When I crossed the finish line after five-and-a-half grueling hours of running, the first words out of my mouth were, "I'm never, ever doing that again." But, to be honest, all the training and the pain were worth it to be able to participate in the Great Wall Marathon. Running this race was one of the most challenging, exciting and memorable experiences of my life.
The Great Wall Marathon is not just any marathon. It's 42 tough km (26.2 miles) filled with steep uphill grades, incredible and historic scenery, treks through nearby countryside, a tour through a neighboring town and most importantly, over 5,000 steps to climb. This year on May 21, about 2,000 athletes were up to the challenge and met at the wall for this unique, adventurous event. Some ran 5 km or 10 km while others opted for the half-marathon but I decided that if I was going to come all the way from Changzhou, I wanted to push myself and run the whole distance.
After months of training on my university campus and answering countless questions like "Why do you run so much?" from my students, I was excited when my train finally pulled into Beijing. I had convinced a few friends to participate in this adventure with me and we spent the day touring the Forbidden City and the Tiananmen Square before turning in early on Friday night in anticipation of an exhausting day ahead.
We had to get up at 3 a.m. in order to reach our bus in time for the three-hour ride to the wall. Upon arrival we downed some coffee and slurped hot noodles while watching other runners get in the zone and prepare for the race. I was immediately intimidated eavesdropping on conversations of previous conquests of triathlons, ultra-marathons and other outstanding achievements.
"Why am I doing this?" I wondered and decided that my goal was just to finish and try to enjoy myself.
After breakfast, we wandered to the starting area where the atmosphere was electric with anticipation and excitement. While I had only traveled from Jiangsu Province, many people had come from all over the world to participate in this event. After the starting gun went off we charged ahead and began 5 km of uphill running to reach the entrance to the wall. After a few flights of heart-pounding and blood-pumping stairs, we were on the great monument itself.
The view was breath-taking and aided by fabulous sunny weather, a cool, dry breeze and the bluest sky I have ever seen in China. Many runners stopped to take pictures, catch their breath or simply stare at the enormity of the Great Wall—an awesome and incredible sight. The extremely tough stairs were made more entertaining by the attitude of the other runners. Everyone was encouraging, helpful and in high spirits. Many sported clothes representing their country; I saw Brazilians in soccer jerseys, Canadians with patriotic hats, Frenchmen with flags painted on their cheeks and South Africans who blew on vuvuzelas throughout the entire race while wearing their flag like a cape.
After the first lap on the wall, the course took us to a neighboring village. On the way we were cheered on by many spectators, both Chinese and foreign, who shouted jiayou (come on! go!) at us, clapped their hands, handed out water and fruit and gave us flowers. Many residents gathered along the route to collect the empty plastic bottles the runners tossed to the ground after gulping down the contents.
The hardest part of the race was when we had to run up and down the wall a second time. My muscles were on fire and my legs felt shaky as I ascended and descended all of those stairs for the final time. Covered in sweat and grime but with a smile on my face I crossed the line and received my medal for finishing the race. Although I don't want to run up and down the wall again any time soon, I'm glad I was able to experience the Great Wall Marathon at least once in my life. It was an incredible race that brought the world to China to share in a both uniquely Chinese and international event I will never forget.
The author is an American living in China