Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Great Wall of China Marathon Experience

After months of preparation, I set off for Beijing China on 12 May to attend the Great Wall of China Marathon.  I was one of over 1,500 individuals that did the same.  Runners traveled from all over the world making this a truly international event.

Our first glimpse of the Great Wall came on 13 May, two days before the actual marathon, for the pre-inspection.  This was the first time I had to inspect a course before running it and afterward I was very glad I did.   The inspection started in YingYang Stadium which is the start and finish for the race.  From there we were bused to the top of a hill where we would be entering "The Wall" on Saturday.  Early into the journey I realized that this was going to be even more difficult than I anticipated.  I was thinking to myself, "man, I wish I had done more hilll training".  Talking to several people along the way I realized many people were thinking the same.  I soon came to  realize that everyone was probably thing the same thing.

Did I mention the trail was steep and treacherous?   This fact hit home when one of the female participants on the inspection trail stepped into one of the many stone ditches along the wall and severely injured her leg.  I'm not sure how bad it was but it was enough to take her out of the race.  What a blow to come this far and have that happen

It was a beautiful day and the views were incredible!  See for yourself:

Earlier I mentioned that there were over 1,500 participants but only 500 of those brave souls were signed up for the full marathon.  Others were signed up for either the half marathon, 10K or 5K.  Regardless of the length of the race, all individuals were in for a challenge on 'The Wall"!

On race day you could feel the excitement in Ying Yang Stadium. It's an experience I have trouble describing.  Here were nearly 2,000 runners from all around the globe meeting in communist China to run the race of their lifetime.  It was crazy!  All around me I  heard different languages and I started to wonder if we were at the Great Wall of China or the Tower of Babel.  Close to the race start time two local aerobics instructors came out and pumped up the crowd with a workout routine. Good fun and lots of laughing at this point. I chose to wear my DEVO hat for the race for several reasons. 1. I'm a big fan.  2. It makes me easy to spot in the pictures 3. I'm a big dork.

The Great Wall Marathon also drew the local government officials out for the opening ceremonies.  To alleviate congestion on the narrow portions of the wall this year, the 5K participants were bused to the top of the hill and started their race early while the full and half marathoners were broken down in two groups.  One for faster runners and the others for the slower runners.  The faster group was to leave 10 minutes earlier.  Finally, the starting gun was was fired.  We were off!

The course started with a short flat stretch of road before the course veered off and headed up the moutain for about 4.5km.  This was a nice steep hill but I was prepared for it.  It was almost identical to climbing to Namsan Tower here in Seoul Korea. I powered up it easily and entered the Great Wall for the first time.

I passed a large statue on my left and entered a large gate that read "Welcome to the Great Wall".  This is where things got interesting!  Almost immediately the stairs start to wind up.... and up... and UP! My strategy is to go slow and steady on the extreme inclines and cautiously pick up the speed on the decline.  That turned out to be easier said than done.  The stairs were very steep with great variance in size.  You can only take them so quickly.  The end of this stretch of the wall was extremely steep but after 3.2km  I was on the strech of road outside YingYang Stadium once again and headed out into to local town.

This was a very enjoyable part of the run.  It took me outt into the local towns where people were lined up waving and cheering.  I must have given a couple hundred high fives to the children as I passed through the towns.  This is where I picked up the pace a bit. I felt great at this point. I was doing it!

What I didn't realize was there was another hill to climb up and down before we started back towards the wall. The course also  took us on some very rough trails.  Uneven ground, large rocks, ditches... this was a trail run to be certain.  I saw several people tumble on  the way back.  I lost my footing a couple of time s but managed to recover.

Eventually I was headed back into town and a left turn took me into the stadium where everyone was cheering!  Unfortunately the celebration had to wait for the full marathoners. We were given a green wristband to show we had returned from the village and it was time to face the toughest portion of the race.  The Climb back up the wall!

At this point I had traveled over 22 miles. If you have ever ran a marathon you know  this is the point that things start to fall apart for some runners. Your energy reserves have been depleted and everything starts to cramp up.  It's almost unimaginable that you would be headed back up the wall at this  point.  It's amazing what you can do when you set your mind  to it.

The climb back up the wall was grueling and one of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced.  At times I was literally crawling up  the stairs on my hands and feet. At times there were ropes that I pulled on to  help me along.  The day was sunny and this is also where things started to get very hot.  I started feeling very nauseous and it kept me from taking anymore of my gels but I managed to drink some water.  The stairs seem to never end but finally, after over an hour, I was off the wall!

From this point things should have been pretty easy.  It was almost all down hill from here traveling back down the mountain we climbed at the beginning of the race.  Looking at my time I realized that was close to completing the race in under 5 hours so I picked up the pace down the  hill.  I don't know if was the heat or the air conditions but as I headed down the hill I started to have trouble breathing.  I just couldn't get a full breath of air in my lungs and started wheezing. It forced me to slow things down at the end and as I entered the stadium for the last time I crossed the finish line and got my medal. I ended up finishing in a little over 5 hours.

I did  it.  I finished the Great Wall Marathon.  It was amazing.  Worth all the preparation, worth all the $. A challenge of a lifetime completed.


  1. SMSgt Holcomb - My hat is off to you, Sir! I am ex-Army and presently a SrA in the Florida Air National Guard at the age of 40. After a 15-year hiatus from the military, I joined the ANG and came in beating the pants off of Airmen half my age.

    I use a combination of basic exercises (push ups, crunches, and running) along with home workouts like P90X and Insanity to rock out awesome fitness results.

    I'm a firm believer in Leading by Example, and in that regard, you have my utmost respect for doing what it took to attain this incredible goal! Congratulations!!

  2. Amazing. I would love to do this marathon, but after watching that video on YouTube...I don't know if I could deal with the HEIGHTS on the Wall, much less beating the 8-hour cut-off and over 5,000 stone steps!

  3. very amazing place...
    how long distance your marathon ?

    don't forget to visit our web and get information about travel around indonesia :)

  4. Awesome...very inspiring. Try to finish the marathon next year in 2011. Best from Germany / do you have any recommendations in preparation?

    Thanks, Sven // svenhock@gmx.de

  5. Sven,

    Congratulations on your latest marathon accomplishment! I lived in Germany for several times during my military career and love it there. The good news is that you have lots of hills to train on.

    If you do lots of hill training you should be fine. I suggest not over exerting yourself on the the first portion of the wall. You can make up the time during your trek through the town.

    Good luck!

  6. The Great Wall of China is the longest and most massive structure ever created with its length of 8,851.8 km or 5,500.3 miles of earth and bricks, making the construction last for almost 2,000 years by
    different dynasties. The structure stretches into several provinces of China such as Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai. Learn more facts about the great
    wall of China here http://www.great-wall-of-china-facts.com

  7. Well done ! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me... I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

    In return, I also found a great blog of Jinshanling travel tips, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers.


  8. hello ken!

    this is very inspiring. my son completed his 5-yr military service with the air force last march 25 but passed april 16. he was preparing to re-enlist and to run the marathon in 2014. i dream of running it for him in 2015.

    i am 60 years old, in pretty good health and weight but just walk two miles most days. just wondering what it takes to successfully run the half marathon.

    ten years ago, i climbed mt apo with my son. i run ahead of my group so i can stop and have a good view of the vista below while waiting for my group to catch up. going down, i joined my son's teenage group, again, alternately running and walking. i did not have any prior training except for a week-long 10 sets of running up and down 20 stair steps a day. i live in surprise, a very flat valley 1200 ft above sea level.

    will you be running again?


  9. Very nice information. Thanks for sharing...

  10. Hi!
    Congrats on the Marathon! just one question - how bad was the smog? Was it really bad? it's honestly one of my biggest concerns...


  11. Thanks for sharing your experience of marathon.In my point of view if you have to go for China then you should go for great wall of china tours at least once to see this wonder creativity of human being..

  12. Thanks for sharing and Congrats!! I'm registered to do this in 2018. Did you go through Albatross Adventures?

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this article, Your article is so detailed and amazing. your article really expresses the true expressions of that great wall marathon. Travelling is something I can't resist I have traveled many countries and tried many things like Snorkeling, Jungle Run, Quade bike in Dubai and much other stuff but now after reading your article, I want to try the Great Wall China Marathon. Keep posting the great stuff.

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