A giant wall nearly 30 feet high stretching 5,000 miles through Northern China built in the Ming Dynasty to keep invaders out and now a UNESCO site, many parts are through tough, rugged mountainous terrain….perfect for a marathon right? With 20,000+ steps traversing the Gubeikou and Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall on both older unrestored and newly restored sections meandering through secluded & rarely visited sections offering up breath taking panoramic views and memories to last a lifetime. It is the Conquer the Wall Marathon.
Running on the Great Wall is a bucket list item for many runners and intrepid adventurers with good reason. There’s a number of races that now take part on the Great Wall but this is the one and only that actually spends over 85% of the race on the actual wall, which in turn makes it all the more challenging. With a variety of distances, Conquer the Wall Marathon offers a 5km, 10km, half and full marathon so there’s something for everyone.
With direct flights to Beijing from most international airports it’s a straightforward trip with the race organisers taking away the stress of logistics organising transfers and accommodation packages, all you need to do is ensure you get your visa before you travel. Having been to China before I didn’t take advantage of the cultural tours on offer but opted for a Chinese cooking course to brush up on my skills. The day before the race a group of us went to The Beijing Cooking School and spent a few hours making dumplings from scratch before feasting on them together over a late lunch.
With the race starting at 6am that meant a 3:30am rendezvous in the hotel lobby for all the runners to board the buses to the start. Breakfast bags filled with a bagel, juice and bread were available and my coffee sensor quickly worked out the 7-Eleven opposite the hotel was doing Costa Coffees to go. The 2 hour bus trip gave the option for some light napping before people began to stir in anticipation as The Wall came into view. The scale of what we were about to tackle suddenly became very real. This legendary wall is even more incredible than anyone expects the first time you see it. The Wall extends as far as the eye can see with gatehouses and watchtowers forcing breaks in this seemingly never ending dragons tail.
Nervous anticipation ran through the start area like an electric current and we were all keen to be let loose into the wall. The marathon starts first with the other distances starting at intervals after that, which is great as the first section is an out and back so it was a welcome distraction to see the other runners after the turn around point and be able to both give and receive shouts of encouragement. The race starts straight up a fairly gentle hill and as you can imagine a number of people set off way too fast. I held myself back and tried to remain consistent not letting the fact that most of the field were pushing on ahead of me already, I knew I was in for a long day, Little did I know truly how long! The first half of the marathon is most certainly the easier half, run partly on trails beside the wall due to the dilapidated condition of sections and nowhere near as steep, not to mention on fresh legs. I remained consistent and promptly started passing a number of runners that had gone out too quick and found myself as leading lady and in the top 10 overall.
After the halfway point the course becomes steeper and trickier in all aspects and knowing that you have to traverse this out and back section twice means you really have to be completely motivated and keep your head in the game.
The Wall is in varying states of condition with some areas that have been restored and in good condition to other sections where the path crumbled away, some steps were only an inch or two difference in height whereas as other steps required both hands to pull you up they were so high. Other areas were smooth stone that your feet slipped on regardless of grip and in the end I could be seen holding onto the wall as I inched my way down. A couple of sections became nearly vertical requiring all fours to traverse, at one point climbing these steps I looked down at my watch to see I was currently pacing at 50min/mile! There is no section of this wall that is truly flat, you are always either ascending or descending which is all part of the challenge.
Most of The Wall is completely exposed to the elements, although I was glad it was the sun beating down on me rather than rain, there was no respite from the heat. The only respite came in the watchtowers for a few brief seconds where local vendors were hawking their wares, of which I purchased 2 ice cold cokes and a fruity icy pole over the course of the second half of the marathon which were life savers. There are a number of manned checkpoints from the race along the route allowing you the opportunity to refuel and restock your water and electrolytes along the route but nothing beats an ice cold coke in that heat.
By the time I hit my 2nd lap of the section it was truly a battle to survive. The effects of the never ending steps were taking a toll on my body combined with the heat zapping the remnants of energy in my body but I’d come here to finish this race and finish I would. Looking around me I was inspired by the sheer greatness of The Wall, here I was running along one of the greatest wonders of the world; a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history that stretches back some 2,700 years. What an amazing feat of engineering and architecture to build a series of walls and fortifications that stretches some 13,000 miles, and I felt an overwhelming sense of motivation and positivity as I soaked up the outstanding views around me.
I had done it! 2nd lady and 16th overall in a time of 10h 34 mins out of 22 finishers. I’m unsure how many started as the results move people into different categories with unofficial finishers for alternative distances as people who were unable to finish the distances they’d set out to do but were able to finish in another way which I think is a great touch from the race as it truly is a massive undertaking which is quite easily under estimated from afar.
Conquer The Wall Marathon website warns you that ‘This is going to hurt.’ It does! It hurts during and it certainly hurt for quite a few days after. My calf muscles were so tight that even attempting to get a massage 3 days later was impossible as I was still unable to take human touch. Let that be a learning for anyone that wants to conquer the wall, and for myself should I be luck enough to return one day, that some serious step/stair training is a must to avoid this level of DOMS. Through suffering comes an amazing feeling of accomplishment and pride, leaving China as a warrior that has conquered The Wall is a prize in itself and I hope that many more will venture forth and tackle this beast.
Race entry starts at $350 and participant perks include:
•Free round-trip transportation to the Conquer the Wall Marathon start line from Beijing hotels
•Official Conquer The Wall Marathon technical running shirt
•Official finisher certificate
•Collectible finisher medal
•Official swag bag
•Runner breakfast, Juice, and bagels
•Scenic course highlighting of the Great Wall of China famous sites
•Finish line water, juice and sandwiches
•Optional local city tours
I have seen the brick wall
face to face
the ancient hollowblocks sprawled
against an embankment
with roof blown open
for enemies watchful rivalry eye
for paid spectator’s sight seeing
your dynasty dividing the world
into half literally
a concrete – walled serpent
cutting the outer crust margin
wherever I look at your spine
I see you are wrapped in old centuries
dressed with moss and chinese
character algae medicines
cunning and boastful
you shield your grandfather
warrior’s glorious times
preserving against evil invaders
with your symbolic incense in your unfold shoulders
with fun shui ritual in your rooted feet
your face remains as calendar cover
with 12 month full pages hunging in the wall
as great as the entire 2009th year