Finally, the Great Wall Marathon (Eat, rest, and hydrate before reading)


After my third marathon in 2009, I decided that I wouldn’t do any more of them. Marathons, I thought, are long, boring, expensive, and for me require too much of a focus on long-distance endurance at the expense of other aspects of fitness.  Despite all this great reasoning, though, I thought the idea of running an international race on a section of the Great Wall to be too cool to pass up.  And after finding out both that the ridiculously high entry price was the same for all distances, and that my little sister would of course be coming from Hunan Province to run all 26.2, I decided I might as well get the most out of my money and my pride and do the whole thing.

That was last fall. Now, after a busy spring semester with too few miles and a long week of travel with way too many, this thing was finally going to happen.

Coming from Chengde, we puzzled everybody on the train to Beijing by gathering up our belongings on the approach to Xinglongxian (‘Thriving County’), a stop in the mountains with not much around, and little evident reason for two foreigners and their baby to disembark. We had to show our tickets and explain our purpose to the attendant before she decided that it wasn’t her problem if we were trying to get ourselves lost and stuck somewhere.

Despite the name, ‘Thriving County’ seemed at first glance to be anything but.  Indeed, we were the only people getting off there who had bought tickets for seats; everyone else stepping onto the platform had saved a few kuai by just standing for the short, two-hour trip down the line from Chengde.

But outside the station, we found ourselves in a bustling market town, fortunately with the usual train station / market coterie of young men whose first business venture is to buy or lease an expensive car and then wait around all day for someone who needs a ride. That being us, we soon had ourselves set up with apples, a cushy new Hyundai, and some fantastic scenery on the winding mountain road south to the Huangyaguan (“Yellow Cliffs Pass”) gate of the Great Wall.  Before leaving town, our driver stopped at the clothing store where his wife worked to proudly show her his business success for the day. Unfortunately, when he answered how much we were paying, she didn’t seem too impressed.

When we arrived an hour later in Huangyaguan, you’d have no idea there was about to be 3,000 or so foreigners about to descend on the place. Two evenings before the marathon, the little town was fairly empty except for some small groups of Chinese day-trippers from Tianjin.  After spending the week walking, by our estimation, least 10 miles per day, we spent most of the day before the marathon sitting in the shade near the main square, drinking water and talking with the Chinese tourists who came to sit with us.  Many of them were drenched with sweat and exhausted after climbing up the section of Wall that I’d be running the next day. For once, the lack of a one-child policy in America competed with another topic as their preferred focus of initial conversation: a marathon is how long? How long does it take? Can you ride a bike?

Later in the day, the first buses from Beijing started arriving with their European, Australian, and American cargo.  In town, the price of a taxi up the hill to the homestay residences suddenly went from 20 to 50 kuai. Meanwhile, we found that the room rate we were paying at the home we’d found, which I thought to be already outrageous at 120 kuai not including meals, was at least better than the 320 kuai charged by the Great Wall Marathon organization for the same rooms.  (Actually, for anybody interested in running the GWM who has stumbled upon this blog, I recommend arranging as little as possible through the official race organization. For every possible need, from transportation to lodging to meals, we observed that their travel-agent markup was typically in the 200-300% range.)

After finally finding a ride back up to our inn, though, we had a great time for the rest of the evening. People from all over the world kept arriving, each group greeted by the barking welcome and initial line of questioning from the fat, bossy hostess: “CHIRGUOLEMA? YAOR BU YAO CHIR WAN FAN?” Getting some hesitant nods to her chopsticks-to-mouth miming gestures, she’d push them into the kitchen to pick out what they wanted from the raw meat and vegetables sitting on the counter. Unless new groups insisted otherwise, only after ordering some food were they shown to their room.  We all ended up sitting together around several tables downstairs, me occasionally acting as the world’s worst interpreter for expats from the south who still needed a little time to get used to the northern accent.

Aunt Tina finally arrived late that night, having ‘bravely’ arranged her own transportation from Beijing after deciding that rest and hydration could wait until after visiting the capital’s famous pearl and jewelry markets. Seeing her caused Owen to fly into a fit of joy. Unfortunately, he was so excited that he couldn’t fall sleep at his bedtime. Or Bayley’s. Or mine. For hours upon hours, late into the night, he wiggled. I knew he was just excited and proud and probably a little awe-struck that his dear old man was going to run this momentous race, but still, it would have been nice if he’d stopped squirming around and kicking me in the face.

The next day, race morning, after a hearty northern breakfast of oily pancakes, garlic-cucumber mash and sweet sauce (actually, only one other runner and I ate that–everyone else broke out their Clif Bars), we all made our way down to the race.  We had to arrange our own transportation down to the start, at 50元 per 6-person van.  Transportation from the inn, which was much farther away than advertised by the race organizers who’d arranged it, was apparently not included in the 250% markup on lodging.

Then, at the start, we waited. Everything actually seemed pretty well-organized, so much so that one of Tina’s World Teach friends, who was also running, was almost not allowed to enter the start area because she didn’t have her little ticket that was included in the race packet. Yes, she had both of her bibs (required were one bib for the front, one for the back), as well as her race timing chip, but such evidence of a completed transaction and race registration were deemed entirely insufficient. I guess you never know with foreigners–most of them are fat, but the ones who aren’t are probably just the type who enjoy sneaking into marathons with counterfeit bibs. Fortunately, by just standing in the way and not going back on the next train to Hunan, as the ticket-checker basically proposed, she caught the eye of one of the managers. After a quick explanation, he allowed her to pass, but only after carefully recording her full name so they could check her story later.

The race almost started on time, which was to be pretty late anyway at 07:35 in a locale where the sun rises before 5AM. But then the speeches began. In China, as in many parts of the world, whenever something happens that might make somebody look good, all the local officials that can possibly be crowded onto a stage all show up to take part. No, not by running in the 5K or walking around and talking to the people, but by giving a canned speech and avoiding as much people-contact as possible. At every event like this in China, there end up being a lot of speeches. They begin from the official in charge of that street corner over there, and this case worked their way all the way up to the vice mayor of Tianjin.  And they all say the same thing: [insert town or district or province] has a proud history: [insert dubious historical facts]. It has many development accomplishments: [insert statistics]. We think you’ll enjoy it here, and we wish you a pleasant stay and success in [insert activity]. With runners checking the time while nervously watching the sun rise ever higher in the sky, the officials, who are pros at giving speeches that nobody listens to (you should see the audience at class assemblies at my university), didn’t miss a beat. That is, every last one of them finished every last word. When everyone realized it was over, there was much applause. Then we waited for them to figure out who would fire the gun. And then finally we were off.

The race itself was fine. About 4km out of 42 were actually on the Wall; the rest was through relatively flat and relatively boring countryside to the south. Water stops were numerous, which was great because of the heat. At times it felt weird to be among so many non-Chinese, with so many Westerners fresh off the plane, painstakingly tracking down infrequent trash cans to deposit their empty water bottles. Some of the foreigners, in the this-is-no-longer-fun stage of the race, started freaking out about how the passing cars and chicken-laden trucks kept blaring their horns, as if telling the runners to get the hell out of their way (actually, constant honking is just a safety precaution in China). But other than that and perhaps a few other minor annoyances, it was a just a long, hot, quiet race. The course was well-marked, with a bored policeman posted at just about every conceivable wrong turn, from four-way intersections to narrow dirt tracks going back in the opposite direction. A year earlier, I might have felt insulted that they thought we were either so stupid or so prone to cheating that they needed a policeman blocking a goat path within sight of a water station. But having frequented Chinese supermarkets, where teams of employees with no clue about where to find the laundry detergent aisle stand about making sure nobody slips past the cash register, I wasn’t offended. Foreign marathon runners, Chinese grocery shoppers–all are equally stupid and/or prone to sneakiness in the eyes of those with responsibility.

Towards the end of the race, we went up the steep section of the Wall one more time. I power-walked at a pretty brisk pace almost all the way up, until without warning the muscles in each leg started constricting and seizing up. Thinking I was done for, I leaned on all fours against the steps and tried to keep clawing forward, hoping to get a little closer to the end of the Wall before I inevitably became immobile. Blood pounding in my ears, staring at the brick step one inch from my face, I still managed to hear the words from a passing tourist, a fat Cockney-accented lady with a big sun hat and a walking cane:

“Wow, hullo there! I know this probably doesn’t mean much to you right now, but I think you’re amazing.”  She stood there, casting her large shadow on top me. Nice words, really. But if she was waiting for a cheerful response from the guy on all fours with two twitching legs and his face in the bricks, it wasn’t coming. Thankfully, my body’s physiological response to extreme annoyance is apparently to release some hidden electrolytes back into the blood. My legs unfroze, and I was able to keep moving.

I finished the race in 47th overall, after completing the Wall section and gingerly toeing down a long, breezy hill (I wore my Vibram FiveFingers, since they’re the only running shoes I bought to China).  After running for nearly five hours, I was pretty hungry. Thankfully, the exorbitant price of race entry included a lunch at the end! Only there was no lunch. All the sandwiches had already been given out to all the 5K and 10K runners. The marathon runners? Whoops. More were coming, we were told, but in proper Chinese fashion nobody wanted to say when.

Tina finished not long after me, placing in the top 5% for all women. Not bad, considering she’d been pearl shopping in Beijing rather than stretching and drinking water the day before. Not to mention living off boiled cabbage and ears of corn in Hunan for the last nine months.

Our last interaction with the GWM staff was a request for transportation back up to the inn. The girl with the clipboard went right to work, calling one number, not getting through, and then walking away. We found our own.

And with that, the Great Wall Marathon was done and over.



Filed under Foreign-er Travel, Great Wall 馬拉痛

3 responses to “Finally, the Great Wall Marathon (Eat, rest, and hydrate before reading)

  1. Robin Freeman

    I am so proud of you both for your efforts.

  2. Grandma Alice

    WOW Nick and Tina, amazing. I was exhausted just reading this and looking at the steep terrain. Major congratulations to you both. Owen had the right idea–just glue yourself to the TV clown.

  3. What a race track…… great job to you and Tina!!!! Yea, I liked Owen with the clown too … That’s more my running speed .. lol

  4. Adrian Hosler

    so I’m currently the Worldteach volunteer at your sister’s placement in Hunan and she kindly sent me the link for your blog as I too am currently training/about to die in anticipation and fear of the upcoming marathon haha. just wanted to say I really enjoyed this and some good insight into what’s to come! thanks 🙂

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