Tuesday, May 24, 2011

33BA - Day 11 - Great Wall of China Marathon (Race Recap)

Saturday, May 21
Marathon #3
Jixian, China
Weather - HOT, sunny, windy at times

"Tried It All? Run the Wall."

Lisa, our guide, is a bit overzealous. The buses were to leave at 5:20 ON THE DOT and so she arranged for a group wide wake up call. She told us they would be at 3:40, which we found to be a bit ridiculous. I mean, some people might take that long to get ready, but we certainly don’t. The first call came at 3:20. Are you kidding??? The second (yes, there was a second call) came at 3:28. So we were up super ridiculously early. That did give me a lot of time to mess with pinning my number on my shirt (again, not something I normally have to mess with) and then even though we had breakfast in our room (bagel and peanut butter), we had time to kill so we went to breakfast.

I had half a roll (the whole grain rolls were fabulous) and a few cups of coffee. We noticed that a couple that we had eaten with yesterday had a Marathon Maniac and Half Fanatic shirts on, so of course we had to go talk to them. We found out that the guy does the marathons and the girlfriend is the support system, sometimes running the half if there is one, sometimes just being a cheerleader. Of course we discussed our past and upcoming races, and then before we knew it, we had to grab our luggage to put under the bus and then head out. In the lobby there is a bit of a situation happening. Apparently a woman had used a washcloth to wash off her makeup and housekeeping deemed it too dirty to clean and was charging her to replace and she was blatantly refusing. Our guide apparently had to pay to replace it. Some people. Anyway, literally at 5:20 on the dot, the bus pulls away.

Our bus is first, and we get a police escort, which is pretty neat. The drive to the race was pretty long, and I was starting to get a bit nervous. It seemed pretty overcast and I was hoping for the day to stay that way. Didn’t want to end up roasting in the heat all day.

We arrive at Yin Yang square around 6:00. That gives us 1:40 until the race will start. We get off the bus and it is COLD. Like I’m wishing I had worn a pair of pants over my skirt cold. It's just surreal walking up to the Square. Outside the Square are some dancers:

We stop to use the bathroom first, and I still can’t get over having to use a hole in the ground. We are just trying to stay warm, and we are chatting with random people trying to pass the time. Finally about 7:15 we decide that it is time to drop our bags. Apply sunscreen, remove the sweatshirt, and we are about ready to go. We were in the second corral which was to start 10 minutes after the first. Another quick trip to the bathroom and then we line up.

Me and L at the start line

Start Line
Last look at the wall before the race starts
The 5K had started at the entrance to the wall at 7:15 and we actually had to delay the start of the race to wait for the finisher to enter the square (this year it was a woman!) All of a sudden, right after she crosses we are on our way. I honestly had really no idea, other than the wall, what to expect in terms of the course. I had glanced briefly at an elevation profile, but I didn’t know what to be on the lookout for.

The first mile was on a paved street, and we would be running up the road to the wall, through a small village, but mostly just a rural and narrow street. The first km went by pretty fast, we actually even missed the first aid station. Shortly after that is when the hill started. Not “hills” just one hill. And a long one. We hadn’t expected that. It was tiring and people were already walking. L and I actually ran up the entire hill section leading to the wall, with the exception of the aid station around the third km. The aid stations were giving out full bottles of water, and I chose to keep mine rather than just toss after I had a few drinks. I would be glad to have decided this later.

Finally arrive at the entrance to the wall after an insanely long hill, about 5 km in. The section of the wall is only about 2 miles long, but we were planning on allowing about an hour for it. We actually stopped to take a few pictures, and then we hit the section of the wall where it narrows and the wall becomes very rocky. We are at a dead stop for about 10 minutes waiting for it to thin out because it can really only be done single file. This gives us a chance to chat with some people while we are waiting. It’s truly amazing the people that you meet at races! We talked for a few minutes with a girl who was running her VERY FIRST half marathon. Kudos to her, I don’t think that I would have picked something this challenging for my first.

The “goat trail” is a section of treacherous rock and trail that is very steep and honestly only the super crazy people even attempt to “run” it. We exit the trail and still have to run around a fort to re-enter the Yin Yang square where we will then head into the villages to run the major portion of the marathon.

By now we are about 90 minutes into the race. We get to the 8 km marker and I try to click my watch and it isn’t working. I spend a few minutes and can’t figure out what is wrong. I think my watch is just broken. We are on a level road and it is actually tree-lined and there is a bit of shade. This is probably the “best” part of the course in terms of actually being able to run. However, the course is NOT closed to traffic, so we really have to watch out for cars and mopeds and bikes, even pedestrians. L’s iPod had been left on by accident so she didn’t have any music at all, and I was only listening through one headphone, so we were doing ok.

After about 3 km on this road, we enter the “farm” area of the course. Finally, I realize that my watch is NOT broken, I must have hit the stop button at some point (duh). So now I’m not sure how long it has been off or how much time we have missed, but we can’t really gauge how long we have been out. This farm section is run on a dirt trail, also not closed. Here we are watching our feet to make sure we don’t twist our ankles on the loose gravel, and watching out for kids and bikes. There is an aid station and all of a sudden the half marathon folks split off from the full. From here on out it is a totally different ball game. We are on a paved wide sidewalk through some farms and a lot of people in front of us are walking even though it isn’t that steep.

Ahead we encounter a dirt road that we will run up and then meet up with a paved road. Again there are more hills. People are walking more than they are running. It is SUPER hot. There is no shade in this section of the course. There are horse farms on the side of the road and the smell is pretty bad. I have to use the bathroom but I didn’t memorize the course and have no clue if there is one nearby or not. Tempted to go on the side of the road but there are people everywhere.

We enter another village and once we are through we take a right at the fork in the road and head up… you guessed it, another super long hill. A series of hairpin turns through a mountainous and tree filled area. A hill that seriously never ends. It keeps going… and going… the best part about it is that we end up with an amazing view of a ritzy resort area. We finally make it to the top of this hill and then we start the run through yet another village. The kids here are more aggressive and literally run straight toward you saying “hello” and “hi” and wanting to give you a slap on the hand.

Turn the corner and I see a toilet. I’ll use that word loosely. A better word to describe it is a stall. Like in a barn. There are still the holes in the ground, but these don’t flush so essentially a port o potty without the seat. And there are “dividers” but they are about waist level. The entire floor is covered with unmentionables and there are so many flies. The stench is nearly unbearable. But I have to go…

L is waiting outside and we have a nice downhill that lasts for a few km. Then we arrive back on the main road where we had forked earlier and we are headed back through a different section of farm land. This section is completely on trail. And not the nice hard packed trail we had been running on earlier. This is sloped and all dirt and loose rocks and gravel. I am sure I am going to twist my ankle or face plant. I almost fall but manage to save myself. After a few km, we exit and are in another village. This one is more deserted and we have also separated a bit from the pack.  After exiting the village we are turn up to another (expensive looking) area and yes, there are MORE hills. We walk a bit here, and it is just so hot. We both comment that we are roasting in the heat.

We exit this area and then we are back in the village where we had run by when the half and full marathon split. We are back on the dirt trail heading to the main road. We are pretty tired and we walk a small section of this road. Then we try to run most of the area on the shaded and paved road. We pass the group of women that WALKED the half marathon, and we think that we are around 5 hours in, but since my watch incident we don’t know for sure. We head back into the square and then it is back to the wall, doing what we did earlier only in reverse.

I won’t lie. I’m blah at this point. I just want to be done. We might only have about 5 miles to go, but we have been told to plan about 2 hours for that last 5 miles. We run the flat section of the wall and get our wristband to prove we have done the first part of the race already. Then it is time for the goat trail. I really don’t remember the first time we did the wall being all downhill. It wasn’t really, but I swear the second time was all uphill.

Everyone is tired by now. People are moving super slow. People are just stopping in the middle of the trail because they just can’t go on. People are sitting down and resting. I am just trying to keep moving because I am afraid that if I stop moving I won’t be able to get started again. The goat trail is brutal. The trail part isn’t that bad, but the steps and really rocky area are hard. Very hard. Hardest section of a course I have ever done. To give you an idea, our pace for a mile was about a 48 minute mile. And we were moving the entire time.

We get to the top of the goat trail and I feel like the hardest part is over. Wrong. We have a few tiny down hills and then it is just more and more stairs going up. They never seem to end. I am just going and going and going and tired and hot. L is straggling behind me a bit but at the end of every set of stairs I make sure to wait for her. We’ve stuck together this long, I don’t want to abandon her!

Finally the end of the wall is in sight. I can see it! Of course it takes probably another 15 minutes to get there, but I am finally feeling like I might actually be able to finish this race. I had my doubts. I think a girl at dinner described it best… I didn’t really hit a wall, but as she called it, I entered my “squirrel zone.” Where you don’t really know which way you are going and what you are doing. Another way to describe it is vertigo or being so dizzy and not able to tell what is a step and what isn’t and if you are going up or down. The stairs just start to get blurry. It’s scary!!

We finally get off the wall, and I think, just 5k to go, it will be a breeze. I had been thinking on the way up that this section of the course would be a nice downhill on the way back. Um. No. It was freaking hard. My legs are TOAST by now. I can barely move. Jogging at a 12 min mile pace feels hard. We keep moving and our pace gradually speeds up. We start passing people. Most people are jogging even slower than us, and a large number of people are actually walking. I just want to be done, so I force myself to keep moving.

The hill is just as never-ending on the way down, but we keep going, taking a small walk break with about 2.5 km to go. Guessing, I think that we maybe can finish this race in under 6:45. Not that we ever had any goals in the first place, but that seems like a very long time.

We exit the hilly area, and then we are back on the main road, and I know we are almost there, but I honestly have NOTHING left. I am so tired, if L wasn’t with me I might have walked a small section here. But we are still passing people, and that feels good. Finally we get to make the turn back into Yin Yang square, and there are still lots of people spectating and they announced our names and people cheered for us, and next thing I know, we have arms raised and cross the lines. Get our medals, and more pictures. We are done. Finally. We think our official time is just over 6:31, better than we even thought.

Official time of 6:31:37
I really wish I wouldn't have screwed up my watch so that I had accurate split times and an elevation profile, but... sigh. This is the partial elevation profile. Missing about 25 minutes of course between the 5 & 10 markers.

First order of business is to get our drop bags so that we can get our meal ticket (these people are super serious about tickets, we had to have them to get to the start area even). They are out of turkey subs, so I get a ham one. I ate it right away, and then I was psyched to see they were selling cans of “Coca Cola Light.” We headed to the bathroom one more time, then headed out to find where we could get our free 20 minute massage.

They were set up by the parking lot. It was the most painful massage I have ever had. And it was complicated by the fact that none of them spoke any English so telling them it hurt didn’t make any difference. Massage might have been more painful than the marathon…

Head over to the parking lot and find the bus that will take us to the right hotel. As we are walking, a few guys were commenting on our skirts. Called us the “Skirts of Fury” which I thought was funny. I am tired but I still want to watch the drive to Beijing since we won’t be in this area again. I end up dozing off a bit but am woken up when we stop halfway back to use the toilets and stop at the convenience store. I buy a Coke Zero but decide I can wait until the hotel to use a REAL toilet.

Arrive after 6:00 thanks to heavy rush hour traffic in Beijing, yes, even though it is Saturday. Check in, then we have to go back to the lobby to get our luggage. Quick shower and then we decide that we will just have dinner in the hotel rather than trying to find somewhere “safe” nearby. Dinner is not included and is pretty pricey, 68 yuan.  I pay for mine, L says she will get cash from the ATM. I am sitting down eating the awesome buffet when she comes up and says her card isn’t working. I don’t have enough to pay for her too. At least we had brought some of our own food so she wouldn’t starve.

I had a chance to talk with a girl that had run the full (we passed her on the wall on the way out). She is an army nurse living in Tokyo. We talked about today’s race and some of the other races that we have done. Dinner was good, but I was exhausted and headed back up to the room to go to bed.

Caught up on the blog, and went to bed around 9:15… later than I hoped!!


  1. Amazing! I have been glued to your blog all day :) Congratulations on finishing a ridiculously difficult race!

    What a fantastic trip!!

  2. **I forgot to mention a few posts ago, I'm glad you posted a picture of the "toilet". I was really curious what it looked like after you said it was just kind of a bowl on the floor.**

    Okay - Wow. You are my hero! Prefontaine who?? (Yikes, ssh, I did not just say that. Okay, you can be my female hero.) I cannot even imagine. I'd be so freaking delirious doing that course. The on-course photos of you two came out great! And your photos were awesome. I mean variety wise, you had a little bit of everything it seems. And then a heck of a lot of hills.

    Congratulations! This is your craziest race yet. I'm not sure you can get any scarier/bigger/more insane??

    Excuse me, I must go erect a shrine in your honor now.

  3. Wow, FruitFly suggested coming over here and you might just be my new hero :) Now I have to sit here for awhile and catch up on past race recaps. Nice job in China! :)

  4. Holy elevation!! Way to go, Becka! YOUR QUEST IS COMPLETE!

  5. Pretty darn amazing indeed! Thanks to Rhonda for sending me over. :)

  6. So. Cool!!!!!!

    Amazing race recap, amazing race! :) Those photos are great!

    I can't believe those stairs. That must have been brutal! Your poor quads!

    And you did amazing! Your finishing position: wow! :)

  7. Sounds like a helluva race! I like the "squirrel zone". Think I'll adopt that phrase:) I'm so impressed that you survived those stairs so late in the race. Ug!

  8. in between appointments yesterday I was reading all your posts- crazy stories.
    It really sunk it how difficult it was when you said one of the miles took 48 minutes- wow! Your legs DEFINITELY deserve a massage.

    HUGE congratulations.

  9. Congratulations! Absolutely incredible!!!

  10. Congrats & great job! I would have been so scared on all those stairs!
    Your recaps of your trip have been awesome!

  11. Congratulations on an awesome race!

    I'm cracking up about the toilets, I thought I was crazy because the thing I miss the most when I travel are American toilets and toilet paper.

  12. I'll comment after I remove my jaw from the floor... this is now on my bucket list, but I need 10 years to prepare.


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