans don''t smile. They don''t shout. They only waved or softly clapped. No adrenaline from the crowds really.

All the adrenaline came from Davíð. At times I wished I had the energy to hit his face and stop all this positive banter. But it worked. Hell, yes it did. "14km means that we are 1/3 done!" - "Now it''s only one water-stand and we will be halved" - "Now it''s only two water-stands and then we run to the end" - "look at these people walking, we are not like them, we will finish this running" etc.

The last water stand was in km35. I tried to swallow some water, and for the first time I took one of the 6 gels that I was carrying and swallowed only a quarter. Bad decision, the stomach wanted it out right away, either above or below. So, I pressed tight.

Reaching the goal in front of 45.000 peopleI had made the promise that I would run km39 for Björk, 40 and 41 for my daughters and 42 for my coach and friend Friðleifur. When I made the promise, I thought that these kilometers would fly. But they were eternal. Every now and then we stopped since Magnús was having some cramps, and resuming the running was an epic effort each time. But I did announce to my friends the name of the person I was running for at each kilometer. Proudly in my mind, but later my friends claimed that I was barely uttering the words.And then we arrived. Now it is very easy to write about it, but it was an excruciating effort to make it to the stadium.To be avoided! "Eric, you don''t want to get into the NK healthcare system."

Through the Arch of Triumph, we passed the corridor where I fainted first, and as we were entering the stadium I could hear our co-travelers (they had run 5-10k) scream "Look! I can''t believe my eyes, Eric is still running and finishing it!". And we run the last 400m within a 45.000 strong crowd, the happiest 400m of my life. And we 3 finished holding hands and fused in the most memorable hug I´ve ever had with two other men.

We all finished with the same time, at some 4h06m I think, but I couldn''t care less about the time. The one-for-all, all-for-one morning I lived will never be forgotten. I believe that I had a sugar shock / carbo hydrates shock in my system that caused all the problems. Or perhaps it was the moving-things food. Let''s see what the doctor says, but I´m not carboloading ever again.

Now, about North Korea
The best thing of this country is when you leave it. It is a completely surreal place. At entry you need to declare any phones and cameras. We lied regarding GPS (our running watches). Magnús had a little clash in inspections since he was carrying two phones, one still in the original pack. And that was way too suspicious for them. Plus, all publications have to be declared: books, magazines, everything needs an inspection.

This one was quite cool I must admit.Soon it became clear that we were not in a trip. We were in a tour. The two guides (very nice people I must say, but on a mission) would drive us always through the ~3 smartly dressed streets and we would almost never go through alternative roads. We had to ask all the time if we could take pictures. Never of military (which are all over), never of construction sites, and in some cases not in the most innocent locations. We couldn''t make the logic behind the banning.North Koreans don''t smile. Kids do, but somehow they get converted. Males smoke a lot, as we learned in the flight to Pyongyang, where a military looking guy -who was the boss of the crew- went smoking in the non-smoking plane toilets. Just like that.Magnús was irritated by the lighting. At night, everything is dark. We''ve never experienced this darkness before. At night, people walk around with flash lights to make their way in the darkness. And in the indoors, by default floors are in the dark. When illuminated, the bulbs they use produce some sad and gray light that makes everybody''s eyes tired after 5 minutes of being there.Our first impression of the regulated N-Korean establishment came in the Tupolov Jet plane that carried us to N-Korea. When preparing to take of from Shanghai, David wanted to take a picture on board the plane.

This was strictly prohibited and David got a strong reaction from the stewardess. It was clear that we westerners needed to seriously adjust our freedom level before entering the country.

We have never been so intimidated at a Border inspection as we were when entering N-Korea. The outfit and body language of the military staff at border patrol was comparable to nothing we have ever seen in our world travels.The impression you got was that you are guilty until proven otherwise. The items specifically controversial were mobile phones, books, and any other publications with negative relations to the superior leaders or the country. All items, especially mobile phones were screened by not so smiley military personnel. Thank god that we left our computers, books and real mobile phones in Shanghai.We never knew how to pose to show "respect". This time we mimicked.

Everything orgnized to the smallest detail
Our guides where not only taking care of our needs and special requests. Mr. Che and Ms. Li where there to make sure that we acted according to the local rules and didn´t stray from the highly scheduled plan that was set out and pre-approved by the highest authority. This fact became obvious when some people in the group wanted to visit the war museum which was not in our pre-approved schedule. Eventually we got a "no" to that request, but were offered a complementary slow drive-by instead. In another case, part of the group missed the Metro (underground) tour and asked if they could do it later, but the answer was again negative since the guides couldn''t receive permission from the authorities for a second tour in the Metro. Permission to go to the Metro!

And now to the activities. Despite only receiving 5.000 tourist a year (well, actually that number has halved since the US Embargo was established last year), Pyongyang (the capital) is quite well equipped to welcome tourists. Our tour included a trip to the Golden lane Bowling alley, the 2-floor shooting range (where we saw a wall high picture of the fearless leader Kim Jong Il with a semi-automatic pistol in a hand and a smoking cigar in the other), the movies (with no central heating), the revolving top floor restaurant (where our small group of 6 were the only guests for lunch), one of three Italian restaurants (which claims to import all their ingredients straight from Italy but most of us became food poisoned that night), a local book store (with a compelling variety of N-Korean literature about the greatness of the nation and its fearless leaders, past and present) and many other things you might expect as a tourist in other countries.Kims here, Kims there.

"Truman show tourism"
In all these places there was one common denominator - a strange feeling that we were in the "Truman Show" of tourism. In fact, at our hotel we were encouraged not to wander off to any places marked "staff only"; our guides feared that we might meet there some party officials who could get us tangled in fatal situations. You never know how these situations may end.

Our guide and his sister guarding the military school.Another example of this control was when we got the chance to walk around "New Science Street" (which seemed like one of the few streets we were allowed to see). We got to see the big square where all the highly broadcasted military parades take place. We were not allowed to cross the street and walk into the square. Also on the same street we passed what looked like a grocery store, but we got strong communication from the guides not to enter and absolutely to not take any pictures. It was also prohibited for the guides to share a table with us during lunches and dinners. We managed, however, on the last night to get our guides to join us, have some wine and discuss their family life and life´s expectations. Underneath all the formality and strictness we engaged in "normal" dialogues about family status, children and education -a very intriguing conversation which we will never forget.On buildings. It was clear that the N-Koreans are very proud of their architecture and the speed of construction. We saw this on the "New Science Street", an entire city block which they built in only one year! The rationale behind this street was the fast growing academic and science community within N-Korea. This was especially tied to the continuing development of the country´s nuclear capabilities and other science-related developments which are clearly some of the most priced assets of the country.

This construction speed is amazing in any global comparison. But there are two things that struck us relative to their engineering superiority.

Propaganda all over
During the marathon run we got to see the back view of some of the houses on "New Science Street"; some of the top floors weren´t even completed, but they looked impeccable from the front side (where they had been driving us back and forth for the past 2 days). The second thing was that almost every window we saw had a lot of moisture (we are talking of 1-year-old buildings!) which gives "credit" to the "engineering superiority" pushed on us. One could only imagine what the interiors look like now, and then in several years with the continuing moisture.

The omnipresent televisions! This was the most shocking part to most of us. In all public places (and I mean all) there''s always a large TV showing videos about the superiority of the country, military parades, military orchestras, the eternal leader (Kim Ill Song) here, our father leader (Kim Jong Ill) there, our superior leader (Kim Jong Un) opening some new infrastructure in the country, etc.Whether it was in a restaurant having dinner, in the bowling palace, in the shooting camp, in the sauna, in the swimming pool, in the hotel lobby, in the airport, in the bookstore, in the Metro. EVERYWERE! Everywhere there was a TV screaming such military passages about the superiority of NK. It felt all over like in the Apple commercial of 1984.

And then we have of course the Traffic Ladies. They are in most crossings controlling traffic. They move all the time their heads and legs in a very decisive and peculiar manner. And they all are very pretty.