I had completed my 7th marathon and was ready to “up the ante” for my 8th. But, what one? My starting point was the Travelling Fit website. I had travelled with this company for five previous events and have always found it to be professional in its approach, organized with the friendly staff and, above all, it knew the needs of runners. Once I had perused the events available, it was decided that the Great Wall Marathon would be the next challenge. After registering, my focus turned to the training that needed to be undertaken in an effort to succeed. Apart from the normal marathon training, 3 sessions a week were conducted on the slopes of Mt Coot-that in an attempt to mirror the undulating profile of the Great Wall Marathon. Was I ready? Only time would tell!
Soon my wife, Marlene, and I were jetting off to meet with our fellow travelers and runners in Beijing for this adventure marathon.
Having not visited China before, we decided on the 6-night package with the after-marathon extension to Tibet.
Prior to the marathon, we enjoyed some of the cultural and historical buildings of Beijing such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Beijing Zoo. One could not visit China without observing the giant panda! Traffic in Beijing was horrendous with pedestrians needing to be wary of becoming road kill with errant drivers disregarding traffic rules at will. Becoming aware of the quality of air in Beijing was part of our daily routine as a smog-like haze seems to be a permanent feature of this city of 23 million people.
By the time of the marathon, we had become friends with many of our fellow runners and supporters in our Travelling Fit group. As always, Mari-Mar was ever present with her smile and words of encouragement as well as her supreme organization.
The Great Wall Marathon takes place on the Huangyaguan Pass in rural China, a distance of approx 120km north-east of Beijing. Two days before the marathon, was Inspection Day. After leaving our hotel at 6:30a.m., we arrived some two and a half hours later. Over 2 000 runners and hundreds of supporters were crammed into Yin and Yang Square for the briefing which, incidentally, was given by an Aussie.
After the briefing, we were transported to the Great Wall itself. No amount of reading or perusing travel brochures prepares you for the historical and magnificent engineering wonder that stood before us. And to think, it’s stood the test of time for over 2 000 years.
It was compulsory for runners to walk/run the 3.5km section of the wall to appreciate the challenge of the 5 164 steps that would need to be traversed on Saturday. This also gave supporters the opportunity to walk this section of the course.
Having walked this small section of the course, all manner of thoughts was zig zagging through my mind. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? No backing out now!
The night before the marathon, I checked the route and course profile again. After the 7km mark, I wondered whether we’d need a parachute to get down the slope. After the 34km mark, will it be mountain climbing to make it back to the Great Wall as the profile showed an almost vertical ascent?
Finally, the big day arrived. After arising at 2:30a.m., dressing, checking and re-checking my gear, we assembled in the foyer where we collected our breakfast bag of goodies. We were good to go. At 3:30a.m. we were leaving Beijing behind; even at this hour, the traffic was building up. After a two-and-a-half-hour trip, we arrived at the old Huangyaguan fortress. It was just on 90 minutes to go before the start of the 19th Great Wall Marathon.
A local marching band entertained us playing Christmas Carols(in May) which made the whole thing seem almost surreal.
The haka was performed by the New Zealand contingent – over 140 in all.
We knew the start was getting closer when a number of aerobics instructors began with warm-up exercises.
The first wave started at precisely 7:30a.m. Soon, my wave was called to the Assembly Area and we were off hoping to finish the 42.2km course in 8 hours or under which was the official cut-off time.
The first part of the course followed an 8.5km loop back to Yin and Yang Square. The loop started off with a 1km flat section from the Square through Huangyaguan Village. It was along this section that we realised that runners and vehicles shared the same roads and streets. There were no barricades as in many other events.
The next 4km took us on a mostly ascending, meandering road that led us to the entrance to the Great Wall, passing villages along the way.
As we entered the Great Wall and took our first step, it dawned on us that we had 5 163 of these to go before we could say we had “conquered the Wall”. The challenge lay before us. No two steps were the same. They all varied in height with some wide and some very narrow, making it hard to find a good rhythm in climbing them. This section was challenging, as was expected, but the views and the sense of awe at this engineering marvel was invigorating.
After passing through Yin and Yang Square again, we headed towards the spectator-lined countryside. The route passed through villages where children and elders cheered enthusiastically. The section on the Wall may very well have been challenging, but the 24km or so through the countryside was far from flat. Two long hills with another 300m worth of climb was wickedly tucked in the middle of the course. This proved to be every bit as challenging as the humidity was high and the temperature soared into the thirties.
Aid stations were roughly 4km apart. They were well stocked with bottled water, bananas, energy drinks and gels. The rubbish bins, full of iced water with sponges, were very welcome. I used the iced water to splash onto my aching thighs.
Completing the 24km through the countryside, we returned to Yin and Yang Square. We collected an orange wristband to prove that we had completed the section on the Wall twice. Only 8.5km to go.
The most notorious and ‘feared’ part of the entire race is the “Goat Track”. This section of steps is roughly 700m long with up to an 800 gradient in places. I class it as ‘brutal’. Here, and along the Great Wall, I observed runners panting, gasping and cursing. Many were crawling up the steps; others were sitting catching their breath ready for that final effort to reach that finish line.
The final challenge lay in keeping up the pace as it was mostly downhill towards the finish line. The race finished where it started in Yin and Yang Square amidst hundreds of spectators, supporters and athletes cheering each finisher. A sigh of utter relief, yet with a huge smile, was there as my finisher’s medal was placed around my neck.There, at the finish line, was Marlene to congratulate me on completing the marathon. My time was 6h 15min.
After cheering the last of the Travelling Fit crew across the Finish Line, we embarked on the next bus back to the Great Wall Hotel.
The evening after the Marathon was the Gala Post-Marathon Dinner. It was being held at the China National Convention Centre. All runners and supporters were gathered in one large room – over 3 000 in total. There was a complimentary glass of champagne on arrival, a wide variety of food on the buffet and entertainment. It was a great night to celebrate and reflect on our success.
Sadly, it was soon time to say good-bye to our new-found friends as we went our separate ways – some to extend their stay; others to return to Australia. Ours was to travel to Tibet but that’s another story.
My thanks to Mari-Mar for being there when we needed her to be, for her encouragement and support and her liaison with the marathon organisers.