Great Wall Marathon 2011

Posted by on May 23, 2011

Great Wall Marathon

Preparing for the Race

When I was young I loved running. I was fast.  I remember in 3rd grade racing a little African American girl in pigtails.  She beat me by a second, but we beat everyone else by a mile.  Due to my nerdism I did no sports throughout jr high or high school (I did read a lot of books though) and I recall the one time I tried to run a 5k with Layne Neilson I ended up with shin splints and dry heaving.  Thus my mantra became : I hate running.  I also had this idea in my head from my high school that I was physically unable to do very much exertion, I was tested for Hypoglycemia and I definitely used it an excuse.

Eventually my inertia caught up with me; the food I was taking in and the lack of movement produced a puffy version of myself and I decided I wanted to loose weight and get in better shape.  I started mountain biking in California and Curg Johnson and Scott Barentsen introduced me to hiking.  I’d hike Briones several times a week before work (this was the beginning of my Dawn Patrol days).   I liked hiking because it was just like walking you just went up hill.  I still stated for the record that I did not like running.

Gotta RunAfter we moved to Seattle we moved into a home on Cougar Mountain in Issaquah.  I had miles and miles of trails right out my back door. I kept hiking there and in the mountains. My next door neighbor Carl was a runner and he kept suggesting to me to try trail running : “It’s just like hiking, you cover the same ground you just go faster.”. So one Saturday we went running together and I enjoyed it. I bought a pair of trail runners and I kept at it. Eventually I even started road running at work during lunch.


The way the run beganRunning became an additional way I stayed in shale for my true love : spending time in the mountains hiking or climbing. I even entered a few trail running races on Cougar Mountain. I did however find i had a problem pacing myself in a race, I often felt too keenly the competitive desire to pass the person ahead of me. I also didn’t like the 65 year old men passing me. I kept running though but no more races. Running also became a way to make up for when I was behind on my yearly 1000 mile goal. I’d run to work several times (17 miles) and I had a small tradition of early morning runs on Christmas Eve (23.1 miles and 22.5miles).


Big BerthasEven though I don’t have the classic runner physique : my legs are like tree trunks (hammering up and down mountains) and I have a bit more heft on my frame than I really need around the mid section and saddle bags over my hips; I have stamina. I’ve learned over the miles I can go the distance; with proper training and refueling along the way. I knew I could do a marathon; I’d basically already run the length, just not in a competition.



Last year a friend living in Japan had invited me to do the Great Wall Marathon but it just didn’t work out since I was still living in Issaquah. After moving to Beijing, Laurie Arnold at work sent out an invite to Amazonians in China to join her in the Great Wall Marathon. I immediately signed up. In reading over the course descriptions the 10K had 500 meters of elevation pretty much the same elevation gain as the 1/2 Marathon of 21K, so I signed up for the half.

Morning along the WallOne of the things I knew I’d give up moving to Beijing was the mountains and the trails. No more trail running, and hiking would require more planning and effort. I immediately began road running though. And one of the main reasons for choosing our apartment location was because it was across from Chao Yang Park where I could run among the trees. I try to run at least twice a week, though they are usually only around 6-7K. Occasionally on a Saturday I’ll get in a 11-12K run and I’ve managed to get out hiking to the Great Wall several times while I’ve been here (1, 2, 3).  Even though hiking the Great Wall was good preparation it just wasn’t often enough so I added stair climbing to my routine.  One of the problems with the stair climbers in gyms is they only go up (one of the many reasons I detest gyms).  Most mountains you climb you have to come back down.  So I would do 3 laps up and down the 30 flights of stairs in my building.

The Day Before

As the race approached I took the week before off from running; hoping that the theory of tapering would actually work.  The normal itinerary for the race was to depart Beijing on a bus at 3:30 am for HaungYa Guan.   We decied to go up the night prior and stay overnight at a Farmer Hotel.  Robert found us one on line that was right next to the Fort where the race begins.  Several folks from Amazon were also staying there. We got away Friday at 4:30 and it took us around 2.5 hours to drive there.  We arrived just as the sun was setting over the mountains surrounding the small village.  Our hotel was sparse.  5 single beds in a room with 1/2 inch foam padding and a squatter toilet.  Price was 80 rmb per person including food.  After we arrived the farmer’s wife went into the kitchen to cook up some supper.

SelvioWhile we were waiting, we met Selvio.  He was from Italy; he spoke very little English.  He told us he was from Bolgna Italy where they made Maseratis and Ducati.  He showed us a yellow paper that was titled Marathons of the World and had a list of all the marathons he had either run in or was going to run in.  He was sad because his organization had somehow messed up his entry into the Great Wall Marathon and he had no bib number.  He said he would run anyway.  He was eating a dinner of nuts and bread and offered us some.  We said we were going to eat food prepared by the farmer’s wife.  He explained in mime and Italian : “picante, picante, picante” and then making a motion to his stomach he said “Ughhh” – “Not good” and then made a motion for squatting on the toilet.

With that hearty recommendation we went into the kitchen.  She’s whipped up a mountain of dishes, 7-8 for the 5 of us.  I stuck to the safe bets : fried egg, tomatoes and rice.  Simple and unlikely to upset my stomach.  While eating Jean and Dennis arrived with Jonathan and Xixi.  We chatted while we ate and then went off to bed early. It was going to be an early morning.  Before settling into bed I poured a tablespoon of salt into a bottle of Pocari Sweat (local sports drink) and slurped down the salty concoction.

Race Day

BreakfastCarsten and I were running the half and Dennis the 5K, everyone else was doing the 10K.  The 1/2, full and 5K all started early (7:30) and the 10K started 2 hours later at 9:30.  I woke up at 4:30, my hips hurting from the plush padding on the bed.  I “geared up”, most importantly for me was the liberal application of Glide, didn’t want to be chaffing on this long run.   I walked around outside for a half hour and met Carsten and Dennis in the kitchen at 6am for a breakfast of corn congee with boiled egg and some chopped salty vegetables.  We walked down the hill to the Fort where the race began.  There must have been 50 buses in the parking lot and 100 people lined up waiting to use the bathroom.


Steve and KariOn our way to the entry point we ran into Laurie, Steve and Kari.  They were walking around to stay warm.  We said goodbye and wandered into the Yin Yang Square inside the Fort where there is stadium seating and big open area.  There was club music playing and people were warming up.  The sun had come up but was hidden by clouds and with a bit of wind blowing it was chilly.   Carsten and I sat down to stay out of the wind while Dennis went off to catch his bus to the start of the 5k.   While sitting there Laurie called many times…. first to inquire about the bathrooms inside (there were no lines) and then to locate us as they joined us.  Later we heard the reason there were no lines is the “bathrooms” were just holes in the ground with no separators and no toilet paper.

Climbing AgainFinally at 7:30 Carsten started off in wave one of the 1/2 and full marathon and at 7:40 I set off.  The start was “slow”, so many people and so crowded we walked for a few minutes until we passed through the gate and entered the road.  From here the run actually began.  We ran a short distance down the main road before turning left and started a long gradual climb (5-10% grade) up to the entrance to the Great Wall.  Finally arriving at the wall we began the steps up and things began to cluster up again.  When the wall was narrow either up or down a line formed.  When the wall was wider either up or down things spread out again.  This was the part of the “race” where I felt the strongest.  I am used to climbing stairs.  On the down sections when I was able to get clear of the lines I bombed down the stairs and the trail.  I may not be the fastest runner but no one passed me going down.

Great Wall OverlookEventually we rounded the bend on the top of the Wall and started our final descent to the river crossing and back into the Fort.  Kari, Steve and Laurie cheered me on (there may have been others) as I ran past and we headed back out down the main road to the small village. Here the entire way the streets were lined with small kids giving high fives, smiling parents who looked in curiosity or cheered us on.  I grabbed a banana on the way out and followed it up with water.  There had been ample water all along the course. I always drank around a fourth of the bottle and then dumped the rest over my head to stay cool.  The run through the village had a couple of tough hills to scoot up across rocky paths that were unwelcome on the tired legs after all the stairs on the Wall.  Things started to drag and I took out my headphones from the small backpack I was wearing and put on some music to keep me company on the last leg.  Finally as I finished the last 50 meters my family was there cheering me on as I rounded the bend and into the Fort.  I heard someone yell : “Catch him” as a runner came up behind me. Finding a bit of reserves I sprinted to the end, but I slowed down 10 feet before the finish and he passed me at the last second.

The Great Wall GangI paused for the obligatory race photo and my medal for finishing and kept walking so as to not fall down. I redeemed my ticket for a monster turkey sandwhich and grabbed some water and wandered outside to sit with my family and watch a few other fellow Amazonian’s in the 10K cross the finish line.  Finally we gathered at Laurie’s van for beers and drinks and a celebratory group photo.  The race was done and it was time to head for home. I had a great race and I look forward to doing it again next year.  Next year Sofi says she wants to do the 10k with me.


Video of the Race

Great Wall Marathon from mbgriffi on Vimeo.

5 Responses to Great Wall Marathon 2011

  1. btezra

    great post, I really enjoyed reading, learning and “running along w/ ya”, it’s goo d to read that Sofi wants to run w/ her dad as well 😉

  2. Eric

    Another great experience. Love the part with the kids giving you high fives.

  3. Beth Shepherd

    Wow. Awesome accomplishment Mark! (and hey, I saw the video of Sofi getting her hair braided…if she can sit still for 5.5 hours for that, she’s ready to run the half!).

  4. Tom Wagner

    Participating in events like this is a great motivation for those who need a goal to get them out of bed or off the couch. Kate mentioned tonight that she and Missy participating on the track team in high school was the best thing for their bodies and minds then and now. Both have run marathons as adults and Kate is running to get back into shape after having the triplets. I’ll stick to riding a road bike.

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