I came and I conquered!

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. 

Making dumplings.

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.  

Start line action (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

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.

A mid point ice cream to help keep my 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.

Up and up (on all fours sometimes) (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

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.

Enjoying a bit of hydration on The Wall (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

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.

Simply breathtaking

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.

Crossing the finish line (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

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.

Proud as punch to win 2nd female

****************

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

•Course support

•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 

fashion cloth

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 

Rommel Mark Dominguez Marchan

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The UltraXperience – Sri Lanka

‘Come on! Come on!’ The shouts and cheers from the local families were ringing in my ears. ‘Splash!’ Another bucket of water drenched me along with the sound of laughing and squealing from the group of local kids that had thrown it on me.  The inaugural Ultra X Sri Lanka 250k over 5 days was like a week long water fight. I don’t ever recall being so wet for so long.  The constant dousing from the locals and self drenching in the streams combined with the 85% humidity meant that all the runners were constantly wet and never actually dried out.

Getting doused by the local supporters

After a relaxing pre race stay in the picturesque beachside town of Negombo we were whisked away to explore the remote and untouched wilderness of the Sri Lankan jungles.  I’d come to Sri Lanka for an adventure and the opportunity to run 250km through a country I’d only ever dreamed of and seen on travel documentaries was escapism at its best.

Stunning scenery

Awaking to the sounds of monkeys jumping from tree to tree and the birds sing songing the dawn of a new day, I uncovered my eyes from my eye mask and peered through my mosquito net around the camp.  We’d arrived as the sun set the night before into camp and after squelching our way through thick mud we had all hastily made our little sleeping havens inside our 8-10 person gazebos that would become our home for the next 6 nights.  Camp life can be noisy and erratic but its also a lot of fun and a great opportunity to get to know your fellow competitors better.

Camp life

Anticipation and nervous energy was running through all of us as we congregated at the start line.  It was only 8am but already the sun was sharp and I took shade beside the hibiscus plants enjoying the cooling water droplets hitting my body from last nights rain storm.  After an obligatory start line photo we were off, the adventure had begun.  Running through sugar cane fields and banana plantations, alongside waterways interspersed by herds of water buffalo and floating fields of pink water lilies and through rural villages with locals offering us fresh homegrown bananas and coconuts whilst never accepting any money, just a big smile and a cheer.  This was running nirvana.  This is what I had come for.  Being the inaugural race there was no expectations as no-one knew what was to come, just surprise after surprise with the promise of more adventure around every corner. 

Start line photo courtesy of Benedict Tufnell

Ultra X Sri Lanka took me by surprise with its toughness and brutality.  I think it surprised every single one of the 31 starters with only a third of the field managing to finish the full distance without missing a leg/day of the route or having an IV drip administered during or after a stage. A mixture of attrition from heat exhaustion, dehydration, blisters and some existing injuries quickly demolished the field.  The route was flat, and fast if you could cope with the heat & humidity raising your heart rate and pushing your limits.  I realised early on that this was going to be a race of survival for me rather than a competitive race.  I was far away from my comfort zone; heat, humidity, mud, insects, camping, iguanas and running on the flat; but the further I get away from that zone and the more challenging it is, rising to the challenge and taking the difficult road this is what makes my life interesting and gives it more meaning.

The roads were hot, long and flat (Photo by Max Wilcocks)

Even though we were running in some of the most remotest of areas, small villages dotted the course and with that meant small local shops where I certainly made use of cold coke to keep my thirst at bay and energy levels higher.  During day 1 I’d found I was running a very similar pace with fellow competitors Alise from Latvia and Max from London and developed a rythym together that would mean we would run 95% of the race together and we would take turns in making purchases and trying out the eclectic mix of Sri Lankan treats for sale too.

Another day, another coke!

Going into Sri Lanka I was concerned after my DNF at HURT 100 in January due to hydration and nutrition issues that the humidity would have the same effect on me. I worked on addressing these by trying to combat the humidity and the sun by wearing cooling arm sleeves and bandana around my neck which I wet as often as possible to keep cool, using a 1.5L camelbak for my electrolyte drinks (Active Root & Torq) on top of water in my usual 2 x 500ml UD Hydrates soft flasks and drying my feet out as soon as possible as well as having changes of socks for each day as the constant saturation of my feet turned them to white squidgy sponges and I actually got a couple of blisters which is unheard of for me.  With this focus and attention I was able to handle the situation much more effectively and finish the race not only intact but with a big smile on my face.

Cooling down any way possible

There is magic at a multi stage race and this magic comes from the people, not only the runners, but the organisers, volunteers and the local people of the unique landscape you are running through.  A multi stage race brings out a rawness in people that there is no hiding from, we see each other at our best, at our worst and everything in between and somehow this develops such strong bonds and friendships are forged for life.

Getting lost on route with Anna-Marie, Max and Alise after locals had moved the markers to their shop!

Ultra X are the new kids on the block delivering a series of multi stage races across stunning, remote and of course adventurous locations around the world.  Whether you fancy exploring the lush tropical rainforest jungle of Sri Lanka, through the valley of the moon in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, explore the volcanic islands of The Azores in Portugal or follow in the footsteps of the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico through the Copper Canyon with spectacular mountain trails as famously documented in “Born to Run”.  Each race follows the same format of running 250km over 5 days, which is more kilometres in less days than the infamous Marathon des Sables, with the self sufficiency element made somewhat more appealing with the race organisers transporting your 15kg bag between camp sites for you so you only need to run with a day pack. Costing around £1k per race they are providing a more affordable option of multi stage racing making this more accessible to the running community.  Check them out and find out what it means to have “The UltraXperience”.

The UltraXperience (photo by Benedict Tufnell)

Whilst the post race glow was immensely overshadowed by the tragic events which took place in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 28th April 2019, I left Sri Lanka with a deep affection and respect for the people and families I met along the way who live such humble and simple lives yet always had a smile and offered immense generosity from the bottom of their hearts.

Sri Lanka Multi Stage Kit – what worked for me:

Clothing – I wore Asics running kit which was light and had no chafing issues

Shoes – Asics Gel Sonoma – a rugged enough grip for the trails but still comfortable enough for road and hard packed dirt roads

Socks – Injinji toe socks (I only suffered with 2 rather small blisters on my heel from all the slipping around in the wet)

Sunglasses – ND runner are the perfect affordable sunglasses to wear, especially when you lose a pair in the river on the last day!

Bag – Ultimate Direction Race Vesta

Fuel

Active Root & Torq – I alternated each day between different flavours of their hydrations sachet mixed in my cambelbak 

Veloforte bars – All natural bars that were the perfect consistency in the heat, not too dry or too soft, with big chunks of nuts in them too for that added crunch

33 Shake – Chia seed energy gels

Cruga Biltong – A great post race stage snack to restore the protein levels

Summit to Eat – Freeze dried adventure food (I had Macaroni cheese, Chicken Tikka and Rice, Beef and potato stew

**Earplugs and eye mask are an absolute must for communal camping**