Great Wall Marathon 2013, originally uploaded by bexadler.

This past weekend I ran a half marathon on the Great Wall with some friends of mine from Shenyang and thought I should post something about it since this is one of those destination type races. I figure if there are any of you out there who want to do it, maybe I can offer some advice for how to train.

I trained for this race for 3 months, but still ended up with super sore legs. This is because I was lax in my stair training. I kept telling myself that I’d do stairs, but then I’d do two flights of stairs, maybe three and give up. I would not recommend my approach. No matter how in shape you are for the running portions, if you do not do some hills and stairs before the race, you will be sorry. The race begins with 3 miles (5KM) of uphill running that takes you onto the wall for about 2 miles (2,582 steps). The views are beautiful and it gets crowded here, so you may as well stop and take a couple of pictures. The stairs are steep so the traffic is stop and go for most of the wall portion. Just to illustrate, these first 5 miles (8KM) took me 1:20 to complete. Normally I finish 5 miles in about 45 minutes.

After you leave the wall, the course is straight and flat for a couple of miles and it is a huge relief after feeling like you can’t move on the wall. It also will give you a chance to regain some of your lost time. However, there are some rocky dirt roads about 3 miles (5KM) into the flat portion, along with some more hills, so I would recommend doing some trail running as well. I was definitely slowed down by the rocky terrain and worried that I’d twist an ankle. This portion, however, is one of the best parts of the race because it goes through a small Chinese village.

The village children and many of the adults were outside watching all of us crazy laoweis running on a chilly Saturday morning. Some were cheering and some were just there to watch the spectacle. The children were my absolute favorite part of the race and kept me smiling throughout. There were some who sat alongside the road and shouted “Hello!” at each runner who passed (I shouted back “Ni Hao,” which made them laugh), while many others held out their hands to give high fives to the runners. Some of the adults even got in on the action, shouting “Zai Zher! Zai Zher!” This is the Chinese equivalent of “Go!” I was personally shocked to see so much support from the community, but also grateful that they were there. The race does not have many outside spectators because the organizers charge an entry fee to be a spectator, and it is a steep fee, so it was nice that the community got involved and cheered us on. No race is complete without spectators to help cheer you on, especially near the end.

For those of you interested in the full marathon, be aware that you must do the wall portion twice. My friend did the full and he said it was one of the hardest races he’s ever done. He added a full hour to his best finishing time and finished in 4:30. He said the difficult part was that you get into a good rhythm on the flat portion and then when you get back to the wall and have to start on the stairs it makes you light-headed because you feel like you come to an almost complete stop. Even though by then the wall was not crowded, he was still slowed by the stairs because of their steepness, which made it so he had to really concentrate on watching where he was going. This is also at mile 20, so you’re already exhausted at this point.

Despite the difficulty, this was one of the best races I have ever run. It was incredibly well organized and included a lunch and showers afterward, which was a relief since it was a 2.5 hour bus ride back to Beijing after the race. The only disappointing thing was that it was almost exclusively foreigners running it. As I’ve written before, the Chinese aren’t really runners. Still, I’d hoped that there would be more locals participating. Anyway, I would definitely recommend this race to anyone who is considering doing a destination marathon. Just be sure you train properly for it. Also, for those of you who are expats, be sure to email them to get the resident price, rather than paying for the full tour. It’s an expensive race regardless, but no need to pay for a week-long tour of Beijing if you’re already living here.

Finishing time: 3:09:49 (my worst finishing time since my first half 6 years ago).
Next up: Dingle Marathon in Ireland!

*laowei – foreigner
*Ni Hao – hello