Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
The Great Wall of China Marathon was an extraordinary experience that leaves you buzzing. Originally built to keep out barbarian hordes, 2,000 years ago, it is incredible that you can actually run over and feel a part of this history. The dramatic setting and degree of physical challenge means that it definitely is an “adventure marathon” ( which means allow 25% longer than normal marathon).
It seemed a little expensive at circa US$400 entry fee, but the organisation is incredibly smooth and with the spectacular scenery and the very unique experience, I think it’s worth every penny. It also has a variety of different runs, suited to all shapes and sizes and if you get the chance it’s definitely one to add to the list.
The race was based on a section of the wall in Huang Yaguan, 3 hours out of Beijing , where the air is clean and fresh, which is also rarely visited by tourists. It starts at the spectacular and well preserved Ying Yang fortress, nestled in the valley, with the wall punctuated by 12 large towers, looming ominously 500 m above.
It was a cool day perfect for running. The atmosphere at the start in the fortress was buzzing. 2,000 plus people were crammed in a mass of excited hustle and bustle eager to get going.
Obviously it had its mainland Chinese element…. The toilet queues were scary. The traditional Chinese toilets themselves were even scarier! I saw one local chap due to run the full marathon, wearing just slippers and wondered if this was the Chinese equivalent of “barefoot running”… Westerners cringed, and desperately blocked their ears as the Chinese officials “shouted” their welcome speeches into the microphones and were then blasted through the large amplifiers into the crowds. Then with perfect timing, the sun broke through the thin cloud cover and the official count down the start began. Bang ! We were off.
I’d been stuck in the toilet queue so started a little bit further back than strategically planned, but this meant that in the 1st km I benefitted from the adrenaline rush of overtaking lots and lots of fun runners which was quite a nice mental start.
The race began with a steady 5 km ascent, meandering up to the foot of the wall. I’d been tipped off that just a few km into the wall there would potentially be an enormous bottleneck. This occurred on a section of the wall with a large 10 m drop off and lots of nervous runners were forced cling to hand rail slowing the pace right down. On this basis I decided to push a little bit harder, up the hill and make sure I have avoided this time loss. Fortunately the cool temperature and low humidity levels made an ascent that would have been an absolute sweat drenched battle in Hong Kong, more of a cruise !! A good start !!
In no time I was charging along the famous wall. It was an incredible adrenaline rush to be running on something so impressive and so old. You run a contrast of perfectly renovated / maintained wall, and some areas that have not been touched in thousands of years. This section of the wall is famous for it’s 5164 steps ! Some of the steps are literally 2 feet high and you have to climb up them on hands and knees. Bizarrely it was fantastic !!
Having trained in Hong Kong, steps were pretty easy to accommodate, especially this early in the race when I was still fresh and most were downhill. Fuelled by a euphoric sense of excitement I was able to scamper past many of the other unaccustomed European runners, and even snap a few photos at the same time ! I cruised past 6 km of wall, up and down, up and down, again and again, over thousands of grueling steps and 8 impressive, sturdy watch towers in what seemed like just 5 min….
After a huge descent the race progressed onto a flat road. Unlike the wall itself, this road was perfect for thoroughbred marathon runners and I quickly realized that it would be tough to maintain my position. Within minutes, one “half marathon” runner literally shot past me ! Although trying to plan the race strategically, as there was still well over 30 km to go, I decided it was worth cranking up the pace a little and keep this gazelle in my sites. Surprisingly my body reacted well and with no humidity, no overheating, I found that I was comfortably able to step it up a couple of notches and find a smooth and comfortable rhythm, that was far beyond what I could have managed in Hong Kong. Still strong !
The next 20km of the course passed through the colourful Tianjin countryside surrounding the wall, popping into several small villages, where the streets were lined with the locals, all keen to catch a glimpse of and cheer on the foreign devils in their lycra. Little kids screamed with excitement at the opportunity for high fives, and even the old grannies and policemen were keen to join in the high five fun ! The atmosphere was great and it gave and needed boost just as the legs and the brain were starting to tire a little.
This took us back to the motivational crowd of spectators at the Ying Yang fortress. The marathon runners passed through here one more time before tackling the wall again, the reverse way. Many of the half marathon runners and 10 K runners had already finished and were all their to add to the cheers, as we were about to embrace the biggest challenge of the race…
The runners saying ”hit the wall” could not be more appropriate than at this point in time as we hit the wall for the second time. With a pacey 30 km already weighing the legs down, the 3000 step climb ahead was a HUGE challenge ! As I had bolted down the steps earlier, overtaking several runners I hadn’t really noticed quite how many steps, and quite how big they were this. My last two energy gels didn’t seem to make any difference at all and I settled for a slow plod and even crawl back up sections of the wall. It was made mentally tougher by a series of false peaks that just revealed more and more steps ! It seems a good time to take a few photos. I pushed it as hard as I could but it was incredibly slow pace. No one actually overtook me though so I think everybody was suffering the same ordeal.
Once the wall was completed it was then a matter of meandering back 5km down the hill and then flying over the finishing line into the excitement and energy of the Ying Yang fortress.
4hrs 5mins, about 30mins behind the winner and 15th position in the marathon ( out of over 500 ), 3rd in my age category, all 6.5 months from major surgery on the neck. I must admit, I concluded that I was rather pleased with myself as I lay on the floor recovering !!
Most importantly at the last count I had raised about £3,000 for “Spinal Research” and HK$20,000 for “The Ben Kende Foundation”. This makes all the hard work that has gone into this worthwhile. I am enormously grateful for all the generous support.
Great Wall of China Marathon June 2011
He who dares wins
He who hesitates is lost