A few weeks ago I ran the Great Wall (1/2) Marathon. Last year I had prepared for it well in advance, but about 6 weeks before race day, just as I was really ramping up my training, I had a calf strain. The thing is, I didn’t know that. I spent the next month or so trying to rest then run again, rest then run again, rest and run again. After a couple of tries I knew I wasn’t going to make the race and so took a rain-check for 2015. Over the summer I again tried to rest and run with longer periods of rest, but nothing seemed to be working. In the early fall I started to see a physical trainer and she told me about the strain. It took about 3 months of weekly visits for massage, ultrasound, and rehab to get me back ready for running shape. By late November I was running again, slowly, and by late December my single run distances were creeping back to double digits. So, with that in mind I signed up again for the Great Wall race that was to take place in May 2016.
Throughout January I wasn’t pushing anything, but just kept running regularly to get myself back into a good spot for when the real training began. From February to May, roughly 15 weeks, I went from about 20km a week to almost 65km. I topped out my practice run about 10 days before race day at 22km running, about 5km uphill with roughly 30 minutes of stair work in the middle to represent the course to put me in a good position for tackling what the race would throw at me as I knew from the course description there would be an uphill stretch followed by lots of stairs and then a long flat portion.
Unfortunately, being Beijing and China, the air quality forecast was showing very unhealthy conditions for race day. I can’t express how furious I was that after all that rehab and training I might not end up running the race because of the chance of bad air quality, but I figured anything could happened and I should at least get to the race site before deciding not to run in toxic air.
The day before race day I went straight from work to the Beijing Int. Airport to catch a bus to the race site. The company that runs the race offers a few options, but as someone living in Beijing I didn’t want to make my way downtown to stay in a hotel only to get up at 3am to take the bus to race site. Nor did I want to arrange private car which would require me to leave around 330/4am. I opted to take the bus out the night before and stay in a Hostel that the race organizers had set up. Finding the bus to the race site was easy enough and the ride was about 2.5 hours. When we arrived in Huangyaguan it was dark and as soon as we arrived our guide had mysteriously disappeared. The bus arrives in the main square where the entrance to the wall is located, but those of us on the bus were booked at different hostels and none of us really knew where to go. Luckily someone in the group spoke mandarin so they rang up our hostels and got vans to pick us up. I rode alone to my hostel and I am not sure if any other racer was staying there, but I imagine so. It was a nice little place and interestingly had a huge rectangular bed, in China called a “kang”, where about 6 people could have slept side by side. It was just me, but that was lucky since the bed was rock hard and I had to use the additional comforters that were provided to cushion my backside. Facilities were about what I paid for, roughly 40usd. There was a tv, a wet shower, toilet (no paper, brought tissues), and sink. Unfortunately, it was also about 15 feet from the main road and the trucks rolling by all night didn’t provide the best sleep, but good enough and better than I would have had getting up at 3am.
I was in wave 1, surprisingly to me, which meant that I would start the race at 740am. I say surprisingly because that was the fastest wave of runners, the first to go and expected to be the first to finish. Prior to the race I had to submit my fastest time for ½ marathon which is currently 1:50. From this the organizers must have derived that I would be one of the faster runners and as it turns out they were pretty much right, but I was on the slower end of the fast people. I woke at 6am, ate my normal pre-race of oatmeal and coffee, then packed up and started walking up the street to the race. Luckily the north wind had blown a bit in the early morning and readings were showing, “moderate” air pollution. It looked like conditions would remain that way for a few hours, then go back up to “unhealthy”. Good enough, just.
By the time I arrived it was about 7am. Like any good pre-race routine, I went to the bathroom about 3 times in the next 30 minutes, dropped off my luggage, and had a short jog and stretch to get ready. Once runners were let into the first gate I ran into my friend John, whom I teach with and was running the full marathon. He would eventually finish the marathon in about 6 hours. That is a respectable time for this course, it’s a killer. The winner of the marathon came in at about 3:40, an astonishing time as the course is punishing. After listening to numerous speeches and getting riled up, it was time to start.
Like all races, the start is exhilarating. I took off quite well and was feeling great. A couple KM in we were through the village and crossing a bridge where our ascent to the wall would begin. The next 5km or so was uphill to the gate to the wall. There were many people along the route cheering us on and that was cool, but in true China fashion when I was about ½ way up the hill a 2-stroke tractor came puttering up and kept pace with myself and other runners, puffing black smoke clouds in our faces. Great China air conditions. On the initial take off from start I passed a lot of people and going uphill I pretty much kept my place, neither passing nor getting passed too much. As we entered the stairs to the wall the race was slowing down. On the wall itself there is barely any room to actually run. You are either going up a set of stairs that is just a bit too steep to run up, or going down a set that is just a bit to steep to run down safely, with bits about 30 feet long in between where you can just get running before hitting another set of stairs. This portion was nice, lots of people cheering us on, and the views were good. You could see at lower levels down the valley was a bit smoggy, but up by us looked pretty good. At the end of the wall is what is called the “goat track” which is basically a steep set of stairs going straight down from the wall to the square where the race begins. You make a circle, in other words. This bit was pretty hard for me and I was not prepared for such steep downhill running. I was going slow at this point and lots of people were passing me, but they were not going too fast either. Upon reaching the end of the goat track you hit the flat bit of the wall by the square where the race begins. This is tricky as after going up and down for the past 5k or so you now are back on flat ground and it was hard for me to get my legs to adjust.
Once again you go through the same gate you start from. It was at this point that I was getting a little frustrated. I had hit a couple of water stands and was keeping hydrated, though the day was getting hot, but the race course also was supposed to have gel stations and bananas. I could not figure out where those were as each stand I passed was just handing out water. It was until further on, around 13km, that I found a stand with bananas and so grabbed a bunch. The course moves back through the main town and along a dirt road by the river, then across the river and through a small village before returning again. It was by this point, about 17km, that I was starting to get tired and irritable that I hadn’t packed gels myself beforehand thinking they would be readily available on the course. I stopped to walk for a few minutes and then stretch before keeping going. Eventually I got to 19km and seeing the end was near I put on the gas to finish in 2:38. I am happy with that time as I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but I told myself under 3hrs for sure, under 2:45 respectable, under 2:30 would be quite good. So, good to respectable given my expectations. Overall I was 151st of 484 1/2 marathon runners.
After I finished I had a shower on site, very handy, and then grabbed the provided lunch of Subway sandwiches. I waited some time for my friend John to come running through, but unknown to me he would be out another 3 hours. Eventually I made my way to the buses departing for Beijing airport. Another 2.5 hour bus ride and I was at the airport, then a 30 minute taxi and I was back home in Lido. Overall I am very glad I did the race and am planning some small ones over the summer, hopefully getting back to a 1/2 or maybe full sometime in the coming year. It might be fun to do the Tokyo marathon again someday or perhaps something new. I will never do the Great Wall Marathon again nor any other race in China for one reason, air pollution. I got somewhat lucky and the heavens parted on race day for me, but the air still wasn’t that good even in the mountains. Predictions had the AQI at possibly over 200, or “very unhealthy”. In developed countries no race would go forward at that level, but in China that’s not uncommon. Last year the Beijing marathon saw levels at 350ish during the race, considered, “hazardous” yet people ran, some with masks. Its just not worth training for months only to have terrible pollution on race day and not run, or alternatively to run 21km with a mask on. Gross. Until Beijing can get skies in China clearer, I’m steering clear of their skies.