Great Wall of China Marathon

May 19th, 2007

The phone rang at 2:12am for my wake up call.  Odd since I asked for it at 2:30.  I grabbed my stuff in the dark and headed out the door.  I got down to the lobby and Cliff, the other tour guide, was the only one there.  Everyone showed up around 2:45 and loaded into the buses.  I had taken one of the pillows off the bed and tried to get some sleep, but was too excited.  About a half hour into the ride I noticed the guy in front of me looked familiar.  It was Jurgen, the 7th place finisher at the Antarctica Marathon.  He was from Germany but was working on a project in Shanghai and had decided to come up and run the marathon.  I spent the majority of the ride talking to Jurgen and Danielle who was seated across from me. 

When we arrived at the wall it was only 6am.  The race didn’t start until 7:30.  Everyone unloaded and headed for the bathroom.  They already smelled horrendous.  Since it was pretty cold out most people decided to wait it out back on the bus.  When I got back on the bus I noticed an empty beer can.  One person came to mind, Alvin.  I looked back and he was on number two.  Victor offered him a shot of something that smelled terrible (I think Victor had been out all night and was still drinking).  To my astonishment, Alvin took two of them.  Ridiculous. 

I met Danielle from Hawaii on the bus.  We killed time by talking about previous races and travel.  It was her second marathon (she had run her first in 4:30).  We talked strategy for a while and I found out she was good on the hills and that I’m pretty good on the flats.  We decided to start together and pace each other for a while. 

After listening to Cliff tell horror stories of how bad the second ascent will be everyone headed for the start around 7am.  As we walked into the square, there were two Chinese girls up on stage leading aerobics to technoish music.  I was surprised to see a ton of runners following their lead. 


I headed over to the bag check and got rid of my bag.  I walked towards the start line only to be stopped by a Chinese news team.  The cameraman and reporter didn’t speak any English so they had an interpreter in tow.  They asked why I had travelled so far to run the race and what it was that attracted me to it.  I was thinking about the race, couldn’t concentrate, and have no idea what I said.  Oh well, just another Ugly American on TV.  As the countdown started I got butterflies, more so than normal.  It was probably because I knew that I was severely undertrained and this was going to hurt, BAD!  I had run 5 times in the last 3 months, a nine miler, two five milers, a four miler, and a three miler. 

Danielle and I right before the start

The gun went off and the pack headed out of town.  There was about a kilometer of flats before the hill ascending to the wall.  The hill was 5k long.  On the steeper ascents, if I walked fast I managed to keep up with most of the other runners who were jogging.  Danielle and I got to the wall having run sub 10 minute pace up the hill.  The wall section was 3.5k long.  The first pass wasn’t too bad and managed to maintain the sub 10 pace.  As I came off the wall, I exited the square, and headed out to the villages.  Actually managed to find some flat land for a while and tried to make the most of it.

Jared and I on the course during the mandatory inspection two days before the race

Talk about a punishing hill

This was one of the aid stations, they had water tables inside


Around the 8 mile mark we moved off the paved road.  It was surreal as we ran down a gravel path up to water stations manned by Chinese children.  Most of them would hold the bottles above their head for us to grab as we passed.  All of them were elated to have foreigners coming through town.  Several of the kids would scream with delight as we gave them high fives and yelled Knee How (Chinese for Hello).  Sometimes the kids would group together on both sides of the road and create a high five tunnel for us to run through.  One little girl gave Danielle some small flowers she had picked and told her she looked pretty.  My undertraining must have showed because no one told me I was pretty or offered me flowers.  We settled into a steady 10 minute pace until about mile 11.  There was an extended hill that lasted for at least a mile or mile and a half.  Danielle started pulling away from me at this point.  By the top of the hill she was a solid 500 meters in front of me.  As it flattened out, I sped up and managed to catch up to her but I could feel the beginning of cramping in my right calf.  I tapped her on the shoulder and told her to not worry about me and go ahead; she looked strong and was on a sub 5 hour pace.  I dropped back and walked for about 7 or 8 minutes.  That would be the last I would see of her before the finish line.

After recouping, I turned on techno and got my second wind.  I settled into an 8 or 8:30 pace and managed to maintain it from miles 14 to 21.  During that section the course led us through more of the villages and some farmland.  It was one of my favorite portions of the race (probably because that’s when my endorphins got released).  I checked the clock; I had covered 21 miles in four hours.  I thought I had a sub 5 hours in the bag.  My shirt was soaked and dirty so I took it off and stashed it under a cone.  I thought I’d only be gone for another hour, hour and a half tops.  The Great Wall disagreed. 

I made it about 10 steps before I realized I was in trouble.  The section of the wall has 3700 steps either way you go, but the course called to run it in reverse this time and it was much more difficult.  After twenty minutes of climbing I was reduced to my hand and knees crawling.  I wasn’t the only one either.  The course was littered with the broken, battered, and weary.  Lots of runners were sitting on the steps, just trying to remember why they signed up for the God forsaken race in the first place, I know I was.  The heat was starting to get to me and I think I got a heat stroke about halfway up the wall.  All of a sudden I got really tired, my stomach hurt, and I was dizzy.  I tried to shake it off and dumped water all over me.  It wasn’t working.  I don’t think I’ll be using this training plan again.  I must have looked absolutely terrible because I had several people ask if I was okay or if it needed anything.  One lady offered me a salt tablet.  I had been worried about my sodium levels because the water stations had bottled water.  There was some sort of sports drink but it was very diluted and wasn’t Gatorade.  I took the tablet and almost immediately regretted it.  My stomach started turning knots about five minutes later.  I managed to keep it under control until I got off the wall.  All in all, the 3.5k climb took me an hour and twenty minutes.  It was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had during a race.  It literally pummeled me. 

As I got off the wall, I grabbed a water bottle and tried to start running.  I guess my core muscles were pretty weak from the under training and my obliques were killing me almost instantly.  I made my way to the side of the road and sat down for a second, trying to keep my stomach under control.  It became too much and eventually lost it.  As I was getting sick I saw Alvin coming towards me.  You’ve got to be kidding me.  The drunkard?!!  SHIT!  YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!  I tried to get it together for the sake of my pride.  I tried to start running at least 5 times all with the same results.  I grabbed my obliques and tried like that.  Nope.  I punched my stomach and tried again.  Nope.  Shit!  Shit!  Shit!  I managed to keep my stomach under control until he passed.  He stopped and spoke for a little while.  He said he felt terrible.  I told him that was his own fault.  I guess I felt aweful because of my own actions (or lack thereof) as well.  He tried to get me to run in with him.  I tried but couldn’t.  I told him to go ahead.  When he was out of sight I threw up the rest of my nutrition.  I didn’t have any left either because I had lost the last GU pinned to my shorts.  A Chinese kid who had been watching the whole situation came over and offered me some of his Coke, I must have looked pathetic.  I don’t know what I was thinking but I took some hoping the carbonation would help settle my stomach.  It did, but it didn’t help my obliques.  To my disappointment, I had to walk the whole downhill 5k section back to town.  It took me an hour to cover the distance. 

I crossed the finish line at 6:20.  I could care less about the time at this point.  I looked around and found Alvin and Danielle.  I found out she had run a 5:13.  She made it up the wall and back down in 1:13, faster than it took me just to get up it.  At the time, I couldn’t have cared less, just as long as the race was over.  Alvin had managed come in around 6.  I was thoroughly impressed with both of their efforts. 

After gathering my thoughts for a minute, I went over to the baggage check and got my clean clothes.  I headed for the showers they had set up for us and cleaned up.  I found my way over to the food zone where they were passing out Subway sandwiches.  With all that done, I realized I needed to head for one of the buses back to Beijing.  The ride went surprisingly fast as everyone retold the stories of the day.  I met some guys some South Africa on the way back as well.  One of them was the head of derivatives trading for one of the large banks in Johannesburg.  Both of the guys were glued to their cell phones getting updates about a championship rugby game that South Africa was playing in. 

After a couple stops at other hotels around the area, the bus dropped us off a couple minutes before six.  I scampered up to the room to grab a real shower and change.  Mom had bought tickets to a Kung Fu show that night and we needed to leave at 6:15.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as expected and we made it to the theatre early.  We got settled into our VIP seats to watch the show.  It was great.  It had a little bit of everything, Chinese acrobats, weapons demonstrations, a love story, fight sequences, and of course, a lot of Kung Fu moves.  We got back to the hotel around 9 and headed up to the room.  We watched another episode of The Office.  I tried to get Mom and Jared to come down to the bar and have their last drink in China but they were both tired and needed to pack.  I had planned to go out with the group and we were meeting at 10pm.

I headed down to the lobby and got a glass of wine (Great Wall Cabernet to be exact).  Several of the days runners having sushi at the in-hotel restaurant and told a couple of us to come help them finish their bottle of wine.  I was happy to obilge.  Lee came down and met the group and we piled into a couple cabs to head to Party City, a karaoke bar with private rooms.  Some of the girls were good singers and took the spotlight for most of our time there (thank goodness because I was in no mood to perform).  Lee sang a Chinese song, which was hilarious, but incomprehensible.  The girls actually took the microphones and crashed one of the other private rooms and sang to some young Chinese guys, much to their delight. 

Cynthia takes the spotlight

And finally, Lee's turn

From Party City, Lee recommended we head to a dessert bar closer back to the hotel.  I can’t remember the name, but it was definitely the most interesting bar I’ve been to in China.  The decorations were very eclectic and the furniture was very intricate.  We each had a dessert and a cognac.  Cynthia headed to the dance floor and ended up meeting some European guy there who recommended we go to Babyface with his group.  In case I didn’t get my fill of that place in Shanghai, they had one in Beijing.  Since the dessert bar was pretty much deserted we all decided to head that direction.

Same old Babyface, drunken Chinese people and loud techno music.  We did, however, get invited into a private room from some Dutch guys who told us they were there working with the Olympic committee.  From the way they were acting, I had my doubts.  They were a lot of fun though.  One of the guys made up the Knee How song.  I’m not even sure how to explain it.  Just think one word, repeated a lot, and very offensive to Chinese people.   We stuck around Babyface until about 4am.  I can’t believe we all made it that late.  We piled back into the cab and the girls sang drunken songs the whole way home. 

Apparently this is what the Dutch Olympic Committe does in their spare time.  Nice.

Other Adventures:

Antarctica Marathon


South Korea and Coastal China


Mt Everest Base Camp





Tanzanian Safari