Monday, 17 May 2010

Survived the Great Wall marathon

Woohoo! I finished 21-km of the Great Wall. It was definitely a challenging course and I should have worn my trail shoes instead.
average height is 738 meters

all eleven of us before the race
Eleven of us from the Philippines had flown to Beijing to join about 2,000 runners from all over the world to run the Great Wall Marathon on May 15 - Dennis and Jenifer Quepe, Australian expats Chad and Natasha Davis, Iloilo-based Arthur and Angela Chu, Bads Tan, Charita Agana, Candy Lee, Nino Fajardo, Marge Buot, Guam-based Ronaldo Navalta and myself. We were the first batch of Filipinos to do the run since 2006.

We were up and about at 2:30 am on the day of the race (a Saturday) and in the bus at 3:30 to take us to Huangyaguan in Tianjin province, about two hours away from Beijing. Huangyaguan Wall is not as popular as Badaling, the portion closest to Beijing, but it is the best restored section and the most scenic. Huangyaguan (Yellow Cliff Pass) lies on a steep mountain ridge and got its name from the surrounding yellowish hills and rocks. Its average altitude is over 700 m and it stretches 42 km long with 66 watchtowers. The wall was built during the Nothern Qi Dynasty (550-557 AD) and repaired with bricks during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

It was cold at 9 degrees Centigrade when we arrived at 6ish—and foggy! We could only see a faint outline of the wall against the mountains. We walked down to Bagua Castle to the square to assemble. There were booths set up to collect bags and personal belongings; and onstage, perky aerobics instructors warmed up the crowd. Around 7am, Chinese officials in suits gave opening remarks (in Chinese - duh) and immediately after that was the gun start and we were off!

Qi Jiguang at the entrance 
The course was divided into two sections—9 km along the wall and 12 km through the villages. The first part was a gradual uphill climb from Bagua Castle, to the main road, crossing Juhe River and the mountains. I wasn’t used to the altitude and started peeling away from the group. Approaching the entrance of the wall was an imposing 8.5-m statue of Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), a Chinese military general and national hero during the Ming dynasty. There was a slight gridlock at the entrance as runners waited in line to climb up the steps. There should have been a sign up that says “Warning: Expect treacherous climb or endless steps.”

This is the famous Taipingzhai section. The path felt like a roller coaster with the steps getting steeper and steeper as it wound up through the mountains. At this point I was climbing up the steps, whose height varied from the normal step up to thigh height and the width varied from wide to narrow. There was a portion of the wall where the path changed from bricks to narrow gravel lanes, the gridlock was because we had to slow down and hang on to ropes. That or fall down the crag. In hindsight, I should have brought my trail shoes instead of runners—it could have helped make up for the fact that I wasn’t prepared for such a grueling course.

narrow portion of the Taipingzhai section 
After climbing up and down for one hour and six minutes, I had covered only 6.46 km and reached the highest point at 502 m. I wondered about the Chinese of yore where watchmen were supposed to have memorized the steps to go from one watch tower to another in the dark.

rocky terrain in the village
The next part of the course was through the picturesque villages.
The path changed from asphalt on the main road and then gravel and dust. Again it was an up and down path, making me long for my trail shoes. The farmers would stop and watch and the villagers would cheer on.

I finished the 21 km before the 8-hour cut-off at 3:39. I didn't expect to break any record since I had been forewarned that given the conditions of the route, I would finish 50% longer than my normal time. The website wasn't lying as it described the marathon as "a tough, beautiful and definitely extraordinary experience. The 5164 steps of the Great Wall will put your physique to the test, and the breathtaking surroundings of Tianjin Province will compete with your tired muscles for attention". True, I was armed with my blackberry and camera shooting away.
very very steep descent

all taped up running with Tze Yann Tan from Singapore

I must congratulate the organizers for a well run event - well-placed visible distance markers for the different races (black for 42 km, red for 21 and green for 10); water stations every 5 km including up the mountain top; sports drinks, bananas and sponges every 10 km; gigantic baguette sandwiches with bananas, dessert and drinks at the end of the race. And, to top it all off, a free 20-minute massage before boarding the bus back to the hotel. Another warning - there are no portalets in China. I may just go back to do the full marathon or maybe opt for an equally challenging course, Athens in 2011?

great viw of Bnlagang Mountain, the race area covers 18 watch towers
Here's the route using my garmin forerunner 310xt:

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