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Great Wall Marathon

Great Wall Marathon

Article by: John Lindsay

Reproduced with permission of the author

I wasn't going to write anything about the Great Wall Marathon in China because it's technically not an ultra, however a number of people have asked how it went, so here goes.

Around February we saw a picture of a man on all fours climbing up some very steep steps on the Great Wall of China - click here and you'll see the picture I'm talking about. It was just the sort of picture to set the juices on any red-blooded ultra person racing.

So we made some enquiries, and found that Mari-Mar Cerezo from Travelling Fit, a Sydney travel company, was the Australian agent for this Danish organised event. Incidentally, Mari-Mar did Six Foot this year in 5.13 and was part of the 9th finishing Thomson Trailblazers team in the recent Sydney Trailwalker with a time of 18 hours and some minutes, which is cause for respect.

Our plan was that I would run the course and my wife Olga would walk it, however with an 8 hour cut off and a degree of difficulty of 50% above a normal marathon based on past times I had studied, it was clear that this would not be feasible.


Some of you may recall the story I wrote last year about Mt Kinabalu in Borneo, especially the 2nd part about Olga's decision to pull out at around 12,000 ft (you can read the story here). Olga has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and this among other things impairs her body's ability to process oxygen, making physical activities considerably harder for her than for people with normal immune systems.

It has been gnawing at her that there was unfinished business on that mountain, and tentatively she had set her mind to go back in a couple of years time and have another crack at it, with the benefit of a gradual exercise program to strengthen her upper body so she could make better use of the ropes up some of the steep sections near the top.

Well, we decided to make a diversion to Borneo on the way to China and have a go at it this year. This time, we stayed two days at the 5,500 ft level, and the third day at the 11,000 ft level to get better altitude acclimitisation, and I feel sure that this paid off. We also set out earlier on the final day at around 2.15 am in the morning for the final assault on the summit, and with great effort, she was rewarded by arriving at the 13,455 ft summit 5 minutes before sunrise. For Olga, the words of John Denver's song "Go For The Gold" are incredibly pertinent ...

"On a snow crystal morning some place close to heaven,
On a side of a mountain in a race for the sun,
In a matter of moments the dream of a lifetime is won."

It truly is a spectacular experience, as close to "breath taking" as you can imagine. Magnificent as it is, the Grand Canyon by comparison simply doesn't rate when it comes to this mountain (this is my opinion of course, but I've experienced both). So huge is this mountain in relation to the surrounding landscape, that at sunrise from the top, you can see a massive shadow all the way out to sea on the other side of Borneo.


After a couple of days recovery, we joined around 900 other people from about 20 countries on the Great Wall Marathon tour in Beijing. Our first impression of China was the high levels of pollution as the plane descended through a thick pall of dust and smog reminiscent of Los Angeles 20 years ago. Part of this is caused by industry and part by dust from the desert. It was several days before we saw the sky.

On the positive side, Beijing Airport is modern, and they have built a very fast tollway to take you into the city. Bicycles which once used to be the main means of transport in Beijing, are being replaced by cars as the strongly growing economy makes its effects felt. And make no mistake, the Chinese can build nice cars - not only joint venture cars such as Volkswagen which are built in Shanghai, but also their own home grown Red Flag brand car. There are many modern buildings going up, and they have planted what looked like millions of beautiful trees. They are going all out for the 2008 Olympics.

We did the usual tourist bit for the first few days, with visits to Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple Palace, Ming Tombs, and so on. It was very hot and I must admit that I did not find this as interesting as I expected.

Our pleasure was greatly enhanced however by having our 27 year old son join us for the week in Beijing. He teaches English in Taiwan and his ability to speak Chinese eased the burden of making ourselves understood. He became an unofficial interpreter for the group we were with, and did much of the bargaining with the hordes of people selling their wares the moment you alight off the buses (they've learned capitalism pretty well).


To our delight, the morning of the marathon was perfectly clear. It made such a difference to see the sky as we drove into the mountains 130 kms east of Beijing for our section of the wall. This is not the place that most tourists go, and is very rural.

We were transported to the Wall in a convoy of 18 buses, with a police escort for the last 50 km or so to clear a path through the slow moving traffic which pays not a lot of attention to road rules. There were approximately 600 runners (350 in the marathon and 250 in the half) plus spectators, and the trip took 3 hours. This required a couple of pit stops along the way, and the 18 buses and police escort simply pulled up on the side of the road near an orchard for 10 minutes. No doubt there'll be a great crop of apples from this orchard this year.

At 7.30 am, the marathon started, followed half an hour later by around the half marathon. The half marathon incidentally was won by New Zealander Rod Dixon who won the Boston Marathon some years ago. He's now 50 years old and looks very fit. His time was 2.04, which should give you an idea of the difficulty of the course.

The Great Wall in this part of China is VERY STEEP. You do a 3.2 km section twice, the first time stating at the 5 km mark. At this stage, your legs are still fresh and I found I could walk the up sections without stopping. That's right, I said "walk", not "run". I never saw anyone running on the Wall, up or down, although some of the elite athletes may have. The race rules in fact prohibit running on some sections due to the danger. It would be just too easy to trip with nothing to stop your fall, and you'd likely take a bunch of people with you.

We then go from 8 kms to 34 kms on gravel and asphalt roads through small villages, where the inhabitants all came out to watch and many of the little kids said Hello in English to us. We weaved in and out of people at the markets, smoking and noisy three wheeled mini tractors, people on bikes, and motor scooters sometimes carrying whole families. Immaculately dressed police in uniform were at regular spots to give us clear passage.

In fact, that's something which stood out. I went to China in 1985 and at that time everyone in the military or police seemed to be dressed in a "one size fits all" green uniform with a Mao cap. This image is now completely gone, and they've invested in some very smart uniforms for their police and military, and they wear them with great pride.

Most marathonners "hit the wall" at around 32 kms. In the Great Wall Marathon, this has special meaning, because you really do hit the wall for the 2nd time at 34 km, but this time your legs are glycogen depleted. I was surprised how much difference this made. It was like going up Duane Spur in the Bogong to Hotham event, maybe harder due to the steepness of the steps.

So hard was this section that it took me 1.20 to go 2 kms. I did not see a single person who did not have to repeatedly stop for recovery on this section. One of the faster runners from Australia was John Taplin from Melbourne who completed the event in 4.30 (the winning time was 3.50). He told me that he had to lie down for 10 minutes in one of the towers. I passed a US person who said he felt like he was running an event at 14,000 ft, and that's just what it felt like to me.

I finished the marathon in 6.31, almost exactly the time that I predicted. I was 185th out of 259 finishers under the 8 hours when they stopped recording times. It was quite hot with the temperature around 30 degrees Celsius, and this would have caused some problems for people coming from cooler climates.

There is a picture of me here. I'm no 67 - head down watching where I'm putting my feet as a fall would be catastrophic.


This is a marathon you need to put on your list of "100 things to do before you die". It's definitely a unique experience. They had something like 30 the first year they ran it, 90 the 2nd year, and 600 this year. I believe it will continue to grow rapidly for the next few years, and will almost certainly have to be capped due to the logistics involved in putting that number of people over the wall which in sections is only single file with steep unprotected drop offs over the side - not all of it is restored bricks such as you see in the photos.


The official marathon website is www.great-wall-marathon.com

Runner Photos are at www.marathon-photos.com

John Lindsay
Melbourne, Australia

John has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :

Feel free to E-mail him at jlindsa1@bigpond.net.au.

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