Lowell Thompson decided to run his first distance race last month at age 78.
Fifty thousand people filled a stadium to cheer him on.
That somewhat surreal experience was because Thompson’s first 10K run took place in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
Thompson, of New Brighton, was one of the foreign amateur runners who went to the secretive, isolated country to take part in the Pyongyang marathon, half-marathon and 10K on April 9.
The idea to run the race was suggested by his son-in-law, a consultant who lives in Hong Kong and was planning to run at the event with some friends.
Thompson is an accomplished masters athlete. He began competing as a track sprinter at age 60, holds some state records and a national title as a senior racer and will be inducted to the Minnesota Senior Sports Association Hall of Fame this month.
But he’s not a distance runner. As a sprinter, he has never raced more than 200 meters at a time before.
But the former St. Olaf College baseball and basketball player thought the 10K race would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the enigmatic country.
“I wanted to go to North Korea as kind of an adventure,” he said.
The race started and ended with laps in Kim Il-sung Stadium being cheered on by 50,000 North Koreans in the stands.
“It’s pretty exciting, all those cheering people,” Thompson said. “I don’t know if they were told to be there.”
The runners ran through the streets of Pyongyang, high-fiving kids along the course who shouted “Hi! Hi!” to the foreign runners.
Thompson finished the 6.2 miles in 1:18:04 in new distance running shoes that he bought just for the event. He believes he was the only runner over 60 among the 433 who finished the 10K race.
“It was easier than I thought it would be,” he said.
Then Thompson spent five days on guided tours of the countryside. He saw an agricultural country using 19th-century farming technology: crops being planted by hand, a man behind a plow being pulled by a cow.
“Just horribly antiquated,” he said.
With North Korean guides and interpreters, the tour group visited the North Korean side of the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone dividing the country from South Korea. They saw restaurants, public monuments, a circus, a school and museums, including one that contained gifts from foreign dignitaries to the country, including an airplane from Joseph Stalin and a basketball from Dennis Rodman.
Thompson said his race entry fee was $60 and the tour cost less than $1,000, including transportation to and from Beijing.
They were forbidden to take pictures in some places and told not to photograph any soldiers, Thompson said.
Despite heightened tensions between the U.S. and the authoritarian North Korean regime, the lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea and occasional detentions of U.S. citizens, Thompson wasn’t worried.
“I never felt threatened, intimidated or afraid at all,” he said. “I just didn’t think they’d take a 78-year-old.”
But he was mindful of the fate of an Ohio college student who was tried and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being accused of trying to take a propaganda poster while on a tour in North Korea last year.
“I didn’t take a bar of soap from the hotel,” Thompson said.
He was stuck by how the North Koreans all seemed to dress in dark clothing. The contrast became apparent when the tour bus crossed the bridge over the Yalu River to China on the way back to Beijing and home.
China was full of cars, restaurants, shops, blazing neon lights and a kaleidoscope of colors.
“It was like going from night to day,” Thompson said. “It’s like you’re in a free country.”