2011 Great Wall Marathon

China Flag

May 21, 2011
Tianjin Province, China
Event site

The Great Wall Marathon is extremely hard. One of the guys I ran with in Antarctica told me that if Antarctic is a 9 out of 10 in difficulty, Great Wall is a 15. I think he might be underestimating it because he is such a good runner. A couple of Marathon Maniacs who ran this year said it was the hardest marathon of the 150 they’ve done. They couldn’t name the second hardest; the Great Wall stands that far apart from everything else.

This course has just about everything: steep, long hills; multiple hills; road, path, and trail running; and extreme obstacles. There are 5,164 steps on the Wall that we have to climb or descend (and I don’t know which is worse). We had to cross the same Wall section twice, once each way, so we get to ascend and descend each step.

If you want to see the interesting parts in under three minutes, here’s a video from one of the half marathon runners:

The day started off well enough. After a long bus ride from Beijing, I was at the race start at Yin and Yang Square in Tianjin Province. It was overcast and chilly, perfect conditions for running. I would have been very happy if the weather stayed like that. It’s awful for pictures, but I wasn’t going to be taking any along the way anyway. I was debating whether I wanted to carry my Camelbak. I would be able to carry some food and water (and my iPhone for pics) to survive the hot weather, but I would also have to hump that extra weight over the Wall, twice. Which one is more important? Since it’s cold, I unpacked the Camelbak and converted to my run belt.

It was also windy, but I was dressed for a hot, 30 C day. How many times have I been to a start wishing I had clothes or equipment that I didn’t think I’d need? I should always bring everything, and I say that every time I’m at a start line, and I never do it. I keep meaning to make a checklist and have a dedicated gear bag where the stuff never leaves the bag. Unless I’m using something it’s in the bag so it’s always packed. It would always have my Bodyglide, sunscreen, powerbars, and so on. I do this with my suitcase since I travel so much, so why not for races?

Since I was expecting it to be hot, and since I’m supporting Team PAWS Chicago this year, I was wearing my Team PAWS Chicago singlet (so, bare shoulders), so I was cold. I didn’t even bring my arm warmers to China. I used my compression socks as arm warmers and deal without thumbs as I want to move stuff around. I looked really stupid, and I looked stupid for a while. We hadn’t had any problems for traffic, so we still had our time cushion. I wasn’t really complaining though, because it wasn’t as chilly as waiting for National Marathon to start.

The mist cleared suddenly and completely about 10 minutes before the start of the first wave (I’m in the second, being a slow poke). It got quickly warm, but not oppressive. This was the good heat without the humidity. It was also the bad heat because I thought it felt not as hot as it actually is. I might start to overheat without recognizing its onset.

The event site says that we should leave our watches at home so we aren’t demoralized by the splits. I had my Garmin 410 because I’m a slave to geo-tracks, but I set the data display to just show elevation. That should be the most interesting bit as I go across the wall. I don’t know what the highest point is, and there are multiple local maxima, so it’s not like I can use it as a goal. I still want the GPS trace even I will be embarrassed by the time.

The course started with a 5 k uphill on paved roads to the start of the first pass over the Wall. There’s about 3.5 k on the wall itself, including extremely steep steps and narrow, treacherous parts. I wanted to get up that first part as fast as I could so I’m not backed up behind a long line of people, most of whom, including me, plan to walk the Wall portion. I got backed up anyway, but I was fine with that. I was a bit cooked from hill so I could use the forced break. Some people got a bit anxious and tried to cut the line so they can keep running, but it was only a few people. Most resigned themselves to politeness and non-personal bests.

The entrance to the Wall, after the 5 k uphill. Photo by Josh
from Team Gluten Free.

The portions of the Wall along the ridge lines got a good breeze, which counteracted the heat a bit. My splits for the two miles on the Wall were 31:48 and 27:08. A lot of that was just standing still at the narrow points as I waited for my turn to pass the choke point. I didn’t mind that much. I didn’t want anyone to feeled rush and do something that might get them in trouble or hurt them. Some of those stone steps are worn slick and make it easy to slip right off the Wall into the canyon.

There were bottlenecks on the first pass. Photo by Josh
from Team Gluten Free.

Despite the large splits, my first pass of the Wall seemed to end sooner than I thought it would. I had just put my head down and did one step after another without thinking about where I was. Before I realized I was that far along, I was already on the long downhill back into Yin and Yang Square. Downhill steps aren’t that much more fun than the uphill ones. Those are some steep stairs, real knee and ankle breakers because they are also narrow front to back. At one point I slipped and the front of my left shoe went into the side of the wall. My ring toe (is that the piggy that had none?) immediately started to throb but not like a stubbed toe. The pain felt deep, but manageable. I didn’t worry about it too much because I figured that it would go away.

My foot doesn’t quite make it onto the next step, from Marathon-Photo.com

Coming off the wall, we descended a steep and narrow covered staircase from one of the Wall towers into Yin and Yang Square to go back under the Start banner again. I felt okay; I knew that I’d just done a hard part of the course, I was a bit tired, but I’ve also run enough marathons now to mentally get that pain and tired muscles are mostly temporary, and that I feel a bit dead in the quads at one moment doesn’t mean anything a mile into the future when I’ve had a chance to recover. I started my normal marathon pace, which I planned to hold until the half way point where I’d see how I was doing.

Still looking good while on the Wall for the first pass, from Marathon-Photo.com

At 10 k, my virtual partner was already 50 minutes ahead of me using the pace I had programmed for Two Oceans, a seven hour cut-off for 56 k. Now I have an eight hour cut-off for 42 k and I was almost an hour behind before I’ve even done a quarter of it. My toe still hurt, but it was not giving me that much of a problem. There was plenty of shade for this portion, too, so running was easy and pleasant.

After we got a little bit out of the town around the start area, we got into the little villages with their narrow streets. Kids lined the roads to high five the runners and to hand out flowers they’ve picked in the fields. Usually at least one of them would recognize “Chicago” on my singlet, and once one shouts “Chicago” they all do.

At the water stations, instead of cups, we got normal bottled water, which was quite nice because I needed a lot of water between stations–the dust was really bad and it was affecting my throat and nose. It was hot and dry, which meant I could pour water on me and it would cool me down as it evaporated. The kids were also out collecting the water bottles that the runners discarded. I think they got money for every bottle they turned in.

Running through the villages, from Marathon-Photo.com

At about the 8 mile mark, the half marathon and marathon runners took different paths, literally, as we left the road for a hard-packed dirt path. I started to get lonely. There are only about 800 marathoners and the Wall had spread out everyone. Now the majority of the racers, the half-marathoners, were onto their own course. Running alone is tough because I can’t distract myself by talking to someone or exchanging encouragement. I don’t even get a silent pace partner.

At the halfway point, I felt like I’d already run a marathon. I had reached that point in three hours, an abysmal time for a non-extreme run. I had five hours to do the second half, but I was cooked already. I didn’t know how I’d do the rest. But, I wasn’t thinking about the finish just yet.

My next goal was the time cut-off at 34.5 k, right before the second pass of the Wall. I had to hit that by the 6 hour mark or I could’t continue the marathon because I might not be able to make it across the Wall and back down the hill in the remaining two hours. That is, the organizers know from experience that if it took me 6 hours to get to 34.5 k, it might take me more than two hours to do the final 8 k, even if 5 k of them are downhill on normal roads. They weren’t wrong, either.

After the half-way point, the course went uphill for a long, long way. It just kept going up and up and up. And then it went up. This wasn’t on the profile that I saw, and I never really thought about the bits off the Wall. Almost everyone was walking, including me. Maybe a couple of people passed me. This continued for a long time before I got to the downhill section, which included a rocky, rutted dirt road that was a real ankle breaker. I’m not a trail runner, so the side-to-side movements was taxing all those stabilizing muscles that I never use. My goal was to run from mile 17 and mile 19. I did, but it hurt and I thought I might have sprained my ankle, which reminded me of my toe which was no longer hurting (so I guess it wasn’t broken).

By that time, it was getting pretty warm, but I wasn’t feeling the effects of the heat as much as I expected. I had also started using salt pills for this race, taking one every hour. I don’t think that I get enough salt from the gels and sports drinks, and it’s easy to take a pill where the thought of squirting gooey syrup into my mouth can be quite unappealing during the second half of a marathon. I have plenty of extras so I also give some out to other people who were cramping. Why didn’t I know about these sooner? Now, if only I get the same thing as a gel in such a tiny, mess free package.

From there, it’s onto the main road back to Yin and Yang Square. I was tired, but it was much easier to be on a flat road that I’d already run, knowing that I would finish the next bit shortly.

I entered the square for my second crossing of the Wall, heard my name called out by the announcer, and followed the barriers to the covered stone stairway that led up to the tower that would let out onto the wall. In front of everyone in the square I slipped on the third set, landing on my hands and knees, and looked the fool, but I just kept going.

On the Wall, there’s a bit of a flat portion until you get away from the square and start the proper climb up the mountain. I’d already come down that part going downhill, and I knew it was going to be a bitch. And then it was.

I started up the steps just like I’d walk up any stairs, but I was quickly overheated and breathing hard. My quads were screaming at me. The day was starting to get warm, and the rocks making up the steps had been soaking up the heat and were now radiating it back. Being on a hill, it was also protected from the wind, so there wasn’t a cooling breeze. That heat was going to kill me. I couldn’t climb ten steps with having to take a rest. It was tough aerobically and not as tough anaerobically. That is, effort caused me to breath hard but my legs didn’t feel weak. With roughly 2,000 steps to go, if I could only take 10 steps at a time before a break, I was in trouble. But, the trick is to think about the next step and none of the other ones. do that 2,500 times and you’re done.

The long climb at the start of the second pass. Photo by Josh
from Team Gluten Free.

There were some people behind me, so I offered to step aside on this narrow section if they wanted to pass. Nobody wanted to pass. The whole time I was on the wall, I think only two people truly passed me so that I never saw them again, while I leapfrogged many other people.

This part of the “run” was the hardest, continuous physical effort I’ve ever experienced, I think. It was hard, hot, and at the end of an already extreme effort. I turned into a zombie, which I think is insulting to zombies because the undead walk faster than I was. I might have looked like a zombie with all of the salt caked on me.

My split for the next mile was 38:27 minutes/mile, and nobody was passing me. I didn’t do any better in the next lap, slowing down to 38:48 minutes/mile. Not only was I going slowly, but I needed to sit or lean a few times. I tried to keep my mini breaks to five exhales. For awhile, I and another guy moved in tandem 10 steps at a time, take a breather, then try again. A couple of people I see on the Wall are almost in tears. Most are beyond words.

Boston Marathoners like to talk about Heartbreak Hill. I’m sure that people think Boston is tough, but I bet if you looked around you on Heartbreak Hill, you’d see people running. No one was running here. Those Boston runners might despair because their goal is slipping away from them. The runners around me despaired because the Wall was destroying them mentally to the point where we weren’t thinking about the finish or a time, but just surviving five steps more. A few people were sitting in the little shade available hoping someone could spare a gel or some water. At one point, I saw some Clif Blocks on the ground (in the wrapper), and thought about eating them. It seems silly now, even two days later, but that’s really as far as I was thinking at the time.

Eventually I got to the last highest point, which had three photographers (from Marathon Photos), and one of them said as I approach “This is the last step up, mate!”. I aped for the camera a bit then feel relief. I still had to get down from the Wall still, but that should be easy. It was literally all downhill from here. Even if I walked the rest of the way, including the last 5 k on the roads, I would easily make the cut-off. Any finishing time is as good as any other time for me at this point. I had spent over 135 minutes on the wall to cover around 4 miles. That’s a lot longer than my usual half-marathon time.

“This is the last step up, mate!” from Marathon-Photo.com

As I left the Wall, I knew I had no chance to break my Antarctic time of 6:21 because my watch just ticked over 6:01. I’m also not going to beat 6:30, my fallback time either because I don’t have a 29 minute 5k in me, and I knew that I needed a break after this last effort over the wall. I walked for about half a kilometer, just enjoying the view, then transitioned into a run-walk, and from Kilometer 39 I’m running full time all the way to the finish. My last mile, a completely flat mile, goes by in 9:47, including the time I turned around for a couple of seconds to talk to one of the other runners I knew. I was only feeling good because it was almost over.

I made the turn into Yin and Yang Square, with 50 meters to go. There was no one around me, and I’d made sure of that so I could hog the spotlight and the photographs at the end. Who wants to be the guy who’s chicked by the 70-year old woman in the finish line photo? Sure, it’s a completely sexist thought, but shouldn’t a guy at my age be a lot better than that (the answer is no, in individual cases, but probably yes statistically).

I showed off a little bit for the cameras and make sure that they get a good shot of my Team PAWS Chicago shirt. I always feel a bit guilty that I can feel so good right at the end, thinking that I had something extra I could have left on the course. That I can walk after finishing also makes me feel a bit guilty sometimes when I read about the Ironmen and -women who literally drag themselves across the finish line.

After crossing the finish line at 6:41, all I could think about was stopping. This was my longest marathon time, and just short of my total time for Two Oceans. I got my medal, got my bag, and sat in the stands in the shade to recover.

It took me about 15 minutes to realize that I’d just finished my Seven Continents. I hadn’t even thought about that all day. I didn’t get up this morning thinking that I was about to complete my Seven Continents. I wasn’t thinking about it on the bus ride. The woman sitting next to me was part of our group and knew that this race would finish my Seven Continents and we had talked about it a lot (she’d been to all seven too), but hadn’t said anything. I turned to her and said “I just finished my Seven Continents!” I had meant to cross the finish line holding up seven fingers to get a nice photograph symbolizing me feat. I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t thought about anything I normally think about during the end. I hadn’t thought about the Snickers bar which was my normal reward for finishing. I didn’t remember my Snickers until hours later back at my hotel.

Me and Maria, who was raising money for Livestrong. Photo by Josh
from Team Gluten Free.

So, what’s next? I’m going to do it again, and start thinking about completing a Grand Slam by running a marathon at the North Pole, where at least it won’t be hot. Before then, however, I have the Soldier Field 10-miler next weekend, the Minneapolis Marathon the weekend after, and the Liechtenstein Alpine Marathon the weekend after that.

2 Responses to 2011 Great Wall Marathon

  1. Another one on my bucket list! Do you get medals for half marathons?
    Sharon (from someone who has never had one!)

  2. Just found this after searching Great Wall Marathon as I’m planning this in May 2016 (my first time on the wall). Really great to read your account, i feel i know more about this run, the emotions and the pain far more so than from watching any you tube vid. Thanks for sharing and happy running.

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