Great Wall Marathon 2016: Race Report

Continued from Prelude in C Major.

I went to bed very early the Friday night before the race, extremely nervous for what lay ahead, calves still aching after our short stint on the Wall the day before. I woke up at 1am (wake-up call wasn’t until 3am), and couldn’t go back to sleep. But the moment I woke up, I knew I would be fine. I was ready. My mind was in a good place, my stress had disappeared and I was looking forward to the experience of a lifetime. My bags were packed, gear sorted out and my hydration pack filled.

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Race ready!

Before breakfast I foam-rolled my calves and my butt (to ensure a firing butt, heaven knows we can’t afford a butt that doesn’t fire). Breakfast was at 4 am and, although I didn’t have an appetite at that time I knew fueling would be key to a possible 6 or 7 hour taxing run in high heat and humidity. I hydrated well the day before and had enough water during the few hours before the race as well. Luckily the coffee in China wasn’t very much to my taste so water it was.

At 5 am we all piled into our respective buses for a 1.5 hr drive to the start of the race. There was a quiet tension in the buss, the atmosphere loaded with adrenaline. I listed to my race day playlist and the familiar songs calmed my nerves.

Once we arrived most of us lined up outside the bathrooms for the last calls of nature. I met the two Running Rhinos from South Africa, Bradley Schroder and Greg Canning, who each ran (and successfully completed) the Great Wall Marathon wearing a 10 kg Rhino suit. Their campaign raises funds and awareness for rhino conservation.

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The Running Rhinos, South African running team. Source.

While shivering in the morning cold (although I knew it wouldn’t last…), the lady next to me in the bathroom line (accidentally) started talking to me in Afrikaans, and great was her surprise when I replied in the same language! Turns out she also hails from neighbouring South Africa and was in China for her very first marathon. We shared a little gossip about how awful we found those plastic bathroom ‘doors’, most probably the breeding ground of all unthinkable kinds and numbers of germs!

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These plastic ‘screen doors’ were found at bathrooms, some butchers and small stores… the source of great terror for a pedantic germophobe like me!

While all athletes were bunching to their various starting areas, we were entertained by a beautifully uniform-clad Chinese orchestra playing lively tunes, including Jingle Bells (?), much to everyone’s delight and entertainment (during the run some villagers also cheered us along with what I suspected was their only English: Happy New Year!) Bless them.

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Live entertainment before the start of the Race.

The race had a staggered start, with the faster runners (marathon and half-marathon) starting in the first wave at 7:30 am. I was in the second of four waves (I may or may not have put up a goal/dream marathon time during race entry, always be positive!) that landed me in the early wave…

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Just before the start of the race.

And then we were off! The first kilometer was a relatively flat one, after which a winding ascent of about 5 km on tarmac lead to the entrance of the Great Wall. From there we covered a roughly 3 km section on the Great Wall from west to east, including 2550 steps (according to the step-counter on another athlete’s watch the steps were way more than that… but who’s counting?) The steps were really steep in some cases (both going up and down), and in other sections they were so tiny and broad we had to run them two by two. Okay I just put ‘run’ in there for fun. I didn’t actually run the steps. I suppose there were people who ran them, but I definitely didn’t. I moved quickish. Many parts of the Wall were really too steep and treacherous to run on, and the flatter parts I mostly used for recovery. And meeting new people. And taking in the absolutely breathtaking wonder of the surroundings and the remarkable structure that is the Great Wall.

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After descending the NOTORIOUS Goats Track we passed through the Yin Yang Square to great cheering of the supporters. The MC also announced that I was the second Namibian to pass the square that morning, but sadly I never got to meet my fellow countryman/lady. Then off to the country side we went as the temperature and humidity started to rise. I carried my own hydration pack, but there were plenty of aid stations offering bottled water, energy drinks as well as bananas in some places. It was really hot, and I was very cautions of heat exhaustion . I took in a lot of fluids, even refilled my hydration pack at some point, but also took electrolytes and three Slow-Mags along the way to prevent cramping. And it definitely paid off.

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Route of the Great Wall Marathon, Jixian.
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Route Profile of the Great Wall Marathon, Jixian.

From the route profile I expected the small hill in the country-side section to be insignificant (compared to the Wall), but it turned out to be another nice, long climb but with less of a view. The villagers were friendly and cheering us on, with little children clapping and giving high fives all along the route. That was really moving, and reminded me of my two babies back home and how they always high-five runners when they support a race.

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The sections between villages were hot and tiring, and at some point I reverted to my music for some inspiration. There usually comes a point during any race where I start to focus more on my tired body and less on the driving will to finish the race in a decent time. Before long I end up strolling and finding excuses not to run even if I feel rested again. That is where I find music to be of a great relief, to get my mind off the current task and get me moving again. During this run the thought of the two Running Rhinos constantly inspired me; people that are willing to endure a lot of physical discomfort for the greater cause. The plight of the critically endangered rhino is also very near to my heart, and the focus of a fund raiser run/cycle event that we organise in our home town.

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Some views from the country side and villages along the route.

After the loop in the country side the marathoners returned to Yin Yang square, so passing there a second time after the start, and I recall the prize giving had already started. When I passed the square after the 8.5 km run on the wall the first time I heard the MC announce that the first lady on the 21 km entered the square with me… Ha, well I guess there were people running a bit faster than me!

Nevertheless I still felt strong as I headed towards the Goats Track to tackle it from bottom to top this time as we ran the Wall from east to west. (I said run again…) That goats track was one difficult climb, I must say, and I passed a lot of runners sitting or laying down on the steps, shoulders sagged with very far off gazes in their eyes. I talked to all of them, offering water, and they all seemed to just be tired but not defeated.

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Some resting runners.

During this last section on the Wall I just kept moving, albeit slowly, and actually talked to a number of interesting people, which made it one of the most memorable sections of the race. I happened to meet up with Henrick Brandt who has completed every one of the Great Wall Marathons since it’s inception in 1999. His first Great Wall happened to be his first marathon, and thus he keeps returning every year.

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Last section on the wall, walking with Mr Great Wall (as he is known) Henrick Brandt (first from right.)

After we stepped off the wall I had to remind myself that I was actually in a race and should start running again. The final seciton was the 5 km covered in the start of the race, which was now downhill. Ironically a lot of people told me afterwards that this was the hardest part for them. I think mentally you feel you should be done after completing the hard part, which is the second round on the Wall, and 5 km just was far on tired legs.

When I entered the Yin Yang square for the 4th time, it was to massive cheers from the audience (always nice to finish late, there are many people to cheer you on!) I finished in 6:29 which I was quite happy with, with plenty time left to the 8 hrs cutoff. I was immensely happy to receive my beautiful medal, as I felt I worked for it long and hard and often doubted if I would be able to accomplish this huge goal.

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Stunning race medal!

All runners received a complimentary ticket for a massage after the race. I hung around the physios’ tent for a while observing the agony on their poor patients’ faces, thinking to myself that the Chinese were out to get us… those whom they didn’t destroy on the Wall they ould finish off with a brutal massage! Then one of them grabbed my ticket from my hand and, wickedly smirking, directed my to a bed. I though this was it, they are going to break me! Sure enough the lady was quite forceful but it felt good in so many ways, and I can honestly say that between my Slow-Mags and my Chinese physio-sergeant I didn’t have any major aches or pains the next day!

We were transported back to Beijing after the race, most of us (world-travelling adult athletes) only took our medals off once we got to our hotel rooms in Beijing, 3 hours later. All of us SO proud of what we have achieved and experienced that day.

Race week was aptly ended with a gala dinner at a very nice hotel in Beijing on the Sunday night. The food was delicious, everyone was relaxed and friendships were made. The organizers showed a video of the event on a large screen, and reliving some special moments of the days before stirred some emotion in all of us as we knew our adventure was about to end.

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We had some really tasty dinners after the race, including traditional Peking roast duck!

All in all I have to commend Albatros Adventure Marathons for a superbly organised race. From our arrival and reception in Beijing, our sightseeing tours, transfers to Jixian and the Race to the last morning where they organised transport for each of us to the airport to catch our various flights, all went smoothly and was SUCH a big adventure. I can most definitely recommend the Great Wall Marathon to anyone who seeks to run a superbly organised, VERY scenic yet TOUGH international race.

Prelude in C Major: days leading up to the Great Wall Marathon 2016.

I arrived in Beijing around 10:00 pm on Tuesday 17 May, after a more than 24hr trip from Namibia and probably an hour’s sleep in total during the journey. The absolute highlight of the three part flight there was seeing the Himalaya Mountains. Although I am not the mountaineer in our family I had an overwhelming urge to find myself on foot amidst those immense snow-covered peaks and desolate valleys.

From our vantage point the entire mountain series seemed pristine and untouched, beckoning to be explored. Snow has that beautiful way. Very much like the moving sands of the Namib Desert of my country of birth, snow eradicates any sign of intrusion and impact very effectively and rapidly. My mind wandered to the countless explorers who lost their lives on those mountains. Their remains too, are softly hidden beneath the snow.

Himalaya mountains, Tibet.
After arriving in Beijing we weren’t allowed to disembark the plane as a health inspector first had to inspect the 20 passengers that were travelling from Luanda for possible signs of Yellow Fever. Apparently there was an outbreak again. So we were stuck in our seats for an additional 30 min. When we finally left the plane it was the usual long lines for customs, and another 40 minutes passed. What is it with these visa-requiring countries that can make one feel SO nervous once it is your turn to present your little green book? I think I look guilty as a mass murderer when they glance at you so suspiciously to check if you look like your passport photo. Jo, I swear I hold my breath every time, hoping I still look like my photo in the book! Then off to fetch our baggage, and unlike any other airport I have ever visited, in this one we had to embark a subway to the baggage terminal! And it was NOT a short ride!
Thank heavens my dear thorough Hubs arranged for me to be picked up from the airport and be taken to my hotel. My driver didn’t speak a word of English, so there wasn’t any talking going on in the taxi, but after a very long drive I realised that we were lost. The guy was talking on the phone quite often, and his tone of voice didn’t sound too excited. Poor man, it was already nearing midnight. We finally stopped in a VERY dodgy area of the city sporting rundown shacks and streets reeking of sewage. Absolutely no English were to be seen and the situation was not instilling any confidence in this Namibian girl. By this time my driver had gotten out, lit a ciggie and started asking for directions. I’ve never been THIS lost in a taxi, I must say. I had already made up my mind that I was certainly not getting out of the taxi in that part of town. Then he could much better take me back to the airport, but I was not getting out. I also knew that he wouldn’t have nearly enough English to force me to get out! Luckily it wasn’t necessary, as he was directed per phone to my hotel. And after he half-swallowed his cigarette he got back in and it was another 5 minutes’ drive and I was home. Finally.
And boy was the Qianmen a pleasant, comfortable hotel! I fell asleep around 1 am and slept for a solid 11 hours! And then still felt half-paralysed! I spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets in close proximity to the hotel, taking in the sights, smells and sounds of China. I have to admit the smells, mainly of street food being barbequed such as squid kebabs and very strange-looking chicken limbs took away my appetite completely, so I settled on bottled water and bananas. Of course I also had a suitcase full of packed food from Namibia (cheese, droewors, Nakd bars and loads of dark Lindt gracefully hidden by my all-knowing Hubs, wrapped in notes and drawings from my boys!)
Prosperous Supermarket across the street from our hotel. Stockist of beer and iced lattes.
On Thursday we woke at 5 am to leave Beijing for Jixian, the rural region where we would stay for the race. Our tour guide, a Chinese woman, was named Jessica, which I doubted seriously, as seriously as I am not Lin-Yang, but it worked for us. I learned later from another Chinese guide, Roger, that they were each handed a dictionary in their respective international schools from which they were instructed to pick themselves an English name to make it easier on their teachers. Which makes sense. Jessica, as all the other guides I came in contact with, were extremely helpful, vibrant, and very efficient. This was the 17th time around for this marathon tour, and the organisers have clearly sussed out all the snags. The organisation was really great.
Driving into the country side of rural China was like driving from Dar es Salaam towards rural Tanzania. The same kind of poverty was evident and agriculture is similarly practiced on every available piece of open area, from village sidewalks to vast open fields. Agriculture accounts for 70% of China’s economy.
We were welcomed by the race directors in the Yin Yang Square, the start and finish venue of the race. After a thorough race briefing we were taken for a compulsory tour of the 3 km section of the Great Wall that we would run on on the day of the race, including a little taste of the 2550 steps we would be doing TWICE on race day.
It was a glorious experience to see, experience and be ON the Great Wall of China, one of the world’s most iconic landmarks. What a moment! And of course pure and utter terror set in…. for merely walking on that Wall was TOUGH! The steps are steep and unrelenting, and almost never is there a few meters of flat surface on the wall itself.
By the time we descended the notorious ‘goat’s track’ (a 1 km section of almost vertical steps) towards the square, my legs were shaking. Afterwards during lunch in the square people had the chance to de-register from the full marathon to the half, and I suspect a lot of the original 900 marathoners did so. A total of 2500 runners were registered across the full marathon, half and 8.5 km fun run.

Race briefing in Yin Yang Square.
Race route inspection of the Wall section.
Lunch was a very welcome, comforting, huge roast beef sub from Subway, which was the first official meal I ate in China other than my packed snacks and bananas. Let’s just say I was careful…
Upon arriving at our Yuyang Hotel in Jixian I discovered that my suitcase wouldn’t open. It was the second time that that happened to our ‘life-time guaranteed’ suitcase, the previous time being upon our arrival in Switzerland last year. Never of course would it happen upon arrival at home. So with lots of sign language and gestures I had summonsed the hotel maintenance team with the correct tools to open the lock, i.e. break it off. After a lot of Chinese and zero English I understood that they would be willing the break the lock, but not for free. I thus gently pointed towards the screwdriver in the toolbox, and in 2 seconds I flipped the lock clean off the offending suitcase. I was clearly admired by my Chinese maintenance crew and proceeded to enjoy my local Chinese beer.

Three hotel maintenance guys trying to figure out how to open my broken lock.
The next day, Friday, I took a voluntary trip to a local market and then to one of the Chinese emperor’s place of burial, which was very impressive and awe inspiring.  Had I known that we would be out until 16h00 I may have reconsidered, but I had a feeling that I would have slept most the day had I stayed at the hotel and would not be able to sleep the night before the race. So I was glad I went.
Very busy Chinese local market.
Tour of the last Ming (or Ching?) Emperor’s tomb.
We were treated to a very interesting lunch, if I can put it mildly. Upon entering the dining room I had to request a window be opened to allow me to stay within the very confined space alongside very suspicious looking and smelling dishes. Lunches in China takes place in smaller, more personal rooms within a larger restaurant, where parties are seated around a round table with a lazy susan in the middle of the table. Dishes are served in a staggered fashion for about an hour. Within the first 30 minutes of this particular lunch I only braved the cocktail tomatoes. Then arrived the rice and I half thought about dishing me a small heap in order to appear more social. After another 20 minutes arrived a dish that resembled a chicken stew, so I had a little of that. By the time I finished my 50 grams of food somebody discovered a chicken head among the deep-fried chicken strips, still with the tongue intact, half-hidden behind the giant chicken foot that stuck out. Needless to say I was relieved of an appetite for the remainder of that day. By that time I was accustomed to the local Chinese beer and since beer was free and we had to pay for bottled water, we did what any group of international travelling athletes would do and ordered another round.
Interesting lunch options….
I was really tired by the time we got back to the hotel, my calves still very tight and sore from the walk on the wall the day before. After I packed and prepared all my gear for the race I went to bed around 7 pm, a huge ball of tightly strung nerves.
To be continued…