On May 26, 2001 270 people from 16 countries accomplished what countless invading hordes/armies failed to do for thousands of years - scale and conquer the Great Wall of China! Parts of the Great Wall have stood for 4,000 - 7,000 years. I only stood (and ran) on it for under two hours, although it felt like an eon. I wouldn't say I conquered the Wall, but I did have the experience of a lifetime!
The Great Wall Marathon is a real thigh-buster with it's 3,700 steps!! But it was awesome and beautiful. I took pictures as I ran. We ran down dirt side streets through villages with shacks and through Chinese farmland. The kids were out yelling "Hel-lo!". I yelled "Hello" back and high-fived (low-fived actually, they were small kids) them. Ran through a crowded busy market street too! You can't imagine how hard it was to climb the wall the second time, at the end of the race! The Great Wall Marathon (GWM) is billed as one of the world's toughest marathons. And it certainly lives up to it's billing!
Ask anyone who has walked on the Great Wall and they will tell you it is the ultimate stair stepper exercise. Ask anyone who has run along the Great Wall and they will give you this blank "Oh My Goodness!" stare. Three thousand seven hundred steps would be a great workout in any gym. Add a 26.2 mile (42.195 km) marathon to the mix and stir in some nice sunny 90 degree weather (but it's a dry heat!) and you have an interesting challenge. The walkways themselves on the Wall are so steep in sections that railings have been added to help pull yourself up and to keep you from careening down off the Wall! Some steps are only inches high and over a foot deep, while other ones are knee-high and shallow. Some sections can fit six persons across while others are single file. The section of the wall that we ran on at Huangyaguan Pass was constructed some 1400 years ago and repaired in 1567 during the Ming Dynasty, but certain narrow sections still retained earlier rough stones that made running difficult.
But let's not get the cart before the horse. I was part of a marathon tour group based out of San Diego that spent almost a week in Beijing before the race. The flight over the Arctic Circle from Detroit to Beijing was 15 hours and 5 movies long. The entire trip from home to hotel took 23 hours. It's not as bad as it sounds though.
My usual concerns for not fluently knowing the language were heightened by the fact that China has a totally different alphabet! I knew a few words to get by and had plenty of time to research more on the plane. And what about the current tension with China over the downed US spy plane? How would the locals treat us? Regardless how I felt about the Chinese government, I was here to experience China's culture, its history, and its people on an individual level. While governments may differ, individuals a world apart, in many ways, are very similar. It was a very friendly place on the local level.
I wondered if the recent plane incident would be one of several China-US issues on my visit, but it only came up once in a lunch conversation. I found the Chinese to be very friendly, courteous and patient with these foreigners who knew little of their language. In fact, most of the Chinese in Beijing seem to know some English - they are taught it in school. And many signs and writings are in both Chinese and English. Even so, we did our best at learning their language. And then there is "pinyin" - not really a language, but a way of writing the Chinese characters and words in a phonetic way using our Western alphabet.
We arrived in Beijing at 2:00 in the afternoon to 100 degree heat and haze. In fact, it was 90-100 degrees every day (including race day!!), but dry as a bone…and a very dry bone at that. It was 2:00am at home, but we immediately set out to explore Tian'amen Square and surrounds. I was waiting for the time lag to knock us out, but it never did...until we got home (expect to sleep for a week)! The people in Beijing were either quiet or very friendly - especially the street vendors! Oh were they persistent! I guess we didn't look local.
We immediately noticed the hoards of bicyclists with their separate traffic lanes. Oh, and the traffic! Three inches of space is an invitation to move in or cross through traffic, whether you are a car, bicyclist or pedestrian! And yet, for all the traffic congestion, there were few accidents and no road rage. Back home there would be overheated tempers and conflicts in seconds. Here there was a mild honk and that was it. Everyone knew that everyone else did it, that it was expected, so why blow up over it. And when there was a fender-bender, the two motorists along with everyone else it seemed, huddled around the cars to debate and decide the accident. Often a policeman would stand by to make sure things went smoothly. Eventually the accident was resolved and everyone went on their way without involved litigation to worry about later.
As congested as the roads were at times (not always), Beijing's sidewalks were not. Even though Beijing has a population of 12 million it seemed as congested as major cities in the US. Beijing is a large city with the ancient centuries-old Hutongs (simple homes) mixed in with the modern skyscrapers. Lots of construction is taking place for the city's hosting for the 2008 Olympics.
Beijing was still a candidate city for the 2008 Summer Olympics when I was there. Signs of this and the resulting new construction were evident throughout the city. One stretch of a main street was blocked off to traffic. Beautiful Olympic sculptures were displayed here. It was fun posing with Michael Jordan on a breakaway shot for the camera! But down one side street off this main modern drag we found ourselves in the Chinese open-air food court. Oh, you should see what they'll eat on a skewer(!) - or is it just to gross-out the tourists? Anything (as in everything) is fare game for the dinner menu (there aren't many dogs, cats, insects or birds running around...).
Because of Beijing's large population, the government has issued a "one family - one child" policy. Each couple is allowed to have one child. If they have another child, it is very expensive for the parents and also difficult for that child to get an education.
On our Hutong tour in Beijing, we visited a grade school where the children performed routines to music for us. Hutongs are the original neighborhoods that display the age-long history of Beijing from the time of its birth. We road down narrow thousand-year-old streets in pedicabs - a covered side-by-side two-seater with the driver peddling in front. People still live in these Hutongs today. We visited one couple and had a delicious many-course lunch with a family in their home and learned to make dumplings. Another tour to a factory showed us how chinese pottery was painstakingly made.
When not touring, we had plenty of time to explore Beijing on our own. While walking near Tian'amen Square one night, three of us ducked into a little shop to get seated chair massages while the locals stared in curiously at the three Americans!
And then there is Silk Alley - a shopper's and haggler's paradise! It's only a couple of crowded narrow streets but they are packed as tightly as possible with vendors and shoppers. The general rule is to start off by offering to pay 25% of the asking price. Then you and the vendor haggle from there towards a price. You can get some great deals on more than just silk clothing. I bought a very nice Northface winter jacket for only US$25, a backpack for US$20 and gortex gloves for US$5.
There were a lot of solitary policemen scattered throughout the streets and a number of guarded buildings or walled areas, but nothing that stifled our curiosity. And the streets felt relatively safe at night, though we weren't seeking out the darkest alleys either.
Every morning at sunrise around 5am, hundreds of Chinese converge on Tian'amen Square to watch the raising of the flag and hear their national anthem. I was surprised to see how many people came out every day. Mao's tomb is also on the Square and is a major attraction with long waiting lines every day. My one "encounter" in China took place on Tian'amen Square. I was taking a picture of the boulevard at night with its beautiful decorative lights strewn across it when out of the corner of my eye I spied a military guard (they're all very young) marching briskly toward me. Oops! Did I do something wrong? Was there more than the street in the picture? He barked some command to me that I didn't understand. After some hopeless attempts at dialog, and noticing everyone herding towards the exits, I realized he was just closing Tian'amen Square for the night.
I finally decided I needed to get some training in for this marathon, so I set out to explore a lake and garden on an early morning run (about 6am, though time has little meaning to my body at this point). A short beautiful run to balance my inner Ying/Yang I thought. After cruising across Tian'amen Square and skirted the wall of the Forbidden City I found another guarded wall around the lake and gardens. The wall went on…and on…and on... My short run was no longer that, but it introduced me to the early morning residents of Beijing. I came upon many people out and about exercising in their own way in the early morning hour - walking (sometimes backwards), jogging, practicing Ti Chi (like yoga). It was great. Some people were sweeping their sidewalks with brooms made of branches and twigs. In fact, individuals were employed to sweep the streets clean throughout the day with these brooms - even the busiest of streets.
Beijing was once made up of several concentric walls that encircled the city. In the center were the emperor's quarters where no trees or shrubs were allowed for fear of hiding assassins. The wall outside of this contained the imperial grounds with their yellow roofed palaces. Outside of this ring lived the people that maintained the inner two, and so on. In modern times, Beijing tore down almost all of these walls to make room for wide thorofares through the city. Some of the old huge gate walls were kept. Today, the Forbidden City with its wall still remains.
We toured the walled-in Forbidden City filled with centuries of history. We also took a canal boat ride to the elaborate Summer Palace built by the Empress Dowager Cixi. The haze was thick the first several days but lifted before the race to show a view of mountains outside of Beijing. They looked rugged…and tiring. Somewhere out there, three hours away was the Great Wall that we would run in a few days.
The Great Wall Marathon is a joint project between the Danish Athletic Federation and the Danish Oriental Tours/Albatros Travel, in alliance with the authorities of the Tianjin province. This was the third annual event. Last year only 50 people tackled the marathon in 115 degree heat and little shade! The winner finished around 4:20-4:30 (winning times in most marathons are 2:10 - 2:30). So you can expect to add an hour or two to your marathon time, if you have one - and for some people, this was their first marathon!
Running a marathon well means understanding your body - listening to it's aches and pains, but not listening to it whine. Hydration is the number one concern in any marathon and determines if or when you will "hit the wall". "Hitting the wall" before hitting THE WALL at the end of this marathon would not be a good thing! Even if you don't sweat much, and it's hard not to in 90 degree heat and sun, you loose fluid every time you exhale. If you loose only 1% of your starting body weight, you are seriously starting a downward spiral. Your heart rate will increase 5-10 beats per minute to maintain the same pace. That means you burn more energy and loose even more fluid just to stay even. For each pound lost, that is one pint of fluid you need to drink over that time period. Luckily there were 25 aid/water stations in the Great Wall Marathon and I was soon looking forward to each one! What they gave us were small bottles of water, not cups. In fact, through China we were cautioned to buy bottled water and to make sure we broke the seal when we opened it!
Ok, so drink water - that's easy enough. But if you run more than three hours you will probably sweat out so much sodium that you won't absorb any fluids through your intestines as you normally would. If so, you'll feel lethargic, bloated, and maybe shiver. You prevent this by taking salt and electolytes. As for energy, I carried some hard candy for energy during the second half of the marathon and to keep my blood sugar up. I would just nestle one in my mouth and let it slowly dissolve over a mile or two.
So throw some electolytes in with our water and energy foods and we're set, right? Well…cramps during a run are usually caused by dehydration or low serum calcium. Tums are an excellent source of calcium carbonate and will prevent cramping. I started popping these during the second half of the marathon as well. Anti-inflammatories, like Ibuprofen, are also the marathoner's friend. I took some just before the race and just before climbing the Great Wall again at the end. In addition to these small things, I carried a disposable camera with me on the entire run and got some great pictures!
Running a marathon is not as complicated or dangerous as it may sound. With a little experience and common sense it is a wonderful experience and great personal accomplishment. Even so, we had to carry a credit card and ID with us just in case we had to be taken to a hospital. Now that you know what to do and you've trained, you're ready to run a marathon...
It all started at 2:30 AM when the alarm unfortunately went off on-time in my hotel, two blocks from Beijing's Tian'amen Square. I tried to rationalize that it was 2:30 in the afternoon back home (the day before), but that didn't help much. A couple hundred of us well-hydrated runners boarded our busses for a three-hour ride to the race start at the Great Wall. If you've ever been well-hydrated before, you know a three-hour bus ride is the last thing you want to do!
As we passed out of Beijing into the countryside we saw how simple the people lived. Even at this early hour farmers were hauling their produce to market on overloaded three-wheeled bicycles or antiquated trucks. There were no rest areas out here, so twice the long line of busses stopped to relieve our well-hydration. Many of these runners are Hash House Harriers - runners who run around chasing a "hare" runner, much like a fox hunt, and then drink plenty of beer! These runners are not shy. When our busses stopped, it was women to the right, and men to the left. Usually there were at least some shrubs. Running has a funny way of bringing people together in a way that lets them shed their restrictions and let their hair (and sometimes other things) down.
We arrived at the wall's fort for the start. At 8:00am the race went off and we quickly started climbing the three miles of roads to get up to the Great Wall. Once on it we began running up and down the 3,700 steps that would lead us to the finish line. These are not your average steps! Some are short and deep while others are as high as your knee! Everyone stumbles at some point. Only about 6K of the race is on the wall - and that's enough!
I enjoy running trails so I did well on the wall, which at times is trail-like. I careened down a final long cliff of switchback steps in sixth place, ran forever around the wall of the fort and set out down the valley. This distance of about five to six miles already took me an hour!
The marathon began and finished on the Wall. In between were about 15 miles of running through villages and open land on dirt streets, trails and roads, following a wide rock-strewn dry riverbed. It eventually reached 90 degrees, but it was dry as a bone, so it felt hot but ok. Bottled water was provided about every mile so hydration wasn't a problem.
Leaving the fort, I ran out of Huangyaguan down the poplar-lined street I rode in on. I noticed a lot of these poplar trees lining streets in China with their trunks painted white for visibility. There were also forests of them. The marathon route soon veered off onto a dirt road that followed the dry riverbed filled with layers of loose rocks and boulders. Every so often I'd run by a person working in the riverbed, doing who-knows-what.
This dirt road lead to another village. The course ran through what appeared to be back streets where people lived modestly. These were all dirt streets that comforted the legs much more than the sections of pavement. Some families and little children were out to watch the runners pass by. I tried saying "nee-hao" ('hello' in Chinese), but got little reaction. When little children started saying "Hello" in English I answered back "Hello" and they loved it! Did they study English way out here too, or did they just learn this one word for the race?
Rounding a corner in one of these villages suddenly put me on market street on market day! It was filled with open-air vendors and shoppers with just enough room for a car to drive down the street. After several blocks I was back on the poplar-lined pavement and my lack of training was taking its toll on my legs. Finally the turn-around came and I dove back down into the valley to more dirt roads and villages. I celebrated my return journey to the Wall with an Advil. I was also sucking on hard candy for energy and occasionally chewing a Tums.
The return up the valley was much the same along dirt roads and through simple villages with people and children outside saying "hello". They were friendly and inquisitive. I picked up the pace briefly to make it past a farmer who was herding his goats onto the dirt road I was running on. Others behind me had to make their way around them. After rounding another corner in a village, I came upon three large cows that were lying down resting - melted into the dirt road in the heat.
I counted down familiar landmarks as I returned up the valley. As I neared Huangyaguan and the Great Wall fort again I began wondering: "should I run up the steps tot he Wall, or walk to conserve energy?". My legs made the decision for me after a couple of steps. We were walking! Not only that, I was soon forced to push down on my knees with my hands to make each step. My thighs were shot! It was a long hard climb back up to the Wall. Once there, the going was no longer impossible, now it was only tough. I stopped briefly to catch my breath and marvel at the grandeur of the situation and the awesome view.
Andrew, a friend I made on the tour who was about my speed, caught up to me. We talked each other into going easy and enjoying the experience. We each had brought cameras with us and decided to walk/run along the wall together to take some memorable shots and let the experience on the wall sink in before we had to descend back to reality...
The return to reality was not peaceful. I got a side stitch (cramp in my side) on the 3-mile run down off the wall. Luckily it went away in time for me to run into the fort for the fourth time in this race - but this time I was finishing!!
A 38-year old Chinese runner named Zi Jixiang won the marathon in 3:50:24 and the first woman, Jill Westenra from New Zealand, finished in 4:06:07, which gives you an idea of how hard it was (marathons are usually won in the low to mid 2 hour range). I finished 29th in the marathon in 4:44:04, over an hour slower than my slowest marathon. With only 2 weeks training, I'm happy with just surviving! The half marathon was won by New Zealand's past-Olympian Rod Dixon in about 2:03:06. The first woman finished close behind in 2:12:06 from the USA. To see how people crawl up the steps in this race checkout the photos on the web site: www.grun1.com/gwm. Next year's Great Wall Marathon is May 25th. For more information, run over to: www.great-wall-marathon.com
The Great Wall Marathon was continent number 4 in my quest for running marathons on all seven continents. With Africa and South America to go, my seventh one will be run in Antarctica in February 2003.