After arriving to Beijing, the organizers of the race, Albatros, were waiting at the airport to take us to our hotels. Once at our hotel we checked in and received our gear bag with our tshirt and other information and tickets we needed for the week. The tickets they gave us were for entry into the the Inspection Day and also tickets for race day. We were also assigned a group number for the week and these were the people we would do all the excursions with each day. I was in 4B.
On Thursday we went to the Inspection Day. It was an early day since we had to drive 2.5 hours away to get to the wall, which was located in Huangyaguan. We gathered in the Yin Yang Square while they talked about the course and what to expect. They also let us know of some changes this year due to the hot weather. Normally, they are happy to accommodate people that want to upgrade to the half or full marathons, but this year they said they were not going to allow for upgrades due to the hot climate. Too risky. So, they said that for full marathoners, they would allow them to decide if while running the race you didn’t feel good or if they didn’t want to finish the full they could follow the half marathoners and still received a half marathon medal.
Once we finished the briefing and relaxed a bit, we took off to walk the wall. This was great because it gave us a chance to see what it would look like and feel like for race day. It also gave us a chance to take photos and soak it all in a little bit more. It was a hot day too, so it wasn’t necessarily easy walking this part of the wall. We saw other tourists on the wall and well as folks selling sodas and food. It reminded me to bring money with me on race day in case I wanted one of those cold coca colas while exhausted on race day. Once we were finished walking the wall, we got lunch, which was Chinese Subway sandwiches. They were actually pretty good.
I highly recommend you go to the Inspection Day. You get a better idea of what you are in for. It’s not an easy walk, so at least you knew what to expect. I think going into the race, while training at home, you have an idea of what you think the race will be like, but the wall is definitely far different than what you’ve been imagining.
I think I had gone to bed around 9:30-10pm the night before after a long day of excursions and then some shopping and green tea cones with some of the girls. We also had a “carb up dinner” at a local restaurant but it wasn’t your typical carb load. I think this made some of us nervous. It was local Chinese food and family style, as usual, and for whatever reason this was the day they served dishes with hot chilis, so I avoided those. We had one dish with noodles and the German in our group kept asking for more. I wasn’t sure this was going to be enough for me. So a few of us went to KFC and got some fries for more carbs.
We had wake up calls for 2:30am because we had to be on the busses at 3:30am to get to the start area. Super early! They provided breakfast which was a bag of a hardboiled egg, apple, a noodle package of some sort, bread, a package of milk, a thing that looked like a tube of meat (I don’t know what it was), and a bottled water. I only ate the apple and hardboiled egg since I brought some Kind bars and my own electrolytes and water. I was nervous about the hot weather so I had been drinking lots of fluids the days before and before the race. I also caught a cold on the flight over so I had been tending to a cold, which of course can be dehydrating also. I was a little nervous about this.
Once we arrived, we had plenty of time to go to the bathroom (a lovely Chinese hole in the floor bathroom stall), eat, stretch, change, and get rid of our gear bags. They had someone leading stretches with fantastic techno music and that was fun to watch. There were people assisting with putting country flag tattoos on our bodies (my American flag was backwards because they printed it wrong) and plenty of volunteers getting us ready to go in the waves.
My wave was #1 at 7:30am. As we stood in the corral, I talked to another American from Texas named Sarah. She was also here by herself and was nervous. She said she didn’t train much, which seemed to be a theme among a lot of these runners. I started with a gal from Argentina that was in my group. You could feel the sun get hotter as we waited to start. I was told by someone later that day, that the starting temperature was 80 degrees. Fun times!
As the gun went off, we went through the fortress at Yin Yang Square and entered the highway. It was warm, but do-able. We then kept going onto a road leading up to the wall. This was an uphill climb and we already were walking at this point. Once you get to the wall, it’s not easy but it’s not hard yet. The last part of the wall is pretty tough because it’s a fairly steep descent (which we will have to go UP once we start this climb on the second time around).
We then went through the Yin Yang Square again and headed for the long highway in the sun. You then pass through little towns on dirt roads. There were plenty of water stops with water bottles, Gatorade and wet sponges, which felt amazing. The only thing that wasn’t amazing was being in the middle of no where and as the pack of runners loosened up we were only with a few people in front and back of us. So sometimes you felt like you were by yourself. The nice thing is the organizers made signs with KM and MILES so it was easy to follow and not have to do the math in your head.
The locals were excited to see us and kids would stand in lines and high five us. HA-LO or Ni Hao! I felt like I had to go to the bathroom for a while. My stomach just felt full. So finally around mile 11, I asked a policeman sitting in the shade if there was anywhere to go to the bathroom. I just pointed at my crotch and tried to get the message across. He asked a person across the street and the man so kindly let me into his home. Or maybe it was a place of business. I don’t know. But I was relieved he let me in. Another hole in the ground. Oh well…had to go pee! I thanked them and took off again.
It was blazing hot. I just kept drinking so much water. I would run with a water bottle in hand and just keep drinking. My arm got tired and annoyed of holding a bottle but I had to. We got to this part of the run that was a paved road up through a village and it was incredibly hot. And boring. And it just kept going and going and going uphill. Right before we started this stretch we saw some of the top marathoners run by on the other side. I ended up running into some American sisters that I had talked to at Inspection Day. We ended up running for a while with each other which was nice.
Not long after this we were back on dirt roads. And we joined the half marathoners. It was a little confusing at first because I thought maybe I was on the half marathon course, but I asked a runner and she said we were on the same course for a while at this point.
Water, water, sponge, water. So much water!! Then I finally got to a station with Gu’s. I took that lemony-lime gel and gulped it down. I had been eating my shot bloks and some of my jelly beans, but I was tired of them for some reason. I never eat gels, but I took it this time. The gel didn’t taste that great at first, but I didn’t care and ate it all.
After a long while of dirt and rocky roads through small villages, we came to the highway again. It was on pavement and it was HOT by this time. Ugh. I walked a bunch of this because the heat was bad. A lot of people were walking, actually. Then we got to the split where half marathoners finish and the marathoners go through a different entrance and get ready to climb the wall for a second time. We ran through Yin Yang Square again and they announced our names and then back up the stairs. We also received a wristband to wear once we got on the second wall climb. Marathoners had to make it to the second wall climb entrance by 6 hours or 1:30pm or they would stop you and you couldn’t finish. I made it in plenty of time. Now, we were on for the challenge of going up the wall in reverse.
AND IT WAS BRUTAL!!
Straight up the narrow area we had ended on before. Holy hell…I said a lot of things out loud and in my head. People were cussing, exhausted, stopping, breathing hard, you name it. Our heart rates were climbing as well and I was nervous about this. People were nauseous and I saw an Asian guy stand over to the side and throw up more than once. I had to plug my ears so I didn’t hear it.
I just took it very slow. You can’t run this at all. I just took one step at a time and some parts had railings so I grabbed the railings and let them lift me up with what upper body strength I had. I had to stop and stand for a bit to catch my breath. I had to sit and catch my breath. The sun was incredibly hot at this point, so it was not fun. We passed through a shaded area where vendors were selling water, beer, cokes, bananas, dried fruits and watermelon. He yelled out “beer?” And we said NO WAY! But I eyed the watermelon and almost paid for some.
This part took a long time. I have no idea how long it took me compared to the first climb. I do have to say that even though it was treacherous and the hardest thing I have ever done, I NEVER said I wasn’t going to make it or got any negative thoughts in my head. Not sure how that happened, but it’s very easy to do on a regular flat marathon if you are having a bad day, so I was proud of myself. I just kept saying to “take it easy, breathe, get your heartrate down, stop in the shade, just get through this.” I did say to myself at one point, “Remember what the stairs said – There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.” This helped me a lot. I was ON MY HANDS AND KNEES climbing the stairs. I didn’t care how long it took me, I was going to climb each and every stair and get to the finish.
A funny thing that happened on one of the areas of the wall was a guy farted really loud and we all laughed. He laughed and apologized and said he didn’t realize it was going to be that big, but it cut through the seriousness and rawness of the climb.
I got to a point in the highest part of the second wall climb where I realized I needed some fuel. I was sick of gels and things I had on me, so out of desperation, I passed the photographer sitting on the stairs and turned back around and asked if he had some fuel. I realized he probably didn’t know what I meant by “fuel”, so I asked if he had something to eat with him. He said he thought he had a melted Snickers bar. And after taking a few more shots of runners he grabbed into his bag and handed me the candy bar. It was definitely melted but oh so good! I asked if he wanted half back and he said no and I thanked him and kept going! That bar saved me. I needed some calories bad at that point.
After this highest point, and sitting in the shady areas of the towers along the way, it’s all downhill from there to the finish. You would think I could just run slowly down the hill, but it was still hard. I did stop a few times. It was hot as hell at this point also. I then put on my headphones and listened to some music for the first time during the race. I needed to zone out a bit. And then finally we enter the square again and they called our names. I was FINISHED! I cried a little. That was insanely crazy. It felt good to be done.
After I gathered my things and got my lunch, I sat with some of our group. Everyone did amazingly well! It was a tough race and everyone finished. After I ate, I went to the massage tent. We were treated to a 20 minute massage! My legs were tight but it was so nice to have that after. And I think my guy gave me at least 30-40 mins. I was there much longer than 20 minutes. Once we had time to relax and eat, we got on busses back to the hotel. It was a long drive back. We were able to stop at a rest stop to pee and get snacks, but right before this, one of the gals in our group had to go to the bathroom really bad and the driver wouldn’t stop. We tried to communicate with him that she was going to pee her pants but he didn’t care. Because of traffic and hotels stops, our group didn’t get back til 4 hours later. Ugh. Long day for sure since we had been up since 2:30am.
Once we got back and took quick showers a few of us in our group decided to go to Pizza Hut for dinner. I ordered a salad, refreshing lime/tea drink and a personal size pizza. But we laughed because it was the smallest pizza ever. Ha!
Not sure how many people didn’t finish the race. Unfortunately, I am sure there were plenty due to exhaustion and the heat. I did hear that behind me there were people turning around after starting the second climb. I also heard that stretchers were being pulled up to the wall to get people. I heard that someone had a blood vessel burst in his calf and was screaming in agony and you could hear it way up the wall. I am so glad I made it out alive and well.
This, by far, was the hardest race I have ever done. But it was a great challenge and so surreal to be able to be on the freakin’ Great Wall of China during a marathon. Like really? How does this happen? As I sit here and write this I can’t believe I was in the middle of China running a marathon on one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and something that is over 13,000 feet long.
The next day there was a celebration dinner at a convention center near with lots of food and drinks and it was nice to gather with everyone for a night out. They announced how many runners came from each country. The US had over 500 and was the top country by far. It was very organized and the group that puts this on Albatros Adventure Marathons, does an amazing job! Maybe I will even do one of their other 4 races…
Bucket list = Checked!