Have you ever had one of those phenomenal experiences that you try to explain to others but find that you cannot adequately describe it? That is exactly what the Great Wall of China Marathon has been for the Fitness Edge crew. Over 20 brave souls set out to conquer either the half or the full marathon on the wall on May 1, 2015. Both courses were not for the faint of heart, encompassing 21.1 and 42 km respectively and over 20,000 stairs. Today, the wall rounds out at a total distance of about 6,200 km. The crew, who on a normal day, are Moms and Dads, teachers, pilots and nurses, transformed into relentless warriors who took on a wall that was specifically designed to stop people from running on it or climbing it at any speed.
Construction of the wall began in 7th century BC by princes and overlords wanting to set regional border defenses in China. Afterwards, the wall was continually built and extended for thousands of years to protect the Chinese Empire from invaders. On the Jinshanling section of the wall where the marathon took place, runners were challenged with extremely steep inclines, stairs at varying heights (sometimes up to the knee at one step, then ankle height at the next) and rocky, uneven terrain. With around 300 racers taking part in the event from countries across the world, the Fitness Edge crew was faced with heavy competition from some elite athletes. The wall half marathon and full marathon gave even the extremely fit a serious physical and mental challenge.
The crew arrived to the wall on May 1 after a 2.5 hour bus ride from Beijing. An early start of the race meant leaving Beijing at 2:30 am. Tourist time was over at this point and it was time for the crew to do what they came all the way to China for: to conquer the wall. After some stretching, taping, fuelling, hydrating and pep talks, we were off. The full marathoners were to run from towers 1-21 (each tower consisting of an obstacle, like a steep ramp or a very steep flight of stairs) then take on an additional 4 towers of the wall which were made up of crumbling, rocky, dangerous terrain. They then ran down a seemingly never-ending flight of stairs to a visitor’s center and back up to double back on the course and do it all over again. After those two long loops were finished, full marathoners had to do the first 5 k of the grueling course on the wall another 4 times before crossing the finish line. Half marathoners did half of the same course.
While called a marathon, this was really an adventure-endurance race. The adventure part comes from the fact that many parts of the course were extremely dangerous with loose steps, endless tripping hazards and steep drops on either side of the wall. This wall was never meant to be taken at any kind of speed, so those warriors who were competing for time in the race had to do so with great dexterity and care. The endurance part came from the fact that this was not a normal 21.1 or 42 kilometers. Some staircases were so steep they had to be climbed using both hands and feet and resembled rock climbing walls more than staircases. Most of the crew would tell you the endless, steep ramps were hardest on the knees and feet, as racers propelled almost straight downwards while trying to keep their balance.
So many factors on a race day cannot be controlled, including organization and weather. Since this race was being held in a foreign country, many of the race marshals could give you nothing more than a smile and a bottle of water. Racers were left to their own devices to traverse the long course, which was not clearly marked at some points. Some racers stuck in teams and some took it on their own. To add to the fun, the wall was not closed to visitors on race day, so racers were running with other marathoners as well as other tourists, local people, children and the occasional vendor running alongside trying to sell them a t-shirt. All the people on the wall were extremely supportive and respectful of the runners, cheering them on with a thumbs-up or high five and moving aside for them to pass. Even the cold, torrential downpour that lasted several hours in the afternoon could not wash away the spirit or wipe the satisfied smile off the faces of the Fitness Edge crew as they crossed the finish line. The breathtaking beauty of the Great Wall of China, the grueling course and the arduous journey that took racers between 5 and 10 hours to complete was an unforgettable experience for the crew. All the blisters, sore knees and swollen ankles were worth it when the crew members each left with a golden medal hanging around their neck and an amazing story to tell.