“Great Wall Marathon” – kind of does what it says on the tin. It’s a marathon, on the Great Wall of China – what’s not to like? Slickly organized, it’s a marathon, half marathon and 8.5K “fun run” rolled into one with 2,500 runners (about 1,000 in the marathon itself) and around the quarter of the race on the Great Wall itself – passing East to West near the start and then West to East towards the end with (apparently) some 5,164 steps to be climbed along the way. The rest of the course being a trog around some rural Chinese villages with a bunch of hills thrown in for good measure.
To reduce congestion the race sets off in five waves ten minutes apart from 7.30am to 8.10am with full and half marathon runners mixed together in the first four waves and the “fun” run going off at 8.10am. All perfectly civilized if you’re been sensible enough to travel out early and stay close to the start which is about 2 hours north of Beijing. Not so good if you’ve just flown in the afternoon before and are still on UK time which means the start is actually at half past midnight! So off from Beijing at 4am (= 9pm UK) and snoozed for a couple of hours in the back of the car before arriving in a freezing dawn. Plenty of buzz around the ancient fortress site and a wonderfully surreal experience of the local military band playing Christmas carols to welcome the foreign visitors. With a 30+ degree forecast I was just wearing a T-Shirt over my running vest and nearly froze to death waiting for the start. Plenty of stalls selling hot coffee but since they making it from thermos flasks of hot water of dubious provenance I passed, thinking it might be a tad unwise to set off on a long hot race with a stomach full of Beijing bugs.
By 7am though the sun was fully up and it was starting to get pretty hot. 7.30am sharp they fired the starting gun and we trooped off through the Temple gate and turned south away from the wall. First km was fine, through the local village, lots of noise and dust, slightly downhill and feeling easy but the heat hit me the instant I emerged into the street. I knew it would be a climb up to the wall (one of the Wall’s most impressive features is the way they built it right along the ridge line of every mountain, no matter how steep) and the next 4k was a steady but very runnable drag up a winding single track road. Not much traffic but such as there was consisted mostly of straining motorcycle rickshaws belching diesel fumes as they inched past us at not much better than running pace. Goal for the day was to try and get round rather than push for any kind of time so I took it super easy up the climb and reached 5k and the start of the wall proper in around 26.50.
Running the wall was an awesome experience, steep climbs up hundreds of steps and quite stunning views on what is widely considered (or at least widely advertised) as one of its most scenic sections.
The route winds steeply up and down the top of the craggy hills with quite stunning views passing through small guardhouses on most of the vantage points. Yes it’s a race but couldn’t resist stopping to admire the views from some of the more spectacular points – would be a crime to come all this way and not taking the time to look around! Part of the impressive organization kicked in here with doctors and paramedics stationed around of the more precipitous descents (steep and slippery rock with some interesting exposure in places) and impressively well-supplied water stations. Particularly impressive as apparently every bottle had to be carted up several thousand steps by hand!
After a series of punishing slogs up and down along a long section the wall we ducked right through a gap and dropped down a punishing single track descent straight down back to the Temple below where the race had started. I’d be warned about potential congestion but at least where I was this was never a problem and there clearly weren’t too many fell runners in the field judging by the caution of some of the descending. A loop around the Temple walls, down to the square, past the start line and back out into the village. I’d banged my watch and stopped it at some point so timings got a bit approximate from now on, but an hour and a bit gone, all the runners out on the route but plenty of spectators near the start – finish.
Barely 10k into the race and quads felt pretty bashed after the long descent but settled into a steady rhythm, picking folk off steadily and we would south and then east on mostly rolling terrain with a few chunky climbs. Water stations continued every few kilometers (a life saver) and we’d pass through scruffy mountain villages full of bemused but enthusiastic locals and their cheers kids. Cheering was great as was their enthusiasm for trying to high 5 every runner who came past. Obliged as much as possible but there as times when you’re cooking in the heat and the last thing you need is twenty kids trying to knock you backwards by walloping your hand with enough slow to stop you in your tracks!
Towards halfway we approach a long dragging climb around a dried up lake up reaching the far point of the course around KM 23. I was feeling the heat and pacing myself carefully at this point – for a variety of reasons relating to injury, punishing work schedule and general laziness I’d not run for more than an hour for over three months so this whole event was on a bit of a wing and a prayer. I also knew that the last 10K when we reversed the route back along the wall (climbing up the endless track we’d descending) was going to be a bit of a brute so I allowed myself to walk any of the steeper climbs content with seeing that I was barely losing time on the few around me who kept running and catching them quickly enough when the route turned flat or down. It was lovely running – never crowded like a big city marathon but just enough folk around to keep you honest and interesting and some decent banter (around the panting!) and positioned chopped and changed frequently all the way along the 22kms or so from leaving to wall to getting back to tackle it again for the second time.
I passed halfway somewhere between 2.15 and 2.20 which is pretty shocking for a half marathon but hopefully still on track to finish in under 5 hours which (based on past results) would at least get me into the top 100. I felt pretty good from KM23 (start of a nice steady descent) back to around KM28 where the marathon route reconnected with the half marathon. Took on a gel somewhere along the way (the food I ate during the race) and a couple of cups of energy drink but otherwise it was grab a bottle of water at every aid station, drink what I could, dump the rest over my head and get running again. Got a little busier along narrow dirt tracks for a while and I could see a lot of people starting to suffer.
Around KM30 we came off the dirt tracks and rejoined the long straight road back towards the Temple and start point with snack shacks and a dusty petrol station lining the route as the old men played Mah Jong and started at the crazy (mostly) foreigners plodding by in the heat. Baking heat off the tarmac, no shade, everyone suffering. Started to look very much the marathon at the end of an Ironman with most people reduced to a painful shuffle and a lot of walking going on. I had a bad patch around here somewhere with stomach cramps reducing me to walk for a kilometer or so but they eased out and my own painful shuffle was still gradually moving me up through the field.
Finally around KM33 we made it back to the Temple which had one of those cruel dividing signs – finish to the left, straight on for second time along the wall. I watched a Dutch guy in an orange shirt runner collapse in a heap just as he passed the sign to head up the wall again and wished him luck as the medics dashed to his aid. Up a few steps, right along a Temple wall, through a guardhouse to be given the precious red wristband to allow you to turn to the finish next time round, along short track then the path swung steeply upwards to reverse our previous route some 2,000 steps back up to the Wall.
The climb was brutal. I felt sorry for any road runners as this was classic mountain marathon stuff. One foot in front of the other, keep going, ignore the pain, stop gasping for breath when it all become too much. Count to 20, get going again, don’t stop, back up to the Wall proper soon and it’ll be easier with some up down. Just keep going, keep going, keep going. The field was pretty thin by now but I must have passed seven or eight runners on that climb and at this stage no-one was coming past! Finally, back up to the Wall and it was just brilliant.
Amazing views, still some steep ups and downs but nothing like the relentless grind up that hill and knew you’d broken the back of the race.
Great support from the pockets of medics, bottle carriers and occasional spectator who’d been allowed to slog up to see their loved one go by but otherwise the Wall entirely to yourself on a day of glorious blue skies and crystal clear views to hill after hill rolling out North to the from the limits of the ancient Chinese Empire to the wilds of Molgolia and the barren plains from which Genghis Khan had swept down to conquer Beijing some 800 years ago (bribing the guards to let him cross the Wall by the way but that’s another story).
It was sad to drop off the Wall for the last time but the clock was ticking and there was no time to hang around if I still wanted to come in under five hours. As far as I could tell I had about 30mins left to cover the last 5k and I was feeling pretty good. Legs were tired and the calf injury that had killed my last two months training was twinging but the first 4K was downhill and overall I was feeling strong. So head, get going. I passed three more runners on the descent and what felt like no time was at the final water station with 1km to go 10 odd minutes on the clock.
I gave myself the luxury of a 2 minute walk while I tried to rehydrate then jogged home, into the arena and across the line. Final time of 4 hours and 57 minutes 11 seconds, 76th out of a 1,000 or so and memories to last a lifetime.
Thirty odd years since my first marathon and still loving it. I’ll take that 🙂