Last Saturday, I ran or actually jogged/walked and crawled the Great Wall Marathon. As expected, this course was like no other I’ve attempted.
One of my all-time longest days. Needed to be on a chartered bus by 3:30am Saturday morning to ride to the wall. To avoid looking for a cab at 2:30am, from our apartment to the bus pick up, I booked a room, at a local hotel that was a pick up location. The Beijing International Hotel, was one of the first 4 star hotels built in the city back in the 70s.
Normally, I do not sleep well or even very much the night before any marathon, too many nerves and painful memories of knowing what lies ahead. And this race’s extra challenging course meant extra nerves. I may have slept 2-3 hours, up at 1:45am. Ate my standard pre-race meal of yogurt, PB&J bagel, banana, OJ, water and granola. Bit after 3, checked out of my room and walked outside to look for the bus.
Like the inspection day tour, again, no one really knew ‘the plan.’ About a dozen folks all standing around in the parking lot, near the chartered buses. Not sure which bus to get on and no one available to ask this basic question. About 3:25am, someone with the “company” appeared and shouted instructions. We sleepily staggered on to buses and within 5 minutes drove off. 3:30am departure, right on time. I was impressed.
This time my bus full of ‘orphans’ those not with the full tour, was full. Most people tried to get some sleep for our 2+ hour drive. Two days earlier, the inspection day was a very warm, lows upper 60 to high upper 80s. It did not occur to me to check the weather forecast.
Upon arrival, we walked off bus and it was still dark and COLD. Did have a long sleeve shirt but no jacket or sweatshirt. Many folks off the buses only wore their racing suit. Shivering, we walked to Yin and Yang square. Soon, they would not be cold.
An odd but familiar sound greeted us as we walked toward the main square. A local band was playing and not just you typical Chinese music before a marathon at 6am but Western, “Christmas” tunes. Yes Christmas tunes. I stopped for a few minutes and watched several hundred others do what I was doing, taking a photo of this band.
We arrived about 6am, with an hour and half to kill before my first wave 7:30 start. After a quick dash to the (few and far between) bathroom, I felt much better. That is task #1. About 2000 people would run today and the company provided about a dozen bathroom facilities. They need to talk to the California International Marathon (CIM) about how many porta-potties you need. The bathroom line started long and stayed long right up to the first wave.
I tried to calm my nerves, paced around the square, lightly stretched. When they called for the first wave, I waited about five minutes, then walked to the very back of the growing mass. The wave stood in front of a temporary stage that held about 8 men, all dressed in matching dark grey business suites. Seven were Chinese and one non-Chinese. The Chinese were all local government (town, county, regional, etc) officials. And one by one they each spoke about 2 minutes to the crowd. And all said nearly the same thing, “welcome our friends, we are happy you are here. You will find our town/county, etc very welcoming and a happy place.” The last to speak was an Aussie, from the main sponsoring company. As you may guess, we were itching to get started so no one paid much attention to the speeches.
This race was not about pushing my limits, setting a BQ or PR, it was only about trying to finish and enjoy the day. Although, I did set 4:45 as my stretch goal and sub 5 as the target finish time.
One of the guys in a suit fired the starters pistol and we slowly filed out of the square onto the street. Yes, still nervous but relieved to finally get moving. I borrowed this description of the first section of the course from the website:
The Great Wall Marathon starts from the Yin and Yang square in the old Huangyaguan fortress. Immediately reaching the Jinwei Highway the route leads south for 1km, before turning left on to the Changcheng Highway. You are now on the road leading to the Great Wall entrance and have a 4km uphill climb. After 5km you meet the first of many steps and the next 3km are run on the Great Wall of China itself, including 1km around the magnificent fortress walls. Just before the 7km mark you face a 700m long section with a steep descent on the infamous “Goat Track”.
The first km was an easy, flat, section of road that allowed me to shake off some of the butterflies in my stomach and then we turned left. A 4km climb, I knew I needed to ease into it so decided keep the pace around 9-9:30 per mile.
First 3 miles were:
Although I started in the very back, jogging up the hill, I passed a surprisingly large number of people. And very surprised to notice more than a few were already breathing heavy. Those folks were in for a LONG day.
The descent of the “Goat Track” is the insanely steep section you often see in photos. How steep? Carefully and often gingerly (do not roll an ankle) maneuvering over broken and loose stones, while going down, my next two miles posted 20:31 and 18:33. I was in no hurry to go down. The Goat track took us down, back to the start and after just 5 miles, I knew it would be a really long and challenging day.
We looped around the square and back out to the highway. The day’s weather begun pleasantly cold, while the sun stayed behind the surrounding ridges. But now, the sun was up, over the ridge, the temperature was climbing fast. I think it was about this time I took my first sponge “soak”. The water stations contained bottled water but also one or two large buckets full of water and sponges. The runners could grab a wet sponge and squeeze it over your neck and or head. Felt heavenly and I think I did this at nearly every water stop. This is likely the only reason I did not over heat.
Running down the side of the highway, I picked up the pace, back to around 9min miles. Between miles 6-13, fastest was 8:54 to slowest 9:44. As my body warmed up, kept reminding myself to keep it easy and loose. Flat, no shade, hot and on the side of the main road, two lane highway. Not ideal. No roads were closed for the race.
Turned off main road on to smaller, country roads. this section held the most spectators. Small groups of families, mostly small children with the mother or grandparents. Not too many younger males around. I wonder if these males were migrants workers, off in Beijing or another city…
Many runners clearly enjoyed the cheering crowds and kids hoping to give a high-five. Passing many small farms, we climbed again around mile 14 and another hill at mile 17. Ugh, these hills were unexpectedly tough. Slow, steady, nearly unending climbs. At least the scenery and views were fantastic. Looped around and headed back toward the start, I began to think about what lay ahead. The climb “up”to get to and then go up the Goat track.
By the time I began to go up toward the wall, my body was cooked, literally. Didn’t hit the wall (shock) but the usual suspects ached; hips, thighs, calves. I could only focus on keep moving forward. As I shifted from a shuffle to a walk, threw out any pipe dream of the sub 5 hrs, I just wanted to finish. Running and jogging no more, I was just walking and trying not to look up to see how steep it was. Mile 22 took me TWENTY-THREE minutes. And wasn’t even at the Goat track yet. The ascend up Goat track was 2100 feet!
People or should I write ‘bodies’ were all over this ascent. And remember I started in the first wave so the majority of runners were still behind me. People leaning on the side, people seated on steps with heads hung low, people clinging to the tiny shadows of shade in hopes of cooling down. I just tried to keep moving.
Going up the Goat track was inside mile 23. How slow did I complete mile 23… 37:17!!
I have little memory of this mile. I wonder if I laid down and took a 20 minute nap?
Once off the wall, we retraced the initial 5 km climb (going down this time) back to the village and the finish line. My thighs, calf, feet, ankles were spent by now. The downhill gave my weight some momentum to move forward faster and I picked up the pace. A small stream of runners joined me as we headed down and could easily see the ‘discomfort’ in the faces as they tried in vain to just get through these last few miles. The end was in sight.
Very pleased with my last three miles:
- miles 26 at 9:45!
Entered the square for the last time and the enthusiastic crowd greeted each runner with a much appreciated cheer. Done!!
I was thrilled with 5:18 finish, my all time slowest marathon time.
Looking back on the race, what went well or things I did right:
- I drank enough. Such a tough course and hot temps, drinking enough is never easy but an absolute must do. Ended up very dehydrated but avoided hitting the wall.
- Threw target finish time out the window. Started and stayed slow, manageable pace.
- Kept moving. Didn’t walk until mile 22.
- Training went well, logged 5 jogs 18 miles or more. Had the stamina to survive.
- Always thrilled when do not have any black toenails.
Few opportunities for improvement:
- There is a local hotel within walking distance from the start line. Next time, sleep an extra two hours and walk to the starting line.
- More training run with inclines, stairs, etc.
- Condition body to be comfortable running in the heat.
- Bring more GU.
Would I run this one again? I can highly recommend it but not sure I’ll run it again….Although I am tempted to get under 5 hours.
Mission accomplished, Bacon cheeseburger, onion rings and cold beverage at Great Leap Brewery, Sanlitun, Beijing, China