TL/DR: I made it all the way to Beijing and picked up my bib. I even made it to the start line. I went up and down the Great Wall and back over in one piece. I finished the thing! This was my face before I knew what I was getting into:
Now, for the rest of the race recap, you get to read about how that smiley face got beaten to submission but then came back to life!
Note: There are numerous companies that host races on the Great Wall of China. This race recap is specific to the local Chinese company whose website can be found at http://greatwallmarathon.com.cn/.
I can verify from my participation that they are indeed a legitimate race company run by very nice local folks! If you’re hesitating registering for the event because of the website design, I would not hesitate any longer. They are a legitimate company and are quite responsive on social media and via email. If you contact them directly via Facebook or WeChat, you may be able to get a better deal on race registration!
Traveling to Beijing
I took off a grand total of 7 days from work (how luxurious!) and spent 5 of those days in Beijing. 2 of those days were full travel days since I was now traveling from Denver and not a coastal city.
Our flights to and from Beijing were not very full, so we had some stretch room to sleep. I always order a vegetarian meal since I’m pescetarian, which means I also get my meals first. 🙂
I set a Google Flights fare alert and got my tickets for $442 round trip per person.
Things to know about Beijing and China in general
The Great Firewall kept me locked out of my traditional communication channels. iMessage didn’t work on my phone but strangely did on my laptop. Facebook and Google didn’t work (and therefore Google Maps, Gmail, etc). I set up WhatsApp and WeChat ahead of time but trying to get friends/family to get it set up was an entirely different beast. It was only 24 hours into our trip when we were practically begging people to quickly get the app set up. Using our International phone was our only other option. We wanted to make sure that we maintained an open line of communication, since being in a different country meant that…well, anything could happen.
We also paid for a premium version of the app WayGo. It was a fantastic app that used computer vision to translate Chinese to English. It came in very handy when translating menus and written signs.
It is advised that you keep your passport on you at all times. When I was purchasing items like my SIM card and checking in to my hotel, it seemed like they were always logging my information and taking my picture. I wore my Fitletic running belt and kept my cash, cards, and passport on me at all times. It was easier than carrying around a purse and it tucked away easily underneath a shirt.
Cash is king, unless you have a Chinese bank account OR a US bank account with HSBC that you can connect with WeChat for mobile payments. They are incredibly advanced when it comes to using cashless payment systems. Cash works too, in most places. I never went anywhere that refused cash. When visiting malls (like Honqiao Market) you can barter a little easier if you have cash. It also makes traveling by taxi and train a lot easier.
Traveling by taxi was really affordable for me. A cross-town trip (30 minutes) would cost us around 50 RMB (also called yuan), which was the equivalent of $8 USD. We were a group of three, so splitting fares became really cheap. If you want to travel by train from the airport to one of the major transit hubs, it costs around 25 RMB ($4 USD) and then the local fare costs around 2-4 RMB (30-60 cents).
To hail a cab, never bother trying to do it street-side. No one will pick you up because they are either dropping someone off or picking someone up. Use the ride-hailing app called Didi. If you stay at a hotel, it’ll make it easier for your cabbie to find you and drop you off. When they come to pick you up, have the app open so you can show it to them to confirm that you are the right passenger and so that they can match the destination. Expect to get thrown out of the cab a few times during your trip if you don’t speak the language. I’m not sure why it happened to us a few times, but it did.
Race packet pickup and communication
If you added the race company to WeChat, it was very easy to get in touch with them about the race. However, if you relied on Facebook, you may have been left in the dark if your VPN broke like mine did. If you tried to rely on the website, good luck. The organization of information is a bit spotty because they tend to publish information as they get them, but they don’t republish it on their website in any other organized or categorized way, which makes it difficult to reference later. However, if you have any questions, it is best to add them on WeChat (available on iOS and Android) and just ask them directly. They have been very quick to respond to all of my requests and questions in this way. Their WeChat ID is greatwallmarathon.
Our race packet pickup was at the Shenzhou International Hotel in Beijing (the one across from Hubei Hotel). It wasn’t a full blown race expo. Expect a small group of 5 or so employees who are bilingual who will help get you checked in, answer your questions, grab your race gear, and provide a few swag items for sale.
The things they sold included shower tickets (30 RMB = $5 USD), 20-minute massage tickets (100 RMB = $16).
Food and water
On our first day, we wandered around until we found a place to eat. That didn’t work out too well for my husband, so once we got to the hotel we relied on recommendations from the front desk. From there we ventured into a few small local restaurants that seemed popular with locals. Again, we used WayGo for all of our translations and also relied on the pointing and kindness of restaurant clerks to help us.
Tap water is absolutely not drinkable in China. You must drink bottled water or boiled water. It’s fine for brushing your teeth and showering but not healthy for ingestion, so don’t think about it! Bring some nuun tabs for fizziness. I guzzled plenty of bottled milk tea, which is a luxury I can’t get in the states.
I was able to stash race nutrition, like Honey Stinger gels, waffles, and chews in my checked luggage.
The air was quite poor the first few days I was in town. On the first afternoon there, we traveled by train to our Airbnb and slept the afternoon away next to an open window. Walking outside for the half hour from the train station to the Airbnb seared our throats. After sleeping next to an open window (it was a warm day), we woke up with sore throats. That’s when we considered moving to a hotel, but wanted to wait for our friend to arrive first.
On the second and third day, the air got significantly worse. The factories had been shut down because of the national holiday (Labor Day), so it took awhile to the air to clear. In downtown Beijing, the air quality index soared to 330+, which classify as hazardous levels (meaning no one should be caught outdoors). It was one of our few available days for sightseeing, so we purchased respirators from a nearby pharmacy after relocating to a Holiday Inn for some cleaner air quality.
Before heading there, I would suggest checking the AQI (air quality index) and packing surgical masks. You can pick up a pack of them at the drugstore. I felt too silly to wear them the first day. It was too bad because it cost me a searing throat ache my first day. The surgical masks can be quite helpful, even on yellow days.
On high yellow or red days, go with a heavier duty respirator. Your lungs will thank you!
Race morning and logistics
We hailed a cab from the Holiday Inn to the Shenzhou International Hotel. It was very difficult getting a cab so early in the morning. It rivaled a Disney World start! Our alarms went off at 2:45am, although I was wide awake by 2:30am out of sheer nervousness. I laid out my clothes the day before. At the Shenzhou, they provided a light breakfast for those who could stomach food. It was still a 90-minute bus ride to the start, along with check-in and prep, so at least a few hours until the race start. They provided hard boiled eggs, bottled water, and McDonald’s hamburgers. Note that these were literally hamburger buns, veggies, mayonnaise, and a slice of ham. I stuck with the hard boiled eggs and bottled water. I used the long bus ride to bank a bit of sleep for the race day.
My experience running a half marathon on the Great Wall of China
The start line was full of nervous energy. Most of them are, but this one was different. There were lots of international runners who traveled in for this race. This type of race is a bucket list race, so people really have all their eggs in one basket. It would make sense they would be nervous. There was one woman who was scolding her significant other about wrinkling her bib (it would get wrinkled throughout the day anyways)…other people fiddling with gear. Others looking for the bathroom and spare toilet paper. There was a stage set up with a surprise performance for us. There was even someone running in costume! Runners are a funny bunch, and it seems like anywhere in the world we go, our behavior is pretty predictable.
Great Wall of China start line video
Heading up to the Great Wall
There’s a short footpath at a slight incline that was lined with trees. This would most likely qualify as ADA-accessible in the states, and is paved and easy to the entrance of the steps that lead to the wall. Benches dot this trail, so if you get winded early or if you need a place to stop and tie your shoes or take photos (like me!) then this is your chance. You most likely will be flying down this path on the way down, so you might as well drink in the scenery on the way up.
The excitement of the start line got to everyone. Most people ran or trotted their way up this path, even those who seemed like they planned on walking. I saw people from all over the world doing this race. The gentle slope helped separate the pack. By the time I had looked up after tying my shoelaces, I was able to see the runners high-tailing up in between the first few towers. It was incredible!
As a note: This race hosted all distances – the 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon. However, all were billed at the same rate due to the level of support that was required to staff the course.
At the base of the entrance to the wall, there was what looked like a ticket booth and queueing area. On most days I imagine this is where a crowd of people would stand to pay an entrance fare to begin the long walk up the stairs. This is the part that I would most consider the touristy area. It is probably both the best and worst maintained part of the wall simultaneously! The stairs before you reached the stairs were obviously laid down evenly, and it included a rusty handrail. The steps were evenly spaced. The terrain would then shift to concrete tile stairs, which led to a path that then led you to the first tower.
During this first part of the race, it was great seeing people of all abilities tackling their bucket list race. I was alongside many people from the US and Canada and we chatted about various races they’ve done, and the preparation work that went into this trip.
After the easy part (the trail getting to the wall), the less-than-easy part began: the first part of the wall. This is where it was obvious they had tried to maintain the most popular trafficked part of the wall, which was no easy feat. The steps were in such a state of disrepair that bricks and stairs were crumbling due to overuse. Being so unsafe, wooden staircases were built on each side of the steps to allow visitors to still enjoy the climb. These wooden staircases are wobbly and creaky at best, and are held together by long rusty nails. If you look down at your feet while climbing those stairs, you’ll see that the stairs themselves are slightly disconnected (sometimes as much as 1″ apart) from each other, and that you can see the nails that hold them together. It’s not for the faint of heart! Once you get to the “top” part of the stairs it flattens out a bit and you can take a breather.
I was only a few “steps” in to what was billed as the hardest race in the world when I was completely winded. I looked around me and the views were completely majestic. The golden sunlight poured over the rolling hills. Some of them were punctuated with staircases that promised a variety of ascents and descents for the day. I could even see the parking lot from where I was standing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I promised myself that I would take my time (within reason…I did have to make it back before the cut-off, after all). I wanted to take as many pictures as possible, but I also didn’t want any lasting injuries. I also promised myself that whenever I felt that a photo opportunity presented itself, I would stop for one.
The path down to checkpoint B
Fun fact: I am scared of heights. For someone scared of heights, this part of the Great Wall wasn’t too bad if you didn’t look down. However, this is about how far I would advise someone going before turning back. There was a child on the wall with their mother who had a panic attack and they kept pushing forward. The terrain gets exponentially more challenging. If it is unsafe for you to proceed, I would absolutely stop and turn around! There is no aid or water or help or tourist guides along the wall. You will have to rely on the goodwill of another tourist there, and hope that they speak English. Additionally, cell phone reception is awful out there. GPS is spotty, so know the course and have a map and compass. Be smart! Even though this looks like a walk along a paved set of stairs, treat this as a hike into a secluded forest because this is essentially a concrete jungle.
On the wall, the majestic views were really breathtaking. Then again, so were the stairs. The elevation wasn’t too bad (2500 feet above sea level…maybe) since I live in Denver (5280 feet above sea level). It would seem as though training on the stair master and doing hills on my bike trainer have proved more helpful than I thought. After the touristy area was over, the camera phone got tucked away and the real work began. The terrain got much much MUCH more challenging. On my way down from the wall into the parking lot to checkpoint B, one man had tripped and fallen on his knees and was scooting down on his butt. Others were struggling down the steep slope (no stairs!) with me. Some were flying down. (Clearly they were trail runners…or fearless!) I could see some half marathoners and full marathoners on their way back up. (Lucky souls!)
When I got to checkpoint B, I was all smiles! The volunteer there was very nice. She handed me a drink and I grabbed a banana to eat. The run/hike/walk/climb on the wall had been so scary and death-defying for me personally that my hunger had subsided. I was plenty thirsty on the wall, but had not felt like eating one morsel of food. Once I got off the wall, my hunger roared and I began to dive into my Camelbak that I stuffed with Honey Stinger chews, waffles, and gels. They were amazing! I pre-filled my 2L Camelbak with 2 nuun tabs.
The out and back
The 7 miles flat out-and-back in between the segments of the wall were incredibly flat. There was construction on the road for the majority of the course, so headphones are really a no-go. (Really, headphones are just a no-go on this entire course, so leave them in your hotel or in your gear check bag!) I had them with me but just kept them off the entire time. I heard some people using Bluetooth speakers, which I think is just a bit silly to be honest. It seems a bit distracting. Oh well.
After checkpoint B, there was a lot of construction going on. I came across a small construction zone with a restroom so I popped in for a second. This was my first time using a chemical squatting toilet. My family is from southeast Asia, so I am not new to the concept of squatting toilets. Also, having done a bit of hiking and camping in the woods, I’ve used chemical toilets. However…a chemical squatting toilet was completely new to me! Also, when I went in, there was a woman using the stall next to the one I was going to use, except her stall didn’t have a door. And she was currently using her squatting toilet. And she was giving me the death stare. I’m pretty sure she stared straight into my soul. I suppose if you ever find yourself in that vulnerable of a position you’d probably have one of two reactions: you either scream or you either stare someone down.
After that adventurous turn, I continued down the smooth, flat path down to checkpoint C. Another jolly volunteer greeted us with lots of food and drink. I was already getting tired but she saw my bib and motioned me to keep going to the turnaround. She said it was just a little further up the road. I said okay, and kept going. This road seemed to wind through a police station and a new residential area that was being built – “The Great Wall Valley”. I ran through the construction site almost positive I had taken a wrong turn when I ran into one friend, and then another, and then another, and then another! They were a sight for sore eyes. A group of locals found it funny that I was in the area and that I didn’t speak the language, so they wanted a photo with me. I obliged and I’m probably uploaded to some sort of Chinese social media network somewhere with a funny tag or caption: “Ridiculous American woman runs through construction zone with numbers on her belly and a bag of water!” The plumes of dust from the construction site were a bit annoying, as well as the dirt that would kick up whenever a car would drive THISCLOSE next to me since there were no sidewalks. After all, they were still building the neighborhood.
After a bit more weaving and car-dodging, I made it to the half marathon turning point! I was completely ecstatic that there was even a halfway turning point because I was almost positive that I lost my way and that I’d never find a way back home. It was at that turnaround that I reconnected with someone I chatted with at around the 0.5 mile mark on the wall. She seemed to be powering through the race.
Back up the way we came
Three of us slowly made our way back to checkpoint B, which is at the base of the wall. After mustering up some mental courage, we headed up the wall again. Most of the time, the way back is a lot faster and easier because you know what to expect. It was not the case with this…not one bit.
On the way down, there was a sense of relief coming off the wall. A sense of reward. Potentially a DNF even, if I could take the bus back. At least I would be able to relax. However, going up the wall meant that I would most likely going up for a very long time. My legs were heavily fatigued, and I was taking the switchbacks as controlled but quickly as I could. I was trying to help another person up with me, but she insisted that we continued ahead. She struggled quite a bit and I felt very guilty moving ahead. I’ve tried looking her up. My other friend stayed behind with me for awhile until she continued on. I was grateful because I knew I was struggling with more than just a tired set of legs.
The mental game: hitting the wall
A lot had been weighing on me up until the time I set foot on this wall. I was angry as hell at everything. I was sad and depressed and had never felt more alone in my entire life. I’ve felt like I had been abandoned and left behind. I was upset at things that have happened to me, that were completely outside of my control. People have been hurt. People have died. People have lied to me or betrayed my trust. My world before coming to the Great Wall was rapidly changing, and I had no idea what I would be returning to after I came home from Beijing. All I kept asking myself was, “Why?” Nothing more…just “why?” over and over again.
I struggled through the steep inclines and clung onto the edges of the wall to rest. When I ran out of questions, I searched for answers. I thought about all of the other struggles I’d encountered over the years. They weren’t necessarily more difficult. They were just different. But one thing I knew for sure that day — Whatever it took, I needed to get myself off the wall before sundown. I stopped asking “why” because it wasn’t getting me anywhere and instead asked “why not me?” — Why shouldn’t I be the one to succeed today? Why shouldn’t I be the one to love and feel loved in return? Why should I not pursue all of my interests and passions unabashedly? Why must I always treat myself like a second-class citizen? Today wasn’t going to be that day. Today, I was going to get myself off this wall in one piece.
My reunion with Erik
Part way through, I saw a galloping gent with a curly mustache stumble on by. Erik was on his final out and back for the marathon. We sat down and enjoyed a quick breather before he left to make peace with the wall. I kept my fingers crossed that I would see him in one piece, all knees intact in an hour or so’s time. He had made a friend on the wall and they were leapfrogging, so that was good.
It’s all downhill from here…I think?
“It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop.”
I feel like I sometimes have taken that way too literally over the last few years. However, since I am very scared of heights, going back down the tourist-y stairs was quite scary for me. So scary in fact, that I had to do them one-by-one, and I had to hang on the side and/or handrail (when available).
Every. Single. STAIR.
Imagine how quickly I could’ve gone if I could walk downstairs like a normal human being. It’s just something about that staircase being so high up in the sky, in such a state of disrepair, with such uneven footing…it makes me queasy just thinking about it at my desk right now, to be honest!
After the creaky stairs, I ran back through the very last aid station. The story of my life is packed-up aid stations. But, no worry…they still got me covered!
The path back was smooth sailing. Benches lined the path. Like the Blerch says, I am more than welcome to sit down and rest, because champions need rest (and obviously I’m a champion). I tried to trot my way down. The marathoners were able to run down faster than I could trot, which I found hilarious. One woman all decked out in Ironman gear said that this was harder than anything she’d ever done (and if she’s done a few Ironman events, then I will hold her to it!). I took the run all the way back to the finish and I never had to run through a finish line banner before, so it was awkward.
It was maybe an hour or 90 minutes after I finished that I tracked Erik’s descent down the wall. There was luckily a small little shop at the base that sold some hot and cold drinks. I grabbed a hot cup of coffee and what I thought were sour cream and onion Pringles (they turned out to be cucumber-flavored Pringles!!) and headed over to the finish line. My friend helped capture his glorious finish!
For some reason I always walk away a little sooner at the finish line than I should. I should really just linger a bit. When you show up to races as challenging as this one, it’s good to know that every once in awhile you’ll need to play the role of a catcher (someone who catches an athlete after they roll through a finish line).
The Great Wall of China Half Marathon: My parting thoughts
I had a lot of mixed emotions and feelings about this race in general.
In part, my accomplishment felt overshadowed by recent events.
I also felt disappointed that I didn’t do the full marathon, but realistically I would not have been able to make it off that mountain under the time limit. I would’ve been out there for another 3 or more hours, which would’ve put me in danger since it began drizzling shortly after I crossed the finish line.
The race is incredibly dangerous for someone like me, who primarily trains on treadmills and who is accustomed to road races. This race is suitable for adventure runners and trail runners. With a little more training and hiking, I think I would’ve felt more comfortable doing this one on by own. (The Manitou Stair Incline really helped…I can’t emphasize that, or Koko Head, enough!!)
Having the right gear is essential. I was mostly prepared for the day. Thankfully I wore a windbreaker with me that I thought I’d check or stuff into my Camelbak. I should’ve packed a better layer, and accounted for changing mountain conditions. Since I’d been training so much indoors, I had forgotten what it was like to deal with shifting weather patterns…even a 6.5-7 hour marathoner like myself should know better.
There weren’t too many miles on my shoes. They weren’t brand new and they weren’t on their way out. Erik wore his own-the-way-out shoes, which is a BIG mistake on this run. Wear shoes with plenty of tread. I should’ve worn my trail running shoes. Mind you, I never run trails. They just happen to be my Gore-Tex lined shoes, but the soles are very grippy and sticky. I only slipped once or twice but I never fell. I think I would’ve felt better wearing my other shoes.
If I knew then what I know now, I’m not sure if I’d sign up and run the race. At least I would train for the conditions first. There’s only so much a StairMaster, a treadmill, and outdoor half marathons and full marathons can really prepare you for. I would do more hiking for sure…something that requires you to understand how to maneuver steep terrain.
I had purchased trekking poles but never used them. I saw a few runners and walkers with them. I have a lot of balance issues so I didn’t bring them with me. I thought it might be helpful for offloading some of the shock of the pounding to the poles but it didn’t seem necessary (thankfully). Maybe one day I will get to use them on a hike or for snowshoeing!
I also would’ve checked on my life insurance before going. That’s one thing I forgot to do!
The race itself was very small. It had the feeling of a small-town local race with a couple hundred runners. A part of that was just because it was an international bucket list-type race. The other was because the registration website was so difficult to decipher. (That’s part of the charm, in my opinion.)
Other than that…would I do it again? I think so. I’d certainly love to come back and do it during the year of the rat! I would not think of it as a race per se. It’s more of a loooooooong extended walk/hike at a historic site where you get lapped by people who are much fitter and faster than you. Every once in awhile, if you’re lucky, a race official will give you a sandwich or boiled egg and some electrolyte drinks. If you think of it in that way, then you too may have a fantastic time at this race like I did!