The desire to do the Great Wall Marathon was planted in my head after my friend Bec did the run in May 2015. It just looked like such a fantastic challenge that I wanted to sign up on the spot.
Later in 2015 I decided to take the plunge and I signed up for the Great Wall of China Marathon and tour. Fast forward eight months and I arrived in Beijing and was ready for the run of a lifetime.
The Thursday before the run was the Great Wall inspection day. All the participants gathered in Ying Yang Square as we mingled and prepared to see what was in store for us on the weekend. The idea behind the inspection day is to allow all the runners to walk the section of the wall that will be used in order to become familiar with the terrain. Runners then have the choice to change distance (8k, half and full marathon) before the weekend.
The busses dropped us at the entrance to the wall which was 5km up a winding road which would later serve as the starting section of Saturday’s run. The view along the wall was breathtaking! I took my time as I headed up and down the 2,000+ steps as I evaluated whether I still wanted to attempt the marathon, or drop down to the half-marathon. By the time I got back to Ying Yang Square I’d made up my mind – half-marathon it was. The heat and humidity made the conditions unfavourable to try my first marathon, and I wanted to be able to enjoy the race instead of worrying about making time cut-offs.
As Saturday morning rolled around I started my day with a less than desirable breakfast at the hotel in Jiaxing. A few pieces of bread with peanut butter and Vegemite, watermelon and a banana is not an ideal breakfast on a race day, but the food choices were limited. I wasn’t going to eat Chinese Spam and the eggs didn’t look too fantastic. After arriving at Ying Yang Square at 6am I had a protein shake and another banana and got myself ready for the run.
I was in the third wave so at 7:45am I joined several hundred others in the start corral and waited to start. At 7:50am we heard the word “GO!” and we all started shuffling out of Ying Yang Square and towards the hill. I jogged the first few kilometres until I hit the steeper sections of the hill where I slowed to a power walk. It was already starting to get warm and the humidity didn’t help, but at least there was a nice cool breeze as we ascended. As I got to the start of the wall I started to get hungry, so I had an energy gel and some water and started to conquer the wall.
The steps seemed to be so much harder than when I first climbed them on the Thursday. I made a mental note that the next time I decide to tackle the Great Wall that I need to train on stairs. There were several bottlenecks through the narrow sections as people stopped in the middle of the path to take photos. A lot of us used these times as moments to catch our breath.
As I started the descent to Ying Yang Square my knees started hurting from the steep descent and the steep stairs. My Achilles tendon also started to hurt on the descent so I took my time as I didn’t want to risk getting injured. As I headed back into the square I started jogging before heading down the main street and towards one of the neighbouring villages. I started chatting to a lady who was going at the same pace as me and then slowed to a power walk as the heat was starting to get to both of us. Despite having SOS electrolytes in my Camelbak, and stopping at water stations, I was feeling dehydrated. The lack of a nutritious breakfast was starting to take its toll.
The streets were lined with locals who had come out to cheer us on and take photos of the 2,500 crazy runners who decided that running the Great Wall was a good idea. They cheered us on and the words they were yelling sounded similar to someone saying “Daniel”. The kids were all so excited to see the runners and many held out their hands for high-5s and could call out “hello” to us as we went past. The smiles on people’s faces and the cheering just made the atmosphere electric at times.
The course through the village was relatively flat but I continued on my power-walk as I couldn’t maintain a steady jog. At one point I saw a tent with the sign ‘toilet’ on it so I decided to take a small pit stop. The ‘toilet’ was actually just a patch of dirt that the tent surrounded and I was grateful to have been carrying tissues and wet wipes with me. I must say that trying to squat when your legs are like jelly is certainly something I haven’t attempted before.
As I headed back towards Ying Yang Square I gave more high-5s to the locals and even stopped at one water station to give a girl of about 7 a small koala that I’d found on the wall. She was so excited and ran off to show her parents the present that she’d received. She’d been helping out at a water station and was giving drinks to the runners so that was a little thank you gift.
The last few kilometres were the toughest and felt like the longest. I was hungry, hot, and my legs still felt like jelly after being on the wall and walking over 2000 steps. I pushed on and just wanted to get it done. About 500m from the finish I started running and as I rounded the corner into Ying Yang Square I was so happy. I crossed the line and was presented with my medal and at that moment I remembered Coach Pain’s words from BFX the weekend before. It’s not about the medal, but about the person wearing the medal. I may not have completed the marathon, but I still put effort into doing the half-marathon and finished.
This race was unlike any other, and I am glad I just did the half as I was able to enjoy the run. It wasn’t just a half-marathon, but en eye-opening experience. Would I do it again? Absolutely!
Type: Half Marathon. A full marathon and 8km event are also available.
Location: Beijing, China
Date: 21 May 2016