The Great Wall Marathon, Beijing

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The Great Wall, from the top of the Stairway to Heaven

On the morning of day two in China we made our way across town to the Renaissance Hotel for the Great Wall of China expo. (for the race that occurs on the 1st of May, not to be confused with the one on the 9th) Johnny, who has done the race before, gave me one fairly simple warning about the race: “this is going to be the most disorganized event you have ever seen. Don’t expect it to be anything but an incredible view and running experience because the race in itself is going to be crazy.” Noted. We walked in and gave our names for the bibs. We were given a bus pass for the morning, and another bus pass for the morning, with the memo of “I don’t know what one they are going to want, but bring them both tomorrow. We were given a complementary hydration pack for the race- hydration packs are mandatory so that every body can stay hydrated on the wall. Keep that in mind. I ordered a men’s medium race shirt. I am usually a small, but bumped it up a size to try to compensate for the Asian fit style. Nope. I wouldn’t have made it in to an XL if I had tried. It was fun experience to watch the five of us try on our shirts and have close to no luck. I think Stone was the only person who fit, and “fit” is debatable. Nonetheless, they are a cool souvenir and conversation piece that I’ll keep around.

We carboloaded with Pizza for dinner that night. My pizza was a basil and marinara, no cheese or meat. It was good, but man, I missed the cheese. I picked up some bagels, bananas, and PBJ from the market for a late snack and for breakfast in the morning. We got back to the hotel about 5pm that night and were in bed at 6pm, awaiting a 12:30am alarm clock for the race. My stomach didn’t sit well that night, and I woke 4 times due to it, spare the details. Maybe it was the mystery meat dumplings I had for lunch, or the new diet in general, but it wasn’t sitting well. I was’t sick by any means, but was very uncomfortable. Morning- if you can call it that- came slowly to my surprise. Each time I fell asleep throughout the night, I felt like I slept forever. I never really felt tired, but then again, I never really felt fully awake either. That must be what 12 hour jetlag feels like.

The alarm came just as expected, and we got our gear on. I added 5 Clif bars, 4 Gu Roctanes, 4 salt packets (like from McDonalds) and a protein shot to my Ultimate Direction SJ vest. I figured it was going to be a long day on the wall, and wanted to be safe in case the aid stations were far between. We headed to the lobby at 1:45am to meet our cab there, which we reserved the night before. That cab would take us to the buses that were responsible for taking us to the wall. The cabs never showed up. We ordered two more (cabs will only fit 4 people, there are five of us). As we waited, a metallic Rolls Royce Phantom showed up. A clearly inebriated couple stumbled out after a long night out. Interesting. A cab pulled in right after that. Johnny hailed it, and all of us crammed into it. The driver looked at us like we were crazy- a bunch of grown men basically sitting on each others laps- as we tried to communicate through the language barrier with our best charades skills. Eventually, we were able to figure out on a map where to direct him. We arrived to the bus station with two minutes to spare. That was fine though, because the head race volunteer was losing her mind yelling at the bus drivers, who did not have enough buses to fit all the people. Remember the aforementioned “this will be the most disorganized event you will ever do.” Some drivers wanted to accept one pass, while others wanted to accept a different pass. some people had only brought one pass, and the wrong one at that, in confusion over which pass would be needed. I overheard the head volunteer yelling to a translator to tell the bus drivers that “everybody will get on the bus no matter what.” It was getting interesting.

Another bus arrived, everybody who was missing a bus got on, and we got moving… for a few minutes. The buses stopped at random and shut off their engines along the side of the free way about 20 minutes later. We waited in confusion. The head volunteer (Note: I have not yet said “race director”) came aboard and announced she had no idea why we were stopped. Our driver go back on for a moment and sat down, before quickly leaving to pee on the side of the road. he waited outside with the other drivers for another minute and climbed back aboard, started the bus, and moved. We applauded the randomness of the events that just happened. Not 15 minutes later, it happened again. Then, we made a U turn on the road we had been following for quite a while. At this point in time, it was evident the drivers had no idea how to get out of the city. We took another stop and waited on the side of the road. After that, we finally made it to the highway.

Dawn came around 4:50am, and we could see a faint outline of mountains ahead. As it got brighter, the mountains got closer. The roads lead right to them, and I thought we must be getting closer since the buses were scheduled to arrive at 5:30. It was exciting to see the mountains. They were unlike any I had ever seen before- extremely steep, jagged, and some shaped like an exponential curve- a “U”, to not use math nerd lingo. They looked challenging, powerful, and I couldn’t wait to experience them. The bus went through a few more tunnels. Scattered between the tunnels were small villages, temples, and fields full of scarecrows being plowed by people with manual plows. These little towns looked like they sustained themselves with small-scale agriculture, and lived a very simple life. Paths lined the mountains, leading to pear trees and small plots of crops.

5:20 came, and there was no wall in sight on the horizon. 5:30. Nope. 5:45. Nope. Finally at 5:50 it came into view- a huge line across the horizon, dotted with lookout towers at each of the jagged peaks. The wall rose about 30 feet off the ground, and the sun was rising behind it with light fog and haze. It was a postcard view. The clock read 6am, and it was assumed the race start would be moved back. We arrived to the parking lot at about 6:30. I stopped in the bathrooms. Looking in the stalls I got a fast lesson in culture; At toilet is a hole that you squat over- there is not seat to sit on, and no bowl over the ground. I was also happy that I keep toilet paper in my SJ vest- it was nonexistent in any of the stalls. This occurred throughout the trip. Not even going to think about how they manage it.

I met up with the ground outside the bath house and we walked up the sidewalk for a while to the bag drop/start line. The race director was not there, and the timing line was not even in sight. I looked at Johnny and Rick, gave them a nod, and we all smiled the “oh well” smile. It was what it was. Many of the Chinese and international travelers approached us to take pictures. It is rare for some of the Chinese to see blue eyes or lighter hair, so they take pictures with you as their souvenir. Side note, the duck face pose is widely used in China. Waiting at the start, I met people from Wisconsin and Indiana. Nobody from Michigan, but close!

The noise was interrupted with the head race volunteer yelling at the timing guy “I will be starting this race right NOW.” He sped up and made a quick change to the timing strip, and the athletes shared some grins. The head race volunteer took the mic, apologized for the disorder we had been experiencing all morning, and gave us a quick summary of the race.

With a “3,2,1 go!”, the race began with about 200 of us jimmy-jogging up the steep sidewalk incline that lead to the wall. I ran with three other guys up to the start of the wall. The route entered at a watch tower. About a dozen extremely steep stairs, claimed to be roughly a 70% grade, rose up a narrow corridor into the tower. A series of short, arched doorways took us to the wall itself. I was overcome with amazement. I’d never thought I would do this, and I was standing on a centuries old piece of history, overlooking a mountain range that once separated rival empires from each other. Each step I took involved foresight and strategy- it was like a puzzle of where to put my feet. Some bricks were taller than others, slanting, crumbled, absent, etc. The steps were the same way. While the majority of them were about 4 inches tall, the grade at which they would rise could vary dramatically. Then again, some of the stairs could be close to 2 feet tall, especially in the guard tower corridors. Historically, these corridors were made to cause bottlenecks in the wall so that enemies could be killed with ease. Present day, they still cause bottlenecks between racers and tourists, which were abundant on the wall. They also kill your thighs on the descents and pose a real threat to tripping and injuring oneself. Some things never change.

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Stairway in a guard tower

The first 5k of the race took about 35 minutes to do. Right around this time, a section of the wall dubbed “The Stairway to Heaven” occurs. It is about a half mile of stairs that climb between 30-60% grade, passing through two guard towers. The is a mean monster of a section that took a considerable amount of effort to navigate. A lot of hands and feet climbing was done on the stairs. I was glad to have worn my Altra Lone Peak 2.0 shoes- the traction on those worked great on the varying degrees of crumble on the wall. The top of the Stairway to Heaven was the highest point of the race, and the wall could be seen weaving across the peaks of the mountainous landscape for miles and miles- the fog and smog had gone down a considerable amount since the day before. After the climb to the top, a quick, equally treacherous descent is made before the wall turns flat for a moment.

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Heading over some crumbling sections with the Altra Lone Peaks!

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The Stairway to Heaven
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Wall decay.

At the time, I was running in the lead. I got to a tower, and ran into some people who had started the race early after losing interest in waiting for the starting clock to get set up. (I don’t blame them.) They flagged me down as I ran past and warned me about the next guard tower- the door was still locked. There was no way in, and no way around, and we must pass through that tower to get to the next area of the course. We checked out the map and compared GPS distances from our watches; sure enough, that was part of the course, and nobody had been up to unlock the door yet. The guys in 2nd-4th arrived while we were checking the map to see if we had made errors in the course. We all stood there dumbfounded and tried to figure out what to do. We decided to turn around and do the next out and back on the course, and come back for the one past the guard tower after in hopes that it would be unlocked. I ran with the other three guys, back tracking to the next out and back. We went off course, taking a wrong turn. There were no signs or people directing. The upside to this was we got to climb a sketchy ladder descending from a tower, and rock climbed up the wall about 10 feet to negotiate a decayed section

Eventually, we made it to our checkpoint and got our bibs marked. We returned to the starting line to begin “lap” two. It took the lead group nearly two hours to complete roughly a 10k. We went back up the Stairway to Heaven, and quickly began to run in to tourists. It was the Chinese Labor Day weekend, and the wall was packed. It was hard to navigate the steep stairs and get through the corridors of the guard towers. Worse yet, the water at the aid stations was disappearing fast. I grabbed a bottle, chugged it down, and refilled my UD bottles. I stashed a bottle in my pack to be safe, taking out a Clif bar and some Endurolyte tabs as well. This was my third Clif bar, and the last of my tabs. The aid stations had nothing but water, and I hoped for some kind of calories on the section past the locked guard tower.ss2

I arrived to the locked guard tower with one other runner. It was still locked. I was so frustrated. I passed other runners on the way and informed them of the news. We had no idea what was going on, but we brushed it off, and decided to just do the rest of the course as it was mapped and forget that section, and tag on extra miles to make 26.2 if necessary.
It was getting hot, and my calories were gone. My water was getting low, and to make things worse, the only aid station I had seen all day had run out of water. I started the next section of the race, a vicious half mile decent of stairs, covered in tourists. My legs were beginning to cramp, and I stumbled off the stairs into the brush and got stabbed by a thorn bush. It didn’t hurt or effect my running by any means, but the amount of blood that went down my leg was enough to concern what few race volunteers were out there. I assured each of them that I would likely live. As i kept descending, I could feel myself getting hotter and hotter. The weather was full sun and 86 degrees. I asked racers coming back up the stairs if there was water ahead. “yes, about 10 minutes ahead of you” was the response, and i needed to make it there soon. Luckily, there was enough water left to fill my bottles up and grab a spare bottle again. There were sub sandwiches as well, and I grabbed two for my long ascent back up to the main wall. The climb never ended. It took almost forty minutes to cover the half mile climb back to the wall, navigating tourists, fighting cramps, and now dealing with a headache and dizziness. I knew my electolytes were flushed due to the high amount of water and sweating I had been doing. The nutrition I had packed was gone. I was in a bad place. I ate the rest of the sub and hoped the bread would supply me with enough salt to get me back to equilibrium. It didn’t. I began asking people I passed if they had any salt. A girl gave me some sunflower seeds. They were so satisfying.

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Eventually I made it back up to the wall and asked a volunteer at the intersection/aid station what to do- she said to head to the finish line, 3 miles out, and return to do the decent I had just done again. That meant I would have to do the Stairway to Heaven at least twice again. I mumbled some expletives and nodded in thanks. I rounded the corner of the guard tower to the water stop, which was empty. There was no more water on the wall. That made the finish area the last place for water, and each of the loops/out and backs was taking me on average 2 hours to do. This was one of the most mentally degrading realizations I have ever had during a race. Coupled with my ascent to the peak and decent of the Stairway Heaven, I was falling apart. I had two more miles until I was off the wall and on the decent to the start/finish turn around. This two miles took about 40 minutes. My footing was getting sloppy, and I was getting dizzier by the moment. I saw Stone and he asked how I was doing. I told him I was suffering. I didn’t want to beleive it, but I was. I was in a downright dangerous situation on the wall: No water or calories available, dizzy, overheated, and having to navigate a wall that was initially built to kill people.

I made my way down to the sidewalk and down to the start area. I crossed the check in point, and didn’t turn back around. That 15 miles had taken nearly 5 hour. It just wasn’t worth the arbitrary pain; pain for the sake of pain. To me, there was no point in running in circles with no nutrition or water for 2 hours at a time and risking a fall on those stairs just for a medal, and I wasn’t about to risk bigger problems to complete the remaining mileage. I headed to the restroom and filled my bottles with cold water, soaking myself with it multiple times. I grabbed a bottle of water from the finish, and lay down in the shade on some concrete to try to lower my body temperature. I ate a banana as I lay there, and downed a few bagels. I began to regain a feeling of normalcy after about an hour, and walked around a bit and stretched. I met back up with the other guys on the bus. Stone had completed the half marathon, and rick timed out of the marathon after strong rains made the wall too dangerous to run on, causing the race director to cancel it.

All in all, it was an incredible experience. Sure, it was organized terribly, but the views and the simple concept of getting to run on the Great Wall was the whole point of doing the race, and THAT did not disappoint. If anything, I got in one of the hardest training runs of my life while exploring an epic piece of history. I was able to exchange stories with people of different countries and learn a bit about culture and history along the way, which is valuable in itself. I still had a good time there; it just was not a race to approach with a mindset of competing hard. It needs to be done for the experience. It truly was one of the most difficult terrains I have ever run on, and one of the most beautiful.

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