Not only has Alex Mai Wen-feng stepped foot inside North Korea – one of the world’s most secretive countries – he won a half marathon there, too.
The 18-year-old runner took part in the Pyongyang Marathon in April, where he ran along a route cutting through the centre of the North Korean capital. Some of the many landmarks he saw along his way include the Arch of Triumph (modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France), Kim Il-sung Square, and Changjon Street.
The marathon is known for its lack of steep roads, and provides runners a golden opportunity to beat their personal bests – or even break a national record. Alex himself intended to smash the existing Hong Kong junior men’s half marathon record. But it wasn’t meant to be, as he accidentally deviated from the race route after misreading the signs, which meant he ran an extra 200 metres. In spite of his error, though, he still managed to cross the finish line first in the overseas half marathon category.
His victory had been unexpected, the long-distance runner told Young Post, and Alex said he has yet to find something that beats the thrill of standing on a podium in front of 70,000 people. It was, he said, an experience he will remember for the rest of his life.
“It felt like [I was] winning a medal at the Olympics,” he said.
His gold-medal win in Pyongyang meant Alex was able to reclaim the title of being Hong Kong’s No 1 junior men’s half marathon runner – something he had been working towards for months.
In January, Alex ran a race in which his finishing time was four minutes slower than his personal best. That may not seem like much for non-runners, but Alex was very disappointed with his result.
“I trained hard every day. I kept asking myself, ‘Why is there no improvement, why am I slower than ever before?’,” Alex recalled. On the verge of giving up entirely, Alex decided to look back on how far he had come. Before he took up the sport four years ago, Alex had been studying in a Band Three school and didn’t think he would be good at anything. This way of thinking changed when he took part in a sports day event, where he found he was very good at endurance running.
Alex channelled his energies and new-found sense of motivation into the sport, first joining a running club, and eventually transferring to St Margaret’s Co-educational English Secondary and Primary School. The Form Five student said the sport has given him the drive to move forward every day.
“Running has given me a sense of direction,” he said. “Every day. when I get up, I know exactly what I’m doing or what I need to do.”
After reflecting on how far he had come, Alex decided, in spite of his current slump, to press on. His dedication paid off – in February the following month, Alex ran the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon where he won the men’s junior half marathon race even though he had been suffering from a cold.
“I was very grateful to have arrived at the finish line safely. The doctor had advised me against racing, but I was just too stubborn,” he said. “I thought about giving up every second, but I realised I was leading and I wanted to win so badly.”
Alex may have missed out – twice – on setting a new national junior men’s record, but he isn’t accepting defeat just yet. Next week, he will take on the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia, and he has his eye on breaking the record there.
After that? The runner told us he plans on becoming the No 1 full marathon runner in Hong Kong in five years’ time.
“That’s how I’ll become a full-time athlete,” he said, “and how I’ll gradually prepare myself to run for Hong Kong in the Olympics.”