Jun 16, 2012

The Great Wall Half Marathon: The Race.


I walked to the Beijing Train Station where Jess and I had planned to meet at 3am. Turns out, the Beijing Train Station (or any train station) is sketch city in the middle of the night! I was afraid to pull out my iphone to call Jess in fears that I would be a target for the inebriated weirdos! (She later said she had the same fear!) 

We found each other and thanks to some iphone failure, ended up walking the wrong direction to the hotel where busses were waiting to drive the runners 2 hours to the start. We hailed a tuk-tuk and found the hotel with minutes to spare. (love early-morning stress! not!) 

We got on one of dozens of busses full of runners and settled in for the ride, which included a gorgeous sunrise view over the mountains as we drove through villages outside of Beijing. The Great Wall is not in Beijing, but in the rural areas between Beijing and Tianjin, and extending all the way west across the country. 

sunrise over the mountains. beauty.
We arrived at the park where the start was. Like true racers, we found the bathroom first before final packing of our backpacks for check-in and putting on our race numbers/packing my spi-belt. It was hilarious to be in a large group of people visiting from other countries. The general concensus of the bathroom was shock and awe. Jess and I just laughed and said, "Welcome to Ch.ina."

The start area was small, but well organized and managed. Overall, I think the race was very well run. I was impressed. We checked in our bags without incident and participated in group warm-ups led by Chin.ese aerobics instructors. At this point, we had been up for over 4 hours and were getting really excited.

Some monks watched the action from the pagoda.

The start was in 3 waves 5 minutes apart - marathoners and half marathoners starting together and splitting around mile 6. This was the only issue of the race, in my opinion. Participants were haphazardly placed in start corrals. I was in 1, Jess was in 3. They were not done by time. I knew from past race experience, that you can move back, but not up, so I decided to start with Jess (regretted this decision later when the traffic jams started). We witnessed many unhappy people who were split from the group. One tall American man was shouting to get into an earlier corral, "I do a 3:30 marathon!" and the worker guy was like, "Dude, check it at the door, this is the Great Wall." Ha. People are funny.

We started with corral 3 around 7:45am and I teared up as I ran over the chip timer...we were for real doing this.

Jess and I didn't have any plan to stay together (she's hardcore...I'm, not.) We ended up together for about 2km. (The race was measured in kilometers on the course). I naively said, "Wow, only 20 to go," at the first marker. ha. If I only knew how long it would take me to get through those km's!

The course starts with a 5km climb. Exciting. I was disheartened to find that most people were walking so early in the race. I wanted to run. At this point I really regretted going back to corral 3 because that meant hundreds of people got a "head start" and I would be packed in the back with no way to get around. Oh well. This would continue to be a frustration. I recommend if you are doing the race and not planning to walk, get into the first corral and haul butt the first 5k in order to beat the crowds to the wall. I read this before the race on a blog, but didn't head the instruction.

The tractor man was wondering why everyone was in his way! 

There were Chi.nese business owners along the way mostly staring at us, but some cheering. The race participants are 99.8% foreigners (no real racing culture in Chi.na, and the race was expensive). If I was having a good moment, I would call out, "Hi everyone," in Chin.ese or, "You should say, "let's go!" Hearing me speak was usually enough to perk up the crowd. It was heart warming to see the foreign runners high-fiving the Chi.nese spectators along the way. Small acts of diplomacy.

At about the 5km (3 mile) mark, we headed up this trail and emerged on the Great Wall of China. That was cool. It was a total moment. You could hear gasps as people emerged from the woods and caught their first glimpse of the stone snake. This was my 4th time standing on the Great Wall, but most runners had never been there before and I loved being witness to so many great life moments. I teared up again (a common occurrence) and kept trucking along.

Full bottles of water were handed out at each water stop, so piles would pop up randomly. I think the villagers must have loved that day because they get money for recycling!

The next 3 miles along the wall would take over an hour to complete. It was frustrating, exhilarating, painful, and wonderful. We ran up and then through guard posts and down again. There are very few flat parts of the Wall and we didn't encounter any. (Didn't expect to).

I turned my music on sometimes, but was more concerned with saving battery to What's App my mom pics along the way.

photo op #3459686
The sites were unreal. Smog over the mountains, greenery all around.

What was frustrating about the wall portion was the constant waits. We would abruptly stop and be stopped for over 10 minutes at a time. Sections of the wall were very narrow and high up and the crowd had to stop to go through one by one. I wish I had known this before, then I would have been mentally prepared for it. I was not running this for any time, but did want to complete the race without stopping a thousand times. Also, the stops would hurt my legs. After strenuous climbing, abrupt stops were painful.

During these stops or slow-downs, people chatted. I heard conversations of people who live in Chi.na, people who have done adventure marathons all over the world, one old lady was talking about her experience in the Antarctica marathon. I remember thinking that I was in the company of some crazy, awesome people.

just chillin on the wall.
After a short freak out to my mom, she reminded me to enjoy the moment and I got my head back on straight. It was nice to have people along the course to take your pic. Because everyone was completing a life dream and no one could go fast even if they wanted to, people were more apt to stop and take each other's pics. The Indian man who took this picture stopped to trade picture taking moments with me several times over the race.

Also worthy of note is that the race is not for those with extreme fear of heights. There were portions where there was a drop off to one side and only a ribbon or rope to hold onto. I think the race makes it as safe as possible, but being that high and on unstable ground was scary sometimes! I found myself clinging to the wall several times on descents which was amusing.

"Oh, I have to run over there?"
About mile 5.5 we exited the wall and headed down a tree lined road for 3 miles out, through a village for about 2 miles, then back along the road to the start. In the village, the marathoners re-joined the half'ers and it was humbling to be passed by super runners through the difficult terrain. I told myself several times that I need to get into better shape as men with butts of steal ran by and I huffed and puffed limpily through the village.

Along the paved road I ran into Jess and it was a happy moment. She was about 2.5 miles ahead of me and said those awful words, "You are almost there." Ugh. No, I wasn't.

Besides the 6 miles on the road, the rest of the race is "off-road" type footing. We ran over gravel, roots, lumpy dirt roads, and hills in the village. I wish I was more prepared for this because my knees and right hip were screaming by mile 8 when we entered the village.

Luckily, I couldn't focus too much on the pain because the villagers were so precious! Children squatted along the road and would shout, "Ha-lo!" And old village people sat in door ways and stared. It was like running through a movie. I thought this way and I live here! I wonder what people visiting Chin.a for the first time would think. It was definitely special running territory.

For possible future racers: be prepared to go potty in primitive conditions or not at all. I held it for over 3 miles after getting a whiff of this when a lady entered. Hint: there's not a toilet in that tent. I actually contemplated asking a villager to use their bathroom (done this before during a race in Florida, haha) but then decided that the bathroom in a house might not be that much better and kept on trucking.

This man walking along with an ax cracked me up. He didn't even look at the runners as they passed! During the village, my mind was reeling with creative ideas. I listed possible titles for blog posts about the race, "The day the foreigners run by," or, "Worlds Converged." It was nice to just think and focus on not falling on the rocky road. My attitude was positive, but I was ready to be done. The race was taking much longer than I thought.

One of my favorite race moments happened as we were exiting the village back to the road. A little boy, maybe 8 or 9 years old, was sitting along the path. Runners were traversing the narrow path one by one. He would ask in English, "Where are you from?" and the runners would answer, "Brazil," the guy in front of me said, "Oh, I see," was the little boy's response. When I went by he said the same thing. "Where are you from?" "America," "Oh, I see." And this repeated with each runner. How precious is that?! Later when Jess asked me my favorite moment of the race, I would tell her this story.

The last 3 miles along the paved road were nice. My legs were kind of out of commission and I realized I should have trained longer distances, but I was overall happy with my ability to keep going. After mile 10/11 I started to get really proud of myself and nostalgic. I almost didn't want to finish because then the experience would be over. After thinking about the race for years, training for 3 months, and running for over 3 hours, the experience would finally have a finish line. I didn't want it to end.

The last mile was difficult. I had to will each foot in front of the other. I would walk and my hip would hurt, so I would run and then my knees hurt and legs felt numb. There was no way to get comfortable, so I just had to use my brain to keep moving. I knew that feeling from my previous half marathons, only this time I felt much more in shape. Which made me happy in a surface way.

Finally, after what felt like a million years, I turned the corner and saw Jess who finished about 20 minutes ahead of me. I'm selfishly thankful that she is faster, so that she could get this gem of me finishing.

And this kodak moment of my face right after getting my medal. This photo cracks me up but I think has all the emotions of the moment: exhaustion and elation. When the dude gave me my medal I literally screamed into his face, "That was GREAT," and he just laughed at me. That will go down as probably one of my most favorite life moments. I hope I never forget that feeling (which is why I have a blog). Finishing was a Niagra Falls rush of adrenaline and endorphins. 

What is awesome about this picture (besides my face, ha) is that the girl behind me in the white hat went to college with me and we had several English classes together over the years. I knew she was in Ch.ina in the peace corps, but did not know she would be at the race. (She did the 10k). She approached me right after this photo was taken. Small world. 

The race gave us subs for lunch, though I really didn't feel like eating. Jess and I sat for a few minutes, took a few pics, and then decided to get our nasty, sweaty, salt-stained selves back on the bus to Beijing.

Taking pics with the medal was so fun. It was a feeling of having gone after a dream and accomplishing it. That, my friends, is fab.

Jess and I had a great dinner and then met at Starbucks the next morning before splitting up. She was off on a trip and I was headed back home on the train. I ended up not extending the trip because I did not have enough money to hang out in Beijing, but I am happy how things turned out. Because I had just broken up with my bf, it was better to come home and be near friends rather than gallavanting around alone.

Beijing station.
I never got really sore, just some pain in my knees and hips. The train ride was fine and I arrived in Hangzhou around 11pm with some friends waiting for me at the station with signs that said, "Jessica, Great Wall Runner, Breaker of Fear Walls!" That was so, so special. Fear walls are something I like to talk about - if you have a wall of fear holding you back, you should break it.

We shared a cab to downtown and I was the first stop. I got out of the cab, looked out over the quiet intersection where I have lived for 2 years, and felt an overwhelming sense of life's up/down patterns. I looked at my friends and said, "Wow, it's like, stuff happens, then you are home." After the hustle of the weekend, I was returning home with my backpack and my medal to continue life.

And that, will remain my theology of the experience. The race happened. I realized a life dream. It was an amazing life experience. I am so proud of myself. But life goes on. There's more to do, see, discover, and share. One day you are running on the Great Wall and the next day you are buying vegetables in the market and cleaning up cat barf. The great days come with normal days and sometimes bad days and in all the days I am expected to show up, give it my all, and remember what is important.

Stuff happens, and then you are home.

Onto the next big dream: the Disney Full Marathon, January, 2013. :)

walk slow. xoxo.


agapelife said...

what an AMAZING story. Thank you so much for sharing. I even teared up at parts. If you do the disney half marathon, I'll come cheer you on!!

Anonymous said...

I'm doing the Disney full marathon January 13th! Please please please come!!!!!

Miss Lynda said...

Awesome.... spectacular....inspiring.... mesmerizing! What a thrill to be able to "live" that experience with you. Your words and descriptions put me right there with you, albeit, on the sidelines! I think I can walk one mile, if I really put my mind to it. :) Love you honey, and so proud of you, as always! Bring on Disney!!!