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The Great Wall of China Marathon 2002

The Great Wall of China Marathon 2002

By David Hunter, Sydney, July 2002
Article reproduced with permission of the author, Photo by permission of Marathon-Photos.com

Wanli Changcheng - Unimaginable Hugeness

"We're going to finish this" proclaimed John, about 30 stairs behind me. I took small comfort. There were still two kilometres of steps in front of us and we'd already been running for three hours.

Preamble

Welcome to the Great Wall of China Marathon. It was the 25 May 2002 and the event, now in its fourth year, is set in Huangyaguan, approximately 120 kilometres north of Beijing. Seven of the 42.2 kilometres are spent on the Great Wall and overall there are 3,700 steps. The course also takes you through the countryside and gives you a close look at the homes and villages of the locals. For 2002, 253 marathoners completed within the eight hour cut off. A half marathon is run in conjunction with the full marathon and 166 runners completed this event within the five hour time limit.

The feature of the run is the Great Wall. The marketers of the race described it on their website as "a little tougher than a usual course". I got an indication of the degree of difficulty when I spoke with John Lindsay from Melbourne. He had run the marathon in 2001 and said a rough rule of thumb was to add 50% to your usual marathon time.

To compete in the marathon, runners must be part of an organised tour group. The Danish organisers of the event offered eleven different programs that primarily varied on the location and quality of the hotel. I was travelling with my girlfriend Jo Garey and we had chosen a hotel right in the heart of Beijing. We were fortunate to be placed with a terrific group of twelve runners/spectators from Canada, Denmark, the US, and Melbourne. The four days prior to the run form part of the six day package tour and are spent visiting the main tourist sites of Beijing.

Two days before the marathon, all runners and spectators make the three hour bus trip to the Great Wall. This is an opportunity to meet the wall and it is an amazing site seeing it snake its way along the ridge of the mountain. Up close, runners find most sections had been reconstructed and are in pristine condition while some sections are crumbling with only single file access. It got a little crowded in these sections during the walking tour but presented no bottlenecks on race day.

Race Day - 25 May 2002

There was a military precision to the pre-race timetable. Alarm at 2.30am, bus at 3am, first loo stop - an orchard by the side of the road - at 4.30am. Inhibitions are soon lost when you are squatting next to fellow runners in an apple orchard in the middle of China. As our guide joked, we could return in a year and claim some credit for the fruit fertilised by us that morning.

All up it took a little over three hours to reach Huangyaguan and the fort that contained the start/finish line. As it had a few days before, the wall was looking spectacular in the sunrise. It was 'our' wall today as officials prevented access to non-running tourists and locals.

There was an hour before the starter's gun and group photos, group aerobics and individual stretching easily filled in this time. Runners and spectators were welcomed in a short ceremony featuring a number of dignitaries, including the mayor.

The course was an out and back style and featured two sections on the wall. Simplifying the course into five sections:

  • Runners started with a flat 800m stretch before an uphill switchback road of 4.5 kilometres to get to the wall,
  • A 3.2 km run along the wall, containing about 1,850 steps,
  • A relatively flat section of 25.5 km through the villages and countryside,
  • A return to the wall at the 34 km mark, running 3km back along the 1,850 steps, and
  • A 4.5 km downhill run along the road we had run up at the beginning, finishing with the 800m flat stretch.

Drink stations were every four kilometres and all had bottled water. Guides directed runners along the course.

Kilometres 0 to 9: the uphill road and round one with the Wall

The run for both half and full marathoners began on time at 7.30am. Jo and I ran together for the first few kilometres, and then split up with our different race paces. It was a good hit out running up the hill before round one with the wall. I had fresh legs and was looking forward to the experience. My only strategy for the stairs was to walk the steep sections though I witnessed various techniques of runners. Some 'runners' walked, some took two at a time, and some ran down sideways so their feet were landing parallel with the step. One chap ran with arms out for balance which looked like he was flapping in a bid for take-off. I stopped at two towers along the wall to 'smell the roses'. Runners were at a height of 500m or so and could see a long way in all directions.

Kilometres 9 to 34: the rural leg

After an hour I was over the wall and onto flat ground. I'd be returning in about 26 kilometres time but for now the course took us through the countryside and small villages. It was market day in these villages, bustling as folks went about their usual Saturday business. There were trucks, tractors, bikes and pedestrians in the towns, yet the bustle didn't impede my run. Some parts of the run took you past the front door of people's homes where kids offered their hands and it was 'High-Fives" all round. This was great fun and a good distraction.

It was about 3 hours 20 minutes (3:20) and 30 kilometres into the run when the weird thoughts in my head started. I was in a section between villages and drink stations, the terrain was a dusty gravel road, and the temperature was now in the low 30's. I was alone, indeed possible in a country of one billion people. Little gremlins started asking if my legs were beginning to 'mash' and if I was going to 'blow up'. This run was taking me into unchartered territory as I hadn't run more than 3:38 before, and I had blown up in that run. I spent the next twenty minutes quietening down the gremlins.

Kilometres 34 to 37: Hitting the wall for round two

At the 34 kilometre mark, marathon runners finish the "rural" (read "flat") section of the run. "Hitting the wall" had an obvious double meaning as the mountain and Great Wall now stood in front of you. And steps. Nearly two thousand steps. Running through the main compound to get to the stairs I was surprised by the Australian accent of the race commentator. It was Dave Cundy from the Central Coast who I discovered is well renowned in running circles and was Road Events Manager (Athletics) for the Sydney Olympics.

A couple of minutes into the stairs and I heard another Australian accent. John Taplin from Melbourne was just behind me and he was yelling out words of encouragement to motivate both of us. He was a generous man with these; he told me later over a beer that he kept the cursing mostly to himself.

Yes, the wall a second time provided moments for cursing. 36 kilometres into the marathon and my legs had lost strength and my stomach was feeling nauseous. I was hunched over and placing my hands on the steps to help propel me up, a bit like a monkey on all fours. It did allow me to look between my legs and the wall took a whole new upside down perspective. Midnight Oil's song "Read about it" was playing in my head but I couldn't seem to get past "Nothing ever happens, nothing really matters". The brain was getting mushier as the show rolled on.

The narrow sections of the wall were moments of relief. These sections had handrails, allowing use of the upper body and gave some respite to the legs. Once runners had climbed for around fifteen minutes, there was an undulating section along the peak which was a zero sum game. For every fifty stairs up were fifty stairs down and I had a flash of cramp through both calves when I tried to brake after coming down one of these sets. Francis from Marathon-Photos.com was on one nasty steep section asking runners to look up for the camera. I got out of my hunched Neanderthal hand and foot mode and evolved into a walking homo sapien for the shot. He had captured me at my worst (see photo at top of page).

My stomach nausea was not helped by the hunched over scramble up the stairs. Dave Cundy had passed on three tips to all runners a few days prior to the run: "hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate", and I had taken this a little too far and was now feeling bloated. I got to a flat section (there are one or two of these) between sets of stairs and left a piece of me on the wall. I heaved three times in the space of a minute. The second and third were minor acts compared to the first vomit which was a crystal clear liquid, forming a nice arched projection into the side of the wall. During this little episode Christine Carleton from New Zealand ran past and she was courteous and checked that I was OK. Her words of encouragement were timely and I sought her out the next night at the marathon party to thank her. She finished second amongst the women and her partner Graeme Lear finished fourth amongst the men. A great result for the Kiwi pair.

A heave after a big night out can make you feel so much better and on the Great Wall of China the effect is similar. My stomach now felt relatively stable and a friendly Danish official reminded me there was only a half-mile of wall left. Rejuvenated, I took in the view one last time and continued the run. At the 37 kilometre mark runners come 'off the wall' and I saw my Chinese tour guide, 28-year-old Dody, who had shown my tour group the sights of Beijing over the last five days. We were the same age and had connected as we spoke freely about important things like the development of China, the effect of the upcoming Olympics, and girls. He shook my hand and gave me words of encouragement whilst jogging next to me for thirty metres before returning to his post.

Kilometres 37 to 42.2: the downhill and finish line

It was literally all downhill from here. My competitive juices were surging and I tore (well, relatively) down the steep 4.5 kilometre switchback road all had run up about four hours ago. I reeled in four runners on this section, including Christine and then there was only the flat 800m remaining. A Dane who I hadn't seen for four hours was just in front of me and I caught him with 600m to go. This acted as a catalyst and he sprung into life, surging ahead. With 100m remaining I caught him again and we raced to the finish. A lunge at the line and I just pipped him. This marathon is promoted as an experience and not about times and places, but I'm sure runners can relate to me wanting to do the best I could.

I felt elation. I had completed the Great Wall Marathon. New friends from Canada who had run the half-marathon cheered me at the finish line and it was great to briefly swap stories. A stream of Australians came through including John Taplin, Michael Hull and Mari-Mar Cerezo as I perched myself in the shade and nibbled on a half melted HPLC bar imported from Sydney. I had finished in 4:20:40, seventh place amongst the men. Jo had set a five hour goal and at 4:55:40 she entered the compound and crossed the finishing line. She finished fifth amongst the female runners. There was a large banquet on the night after the run, and plenty of experiences were exchanged, along with the contact details of my new friends.

Sprouting for China

The Great Wall of China Marathon was a terrific experience and I recommend it to any runner. It has a terrific website (www.great-wall-marathon.com) which belies it being poorly advertised in running calendars on the Internet. Perhaps this is a ploy by the program organisers to prevent getting too big too quick?

As for preparation, my main tip is to get some miles under your belt on stairs and hills. Jo and I feel we benefited from giving the Honeymoon Stairs in Sydney's Royal National Park a good workout in the weeks prior to the run.

I've returned from China as if I'm on a retainer with the Chinese Tourist Commission. I've been sprouting how good the country is - the people, the food, the adventure in buying things and getting around - to all my mates. Off the primary tourist trail it is cheap and the country offers plenty to do, including a run on what some consider one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Tour Details

Australians had a choice of two travel agents to book their marathon package through. We used Mar-Mar Cerezo from Travelling Fit in Sydney (Ph: 02 9664 8468). She was excellent and I recommend her for those interested in next year's event. Mari-Mar and her husband Michael (on a delayed honeymoon) both ran in China, with Mari-Mar finishing fourth amongst the females.


This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010


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