Taking a run at the Great Wall

Me and my mom. Photo courtesy of Alexander Mutuc
Me and my mom. Photo courtesy of Alexander Mutuc

Taking a run at the Great Wall

by: Alexander Mutuc | .
Stripes Korea | .
published: May 27, 2015

Editor’s note: Alex Mutuc just completed the Great Wall Marathon in China. Below is his take on preparing for tough run. As for the run itself, he’ll share that tale later.

I always hated running. Or perhaps I just never got it.

To me, it never seemed smart to willingly get off the couch and pursue absolute exhaustion. Why would I? I’m a teen; my weight’s never been a problem, and I eat decently. So after a traumatic middle school 10k and a brief foray with one season of high school cross-country, I was content with never donning the bright shoes and short running shorts.

But few communities are as collectively active as the military community, and few environments are as running-friendly as Okinawa. Its flat boardwalks and picturesque sights are always populated by dozens of locals and Americans – all of who seemed to constantly taunt my laziness. It also, my mother is an avid marathon runner, so was hard to feel okay about my inactivity.

Finally, last year at age 18, I gave in. I’d try running. The trial – and potential error – could only be positive: exercise box would be checked for the week, and I could silence this nagging idea.

So on one particularly hot summer night, I went to Araha Beach and ran down the seawall. I was sweating. My legs hurt. I could hear my heart pump despite the blaring music in my headphones. I made it about three fourths of the way back before stopping.

Well, I concluded as I sat down to rest, that must have been quite an odyssey.

As it turned out, I hadn’t even gone a mile.

This feeling of “That’s it?” would only become more familiar as I started adding distance. I was sore for days afterward, but I wanted to at least be capable of finishing a mile – middle school children were more fit than I at that point.

So I ran again – almost finished. And again – closer. And one last time – there, I did it. But then I wanted to try 2 miles. It hadn’t taken long to get up to one, so I figured it shouldn’t be hard to add another.

A weird thing I discovered as I became more invested in running was few additions to my distance were as difficult as that first mile. Before long, I was up to 3, 4 and 5 miles, each of which motivated me to try longer or faster runs. I eventually just stopped going further, figuring that seven miles was too much. So I stuck with a few runs a week, ranging from 3 to 6 miles.

I became content with my routine. I was starting to eat somewhat healthier, and I felt I was doing all that I could to challenge myself.

The Terminal Challenge

But one day at the airport, my family and I ran into a friend. He talked about this race he was doing in May. It wasn’t just any race. It was the Great Wall of China. My mother’s eyes grew wide with excitement; my stomach turned when I learned that it was 13 miles of brutal agony.

Our friend talked about the sightseeing he would be doing and how compelled he was by the challenge of the run. My mother asked if I wanted to run the half marathon with her.

“Let me research it first.” I said.

And the first thing that came up on the website was this: “Since its inception in 1999, the Great Wall Marathon has been revered as one of the world’s most challenging marathons.” Beside the bold quote there were pictures of people scaling the ancient steps – many of them were hoisting themselves up by their arms.

“Oh, that sounds…” I tried to dismiss the idea without cowering.

It didn’t work. My mother was dead set on running it. At that point, it would have been very difficult to back out of the challenge: it was right up my newfound alley, and it was issued by my mother. I mean, if she was so confident, I should be able to do it – right?

Challenging myself

Running and training – especially for a race like the Great Wall – are very different things. My routine runs were no longer challenging, and though some of them stretched up to 6 miles, I was grossly underprepared for what I needed to do.

When I registered for the race through a company known as Albatros Adventure, I was also registered for an online community. It was filled with everyone who was going to run. There were people from all around the world, of all ages, and they were sharing tips, chatting and commenting to increase the collective intimidation. The most common piece of advice was to run hills, lots and lots and lots of hills. It is said that the steps, the unbelievably steep steps, are one of the hardest aspects of the run.

So that’s what I did.

I ran from Araha to the Ginowan bypass, up to the 58, then up the Futenma hill on the 81, tracing Camp Foster’s perimeter. In total, it was a little over 6 miles, but it still wasn’t enough.

I then added the plaza stairs to my runs. The plaza stairs - for the sane and blissfully unaware - is a massive staircase outside of plaza housing. I counted 268 steps - 268 uneven, steep, grueling steps. The first time I did it, I felt unsafe descending because my legs were shaking so bad. But after a few visits, I was up to 5 or 6, and then I’d run home.

Most runners stick to a strict schedule. Shirley Thomas, who is involved with many of the running groups here on Okinawa, is a big believer in the science of the running schedule. “Following a training plan really makes sure I’m not over or under-training,” she told me.

My mother follows routines loosely, and she’s run so many marathons that she’s lost count. But like a young and inexperienced novice, I did exactly the opposite. I didn’t run in some strict routine, which had been scientifically designed to optimize physical exertion and prepare me in the best possible way.

I just ran. When I got tired, I ran. When I had energy, I ran. It was all I was doing to train, and I believed it was working well enough.

Yet little could prepare me for the challenge of an official race.

Races, Bridges and Popsicles

Despite that 10k from middle school and those embarrassing cross country meets, I had never run an official race. Thankfully, my mother signed me up for the Ayahashi Half Marathon, which would be great training for China, we reasoned.

So on April 5, my mother and I headed north.

We parked next to a small rice field and stepped out into the hottest, most humid of possible days. “Perfect,” I thought as I felt my skin redden under Okinawa’s brutal sun. I was sweating before we even got to the starting line. Luckily, we had an hour to relax, hydrate some more and lament about the decision to run on such a hot day.

The energy before the race was intense. There were bands playing, people running around and warming up, vendors selling refreshments, announcers counting down to the start. One helpful lesson I learned from the pre-race atmosphere was to arrive early; lines for the bathroom grow fast and spots to relax become harder to find the longer you wait.

But alas the hour arrived, then followed the minute, then the second. Then, we began.

I knew there were going to be a lot of people. But I didn’t realize that running with thousands of people was so difficult. It is an entirely different experience, one I definitely was not prepared for. You can barely reach your normal stride because the start is so crowded, so dense with runners of varying speeds.

I ran the first 2 miles weaving in and out of small patches of runners. I’d dart past a group of chatting women only to be roadblocked by a mother with a stroller. I’d weasel around her only to bump into an old man. It doesn’t sound tiring. But after a few miles of running with a non-constant pace, I was spent. Completely, utterly spent. And I was only a quarter of the way done.

I had put The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes onto my iPod, but my mind was somewhere else. The entire run I was thinking about the fabled “wall” that so many runners stoop before.

The Ayahashi half marathon spans three islands, making it sound much longer than it is. On the second to last bridge on the way back, I was feeling demotivated. Then at the top of the bridge, I saw a young woman collapsed on the ground. Her eyes were closed, and people had crowded around her. Like an accident in traffic, it kept my attention even as I passed.

Few things during that run were as scary as seeing a fellow runner pass out before me. I looked ahead to try and forget it, and there was another man passed out in exactly the same manner: head limp, eyes closed. I passed him too and ran for a few more minutes. Then an ambulance came bolting down the road. People were dropping left and right, and there were still 3 miles left to run.

“Okay, now 2 miles. I got this. No problem. Only 2 miles. Easy Stuff,” I tried to convince myself.

Those last 2 miles were the farthest things from “easy stuff.”

The heat was brutal. My legs were about to give in. My shirt was soaked from sweat and water and felt heavier with each step. And the finish line only grew in distance.

With a mile left, I stopped. I bent over to try and rest. I was done. I couldn’t do anymore. Let the bus come and pick me up. I don’t care.

In the midst of all of this negativity, a Japanese woman came up to me. She reached into her purse and pulled out a popsicle. She gave it to me as she smiled warmly. I ripped it open and savored the cold ice. It was the greatest feeling in the world. After thanking her and downing the melting popsicle, I was determined to finish. I got back into the race next to an old Okinawan man who could have been no less than 50 years my senior. He was short, and he ran hunched over as if in a constant, quickened limp. One may think it a miracle that he kept my pace to the finish. But it was the other way around. I was struggling to keep up with him. He stayed a few strides ahead of me until I collapsed after the finish line.

I did it.

But as I laid in the grass, feeling great about actually accomplishing what would have been impossible a few months earlier, one thought lingered in the back of my mind: China. It was only a few weeks away after all.

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