The first time I visited the Great Wall of China was in 1987. It was winter and the cold air filling up my lungs felt refreshing as I giggled like a child when I climbed the endless steep steps and ran down the steep slopes. The Great Wall looked like a mythical grey dragon undulating in, out, and around the rugged hills and mountains north of Beijing. The second time I visited the Great Wall was for a photo shoot and we the crew visited a touristy part of the wall with gondolas and a sea of tourists. Many areas seemed spacious enough and the steep inclines and tall steps were well maintained and manicured. The third time I visited the Great Wall was when I was there to run a marathon. I thought that I had some clue as to what to expect on the Great Wall race course, but I soon realized there was a lot more learn. Here are the top things I learned from running the Great Wall Marathon this year.
The Great Wall Marathon is run on a older, unpolished, steeper, rougher, narrower part of the wall than most tourists go to. It's the explorers' part of the wall. When we did the race site inspections we had to bypass rough hewn narrow steps single file. It was steep and sometimes there weren’t even stairs, just a slope and some rough stone work to help keep you from sliding down. The stairs seemed to climb endlessly towards the sky. It was way more rustic and steeper than in my previous experiences.
Only about 3.5 miles of the Great Wall Marathon are run on the actual wall. For the full marathon you run that section of the wall twice. Only 7 miles of the 26.2 miles are run on the wall. The other part of the time you are running through a dusty village and up and down a nearby mountain.
There are many marathons on the Great Wall of China. The one I chose was the really touristy one that is run by a Danish travel agency called Albatross. There are about five other marathons that are organized on the Great Wall, and I suggest you consider all the others before deciding which one to run. The one I ran was the Great Wall Marathon, not to be confused with the Great Wall of China Marathon.
The Great Wall of China Marathon is run for the most part on the wall. Their website is http://www.greatwallmarathon.com.cn. Another option is Conquer the Great Wall Marathon, which is also mostly on the wall, but you basically run laps on the wall a few times. The Jiainshanling Great Wall Marathon is another option. Given the fastest run times at the latter races, it’s safe to assume those are more challenging courses than the one I ran, and from their websites, they do not require you to book a mandatory tour with Albatross Travel like the one I ran.
For the Great Wall Marathon you are forced to purchase a six or seven day tour or prove residency in China in order to register for the race. I had been to China twice and had seen all the major sites, so I was not very interested in their overpriced tours. I had friends in Beijing that could have easily shown me around.
Just because the tour company has been organizing a marathon for nineteen years does not mean they have everything organized. The Great Wall Marathon was in its nineteenth year. They did nothing to help you get your visa. It's a tour company to a communist country. Some support for how to obtain a visa would have been welcome since we were forced to buy a tour, yet we received little to no support in obtaining a travel visa. Even basic detailed instructions on how to obtain a visa would have been welcome. My friend and I had to go twice to the Chinese embassy in New York. A reminder to type out your application or to obtain additional documents if you work in the media would have been nice. You may even have to hire an outside agency to help process your visa. But support in this area will not come from Albatross travel.
The included meals during the tour may not always be very good. We were running a marathon, and nutrition was very important for the race. Two nights before the race, over 1,000 participants were bused to a local banquet hall on the outskirts of town. The food was terrible, and I was not the only person who could barely eat the food. It was lukewarm, tasteless, with very little protein, and was overall unappetizing. We are preparing for a marathon and we had to pay for our water (cash only, of course) even though meals were “included” in our tour. In fact, even when we were on the bus tours we had to pay for our water, which seemed a bit silly as it is a requirement for all marathon runners to be well hydrated.
When I discovered that we would be eating at the same unappetizing establishment the night before the race, I opted to forfeit my paid meal and find a different place to eat and pay for it out of pocket. The food was an issue, and the sandwiches that were provided after the marathon were also inedible.
Don't guzzle water when running a marathon in 100 degree Fahrenheit weather. It was much hotter than previous years, so I texted my physical therapist prior to the race. He said, “Don't guzzle or over drink water in extreme heat. Drink prior to the race but take small sips during the race”. There is a risk of hyponatremia, which is a sodium-electrolyte imbalance in your body which can cause nausea, seizures, comas, and even death.
Training for stairs means going up and down. There are a lot of stairs on the Great Wall of China. I was only climbing up stairs while training. I would visit my friend who lived on the fifteenth floor and walk up to see her, and then take the elevator down. But Malia Frey, fitness expert and writer said, “Going down the stairs is just as important as climbing up the stairs”. You need to develop the necessary muscles, quad strength, and strain on your ligaments to control the downward motion of your body.
Despite all of the disorganization from Albatross running the Great Wall Marathon, it was an amazing experience. Even though most of the race is run through a dusty village where runners inhale car fumes and run up and down a mountain, the biggest challenge is around mile twenty-one when you go over three miles straight up the Great Wall. There was nothing like that experience. It was very physically challenging, and I have to say that I loved the fact that I did it. To be pushed past your comfort zone and have to will yourself to finish was truly a mind over body moment, and you can see what you are truly capable of accomplishing.
People from all over the world travel to run this race. making it an incredible gathering. I met a young man from Argentina who ran the full marathon traveling with his mom who ran the half, and a father-son duo from Ireland who ran the full marathon together. There were the New Zealanders dressed in their signature all black, and they did a Hakka to start the race to worship the mountain and to honor those who gave their lives to build the wall. That was magical.
Becky's sunglasses are by Under Armour and her sports bra is by Anita.