The Great Wall (Half) Marathon

The Great Wall Marathon

About eleven years ago, while I was living in Korea, a running friend and I tried to register for the Great Wall Marathon. When we realized how cost-prohibitive it was for nonresidents of China to run one of the most difficult marathons in the world, our plans never materialized.

I stored the idea away. And for the next several years, every time I’d amp up my running or fitness routine, the Great Wall Marathon would move to the forefront of my consciousness. I’d play with the idea for a while and then tuck it away again, thinking maybe the Great Wall could still be a someday.

When my husband told me we were moving to Beijing, my first thought was not, “I wonder how the kids will adjust.” Nor was it, “I wonder what the school will be like.”

No. Selfishly, my first thought was, “Maybe now I’ll finally be able to run the Great Wall Marathon.”

Oddly enough, a chance encounter I had with another mom after I arrived in China put me in touch with a running group—the first social connection I made here. My very first week after arriving, I started running with a lovely bunch of expat ladies on Saturdays. Then a couple of weeks into running with them, they talked about how it was time to register for the Great Wall Marathon–that last year they had trained together and supported each other through their fitness goals.

These women (especially J who gave me so many bits of advice on training) have been the highlight of my first year in China. With J’s simple instruction on changing my form, I no longer get shin splints when I run. This is huge for me. I’ve never been able to increase my running milage without getting shin splints, and yet with the changes she suggested, I went through my entire training without any pain at all.

Group Photo Before the RaceThe beauty of this group was how inclusive they were. Anyone was welcome and new women were invited throughout the year—no matter their speed or ability. We’d meet in the morning, all fall into our pace, and everyone (walkers included) would end up having someone to exercise with. With J’s wealth of knowledge, she accepted the role of running mentor and coach to the rest of us. Out of the goodness of her heart, she gave us instruction on how to train differently for this very unique race (it was her third time running the full marathon), she set up special “Crossfit Light” classes to strengthen our legs for the Wall, organized trips to the Wall several weeks beforehand to show us the course and give us tips on how to get through the tricky sections, made hotel reservations for us, and sent us tips on race-day preparation. The day after the race, we all went to a spa and had foot massages and shared champagne. It would not have been the incredible experience it was had it not been for J and these ladies.

Accepting my current level of fitness, I chose to run only the half-marathon this year. Calling the Great Wall Marathon “a very difficult course” is an understatement. The race organizers say participants of the full marathon can project their time by taking their “normal” marathon time and adding 50% to it. I’m not sure that I could have had my body ready for even a “normal” marathon. So I trained with the intention of running the best half-marathon I could.

The course, though arduous, is stunning. The first nine kilometers is an incline on paved road leading up to the Great Wall and then a section on the Wall itself. The course then goes back onto the road and becomes relatively flat, going though various Chinese villages. The Wall portion is stunning and the village section is fascinating. Both of them are technical running—the Wall because of the sharp inclines, declines, and uneven steps and the village because of the rocky road.

Finished!My legs felt like lead the last few kilometers of the race, but I finished feeling really strong and wanting to train for the full marathon next year.

I was so disappointed eleven years ago when I couldn’t figure out a way to run the Great Wall, but knowing what I know now, I’m glad I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have known how to train. And on race day, I would have spent an agonizing eight hours convinced I was about to die or that they’d have to carry me off the course.

Having run the half and having had J’s instruction and advice during my preparation for it, I’ll know how to train next year. I’ll know what I’m getting myself into.

And as masochistic as it might be, I am really, really excited to go for it.

12 thoughts on “The Great Wall (Half) Marathon

  1. That’s so cool! I love reading about races around the world and I have never read of personal report of this one before. Thanks!

    I am actually visiting Beijing in July for a few days… Any tips of where to run? Or special runs in the area??? I love running when I travel (I just started a new community website for runners who travel check it out if you are interested http://www.wecanrunaway.com)

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    • Beijing is a huge city. If you are coming as a tourist, you are probably going to be in the downtown area which is pretty far from where I am (I live in the suburbs). Running in Beijing is tricky because sometimes the AQI is great and sometimes it’s pretty unhealthy. I talk about that here: https://lonnahill.com/2016/03/25/beijing-air-quality-a-moms-perspective/ But if the air quality is okay, there might be a section of Beijing Greenway near you which would be a good place to run. I talk about that here: https://lonnahill.com/2016/05/13/beijing-with-kids-my-favorite-place-near-shunyi/#more-384

      I did look at your website. Such a great idea and the site looks fantastic. I also love to run when I travel, but not every place I go is all that conducive to running. I recently went to Thailand and there was an excellent place to run near the hotel where we stayed. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of this post you can see pictures of my running route. When I get a few extra minutes, I’ll become a member of your site and try to share them there, too: https://lonnahill.com/2016/04/15/hua-hin-thailand-a-travel-review/

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      • Thanks for all the info about Beijing! I am nervous about air quality. I was in India in December and there was no way I could run there but they said India is worse than China these days! I am training for a marathon tho and I don’t want to take two and half weeks off! I will check out all your links 🙂 and yes I would love for you to post to my site and share your regular routes and travel run experiences 🙂

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      • It’s true that India is worse than China these days. Beijing known for poor air quality, but at the same time, Beijing is unique. There are so many other cities in Asia where the AQI is consistently mediocre. Beijing does have some very very high days, but is also has some very very low days (it sometimes gets down to the single digits, but it can also get up to 500). It also has lots of days that are about 150. It’s a matter of luck and wind direction. Unfortunately, winter is the worst season for air quality.

        Chaoyang Park might be another good place to run. I talk about that here: https://lonnahill.com/2016/03/15/beijing-with-kids-springtime-activities/#more-205

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    • Thanks! And I totally agree–My first year in Beijing would not have been so smooth a transition if it were not for these women.

      It was great getting fit with them, but it was about more than just fitness. I usually have the best conversations when I’m running with a friend. I’m not sure what it is about running, but it’s always been a great way to make connections and build relationships that I otherwise wouldn’t have found.

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