Rebekah runs in the footsteps of ancient heroes, finding a race that's more about scenery, solidarity and fun than blood, sweat and tears.
"Oooooohh, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good, it's so gooooooooooood".... I've got a dance remix of Donna Summers' Great Wall of China, high in the misty mountains, participating in one of the world's most scenic and iconic marathons. Adrenaline surges through my veins, blending with my screaming sugar-caffeine rush from a breakfast of Energy Bars and Italian espresso.
Perhaps it's the endorphins and all the pre-race hype, but unexpectedly, at the eight kilometer mark, I'm feeling the love for everybody. And I'm also congratulating myself for being soooooo awesome. Before me and behind me, hundreds of runners young and old from all over the world surge along the ancient Wall. Thankfully, everyone else is feeling the love too, 'cause if they weren't, one hasty shove in a queue at a bottleneck on the Wall and you could effortlessly domino a dozen people to their deaths. As far as I know, there have been no casualties in the race's decade-long history; if it was just about winning, there might be be pushing, but the runners seemed happy enough to wait.
True Men Don't Know Squat (Heroic Feats Sans Toilet Seats)
The New York Times once called the Great Wall Marathon "more than just a race," rolling out the old Chinese proverb that "you cannot be called a hero if you've never been to the Great Wall.'' The version attributed to Mao Zedong is a bit more poetic—and sexist: "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man." I myself prefer the Chinglish version: "If you don't climbed the Great Wall you not a hero."
Regardless, us gals were far less concerned with becoming true men than we were with finding quick and discreet places to squat during the race. Yes, men may be better equipped for quick marathon pee times, which ultimately affects finish time, but you have to admit that we ladies have a tougher time of it.
The Great Wall: A Marathon for All (5K, 10K, Half 21 K Marathon, Full 42 K Marathon)
Seasoned marathoners may chuckle at my enthusiasm, but keep in mind, I'm not a runner by any stretch of the imagination. To date, I've only lasted about 40 minutes on a treadmill before being overwhelmed with boredom. I don't like to do things that are strenuous without being fun. So I surprised myself by going through with the Great Wall Half Marathon. Coincidentally, I had given up cigarettes four months before the race. And I gave up drinking one week before the race... and for good measure, after the race the group of us partied in Beijing at a friend's hutong BBQ in Nanluoguxiang and later until the wee hours of the morning wearing our GWM medals and shooting tequila body shots in Sanlitun and dancing shamelessly on stage to such classics as "Ice Ice Baby." Yep, the dance of champions.
After running over 21 kilometers that morning, we were surprised that we still were energized enough to celebrate. I guess it takes a while for adrenaline to dissipate. The next day, we felt it. That being said, the two months of training prior to the race definitely put me on a straighter, narrower (and healthier) path than I was used to. There were significantly fewer dancing-till-dawn-at-Dragon-Club weekends and more Saturday mornings spent running in Shanghai's Century Park.
Why did I do it? I participated in the race in order to write about it for ChinaTravel.net. And for my part, I had under three months to BECOME a runner and get fit enough to run 21 kilometers (without snapping an ankle, destroying my knees, collapsing with exhaustion, crying and giving up, asking for a piggyback ride or hiring a helicopter to airlift me off the Wall)—and for me, this was in doubt even until the time that I crossed the finish line.
Thank goodness for my sporty friend, Magdalena Wszelaki, who took it upon herself to train a group of us in Shanghai, register everyone in time and make sure we were prepared for the race. I've heard the Olympic runners train at high altitudes to build their endurance. Well, for the most part, we trained outdoors in Shanghai's high pollution and some of us even sprinted after pickpockets to reclaim stolen wallets and sometimes, we were lucky enough to train in Hong Kong, Moganshan and Century Park.
I had never heard the term "marathon tourism" before. It never occurred to me that millions of people each year travel around the world to take part in bizarre adventure marathons. I was pleased to find that the GW Marathon was listed in Forbes Traveler's Breathtaking Marathons along side Antarctica's Last Marathon, Chile's Easter Island Marathon, Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon, Nepal's Everest Marathon, South Africa's Big Five Marathon, Australia's Gold Coast Marathon, Iceland's Reykjavik Marathon, Bhutan's International Sanction Marathon and Greenland's Nuuk Marathon. Having since done a bit of research on the subject of scenic marathons/hiking events in China (Hong Kong and Tibet included), I've only heard of two, aside from the Great Wall, that sound remotely interesting: MacLehose Trail.
My Great Wall Experiences: Camping, Swimming, Running, Hiking
I've lived in China now for over two years, in that time, I've been lucky enough to visit a number of different Great Wall locations in different seasons: I've bitched about Badaling, slept overnight in a watchtower on Jinshanling; swum in the Simatai reservoir; visited Mutianyu and, with the marathon came the ultimate challenge: running on the Wall at Huangyaguan.
A general note: It makes a difference which part of the Wall you visit. If you don't want a commercial tourism experience, avoid Badaling and Mutianyu. My favorite hike (10-12 km) so far is going from Jinshanling to Simatai on the Wall—it's remote and incredibly beautiful (it's also great for camping, but that's a bit trickier...). Something about the Great Wall inspires visitors to want to interact with it in a unique way—be it in a sporting event, fashion show or in costume—it's inspiring and even having the opportunity to see it is pretty monumental. That being said, having the Great Wall tattooed on your face is going a bit far.
Great Wall Marathon Feedback: What the Runners Have to Say About It
After the race, I asked a number of participants their thoughts on the experience. Aside from mild complaints that the race start times should have been staggered for less congestion on the Wall and that hardly any Chinese people participated in the race itself, I received overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Most participants agreed that the 5 K, 10 K, and Half Marathon were great fun and not as challenging as expected, they also recommended bringing a camera for the race itself.
"This race was really unique because it wasn't about the time, it was about the experience, and you could really feel that among the runners: people were happy and excited to be on the Wall. And people were not taking themselves too seriously, so it was a fun, festive atmosphere. It was a real pleasure to pass through a small village with all the villagers standing cheering; running through a tiny rural village in China is certainly not something you would experience on a normal marathon. There was interaction in a different way than normal spectator race." "The solidarity between runners is incredible. I feel like I got a huge family when I run. There are no differences of nationality, color or religion. We are all there because we want it and we like it." —Sahibi Noureddine, Belgian, Full Marathon.
"The route, the atmosphere, the landscape and how comfortable I felt running it, made of the race one of the best sport experiences I have ever had." — Daniel, Spanish, 10 K.
"I had no idea that the locals would be so excited about it and it seemed like everyone in the nearby village came out to watch and support us. "And since 99 percent of the runners were white people, it seems like they took pride in teaching their kids how to say "hello" and wave and give us high fives when we ran past which had a surprisingly positive effect on the runners. "It was fun running through the village 'cause it was kind of like a maze and people had to point you which directions to go. —Andrew Wilcox, American, Half Marathon. "It's a great experience to enjoy with friends. Actually I started the race with my girlfriend, and as we have different running rhythms, I met some others along the way so that there was often someone I knew near or in sight. This was a nice feeling. It was actually easier [than I expected]. "The part on the Great Wall passes fast because it is changing all the time, up, down, stairs, tower, lots of people so you don't get bored." —Mathias Guillin, French, 10K.
"I was surprised by how few Chinese people participated in the Great Wall Marathon." —Brandon Frerking, American, Half Marathon.
"[Highlights?] Running on the Great Wall and enjoying the landscape while doing something not many people get to do. Great location, fun, excellently organized. Take the first five kilometers [uphill] veeeery easy." —Sabina Leopaldi, Italian, Half Marathon.
Tips for Training from My Friend/Ass-Whooper, Magdalena Wszelaki
"When you get involved in organizing a group of people [to train for the GW Half Marathon], all working towards the same goal, your joy becomes sort of communal: your own joy gets amplified from the joy of all the other runners. When you live in the city, your friendships have a limited breath and depth. Events like these — through training together, motivation, support for each other, abstinence (drinking, smoke, staying out late partying) — give new dimension to human interactions.
"Few people have the time or discipline to get up 5:30am, three times a week to run. Our training was aimed at being very pragmatic. For a hilly run, you should run a total of 15-20 km per week and spend the rest on doing hill-climbs on a cross-trainer or bike.
"Hills take such an incredible energy away from your muscles that you will cramp up very easily if you are not used to them. Real stamina develops when you do something while being very very tired. I find interval training pushes me to next level of endurance each time. So rather than doing repetitive 10 km runs in a week in order to build stamina, try to throw an interval training session and you will see how much easier it is to run the 10km. If you have enough time to prepare, vary your program as it develops you even more." Thank you, Magda!
Final Thoughts on the Great Wall Marathon
For my friends and all the runners I spoke to from past years and this year, the Great Wall Marathon is an incredible experience even if you aren't doing the Full Marathon. It was definitely special because a group of us trained together and it's memories we will have forever.
Even for experienced marathoners (one older guy we met there had run 79 marathons in his life and he said that the Great Wall Marathon and the Cape Town's Two Oceans Marathon were the most iconic marathons he had ever run), it's a challenge—your final time is generally 150% of usual marathon times because of the stairs, altitude and seemingly endless uphill climbs.
While I prepared for it by running a couple times a week, it's not that hard to do the Half Marathon if you are accustomed to running or are at least accustomed to exercise. That being said, you can always opt for the 10 K or the 5 K if you don't have time to train. I recommend it to anyone—but definitely do it with friends and don't view it as a competition, rather as an experience. Expect to take lots of photos, and enjoy your time on the Wall. Next year, I might do the Half Marathon again although I would NOT consider doing the Full Marathon. It looked too tough for my liking. We saw marathoners with bleeding nipples from chafing, another guy had soiled himself but kept running (note: Energy Bars can cause diarrhea during a race) and one guy was lying on the ground with an agonizing calf cramp only five kilometers from the finish line.
The Full Marathon is for serious runners and it's not a joke by any means. It's tough. Be warned. If I do it again, I'd like to get a group together and raise money for a cause. I regret not having the foresight to do something like that this year. So, has this experience made me consider marathon tourism? Absolutely. I would love to do the full marathon in Cape Town next year and I'm strongly considering doing the Angkor Half Marathon in Cambodia in December.
Costs, Flights and Registration Details
Registration: This must be completed by early March each year, so be sure to register early for next year or you will miss out. Positions are limited. Register and check the most up-to-date price information on the GWM official website. This year entry fees for the Half Marathon were 1364 RMB + 250 RMB for a time chip.
Accommodations: There are two options. You can book a hotel in Beijing before the race; however, this means you must get on a bus from Beijing at 3am on race day to get to the start line on time. I recommend staying locally near the Wall. There are a number of hostels and hotels close to the start line for around 200-300 RMB per night. That means you need to get up at 6am before the race (that's sleeping in, by the way). If you are staying locally, pack something for breakfast (real coffee, ahem) and bring your own food for the night before the race. The local restaurants might not have all the amenities that you might wish for.
Flights: Depending on where you are coming from you'll probably need to purchase a flight to Beijing. I work for Ctrip, so call me biased, but they do offer the most convenient services and competitive prices for flights and hotels in China.
Rebekah's final time for the half marathon was 3h1min. But she points out that she spent 20 minutes in congestion lineups on the Wall, 10 minutes photographing the event, and 10 minutes looking for the "lady's room". So she insists that her final time was more like 2h30min.
Photos by Rebekah Pothaar and Christine Weigman Grand.