Di’s Expereience at the Great Wall of China Half Marathon

16 May 2018 and Janne posts this on the Qwik Kiwi House FB page “Finally had the go ahead from Ray who said to “Dream big and live the dream”.  Suzy Monds’ inspirational story and my success running the Rotorua marathon last week have confirmed my ambition now to conquer The Great Wall of China full marathon.  My challenge to all Qwik Kiwi team members is to join me for the full, half or 8.5km fun run 3rd weekend in May next year.  Di, you’re always encouraging me – how about it?  For the full there are 5164 steps so it is brutal but the harder the challenge the bigger the reward eh?  Would love to share it with as many of the team as possible – maybe Ray could be encouraged to do it too?  Makes it more fun to do the hard yards with people you know and then to celebrate success together.  Marathon Events travel organise everything from visa to flights, accommodation, a bus trip a couple of days prior to view the course and western style food prior to the race so no upset tums”.

Hmmmm, China.  Not a destination at the top of my list, however the opportunity to share it with someone else moved it up the list considerably.  Enough in fact to say “yes, I’ll go with you”.

I had a busy week leading up to the day I left home, but before I knew it Janne and I were boarding the first of nine flights. I met her in Auckland where we shared a night together before meeting with our travel organisers, Judy and Peter Wolff of Marathon World Travel and the rest of the team. We flew from Auckland to Hong Kong, changing planes there to fly to Beijing and arrived at our hotel around 5am on Wednesday 15 May 2019.

On Thursday we boarded a bus to take us (and many other athletes) to Huangyahuan to walk the 3.5km section of Wall which was part of the event. It was a hot day.  I hadn’t given much thought as to what to wear and wore an ordinary t-shirt and shorts and my running shoes.  I hadn’t got my sense of direction at that point or maybe I was awestruck with the surroundings, but it didn’t sink in that the 5km uphill route that the bus took to get us to the starting point of the Wall was actually the first 5km of the half marathon. 

On the Wall and carrying a back pack, I was soon huffing, puffing and sweating – just from walking.  In fact I felt a bit dizzy, giddy walking up the steps.  Fortunately I had electrolyte with me and a few swigs of that and I felt much better.  Checking out this section was the perfect opportunity to take photos and get a proper look at the surroundings.  It was also much clearer than on race day.   I can’t imagine what it would have been like to build that Wall. It’s huger than huge.  The Wall included big steps, shallow steps, giant steps, and areas where the course was simply placement of all kinds of stones, some “shiny” (slippery).

I took this purely as a visual memory of what the steps were like. Some sections were “proper” steps, other sections were a mixture of different material. On review, I see how a lot of repair work has been undertaken. I believe the Albatross Adventure Marathons have helped enable this. Yes, you will hear me puffing as I make my way up and at the end when you think you have reached the top, look up and see what is next ha ha.

When you “come off the Wall”, there is a bridge to cross then more steps.  Yep.  More.  Bloody. Steps.  These are around a kind of tower alongside the Yin and Yang Square in the old Huangyaguan Fortress.  The bus took us back to Jixian where we stayed two nights, leaving the morning of race day.

Saturday 18 May 2019  Race day.  My key priorities of race morning were to have my passport and entry ticket.  No entry ticket (even if you were wearing a race number) = no entry.  We weren’t able to access our luggage after the event until we reached the hotel back in Beijing.  It was locked in the luggage hold and we weren’t guaranteed to be on the same bus as our luggage.  We needed our passport to be able to access our booked hotel room.  So I carried my passport during the event in a waist pouch.

When we arrived at the race start there were a zillion buses.  There was a band playing Jingle Bells.  We had a giggle about that.  Yin and Yang Square was buzzing with athletes and spectators.

We were welcomed to the Great Wall of China Marathon by this band.

We handed in our gear for after the race in a bag tagged with our race number.  Next was a toilet stop.  The main toilets were squat toilets, so it was good to see port-a-loos available and the queue was not long.  However we were in for a surprise! 

A group warm up was performed and speeches took place before the first wave, which I was in, headed off.

I thought I would probably walk the 5km uphill, but I felt ok and managed to run most of it.  There were lots of people lining the road, all shouting encouraging words.  Well I think they were encouraging.  Some people even ran with us.  The road was open so I just needed to be aware of vehicles and motorbikes/scooters.  It wasn’t too long before the Wall was in front of me.  The day was a lot cooler than the recce day and I felt much better, especially without the need to carry a backpack.  As it had rained the night before it was a bit wet underfoot in areas.  I did carry a soft bottle and that was a great choice.  There was plenty of bottled water on course.  I filled my bottle once.  I also had a couple of gels.

I did run a bit of running up and down on some of the smaller steps.  Other athletes were very supportive.  One guy gave me his hand and we ran down a section.  At the bottom it was a case of thank you, see you later.  I stopped once to take some photos of a guy with his cell.  I didn’t take my cell with me as I would have been too tempted to use it.

Fellow Marathon World Travel athlete, Jeni Harrison, captured me using the wall to steady myself on the way down these steps during the event.

Some of the steps in the last section of the Wall were slippery from the night before.  A marshall was screaming “It’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous”.  She was right by the railing which I wanted to use.  Someone ahead of me had moved around the marshall, fallen and slipped and caught the railing on their way through thank goodness. 

Off the Wall, over the bridge and cutting through where we started, it was time to hit the road.  Here I got a nice rhythym.  Runners went both ways here and at one point it was necessary to cross the road.  I didn’t see any cones markers, so crossed when the traffic had gone.  Down the main road we turned off to run to the village.  There were marshalls and signs to ensure you went the right way.  Around the village it was very muddy and slippery after the overnight rain.  I chose to walk a lot as apart from staying upright, I wanted to see my surroundings. It looked to be a very poor area.  There were groups of people cheering and others simply going about their day.  I spotted a spit roast – actually I smelt it.  Yum.  I didn’t stop for that but I did stop and go back to a young boy who had held a flower out for me.  Cute.   Some athletes had photos taken with the locals.  Some of the youngsters approached for autographs.  I was surprised to find it so hard to write without my hand shaking making my writing look spidery.   The section through the village was undulating.  One foot in front of the other.

It was very muddy underfoot through the village after overnight rain.

Back out on the main road I was patted on the back by one the marathon runners from our group.  That gave me a wee boost.  Near the Yin and Yang Square, I could hear the finish line announcements and the last of the steps appeared.  They didn’t feel quite so bad.  The “near the finish” endorphins had kicked in and before I knew it I had finished, been presented with a medal and Judy, our travel organiser, appeared in front of me with Janne.  I hadn’t expected that and it meant a lot.  It was very cool as often I finish an event with no one there at the finish waiting for me.  I finished in just over 4 hours.   As a result of a nagging injury, Janne had elected to change from the marathon to the half and she finished in a credible 3 hours and in a respectable place in her 65-69 age group. 

After our visit on the Thursday, I had battled doubtful thoughts.  I think it was simply the unknown – the remainder of the course that we hadn’t seen.  After the recce my legs were a bit sore, but on race day they felt great and they recovered exceedingly well afterwards.  I put that down to not only a good run training scheduled by Coach Ray, but also the strength work I’ve been doing in the gym.

Athletes were able to use one of their vouchers to get Subway for lunch after the event.  It tasted so good.  We also had a voucher for a 20 minute massage.  I got that before I got my Subway.  It was a bit ouchy, but my legs felt so much better afterwards.   After a few photos, Janne and I hunted out a bus with the name of our hotel on it.  Buses were leaving all the time.  We were lucky to get on the same one as our luggage and once it had filled up we were off back to Beijing.  Some of the tour groups stay in Jixian another night, but we found it good to get back to Beijing as it gave us two nights and a full free day there.  On the Sunday night we enjoyed the celebration dinner with traditional entertainment and food.

On Monday our group split, with some heading straight back to New Zealand and others opting for a bit more adventure before returning.  Janne and I had decided that with the flight investment we might as well see a bit more, so on our instructions Judy organised us a stay in Vietnam and Hong Kong before returning to our homes in Murchison and Masterton.  Vietnam and Hong are another story.  I still have photos to upload to FB of that section of our trip.  Images for the entire trip (nine flights) are uploaded in groups of around 12 images per public post on my FB timeline.

If you get the opportunity to do this event, take it.  The half marathon and 8.5km “fun run” both take in the Wall section while the marathon goes over it one way and then reverse on the return.  Travelling with a tour company is a stress free way to go.  All you need to do is your run training and apply for Visa for China.  On race day I focus on getting from the start line to the finish line, so I don’t take in my surroundings.  It wasn’t until I saw the race organiser’s video clip of race day that I realised what I had achieved.  It is quite breath-taking. If you have a spare 8 minutes it is well worth watching.

– Di Chesmar 

If you are interested in travelling to the Great Wall Marathon in 2020 contact Judy at Marathon World Travel

Qwik Kiwi has training plans available for all upcoming events that Marathon World Travel are taking tour groups to.

Event training plans starting soon

  • Round Rarotonga Road Race
    • 12 week plan starting 01-Jul-19
    • Beginner and Intermediate plans
  • New York Marathon
    • 16 week plan starting 15-Jul-19
    • Beginner and Intermediate plans

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