Running on the Great Wall of China

Running a marathon is hard no matter what the course–26.2 miles of extreme exertion. But as any marathoner knows, some races ask runners to complete the ridiculous. One such race is the Great Wall of China Marathon. Held each May, the course draws thousands of participants from all over the globe who complete the challenging miles one step at a time.

For those interested in such a challenge, here is a sprinkling of tidbits I learned by running it:

Not all of the course occurs on the Wall itself. The marathon includes two passes on the Great Wall, for a total of 8K. The first 5K is run up a hill to the entrance to the Wall and then the next 4K is on the Wall. Miles 21 and 22 are also on the Wall–the most challenging part of the course. Remember to build up your endurance to hang on for those two miles–you’ll need it.

Get ready to climb. For the 8K you’ll be completing on the Wall, it’ll involve climbing more than 5,600 steps, which is no small feat. I spent hours at the track climbing bleachers to train, but that did not one bit of good. The steps on the Wall vary in size from small to almost waist high. It’s a definite quad workout–strengthen those legs with weight lifting more for this race than any other.

Get over your fear of heights. Some of the steps are straight down and straight up. Many runners held onto the sides of the Wall for assistance due to fear of falling. It’s not a gradual descend like most staircases–it’s straight down–and on top of it, one climb is right next to a cliff with nothing on the side of you but a long way down.

All runners must partake of a mandatory climb two days before the race. Due to the challenging course, race directors felt obligated to insist racers try out the 4K Wall climb prior to the actual event. This lets you test out the stairs and decide if you’re up for the marathon or desire to switch to the half, which you can easily do on that day. My recommendation is to stretch after this climb. Most runners’ muscles ached from this mandatory climb, which meant on race day they were already sore before the race even started (including myself). Stretch, stretch, stretch and take your time on this mandatory climb. Bring a camera, stop for photos and enjoy the scenery for this 4K.

Crawl. Although it may feel embarrassing, it’ll help immensely. At mile 21 and 22, when your legs are full of lactic acid, using your arms for assistance up those stairs relieves the pressure from your legs. Your arms aren’t tired, so use them.

Carry a water bottle. The weather is hot and humid and it’s difficult to get water bottles onto the Wall to set up aid stations.

Enjoy the experience. When you’re not on the Wall, you’re running through the hillside of China and through tiny villages in which the Chinese people step out of their homes to celebrate you. I ran past a school in which children lined up to serenade each runner. Sweet young girls made dandelion bouquets to hand runners as they passed by; men driving in cars stopped to get out and take photos, so joyful to have strangers running through their land.

Although the Great Wall of China Marathon is one of the most challenging in the world, the scenery, support from the Chinese villagers and the ability to run on a part of the Wall normally closed to tourists, makes this a running experience unlike any other.