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."

Rich­ard Chin • 612-673-1775