Wednesday, May 30, 2012

China: The Great Wall Marathon 2012, My Day on the Wall

My day on THE WALL

       There is no way I’ll be able to do justice to this amazing race. It was a total blast from beginning to end and I ran the whole thing on an adrenaline high that still lingers over a week later. It was, at the same time, the toughest and least painful marathon I’ve ever run.

       Our first full day in China was spent on an “inspection tour”. This means they take all the runners up to the section of wall we will run, tell us all our pre-race information, and then let us cross the hardest 3.5 Kilometers of the course before giving us the chance to change our race distance. At the briefing, they told us more people change up than down, which made us all a bit skeptical! At the briefing, they also told us there were 900 people, 550 men and 350 women, running the full marathon. However, it appears by race morning that number had dropped to 702.

       Our inspection tour day was lots of fun. Busses took us up the first 5K to the start of the Wall and we all sprung out, exited to finally be on this ancient structure that had been looming in the distance. We talked, took pictures, and marveled at the landscape, lingering to savor the history and beauty. There were traffic jams, but we attributed that to the shutter bugs and didn’t mind the break. By the time we descended the extremely steep final slope our quads were quivering and cramping and we wondered how in the world we would repeat it, TWICE! At that point I seriously wished I had spent more time practice going DOWN stairs, or at least spent a lot more time doing squats. Oh well, too late now!

       About 5 minutes into the hike, I had decided to try going barefoot after stumbling on a step for the third time. I didn’t want to risk falling all the way down and bashing my knee. The rough sections were short and most of the wall was nice and smooth so it was delightful to feel the stones under my feet. However, as we neared the end, and the sun (with the moon on it’s shoulder), reached its apex, the stones were warming up fast. I was fine for the most part, but had to sprint over a section of sheet metal that was hot as a frying pan! The hike went so well that I started seriously considering running the marathon barefoot. I am so much more comfortable without shoes and I recover so much faster that I want to run bare whenever it is feasible, but there were a lot more miles and a lot more factors to consider first.

Photo courtesy of Kara Campbell

       One factor that played largely into my decision was the restroom situation. Since very few Chinese run this marathon, the ladies room was inundated with women who had never used a squat toilette before. This becomes a problem when they have not yet worked out how to pee without getting it EVERYWHERE! I knew that if I had to relieve myself during the race, it would require me stepping in a very gross mess or wasting time putting my shoes back on. The situation during the race itself was even less agreeable. “Pottys” consisted of a small, green, Army tent, plunked down on a bare patch of earth with a little dirt scrapped away to make an indentation in the ground.

Race Day

       Yin&Yang Square was a madhouse! 2,000 runners were pouring in and the 5K runners were trying to get across and out to the busses that would take them to their start point. As people got their bags checked and the warm up took place, things began to settle to a low rumble of excitement. There were three corrals, started in 5 minute waves so I stayed out of the way in the bleachers while the first two waves were launched. What wave you were in was based on your choice and many people seriously underestimated the course so that the corrals were very mixed by the end of the first 5K uphill climb.

         Finally, at 7:40am, the third corral was launched and I was off! Following a very excited and chattering crowd, we took off at a run up the flat street. We knew we had hills ahead and wanted to get at least a little way at a decent pace before we started the trudge up hill. My plan was the walk the first part, which was a 10% grade up to the start of the wall. I found a buddy and we talked, walked, talked, took pictures and talked some more. As the road ended and the rough stuff started, I used the restroom facility, which was squat toilettes, but at least porcelain and flushing. That would be my last stop since the rest of the race I sweated out everything I took in!

       The wall at this point was familiar. We were crossing in the same direction we had two days before so we knew what to expect. We also hit some serious traffic jams. Some places we stood, taking only a few steps a minute, for as long as 20 minutes at a time. It was so frustrating, but there was no way to get through or around people. We were all in the same hurry and the path was very narrow in places. As we crested the last big hill top, we could see down to the square where we had started (and would pass through twice before finishing there). The 10K runners were massing on the road for their start so we watched it all while picking our way down the jagged rocks and uneven steps.

       After 5 miles the marathon and half marathon runners made their first pass through the square. My legs were quivering, but not cramping like they had been two days before so I was encouraged. Only a tiny bit of soreness was left after blowing out the lactic acid on the initial hill climb so I was very encouraged about the journey ahead, even though it took 2 hours and 11 minutes to get there! Now it was time for nice roads around the country side for 16 miles, or so I thought…
First Pass Through the Square

       The square was pandemonium once again. After taking off, the 10K runners did a small out and back before passing through the square from the opposite direction. The space through the tunnel from the square to the road was small and the staff was trying to keep everyone to the right. For the next couple of miles we had to dodge other runners, horse poop, and traffic! It was nuts, but it was also very entertaining. There was no directions given about which side of the street to be run on and there were people on both sides. Like many others, I ended up crossing the road 3 or 4 times because I didn’t know where we were going next and I was trying to be in the safest place possible.

       Finally, we turned off the main road onto a service road along a canal. By now we were no longer competing for road space with the 10k runners, but the fast half marathon runners were beginning to trickle through. There was ample space though, and no traffic so it was fun to wave and cheer them on.

       The locals look at the marathon like a festival. Some of the older folks ignored us and were working, but many were out in their Sunday best to watch the crazy runners. The children gave us wild flowers and said hello, some even shouting phrases in English like, “You can do it!” “Good job!” or “You are almost there!” (which was funny since we weren’t even to the half way mark!) I had a bag of peppermint candy to hand out which was tons of fun. I wish I could have shot video and handed out candy at the same time, they were so cute! Although, for a “share all” communist society the kids sure did their best to elbow and body check each other out of the way. They would also take a piece of candy and then hide it behind their back with the other had out for a second piece. At one point a tiny little granny joined the fray and I handed her a double piece. She was barely taller than the little kids, but had a huge grin on her near toothless face. Whenever I saw these older people I couldn’t help but think about the horror they have survived. Anyone that is interested in Chinese modern history and culture, I highly recommend the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

       After giving out the last of my candy I started picking up the pace and passing people. As I scooted past one runner and made a comment about having a long way to go, she replied, “Did you drop back to the half?” Huh? What? Wait a minute! I had passed a split where the Half marathoners and the full marathoners went in different directions and I had gone the wrong way! I turned around and ran up stream until I saw the person who was supposed to be directing traffic. If he had been Chinese, I would have had some patience, but he was with the organizing group from Europe and spoke English. I looked at him and threw my hands out, to which he answered, “Sorry, didn’t see you.” ARG!!!! I added half a mile to my race, which may seem insignificant over 26 miles, but it was an extra 10-12 minutes uphill that I really didn’t have to spare later on!

       Next we ran through what I suppose was a recreation area. The go-carts and pony rides were not all that surprising, neither were the chicken coops with pea-cocks and pheasants, but I must admit the toy .50 cal. machine gun range caused me to pause! Something about a happy chubby baby next to a toy gun that was twice his size that just didn’t add up. It makes me wonder if they are Chinese rednecks, or if all Chinese children practice with toy machine guns. Sling shots were also for sale at this stop.

       After the play area, we started another hill climb. The views were excellent, a mansion on high, a big lake with boat docks, lots of fishermen, sort of what you would expect anywhere in the world. The hill, however, was a bit more than the runners expected! I remembered from the elevation profile that we would encounter a hill in the middle of the course, but it was only half the height of the wall so I didn’t think it would be too bad. Apparently the wall was a lot worse than I thought because this mountain was a never ending climb! It also was not centered on the turn around so just when we thought we were done, we had another climb. UGH! I did meet some new Maniacs on this section though, and that made it much nicer. Kara Campbell and Eddie Vega saw my Maniac’s singlet and let me know they were Maniacs too!

       One of the better things I packed was individual packets of Gatorade. I had been warned that the sports drink offered on course would be extremely watered down and runners were encouraged to put personal supplies of drinks, sunscreen, or snacks in bags that would be place in a couple of strategic points on the road. For some reason I didn’t want to rely on that so I chose to carry my own supplies. I tasted the drink that was offered once and didn’t bother finishing it. It tasted like the dregs of a soda after the ice has melted, ick! Knowing we would be given .5 liter bottles at the water stops, I just mixed my own and it worked really well. I had my hand bottle of water strapped to one hand and a bottle of Gatorade or more water held tightly in the other.

       The runners really thinned out at this point. I ran alone for the first time and had a couple of panic moments where I couldn’t see another runner and wondered if I had taken another wrong turn. I pushed my pace a little and caught up to a man and his daughter who were really struggling. Her knee was hurting and the heat was getting to them both. We talked for a while as we picked our way over a creek bed and then I continued on. At this point, I was actually beginning to worry about meeting the 6 hour cut off so I started focusing more on running and less on talking. Most of the runners were losing their sociability at this point anyway. I was still feeling good, well hydrated, and chipper (which probably made me very annoying). On the flat stretch back to the square, I had several half mile splits that were well below 10 mpm so I wasn’t totally sapped yet.
A Pause to Refresh

       Before the race started, I had left my husband with instructions to meet me with cold beer for my second pass through the square. In my previous 3 marathons, mile 20 marked my entry into purgatory and I was expecting this to be worse than ever. Fortunately, I hit the square smiling from ear to ear. I had made the cut off and would finish the race!!! I downed the 1/3 can of cool-ish beer and headed for the timing mats. The real cut off place was actually past the square, after making a few turns through the tourist complex. When I finally hit the mats and received my pink rubber bracelet (to signify that I was headed to the wall for the second time) I probably had only 3 or 4 minutes to spare!

       I was now over 21 miles in and, to my great amazement, I felt really good! For the first time I had crossed the 20 mile mark without hitting the glycogen wall or suffering from swollen calves or screaming hip flexors!!! I was tired, but I still had energy and I wasn’t sick from the heat, which was more than a lot of the people around me could say! As we started up the steepest part of the wall, a near vertical stair case, people were dropping out left and right. I passed panting runners stretched out on any flat surface they could find. Everyone had a death grip on a bottle of water, something that was thankfully never in short supply, so I offered gels, salt, or Tylenol to every fallen runner I passed. One woman from our tour group had bloody scrapes on her elbows and knees and dirt all the way around like she had rolled. It turned out she had tumbled back in the creek bed, but still managed to make the 6 hour cut off. Sadly, I found out later that she was among the 120 runners that did not finish the race.

       Not long after I came across a runner puking water into one of the rain gutters. It was around 6 ½ hours into the race and his electrolytes were so depleted he couldn’t absorb water anymore. I offered him salt, which he gratefully accepted, and everyone within ear shot asked if I had extras. I gave out 4 or 5 more and continued on, picking off runners one at a time. The guard towers, cool and dark, harbored over heated runners gathering strength to venture out across the next stretch of hot paving stones, but I ran through, wanting to get to the downhill through the forest knowing I would find shade and easy miles.

       The heat training I had done, running late in the day, spending time in the sauna, and hours on the stair master really paid off at this point. I was slow, but steady on the stairs, keeping my forward momentum going with an even pace and running the flats between stair cases. At least the traffic jams were over! Although I still felt good, the heat was making anything else sweet sound sickening so ignoring my Gu I popped one last salt cap and turned my toes for the finish line.

       Once I was on the road with only 5K to go I was elated! Nothing could stop me now! I had a nice run downhill, still passing people, but being passed when I stopped to video the scenery. For a short while my knee niggled, but I adjusted my form, which had been deteriorating from fatigue, and it went away. Through the last half mile, I was passing runners with medals around their necks who were walking to cars or busses for the trip back to their hotels. They were hooting and hollering, congratulating the exhausted runners and giving high fives. Finally I turned the corner, passed through the tunnel for the final time and threw my hands in the air like I had just won the Olympics! Hearing my name announced I started looking for my family. They, of course, weren’t expecting me until right near the cut off and hadn’t even begun to look for my finish. I wandered around the small square, collecting food and my gear bag while keeping my blood moving. About 10 minutes later Hubby and daughter stepped up to the finish chute and spotted me on the other side, OOPS! Oh well, they were there and I was done, that was all that really mattered!

       I spent the 3 hour bus ride back to Beijing with my shoes off and legs propped in my husband’s lap, too excited to sleep. My hip ached a little from the Piriformis injury over a year earlier, and one toe nail was signaling its immanent demise, but that was about it. I wore a medal around my neck and carried memories in my head that I will cherish for a lifetime. I don’t’ know what the future holds, if my RA will go into remission, or flare up with a vengeance that takes away my ability to run, but it will never take away my day on The Wall!

Video from the race

Garmin Connect statistics and map


abcsofra said...

You will always have these memories. It was all worth it!!

Unshod Ashish said...

Good job, Wendy!

Janie Fleming said...

Awesome story and very inspiring! Congrats! Thanks for sharing.

Beata said...

You are amazing, Wendy! Your story is really inspiring!

Runningmyspace said...

Wow, what an adventure! You are a great inspiration for my readers. I've just put the follow me button on my site if you'd like to follow me as well! said...

I am interested in publishing this article in a Marathon Running magazine.

Could you please send me an email at and I will give you more information.

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Thanks heaps


Joe said...

I'm doing the 2015 in a few months. THANK YOU SO MUCH for providing a detailed report along with your Garmin Connect info. What a great help!!

Cheryl Steiner said...

Thanks for this blog, it's the best one I've read on the Great Wall Marathon so far!