Great Wall Marathon, 2010


I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but what I encountered wasn't it.

I guess I was expecting a marathon that would take me onto the Great Wall of China, where I would stroll along the steps, gazing at the amazing scenery, welcoming the break from the actual running, snapping photos, making new friends, you get the idea.

I ended up being about half right..

It all started in 2003.  Having run the Beijing Marathon, my twisted friend Sheril sent me a pointer to the Great Wall Marathon, and told me I should try that one some time.  Sure, thought I, I'll add it to my list.  Roll forward to 2010, I've got a little time, and had a couple of other good reasons to be in Beijing, so I had a local friend help me with the registration, and I was in.  I downloaded and looked at the elevation chart:

For some stupid reason, I wasn't overly concerned with the elevation, even the one at mile 21.  I figured I'd simply walk that portion of the course, no big deal.  I was, however, concerned with the humidity, or lack thereof.  Beijing is very dry.  In Boston, I can run a half marathon without water, and I've run full marathons with only a couple of quick water stops.  In Beijing, I find myself gasping after a quick 5 km run.  I figured I'd take my belt/water bottle, start with it filled with a US purchased sports drink, and top it off with water along the way.  To top things off, the weather prediction was for 85 degrees on the day of the run, and sunny.

I plodded my way through Boston 3-1/2 weeks before the date of the Great Wall, so I figured all I really had to do was taper from Boston and acclimate to the climate and time zone change.  Beijing itself seemed like a great place to train, most of the main intersections have pedestrian underpasses, so you can run to them, down some steps, cross under the street, then run up some steps on the other side.  Also, my hotel was right next to a subway station with a bunch of nasty steps, so I tried to plod up and down them at least a couple of times a day.  I figured I was ready for the wall..


The bus departed from downtown Beijing at 3:30 AM, for what was roughly a 2 hour drive to the section of the wall we'd be running on/around.  I had only one friend who was stupid/crazy enough to join me for the early bus ride, which was fairly uneventful (we did see one other bus take a wrong turn).  During the ride, my lovely companion/support crew Angelina made an interesting observation - "Hey, most of these marathon runners seem pretty slim".  In Chinese, that's a polite translation of "Hey, you're pretty fat.  What the hell are you doing here with all of these real runners?"

We arrived at our destination, which was a Great Wall 'fort', and strolled inside.  The organization was top notch, there was all kinds of things inside, warm food and drink, and even organized calisthenics!  I usually bypass the pre-race warm ups, in my opinion that's what the first 3 miles are for.  The course was also very well laid out, it would take us out of the fort, a few miles up an access road, a half mile or so up an 'easy' section of the wall, a mile and a half or so down a difficult section of the wall, back through the fort, 16 miles of rolling hills through some Chinese villages, back through the fort, back up the difficult section of the wall, then down the east side and a nice 3 miles of downhill to the finish.  As I mentioned before, I wasn't worried about the wall, I was worried about the water.  I should have been worried about both.

I did a little hydration, then I did a lot of dehydration, then I lined up in the second wave of runners.  The first wave was off at 7:30 AM, and we got our gun at 7:40 AM.

The first half mile was pretty easy and fun.  We ran through a local village, the small children would yell 'Ni Hao' (Hello), 'Hello' (Hello), or 'Jia Yo' (Run faster).  I got more Jia Yo's than most runners, I think because I'm so good looking.  The biggest problem in this section of the course was dodging the horse droppings.

From there, we turned up the access road, which was a steady climb.  I worked my way to the back of the pack, and averaged over 4 mph, which on a long hill (or any hill) is pretty good for me.  A little after mile 3 we reached the wall.  I cracked the obvious joke about hitting the wall so early, most of the runners fell over laughing at my clever humor.  This section of the wall was not too bad, kind of what I'd been expecting.  I was still smiling, and able to crack a few 'Ranger Dave' jokes, like "Hey, we should do this every weekend" (at that point I meant it!), or "Hey, the brochure said this was a flat course!".

Note:  The elite runners ran up this section of wall.

When we reached the top, there was a bit of a backup.  Some runners were complaining.  While I secretly appreciated the forced break, I joined them in complaining.  "Hey, I was hoping to sprint through the downhill sections!".  We rounded a turn and saw what the holdup was.  In front of us was what looked like a descent of around 45 degrees, with a bit of wall on one side and a sheer drop off on the other.  Runners were staggering down, clinging to the wall.  We were told we were welcome to pass on the left.  Nobody was passing.

The entire downhill section was either like that, or better finished wall that was just as steep.  Even on the better sections it was impossible to maintain any kind of real cadence, as Chinese quality control in the middle ages seemed to have been lacking.  None of the steps were uniform, either in height or width.  I talked to one woman later who tore something in her ankle coming down this section of wall.

Note:  I'm pretty sure the elite runners ran down this section of wall.  Those bastards.

By the time I got to the bottom, my legs were shaking and felt like rubber.  I was no longer worried about water, but I was starting to get real concerned with what it would be like to run back up that section of wall at mile 21.  Oh well, I had 16 miles of gently rolling Chinese countryside to think about it, which in Shorey time usually means about 6 or 7 hours.  Ha ha.

We passed through the fort, and Angelina yelled 'Jia Yo' at me like she meant it.  She also asked how much longer this whole thing was going to take.  I told her I'd Jia Yo, and off I went.

I was able to Jia Yo for a little while, we had a couple of miles of very gentle down hill, I got my legs back, and actually turned in a couple of respectable miles.  By my standards.  Somewhere during that section of road I encountered the lead runner heading back to the fort.  He was a Chinese guy, and while he looked so fresh and effortless I had thoughts of Rosie Ruiz, it was probably more likely that he was some poor PRC army runner whom the government ordered to finish ahead of all foreigners, or else there would be one less kidney recipient on the donor waiting list, if you get my drift.

Around mile 11 we started a climb that lasted a few miles, and was fairly steep.  There was a cutoff time for the final wall ascent, and while I was still comfortably ahead of it, I was starting to get concerned.  So far, in a half marathon of running, I'd only encountered about 1 flat mile, and only a few down hill miles I was able to make any speed on.  Regardless, I pressed on, and around mile 16 we got some down hills mixed in with the up hills.  I made up some time, but I was also starting to think that I should be saving something for the ascent.

I also got to experience my first rural Chinese port-a-potty.  I won't even try to describe it, just look at the picture:

Around mile 20, I had another friend from Beijing almost run me over in her BMW.  She'd come (at a much more sane time) to spectate, had spectated, gotten bored, and was on her way home.  She jumped out, ran a few steps with me, realized how stupid the whole thing was, and waved good bye.

On the strategy front, I decided I'd dump my belt and water bottle on my final pass through the fort, and focus on going back up the wall as light as possible.  Fortunately I missed my support crew when I passed through that last time, so I hung on to my belt and water bottle, which would shortly turn out to be a really good thing.  I was about 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff, which I thought was plenty of time.

After I passed through the fort I started up the difficult section of the wall.  After about 10 steps, I stopped, and thought to myself "Self, this is going to be a little harder than it was at mile 3.".  I made another 10 steps and thought to myself "Self, I'm not sure I can do this.".  Another 10 steps, and I was seriously thinking about turning around.

Note:  The elite runners ran up this section of wall.  Those mother %(!#@$(&ers!

I found myself in the company of some other runners who were just as miserable as I was.  Somehow, we encouraged each other to keep making progress, a few steps at a time.  Everybody agreed that this was the most difficult thing we'd all ever attempted (couldn't say 'done', as we hadn't yet reached the top..).  For me, I'd run my first ultra marathon the prior fall, the JFK 50, and personally this was more difficult.  I think because of the elevation.  When I felt wrecked at the JFK, I could continue making forward progress, albiet slowly.  Here, to make forward progress you had to lift yourself up.  Again and again.  There was no progress without lifting.  It would have been bad enough just encountering this elevation gain at mile 21, but we'd already done it once at mile 1-3!

The total elevation gain was somewhere around 800 feet in about a mile.  To put things in perspective, Heartbreak Hill, at mile 21 of the Boston Marathon, has 88 feet of elevation gain.

Around a third of the way up, I noticed another runner really struggling and she had no water bottle.  I think we missed a water stop in the fort.  I asked her if she needed any, and she didn't have to respond, the look she gave me said it all.  So I gave her what was left of mine, and we continued our way up.

There was water at the halfway point, I filled my bottle and continued.  Around three quarters of the way to the top I was amazed to see a young woman approaching us from behind, listening to her iPod, singing something about 'candy' and 'don't stop', and rapidly working her way up the steps.  Later, on the bus ride back to Beijing, she told me that she really enjoyed that section of the run.

My fragile ego shattered, I did the best I could, and eventually made it to the top.  I was able to speed things up a little bit on the down hill section of the wall, and when I got off the wall I realized that I was starting to push the final cutoff for finishing.  This was one marathon medal I wasn't going to miss, so I picked up the pace and made pretty good progress down the 3 mile descent.  It may have been my fastest final 3 marathon miles ever!

I finished about 7 minutes before the 8 hour cutoff.  I didn't care.  Somewhere during the final wall ascent, all of my time goals went out the window, and I just wanted to make it to the finish line.  I was pretty wrecked at the finish line.  The sandwich was the best I've ever had (it was actually pretty good even by normal standards), the ice cream was cold, and the cold shower felt great!

I don't think I'll be adding this one to my annual list, but I'll probably try it again someday.  Maybe.

Full set of pictures can be found <here>.