The run of a lifetime
A few months ago, a family friend persuaded my mother and I to run the Great Wall of China half marathon with him. I was not a runner, and the challenge stood much taller than anything I could hope to scale. But I trained, changed my diet, and slowly grew to love the miles of exercise. I ran the Ayahashi half marathon in preparation and felt I was ready to tackle China.
May 16, 7:20 a.m.
“Wave 2, head to the start please!”
Well, here we are. And my goodness it’s cold. And crowded. Are they sure only 2,500 people are here?
“5 minutes left, runners!”
Oh, wow. We’re about to start. These 13 miles will be an absolute breeze. I’ve trained. I am so ready: shoes are snug, iPod on, hat secure, confidence high.
“2 minutes left, runners!”
That went by fast. A bit too fast. I’m not sure if I am completely ready. My shoes feel a little weird; I don’t like the song that’s playing; I might not be strong enough for this run.
Yeah, this was a bad idea - a very bad idea. I don’t even like running. Well, I didn’t. Now I am here, squished into this undersized starting arena with people who are all way fitter than I - people who are far too excited for a potentially awful run. What a completely terrible idea.
May 15 , 7:30 p.m.
The Night Before
We follow our tour guide through a pair of glass doors and up a grand staircase. The guide is a small Chinese lady whose presence is both intimidating and respectable. She manages our energetic group with ease, curt orders and quick walking.
Classical art is hanging on the walls as my group and I ascend. Wendy, the guide, waits at the top to usher us into a restaurant. She tells us to eat noodles - load up on those carbs for the race. So we eat. As the group becomes comfortable, we all start talking about previous races, about our training, about our future runs. But we mostly talked about the next day’s race, the race that was to start in less than 12 hours.
I met another teenager who briefly made me feel confident in my chances of survival - that is, until I found out this was her 9th or 10th half marathon. I was one of the youngest, least experienced runners at the table. There were three old Canadian ladies who laughed through dinner, showing not the slightest worry about the next day. There was a Boston marathon runner who talked about - in vivid and grotesque detail - his body’s negative reaction to 26 miles of running. Thankfully, I was already done eating.
After the meal, my mother and I head back to the hotel. Some others go out for another night in the city of Beijing, but I’m too worried about not sleeping. Truthfully, I was scared about the race.
At the hotel, I try to read and write - anything to tame my anxiety about the next morning. My mother’s fast asleep when I look at the clock.
Splendid; now I only have 4 hours to sleep.
3 hours and 45 minutes to sleep. This is horrific.
I do not remember falling asleep; I do not remember my last thoughts or what time it was; I just remember the loud wake-up call and the immediate realization that the day had come.
May 16, 2:45 a.m.
It was pitch black when I woke up. I could hear my mother gathering her things, preparing for the moment we had been working towards for months. Slowly, I got out of bed. Through an exhausted haze, I was able to gather all of my things: race bib, entry ticket, extra shirt, hat, sunglasses, iPod. I got changed, still wondering if this was going to be worth it. After double, actually, triple-checking our supplies, we headed down stairs to meet up with everyone.
Stepping into the lobby, I was immediately greeted by Wendy, who handed me a surprisingly heavy breakfast box. Wendy was smiling, running around the lobby, identifying her people and delivering the same boxed meal. One by one the group gathered in the lobby. Everyone was in full running attire. And a Canadian couple we had become acquainted with had painted Canada’s red and white flag all over their faces and arms.
I was probably groggy in the lobby, but the sharp cold of Beijing’s morning woke me right up when I stepped outside. Everyone had told me how hot China was, but the chill of that morning was like nothing else - colder than my previous winter in San Francisco, colder than my night in Tokyo, colder probably because I was in thin, minimalist clothing.
We boarded the bus, found our seats and took a few seconds to warm up before investigating our breakfast: a few pastries, a ham sandwich, a chocolate bar, orange juice, an egg and an apple. I nitpicked for a while, and then I leaned against the window and drifted in and out of sleep. I woke up as the bus weaved in and out of China’s mountainous countryside. It was stunning, made all the more beautiful by the slow sunrise.
I recognized a familiar town and knew we had arrived.
The Great Wall.
We got out of the bus and stepped into the biting cold (we would later learn that most people never left the bus, opting, instead, to remain in its warm insulation - a choice that would’ve saved me and my mother a few miserably cold hours).
My mother and I fell into the line of runners that were entering Yin and Yang square, which was the starting point of the race. For a few hours, we shivered and jumped around. A burly Scottish man saw me shivering and threw an elastic neck warmer at me.
“Here you go, laddie. This ought to keep you warm.”
It did. And I felt great until the start of the race.
May 16, 7:40 a.m.
When the countdown ended, everyone in my wave started screaming. Even people in the stands and on the railings were screaming and clapping. I removed my earbuds and stuffed them into my pocket. I wanted to enjoy the energy - maybe it could motivate me.
My mother and I began walking. As with every race, the beginning was a bottle-necked mess: walkers blocking runners, varying speeds colliding and simply not mixing.
Once out of Yin and Yang square, my pace progressed from a walk to a slow jog. I ran with my mother for a little while.
Charles, an Irish bartender from Budapest that was in our group, came bolting by, wishing everyone good luck with his charismatic smile.
As the crowd thinned and people found there niche, I sped up and lost contact with my mother. There were plenty of people talking, and locals were lining the streets, waving and cheering, so I kept the iPod in my pocket.
The race started out on a 3 mile uphill. It weaved through small villages, cutting back and forth, back and forth. Many of the locals were running backwards with racers as another would try and snap a picture. Some runners noticed their attempts and stopped to allow a proper photograph. Other locals were shouting, “Hello!” or eagerly holding out their hands for high-fives. Most were clapping and cheering as we waved and ran by.
Besides my brief stop at a water station, I ran the entire hill. I had originally planned to walk the hill, so I was actually feeling a lot better than I had anticipated.
After the hill, I found the entrance to the Great Wall. It was a narrow set of stairs, made all the more dense by people stopping to take pictures and peddlers trying, despite the terrible timing, to sell souvenirs.
After a few flights of uneven steps, I was up. I was on the Great Wall of China, a structure of unfathomable age. And it was so grand. I could see it snake through mountains for miles; and I realized that it was the greatest architectural accomplishment that I had ever or would ever see.
I took a few moments to simply admire the wall, for I knew I’d hate it after a few steps.
And I was right.
Excluding all of the brief, flat portions, the wall was simply a collection of stairs. I walked every flight, for the stairs were steeper than I had imagined, more uneven than I could ever have prepared for. Ascend. Descend. Ascend. Descend. Up. Now back down. Up. Now back down.
Every so often, I’d walk into a small enclosure on the wall. I remember them from inspection day as being cold havens to rest in. But during the race, dozens of people, sweating and panting runners, were packed into them, morphing the entire interior into a sauna.
I rushed through every one of those, stopping only to examine the winding wall ahead of me.
I made a mental deal to only bring out my iPod when I was desperate; I was thinking it would act as an energy boost or motivator. But during the run, people were talking in a variety of languages about a variety of topics, so I never actually used my iPod. I would just listen to the Italian couple talk or the group of Brazilians chat in stride, or
I would comment to the Danish that the route seemed easier on inspection day.
“Might’ve been that 5 kilometer hill,” she replied with a smile.
Another old man came by trying to pass me on a set of stairs. I saw his black bib and knew he was a full marathon runner.
“You’ve got a ways to go,” I said, trying to make light of his impending pain.
“Just a bit,” he said, playing along with a quick chuckle. And then he bolted by; I didn’t see him again.
The wall would have actually been easier, had there not been people running by, which sounds dumb considering I was in a race. But the Great Wall is a unique route. And the stairs are dangerous. On inspection day, both my mother and I slipped on the stairs, which at times were so worn that they merely turned into steep slopes with notches. I descended these with both hands on the handrail, allowing anyone to pass me because I wasn’t going to jeopardize my ankles for a better time. To my surprise, people did pass me. There were runners flying down the stairs, running in unusual strides to ascend and descend the stairs. And they worried me because the wall was so congested - their quickness against the overall cautiousness did not mix well.
Before long, though, I had reached the Goat Trail - the final but most dangerous part of the wall. It is comprised of intense slopes, or, as a Londoner in my group put it, “suggestions of steps.” Because it is true, they aren’t hills, nor are they steps. They are just dangerous slopes with few platforms for relief.
As with many parts of the wall, I clung to the handrail and stepped down slowly.
I managed to not slip, and I eventually found myself on the long bridge that connects the Great Wall to Yin and Yang Square. I ran through the start again and out into the village for the final 8 mile leg of my run.
It started out in a small village, the one we had driven through originally. I ran along the road as cars and trucks sped by kicking up dirt. Just like the start, the village was filled with dozens of ecstatic locals trying to get photographs or high-fives. Kids were lined up one after the other with their hands out, and they would scream if you entertained a quick slap of their shaky hands.
The run would have been miserable had it been completely on that road. The noise and dirt were distracting and damaging to my pace and breath.
Thankfully, well, sort of, the road let out into this small construction site, where I inhaled more dirt than oxygen, developing a violent cough for the remainder of the run. By this time, I had found a man from Sweden that I was pacing along. After the construction site, the road led into a very small village, but unlike the other one, this one was a collection of small huts and farm houses. The road became dirt; and the run became fun through the narrow streets, which at times felt like the setting for a James Bond chase scene: tiny paths, interrupted occasionally by a man towing a wagon. Plus, there weren’t any cars to stir up dirt or speed alongside runners.
I was told that the village would be just as enjoyable as the wall. Initially, I didn’t believe it. How could anything - especially a boring rural village - top The Great Wall of China. But they were right. And I was happily wrong. The village was so much fun. Kids were running beside me, trying to hand me bananas or water. Others were picking flowers to give the female runners. Most were yelling and cheering. Plenty of, “Hello! Hello! Hello!”
Eventually, I had reached the back of the village, where the trail shot up into a jungle of sorts. There wasn’t even a trail anymore, just brief absences of grass. That part was especially hard to run because of the lack of road. But I didn’t mind. I had less than three miles to go at that point, and I still felt great.
After my brief adventure into a Chinese jungle, I came back out at the construction site and then onto the main road to head back to the start.
I had long since passed the Swedish man and was running by myself. There weren’t a lot of people around me except for a man carrying Spain’s flag on his back. I saw one of the ladies from Canada, who was briskly walking to the villages I had come from. She smiled, wished me luck and continued on.
I did as well.
I ran all the way to the end, feeling better than I had during any other race. Before I knew it, I was back in Yin and Yang square - no other runners came in with me. The announcer said into the mike, “And here comes Alex Mutuc from the United States!”
He stuttered before mispronouncing my name. I didn’t mind. There was the finish line.
I crossed it as photographers ambushed me. A man walked up to me and put a medal around my neck. I didn’t feel out of breath, dehydrated or even tired - perhaps in shock that I was done. The exhaustion and dehydration would soon follow.
Caked in dirt and sweat, I walked around the square for a while, waiting for my mother to finish. I heard the announcer name off everyone who came through. I saw full marathoners run through and head back onto the wall for a second round. Glad I was done, I thought, as I saw the Boston marathon runner ascend the steps to the Great Wall.
And then it was over. All the training had worked, the change of diet, the stress and anxiety - it was all over. I had run the Great Wall.
What followed was too uneventful to remember - besides, of course, the bus driver dropping my mother and I off at the wrong hotel, forcing us to navigate Beijing and walk around after our race.
My mother and I felt better than we had planned, so we decided to go out for dinner. At the mall, we met up with the Canadian couple from our group, both of who had washed off Canada’s flag from their faces and arms.
We talked about the race, about how we thought we did, about what was next.
“You know,” he began, “that was a difficult course. If you could do that, you can definitely do a full marathon. It’s only double what you did, and usually easier.”
I pondered for minute, venturing, as a group member once said, deeper into athletic ignorance - as in, I was crazily ready for what was next.
26 miles, I thought - now there was a challenge.