Great Wall of China Marathon

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So the trip to China has finally arrived… what started as a good idea over a glass or two of Shiraz has turned into this.  One of the hardest marathons on the planet awaits and number 3 of 7 marathons on 7 continents is only a few days away.
When I say one of the hardest, the only Marathon harder (they say) is the Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu.  It has similar height gain but to top it off you’ve also got altitude to contend with.  Antarctica doesn’t even come close.  A recent article was quoted saying “If the Antarctic Marathon was 9 out of 10 in terms of difficulty the Great Wall of China Marathon is a 15”.  So I guess it’s with trepidation that I look forward to the next week.
Trepidation and apprehension are possibly understatements as I’m not really looking forward to the whole trip either.  You see we leave on Tuesday and arrive back in NZ on Sunday. Five nights out of the country, 23 hours of flying and travel each way, 4 airports each way and a brutal Marathon in between, it’s going to make for one very sore set of legs post event to say the least.

One of the hardest marathons on the planet awaits, when I say one of the hardest, the only marathon harder (they say) is the Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu…

The Training
The training has had its ups and downs (excuse the pun), sore hips, sore knees, a verruca on my left heel,a fibroma of the plantar fascia (a fancy name for a painful lump under the arch of my foot) and finally new orthotics prescribed to offload the irritation.  It all started 12 weeks ago in mid January with a small week of 50 km and topped out at 84 km.  Not much I know for all you proper runners but 909 km in 12 weeks is enough for me.  Once againI am reminded of the huge admiration I have for long time runners, guys and girls that do marathon after marathon.  I know for most half the battle is simply getting to the start line with 8 out of 10 runners being injured each year.  And we do this for fun?  Sore bodies aside, technology is great now though, the training stats are so easy to rattle off, “what did we do before Strava  and GPS watches??”  The altitude rise and fall of 22,953 m or 69 times up & down the Sign of the Kiwi, once a day, 6 days a week, for 12 weeks puts things into perspective.  Maybe I am a runner after all….. that’s a bit of hill training for anyone.  I weighed in at the beginning of all of this at 88.4 kg and shed a few kg’s to end up at 81.4 ready for race day. I’m convinced that its 90% food and 10% exercise – but that’s another whole story.

The Trip
So Tuesday came and we (Julie-Anne and I) boarded the bird from Christchurch- Auckland- Hong Kong- Beijing.  I’m not a keen flyer and those seats are certainly not made for us tall folks.  One fortunate upgrade later and 23 hours of my life gone sees us in Beijing. We’ve made it …well we’ve made it to Beijing at least.  One small glitch, “Sir your luggage is still in Hong Kong.”  Some forms to fill out, some ID and with great faith (actually we had no choice) we leave the airport to make our way through six lanes of crawling traffic for another 1 1/2 hours to the Hotel for race pack pickup and briefing. Whilst having no luggage wasn’t ideal the one trump card up my sleeve was that in my carryon luggage I had a spare pair of running shoes.  Something I’ve learnt from following professional cycling over the years – always take your shoes on the plane.  No running gear, gels or running vest mind you but it’s not the end of the world or is it?  Either way we are shattered and are resigned to the fact that tomorrow is another day.

Time for Sightseeing
Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, a spot of shopping and of course the local subway (much quicker than a taxi and compulsory for Julie-Anne and I when travelling).  My grumpiness sets in though as we must have walked 10 km and with the race the next day we have to get up at 1:30 am to catch the 2:30 am bus.  Oh I forgot to say our luggage turned up, so just in the nick of time- we are back in business.  Some dumplings and noodles for dinner at a popular local spot see us settle in for the night (or in this case ½ a night).

Race Preparation & Heading to the Start Line
We are leaving nothing to chance so earlier I fetched seven 1.5 litre bottles of water and mixed up 3 with Lemon – Pure Sports Nutrition and 1 with Beet Endurance – also from Pure (I love that stuff).  The 28x high5 gels are set and the Salomon hydration running vest is primed and ready.  It’s time for bed as 1:30am is going to arrive soon enough.
And it does….The groggy feeling of waking from an incomplete sleep overwhelms, Marathon day has begun.  I nibble on a bagel and sip Beet Endurance for the next hour, get ready and make my way to the Bus. Chinese confusion reigns and it’s like being on a budget tour group trip – thats just getting onboard.
Our five or six bus loads finally leave, but in Beijing fashion we crawl through town and make our way to the edge of this massive city, it feels like only a few of the 20.2 million locals are up but still this traffic moves slowly.  It stops, we stop, the other buses stop, no one knows why.  A great chance to hop off and find a bush and find relief, (it’s good to be hydrated).  What feels like an hour goes by, we hear murmurings of the race director missing the bus and another Beijing bumble begins.  Eventually we are off again and another 1.5 hours of driving sees us pull in to a highway toll booth.  It’s shut, yes the Government has shut the highway.  It will open at 5:00 am.  We wait, this whole thing is getting tedious and nerves are already frayed.  Eventually it opens and we are on the move again until finally we arrive at the tourist office of the Wall in Jinshanling well after the planned 6:00am start time.  More instructions, more waiting and more Chinese chaos and we are about to start, 7:35am is the local time and we’ve missed over an hour and a half of the cool of the day. Can this get much worse….

The Race
The course itself isn’t a straight 42.2km on the wall, more a large 14km loop followed by a 10km loop then three repeating 5km loops and a 3km out and back, (about 38km on the wall).  Not easy to navigate as it requires you to think and as I am soon to find out it’s a course that will do even the toughest of heads in.  You see there are two Chinese marathons on the Wall… the more popular one has 5164 steps and about 5 km on the wall and well the other one (the one that I chose) has 23,522 steps and all of it is either on the Wall or getting to or from it on steps.  They are chalk and cheese.  The race record on the one I am about to do is 6:17 hrs (by a Kiwi I might add) double the easier more popular Chinese Cousin. So here’s how it  goes….

The wall literally snakes along the ridge line and is linked with Towers making for a most amazing sight. I’m getting a little emotional as its just mind blowing. We are really going to run on this?

Lap one: 0-14 km
I position myself on the start line and look around at this eclectic bunch of misfits that are alongside me.  It dawns on me I must be one of them, a bucket list ticker.  There are all sorts, a guy in bare feet, a Japanese guy in a suit, fancy dress and a few serious looking mountain goats.  The 3-2-1 sounds and we are off.  We settle in to an easy jog and I’m comfortable at the front heading up the road to the Wall.  A quick 73m of vertical in this first km sorts out the first cull and our front groups settles into some steps and onto the wall.

Tower 1 is negotiated and I can’t believe the sight as I look along the top of this thing called “The Great Wall of China.”  The wall literally snakes along the ridge line and is linked with Towers making for a most amazing sight.  I’m getting a little emotional as its just mind blowing.  We are really going to run on this?  We all comment on the view and I take a quick 20 sec clip from my phone that’s connected to my vest using an ingenious little carabineer and cord system, (if I don’t say so myself). We pick our way through the Towers and along the wall negotiating step after step.  The Towers are fascinating as some of them literally have rectangular holes in the floor with stone steps leading down and out to the wall on the other side.  It’s funny to watch our group in the Tower and all start yelling, “can you see the way out”?  Another rabbit hole appears and we are off down it to find a new section of wall on the other side.  Some get congested and while we have the energy we look for windows or alternative ways in or out.

Tower 10 is built into a rock and some quick thinking sees us take a short cut around the outside of the tower.  A little rock climbing to avoid the rabbit hole and congestion it creates. Nice work guys but still time passes… the km don’t and we get to Tower 15 or 16 only to be greeted by a near vertical wall of stairs.  The “Stairway to Heaven,” an oxymoron if I ever did see a funny side to this wall.  Strava has this segment named also (I find out later) “On all fours”.  Aint that the truth, my heart rate sits at 165 bpm and I tackle it on hands and feet.  I video this section as I’m negotiating it and hear myself saying “I’m not sure about stairway to Heaven, but its got Hell written all over it.” All that is seen on the clip is my hands and feet with heavy breathing in between.

Towers 20 and 21 pass by and we are now off the renovated wall onto a ruined section for a nice bit of ‘mind your step’, ‘watch your feet’ style running.  A ‘U’ turn after 4 Towers and we are back the same way for more steps, a quick right hander around the Tower and this time straight down to the visitors centre.  We are now off the wall and are heading down for 186m of vertical descent.  The officials at the visitors centre greet us with a crayoned “V” on our race numbers and send us back up the way we came…. “are you kidding 860 steps back up?”  We have done only ½ of the first lap and 1:15 hrs has gone.  Our group comments on this as we can all do simple math.  7km done, 35km to go.   The chatter begins, “this isn’t possible”, “why are we doing this?” “really have we only done 7km?” In Kiwi fashion I shut up and dig deeper but the uphill steps are torturous, knowing we have to do this section twice today my “self talk” also starts……  “Keep it together” I say !

Tower 21 through to 16 pass by at a snail’s pace and then to brighten my morning I hear a familiar voice.  “Hey Horus” OMG its Julie-Anne she’s made it up onto the wall and what’s more she’s a fair way along it.  “Legend,” I think to myself as I smile and say hi to her… but I must push on as I don’t want to be separated from my new running partners.  Over the next hour we pass through Towers 15-1 before we are again off the wall for another 7 Towers of off road section that isn’t often visited.  Once again this section of wall is in ruins and it’s a pretty sight to see nature take back what is hers.  This section was renovated during the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 and 6259 km of wall existed during this time. The original wall was built 700-200 BC of mud and rubble.

I take a few photos and settle back into jog, back down the road we go and the start finish is in sight.  When I say in sight I mean lap 1 or 14 km is almost complete and 2:30 hrs have passed, (a seriously fast marathoner would have completed all 42.2 km on the flat by now).  My mind is thinking way too much.  I pull in to my cache and reload another 1.5 litres of Lemon Pure and another 8 gels.  My new found running buddies put a bit of time on me as they have been grabbing water on the fly around the course so I now have to make up some time.  I haven’t done many marathons but the feeling you get at the 35 km mark is one of exhaustion and it’s always a matter of just holding on from this point till the end.  I’ve got that feeling already, (14km into it); I’m at the place right now, I shake my head and my bottom lip quivers.  Push through I tell myself and lap 2 begins. It’s going to be a long long day.

Lap Two: 15-25 km
The same inclined road greets me and I soon catch my running partners as they meet the wall proper for lap 2.  We all dig it in, in silence only to speak occasionally when a rabbit hole is found and a Tower exit or entry point is spotted.  Some now look familiar and others foreign but together we settle in nicely.  One of the boys takes a high road out of a Tower window only to be greeted with a 12 ft high sheer drop.  We reach up and help him with his down climbing.  A few jokes are shared and we carry on, encouraging each other to stick together.  It’s funny but these guys were quicker on the downhill but the uphill levels us out and we seem to have this nice small group working well together.  I comment though on their downhill speed and mentally have visions of slow mo video showing the impact that their bodies are going through.  I wonder if this will catch up on them?  “Stairway to Heaven” comes and goes and so do another 20 Towers and a another few km of wall.  The turnoff to the visitors centre arrives and we navigate the 860 downhill steps to get there only of course to get another crayoned “V” on our bibs and are sent back up to the wall.  These steps hurt and mentally we are all toast.  The other events (the 5km and 10km) are finished and with the half marathoners ahead of us and nearing completion we are the only people still on course.  Of the 129 starters in the Marathon I’m guessing only 50 remain with less than a dozen ahead of us.  We all struggle to the top of these steps and head back along the wall towards Tower 1.  More steps, more towers… more uphill, more downhill.. the start finish area is in sight but don’t be fooled its only 25km done and 4:12 hrs on the clock, time to keep it together.  Time to hang tough.

Lap Three-Five 25-40 km
With some hilarious help from the local Chinese men who are fascinated by all of this we refill another 1.5 litres of lemon Pure into my pack, another litre of water to my front flasks and 8x high5 gels to my shorts.  I wave goodbye, say thanks and I’m off again… this time on my own.  My running buddies seem to have dropped off the pace, (maybe all that fast downhill has taken its toll or is it that I have been taking on gels every 20 min like clockwork and they haven’t?).  whatever the reason I’m not sure I’m ready to do the final 17km (40%) on my own, not on this terrain, it’s just too hard. This run is just too hard. The other soul destroyer is that these next 3 laps are circuits in an anticlockwise direction as opposed to out and back so you don’t come across any other runners, not a soul.  All those left on course are running in the same direction.  Earlier it was kind of encouraging seeing others, crossing paths and exchanging a few words of support.  It’s time to just put the head down and connect the dots…. or in this case Towers.  Tower 1 though to 14 came and went as I shuffled my way along the wall.  This is the 5th time I’ve seen these towers so I was getting good at knowing the rabbit holes and specific entry points.  I find myself counting out loud the tower numbers and woo hoo as I enter them.  The tourists are long gone, the marshals seem anxious to go home and the weather is packing it in.  A downhill loop with just 171m of descent sees me back to the start finish and the next lap begins.  And so does the rain… buckets down and the temperature drops 15 degrees.  I’m wishing now I hadn’t ditched my arm warmers on lap 2 but it’s all a blur and somehow I get through the next lap to find myself at that magical 35 km mark. Kind of one lap to go and 6:32 hrs under the belt.  For the first time though I’m feeling cold and need to go for a leak so in my daze I find a spot alongside the track.  Instant relief ….OMG maybe not, bright red pee the colour of Cab Sav is watering the plants.  I get such a fright but soon realise I have overdosed on Beet Endurance some eight hours ago.  I’m laughing as I shuffle off for my final lap, the rain pouring down on me and the slippery stones that make up this wall.

40km-42 km (The Final lap)
The start finish line appears again and the organisers are running along side anyone remaining trying to encourage them to ‘call it a day’.  Not me… I’m from New Zealand.  I smile and hold my index finger up “One lap to go” I chant as a run passed them, the monsoon rain dripping off me.  Not far to go, not far to go.  I see the first woman cross the finish line as I turn to do my final 3 km ‘out and back’.  It’s great to now run against the flow of runners remaining so I can see who’s left on the course.  The Japanese guys, Billy from the UK and a few hardy Dutch.  I run to the wall, touch it and turn.  1.5 km to go, all downhill…. I might actually make this you know.  I sing some silly made up song that I cant remember and say Nin Hao ( “Knee how”) to anyone I come across.  The rain is pouring down but the finish line is in sight.  I yell to JA and she hands me the NZ flag.  100m to go and i run with flag in hand with a tear in my eye.  What an adventure! What a ridiculously difficult and slow, painful marathon.  It’s done though and I’m glad.  The training, the injuries, the preparation.  Its over….. for now at least…till the next one I guess.

Home time
The bus ride home was squashed and uncomfortable… but it didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered. Nothing at all.  A few jokes and stories were told on the ride home, a few friendships were made and the adventure was coming to an end.  Till next time…..

  • Some Stats for those still reading:
    I drank 7.5 litres of liquid during and just prior to the race:
    Including: 1 litre of Beet Endurance (pre), 2 litres of water, 4.5 litres of Lemon Pure
    Despite taking on 7.5kg of liquid I was 4kg lighter at the finish.
    A 11.5kg fluid loss.
    I ate 23x High5 gels (one every 20 minutes)
Strava Statistics Suunto link

Gear used:
Shoes: Asics Divide
Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
Clothing: Salomon S-Lab Twin skin shorts with 5 pockets
Salomon S-Lab Sense T
Salomon Exo Calf Compression
Salomon Visor
Hydration: Salomon Hydro 5 Running vest with 1.5 L bladder and 2x 500ml front flasks
Camera: iPhone 6Plus in waterproof case on leash & carabiner

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