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.
The 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.
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.