PYONGYANG, North Korea, May 28 (UPI) -- For Stephen Forman, North Korea's Mangyongdae Prize Marathon was the best course he had run in his years as an amateur athlete.
"The course itself was flat, the weather was great. As a runner I thought it was fantastic, I absolutely loved it," said Forman in a recent interview with UPI.
Forman, an Australian national residing in New York, was one of more than 600 foreign runners who took part in the annual marathon in Pyongyang – an event that was almost canceled over North Korea's fear that foreign participants would bring in the Ebola epidemic.
The ban was lifted in early March, and runners from more than 30 countries turned out for the event, which was opened to amateur runners for the second year on April 12.
Forman and longtime friend Gary Thompson said they would go again, if given the chance. The country may be known more for human rights allegations and nuclear weapons development. But the runners said friendly people and an immaculately clean capital were the more prominent highlights of their trip.
Thompson, a British-American finance professional from New York, said he went to find out about North Korea for himself.
"For me it was...the chance to go to a country, where you read a lot about it in the press, from the Western viewpoint, because making up your own mind is key," Thompson said in a phone interview with UPI.
"[Stephen and I] joked that in order to satisfy [our] curiosity, we had to run a marathon."
After taking part in the 26.2-mile race and spending four days on a group tour of North Korea, Forman and Thompson said the negative press about North Korea overshadows other aspects of the reclusive country.
"It's incredibly safe," Thompson said. You could have left your wallet on the table and it would still be there -- probably because of the consequences."
The country's strict security measures have been known to deter petty crime.
The people, too, defied any negative expectations. Far from being gloomy, they welcomed the runners during their short stay, treating them with extreme politeness, but also freely asking questions about life in the United States.
North Korea is not so sealed off from the outside world, the runners said.
In a conversation with an English-speaking guide, Forman learned that the 23-year-old North Korean national liked to listen to the Backstreet Boys and Madonna.
"I asked her – 'how do you listen to that?' She said she goes to the library, and that's the American music they have."
During a tour of a North Korean school, Thompson said the classrooms were not as well equipped as those in the United States, but that the North Koreans were "incredibly proud" of the facilities they have.
"They're very proud – they can't wait to show you the best parts of Pyongyang, the statues, monuments and what they mean to them," Forman said.
North Korean pride, however, came with an endless number of rules that required a 90-minute orientation at the Beijing office of Koryo Tours, the travel agency that arranged the trip.
"You play by their rules, like in photography," Thompson said. Taking pictures of North Korean leader statues showing only the head or the torso is forbidden, visitors were told.
Photos of soldiers also were not allowed in Pyongyang – but permitted in the border region, near the Korean demilitarized zone.
If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was featured on the front page of the newspaper, Thompson said, the newspaper had to be folded in a way so a crease wouldn't run across the image of Kim's face.
But if the rules were observed, Forman said there was no fear of being taken into custody.
"To be fair, you'd have to do something pretty nefarious to get detained," said the Australian national.
On the marathon path, however, the New Yorkers were glad to be away from the minders who tracked their every move outside their hotel rooms. They also were delighted by the clapping and cheering that greeted them at every pace – an observation met with skepticism by their friends and family back home.
"People say it must have all been staged, everybody must have been forced to be happy," Thompson said.
"You could try to force an adult to always be happy and cheerful, but when you have 5-year-old children waving flags and cheering foreign runners as they go by -- can you really stage a 5-year-old and maintain that for four hours? Probably not."
For Forman, the opportunity to run alongside two North Korean boys at the 6.2-mile mark, without minders around, produced a sense of solidarity that only sportsmanship and shared water bottles could deliver across a cultural divide.
"Even some of the soldiers would smile as we ran by," he said.
Thompson said he shared his pace watch with one of the North Korean runners, so they knew what speed they were running at.
"There was a sense of just being together, and you don't always need words to understand that," he said.
The race had an auspicious beginning at the colossal Kim Il Sung Stadium, filled nearly to its capacity of 50,000.
"They were all chanting – it's the closest you'll ever feel to being a rock star," Forman said. "I think [the event] allowed them to show a lot of emotions that they probably don't show, at a spectacle they don't normally have.
"The more interactions we have with these people, the more that they understand that we're not these people who they read about or heard about. We're normal people. We're just like them."
And, like normal people, the two runners went for beer and pizza in Pyongyang afterward, inviting their guides and other North Koreans they met along the way.
Neither Forman nor Thompson, however, was allowed to keep in direct contact with their newfound North Korean friends.
Thompson said many North Koreans he saw had smartphones, but they only worked domestically -- as contact with the outside world is forbidden.
"It's a shame. I really wanted to keep in contact with one of the guides who spoke English," Forman said. "She said, 'Well, you can email [our mutual contact] in Beijing, and he can send a message to someone here.'