Race: Great Wall Half Marathon

run deep china finish

In May 2018, runner Helen Corbishley took part in the Great Wall Marathon series by running the half-marathon option (full marathon and 8.5K fun run also available). We find out more about her experience with this iconic race.

Let’s go to China

Friends living in Beijing had been trying to get us to go see them for months with tales of kung fu, temples and pork balls. It was only when they mentioned there was a marathon on the Great Wall in May… and suddenly tickets were booked!

This was late March, approximately six weeks before the race. I had also been exceptionally sick with various health issues. Nonetheless I wanted to do the marathon. The marathon that, in its own words is ‘one of the world’s most challenging marathons’. There are famously 5,164 steps (I’m not sure who counted). However, after a good talking to and a slap round the chops with a wet fish, I accepted I should probably do the half instead.

I have to admit to being a bit lackadaisical about training given all of the above. Plus, how can you prepare for that many steps? I did a bit of jigging about on the stairs at home, but reasoned hopping up and down on the Axminster couldn’t really replicate a 7th Century stone fortification, so that didn’t last. The supposed smog issues were also a cause for concern, and I wondered if training in a face mask would be good preparation? Anticipating running around Lewisham in a mask would in all likelihood result in my arrest, I gave that idea up too. I thus relied heavily on carbo loading…

The race itself

Naively, I hadn’t realised just how far outside the city the Wall actually was. As a result, in order to get to our pick-up point for the almost three-hour journey to the Wall, it was a 3.30am wake-up call. Once you’re up, you’re up however, and the journey flew by. Not that much to see en-route, but when you do spot the Wall – wow!

Much was the pride and excitement at hosting the event, there were a plethora of speeches from various dignitaries to precede the gun going off. This wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for the fact it sent my ‘toilet break’ schedule awry. You do not want this to happen. Chinese toilets are a tale on their own and I’ll spare you the detail.

Nonetheless, once the gun went, the experience was unbeatable. The first 5K or so are through the village to get to the Wall proper. It’s uphill! However, you’re giddy and chatting to people, waving at the villagers who generally don’t say much, but each and every one will be beaming and recording you on their phones. Soon enough you’re on the Wall and the dreaded steps start. Yes, it’s a begger on the legs, but the views are to die for. I believe there are only around 2,500 runners, and with so few participants going in waves, you literally feel you have the Wall to yourself. The photo opportunities are endless!

I’ll just say ‘see photos’ at this stage, as I can’t really do it justice in words. Despite it being a bit dicky underfoot, I was sad when we left the Wall for some road running. Not least because it had become blisteringly hot and the heat off the tarmac was intense.  I coped with this by singing and making new friends. I found most people wanted to chat and drink in the experience. Speaking of drinking, water was plentiful and aid stations well manned. My legs were feeling it towards the end, however, so I tucked in behind two ladies from Manchester, mentally playing The Smiths in my head and finishing in a not too dreadful 2.43 given the conditions (and the fact that a good half hour of that was spent staring at the scenery and taking photos). As a comparison, the winning time for the women’s half was 2.03! Those doing the full marathon disappeared in the distance to do the same route over again. Meanwhile we were greeted with a nifty medal, a sandwich and ice cream. All of this made me grateful I’d plumped for the half… and been sensible (just don’t tell anyone!)

Yes, it requires some commitment in terms of training and cost, but I’d say it’s worth it for a truly unique experience. This is especially true if you combine it with a sightseeing trip, which most people seemed to be doing. In fact, we bumped into the entire NZ team some 1,000K away in Xian.