The Great Wall Marathon

[For runners who are interested in a description of the course, a review of the event organization, or logistics about registering for the marathon, feel free to skip my musings about pre-race jitters and race agony and scroll down to below the slideshow.]

I consider myself a reasonable person. Yes, I have my prideful whimsical moments when I overestimate my abilities by just a tad, but I think I’m usually I’m a pretty conservative judge at how much I can manage at any given time, and I’m not afraid to say no when I’ve reached my limit.

At the finish

At the finish line . . . posing before the race starts while I’m still fresh and looking good 😉

Last year I was so excited to run the Great Wall Half Marathon and felt so good when I finished that I somehow thought it was a good idea to try the full marathon this year.

I was helping some friends with logistics in registering and traveling to the race, and I’d try to get them all excited and tell them how amazing it was going to be. I was such a fake. All I had going through my own head was what another runner told me when I asked if she’d run it again this year: “Nope. Once is enough for me. I’ve done a lot of marathons and this is the only one where I’ve seen grown men cry and people throwing up. But I’m sure you’ll do great.”

Talk about encouraging.

By the time I had worked my way up to twenty-mile training runs, I’d reach mile fifteen and spend the rest of the time thinking, “I love running, but this is painful. It isn’t fun anymore.”

As the day approached, I was watching the AQI predictions, and they were awful. I tracked the weather forecasts, and they were predicting 98 degrees. And I started asking myself what my cut-off was—after all that training, what AQI would be too high before I decided not to run? How miserable did I need to feel before I decided to stop running?

And then to top things off, the day before the race I developed a cold. I was blowing my nose all day on Friday and had only a couple hours of sleep before race morning.

I’m not going to lie. It was a miserable day. It was hot. Really, REALLY HOT. And sunny. And I forgot to bring my hat. And . . . Oh God . . . those stairs. And even on the section that didn’t have the stairs . . . Oh, those nasty inclines.

On the Wall

Yes, it was an accomplishment. I fought hard not to cry when I finally reached the end. But the cry wasn’t a what-an-amazing-accomplishment sort of cry. It was an oh-thank-god-it’s-finally-over cry. Never once that did I think, “I’m so glad I did this.” Instead, the only thought revolving around and around in my brain for several hours had been, “I never want to do this ever, ever again.”

I had two other friends who were crazy enough to register for the full marathon and we all made a pact as we walked back to our hotel room. “Let’s remember this,” we said. “Next year, let’s remember that we never want to do this again. And let’s hold each other to it.”

We showered and went home, and I put aloe on my sunburn and stretched and slept. My friends and I went to a spa the next day and got foot massages and we celebrated our accomplishments over glasses of bubbly and funny stories about the race.

And then I found the recap video on the Great Wall Marathon website, and it was so inspiring.

I mean—seriously—who gets to run a marathon on the Great Wall? How cool is that?

Statue at wall entrance

And then one of my marathon friends sent me a text (one of the friends with whom I had made that pact), and she said she might be thinking of doing it again next year. She didn’t get the time she expected and wanted to try again.

I sent her a laughing emoji and put my phone away thinking that she surely she must be kidding.

But the next day I texted her again and asked if she was serious. She was.

And I started thinking about how bad the conditions were. I started questioning how I might have done if the weather and AQI hadn’t sucked. And I was sick, after all. I ran a marathon while my body was fighting a cold. That had to have affected my time. And yes, my training was hard . . . but how many weeks did I get lazy and skip or shorten the workouts I had planned on doing? How could have I done if I had trained just a little bit harder?

And I messaged my friend back saying we were starting a very dangerous conversation.

I do consider myself a reasonable person. But we all should have permission to be a bit whimsical at times, right? I mean, if we don’t take risks and push ourselves, how can we know what we’re capable of, right?

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Race Logistics and a Course Review

If you are a resident of China who might be interested in running this race, I highly recommend doing it before you leave China.

All non-residents of China can only register for the marathon by purchasing the event in a package that also includes six- or seven-day tours. In other words, you can’t register for only the race itself. . . . which makes it a very expensive event to run.

Residents of China, on the other hand, don’t need to purchase the tour package, but have the option to register for the race only. It’s still an expensive race. A race-only registration for the 2017 event cost 1950 RMB (less if you register early), but when considering the uniqueness of the race and the quality of organization, I think it’s worth it. You have to contact them at gwm_booking (at) 263 (dot) net (dot) cn to request registration forms for locals which offer the race-only option. When booking as a local, you need to prove evidence of your resident status in China by providing copies of your passport and resident visa.

The course begins and finishes at Huangyaguan Scenic Area, which is about two hours from downtown Beijing. If you stay in downtown Beijing the night before the race, you will need to leave at about 3:30 in the morning to be at the start/finish square on time. I recommend staying at one of the local hotels in the Huangyaguan area near the start/finish square. There are a couple of hotels. The best one (The Huangya Hotel, also called the Tianjin Huangya Mountain Villa Guest House) is adjacent to the start/finish square and fills up quite early, so make reservations well in advance. The hotel reservations for the Friday night before the race are handled through the Great Wall Marathon office at the email given above. Expect these hotels to be minimal (don’t expect hot showers and bring your own towel).

The race is planned by Albatros Adventure Marathons, an agency that also plans marathons in Petra, the Polar Circle, a Big Five game reserve in Africa, among others. They really know what they are doing when it comes to organizing events like these. Every time I had a question about payment or tickets or hotels or race packets or whatnot, they responded very politely and in a timely manner.

The organization on the event day is also exceptional. There was bottled water provided throughout the course. Even in the heat, I found the number of water stops to be sufficient. There were a few times I came across a water stop before my bottle was even empty. Only a few times did I find myself wishing for a water station to come up soon. They also had ample bananas and Gu and Gatorade offered along the course. I passed several medical stations throughout the course. Danish doctors and Chinese paramedics watched the runners along strategic portions of the race and were asking runners if they were okay or needed assistance.

The course itself is very challenging. My last marathon time was 4:20. This one took me 7:15. The general rule is that this course will be about 150% of your normal marathon time, with variation depending on how strong you are on the stairs and inclines. For this course, you can’t get away with only training your body to cover the distance. You must also strength train for stairs and inclines/declines.

The portions of the course that are not on the wall are still very challenging. Runners must be prepared for some technical trail running. Before I ran the race for the first time, I expected the non-wall portions to be on smooth paved road, but this wasn’t the case. Though there are some portions on smooth pavement, most of the “roads” are more like trails with large rocks/debris and huge potholes, and I needed to be aware of my footing at all times. For full-marathoners, if you aren’t running on the wall or rough trails, you’ll be running on concrete at an incline or decline.

All in all, yes, this was a very challenging course. It was a hot day. I wish it were held a few weeks earlier to avoid the hot weather. But, really, when it’s all said and done, I’m glad I did it. It’s is a great sense of accomplishment. It is superbly organized. It’s incredibly unique. And despite the challenge, I might be coming back again next year.

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