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Pyongyang Marathon: Americans Race to Run in North Korea

BEIJING — North Korea has frequently run Americans out of the country — but a horde of U.S. nationals are racing in. Literally.

Dozens of Americans are touching down and tying up their laces to compete in the Pyongyang Marathon, brushing off any bad blood between the U.S. and North Korea in search of adventure and cultural enlightenment.

It was the "forbiddenness of the whole place" that drew Jeffrey Donenfeld to sign up for the race, the frequent marathoner told NBC News.

"North Korea makes such headlines and I am excited to see it,” the Antarctic expeditioner said ahead of his trip. “I am looking forward to experiencing the true color of the people."

North Korea has occasionally detained Americans and other foreigners over what it suspects is missionary work or so-called "anti-state" activities. This week, the isolated and reclusive nation said it was expelling an American aid worker for engaging in what it said was a conspiracy against the state.

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The marathon can be run either as a full marathon, half marathon, or as 10K.

Despite the tensions between the U.S. and Pyongyang — exacerbated by North Korea's nuclear program and punitive American sanctions — Colorado's Don Chambliss told NBC News he had signed up for the half-marathon because it “sounded like an awesome adventure” and expected only a warm welcome upon arrival.

“For my son and I doing this together was icing on the cake,” he added. "A trip of a lifetime for both of us."

"I’ve always been fascinated with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” his son Brian chimed in. “When I tell people I’m visiting DPRK, I would say 3/4 think I’m crazy and the other 1/4 are excited for me… but I thought this would be a fun event."

Donenfeld and the Chamblisses are not alone: travel agencies say they've seen a marked increase in foreign runners. There are about three times as many overseas participants registered overall this year compared to 2014, according to North Korea travel specialist and tour guide Simon Cockerell.

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He said the race has added appeal for tourists because there are so few opportunities for foreigners to see Pyongyang by foot. The marathon starts and finishes in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium — and the course itself loops around the city's center.

“Anything that maximizes the interaction, however fleeting it may be, between any North Koreans and foreigners is of a net benefit in the demystifying of either side to the other," said Cockerell, who will be making his 142 trip to North Korea for the marathon. "This is something that works best on sports related trips as the extent of interaction is greater than usual.”

U.S.-based Uri Tours has about 100 foreigners signed up for a marathon trip — and about half are Americans, the company's Chief Executive Andrea Lee said. She added it was "the biggest number so far" the company had registered — but noted that strict guidelines must be observed in order to stay within U.S. laws and not violate sanctions against North Korea.

“The sanctions are ‘targeted sanctions’ that do not ban tourism,” she explained, saying that tour members are instructed not to bring fine liquor, high fashion and other luxuries into North Korea with them.

Image: Group photo of Pyongyang Marathon runners
Group photo at Shanghai airport before flight to Pyongyang. Uri Tours

Whatever the restrictions — and state of international relations, Harvard alum Daniel Martinez is ready to race.

The 24-year-old teacher said he decided to brave training despite an ankle injury because he thought the trip would help him “understand the richness, history and beauty of Korea.”

"My friends and family were not too shocked about my decision to run in Pyongyang,” Martinez told NBC News.

While he admitted that his race-drink of choice — Gatorade — might be harder to find in Pyongyang than at home in Orange County, California, Martinez said he was looking forward to trying a traditional North Korean noodle soup called Raengmyon.

“Having Raengmyon before race day may not be the typical Italian pasta with marinara that runners are used to eating on the eve of a big race, but I personally see it as a Korean spin on an important race-day eve ritual,” Martinez said.