After five months of waiting, and occasionally training, judgement day finally arrived. Like a prowling stalker, the Great Wall Marathon of China had crept up on me with little warning and great haste. I certainly wasn’t ready for it, the majority of my running done on treadmills, safely away from the sub-zero extremes of winter. Now one of the world’s toughest marathons, incorporating 5,164 of the Great Wall steps, was becoming more daunting as the seconds ticked away to the start of the race.
The Great Wall Marathon of China is ran along the Huangyaguan section of the Great Wall and the surrounding mountainous countryside in Tianjin Province, which borders Beijing. Unfortunately, having an employer hell-bent on income and profit, this was one trip I’d have to enjoy alone, my wife staying in Benxi to cover the English classes I would miss.
I arrived in Beijing several days before the race, allowing time to visit the Huangyaguan section of the Great Wall where I’d be running. Now, I’m not one to be easily flustered but I did wish they had decided to take a less undulating course when re-building the wall in 1985. Or at least not build steps half the size of me. By the end of the wall inspection, i was a wheezing wreck.
Beijing is one of the worlds most expensive cities, and from admiring the post-modern buildings sprouting up everywhere, this comes as no surprise. With development comes wealth, a virtually new concept for many Chinese people. Money talks in this city and this can be seen from the materialistic lifestyle led by many Beijing inhabitants. If you have it, you flaunt it, and if you don’t have it, you do anything in your power to get it, often losing sight of the moral responsibilities that most people expect.
Rest is paramount before running a marathon, but as always I found myself exploring Beijing on foot, walking miles in the process. Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven were both enjoyed, before the continuous harassment of beautiful Chinese women, who worked in packs to accost bemused looking foreign men, forced me to seek refuge back at my hostel. These women, with a few well rehearsed chat-up lines invite you for a drink at traditional tea shops, where you quickly realise the cup of tea your sipping is going to cost you $300. The burly tea shop ‘security guards’ will happily escort you to the nearest ATM if you don’t have this money on you.
Safely back at my hostel away from the prying eyes of scam-crazed locals, I flicked through the TV channels. The Shanghai World Expo has just opened, and it seems the majority of TV channels are reporting continuously on this momentous event. There is no doubting the striking architecture of the country pavilions on show at the World Expo, but I do wonder in today’s technological age, where information is available at the click of a mouse, whether it’s purpose is nothing more than an opportunity to show the population of China (who will make up approximately 80% of World Expo visitors) what a great country they live in.
A 7:30am marathon start time meant a bleary-eyed 3:00am departure from Beijing in to the Tianjin countryside, located two hours away. Any hope I had of catching more sleep on the bus journey quickly diminished as the lumber-some, former Desert Storm combatant I was seated next to, excitedly spoke non-stop of his current confrontations against teaching missionaries in south China, pouring his McDonalds coffee in to my crotch in the process.
When the start gun finally sounded, I was feeling remarkably relaxed. With finish times normally fifty percent longer than a normal marathon, I was free of the extra pressure of trying for a personal best time. Even with the early start, it wasn’t long before the full effects of the thirty degree cloud-free sky could be felt. The first 5km was ran completely uphill. Once the mountain summit was reached, the next 4km was across the rugged Great Wall itself, leaving competitors to deal with half the 5,164 steps. Another 25km of running under the intense heat through the surrounding mountains, farmland and isolated villages, brought the competitors back to the Great Wall for a second time to complete the remaining half of the 5,164 steps. By this point I was boxing well above my weight and was even hopeful of a top fifty finish (if only out of five hundred and fifty competitors!).
But it was here, when entering the wall for the second time, that things went quickly downhill in spectacular fashion and I suffered a cataclysmic fall from grace. No more than two hundred steps into the final ascent of the Great Wall, heat exhaustion struck and I collapsed into a vomiting mess. For the next ten minutes, I lay spewing my guts up over the wall and the odd runner who came too close. Shivering, white as a ghost and cramps making my legs twitch like a frog’s when thrown in to a hot saucepan, I thought this could be my first race failure. Thinking of failure, I did what any grown male would do. I started to cry. Two South Africans dressed as Bob the Builder passed by. Looking at me, their words of, "Can we fix it………no we can’t," spoke volumes of my current distress. I didn’t even have the energy to fight back against their ingenious mocking attempts. I needed energy and liquids fast.
Actually both were no more than five metres away, where a local Chinese man sat under a giant parasol selling snacks and ice cold drinks, hoping to make a quick buck from the tourists, who the runners were now sharing the wall with. As we made eye contact, I sympathetically beckoned for a charitable gesture; a free drink for a man in need. He stared vacantly back at me. Then he stared some more. And some more. And when he was finished staring, he started staring all over again. Obviously he had never seen a crying foreigner with a vomit covered chin before.
If staring was a sport, China would be undefeated world champions. Be it a fight, an argument, an incapacitated drunkard or even a traffic accident, hordes of people will drop everything to stop and stare. After seeing one man lying in the road recently after being hit by a car, a crowd of people soon formed around him, blocking off the road. It was left to the man lying in the road though, with possible broken bones to pull out his cell phone and call for help.
While the local drinks-seller continued his stares, I prayed divine intervention would come from elsewhere. It did. A fellow runner, taking pity on my appearance, stopped and purchased an overpriced bottle of Coke, tenderly holding the bottle to my parched lips. It was a humbling experience. Not quite as humbling as watching Pele’s adverts talking about his erectile dysfunction issues, but humbling nonetheless. If it wasn’t for this act of generosity I doubt I would have finished the race. Several minutes later after drinking some of the Coke, I crawled on. Eventually the cramps subsided and I was able to stumble. As the energy from the Coke kicked in, I began to walk. I decided it would be a foolish to attempt running again. That was until the finish line was in sight where I gave an obligatory sprint finish, crossing the line in six hours and twenty three minutes. My demise can be seen from my time. The first 35km I completed in just over four hours. The last 7km took over two hours.
While other marathon finishers working in China as English teachers had been given a well deserved break from teaching by their employers, I was on the first train back to Benxi the following morning. Similar to my previous trip to Beijing earlier in the month, I was teaching an English class within twenty minutes of my arrival. My superior had called to make sure I was on the train home, and after hearing of my running troubles, broke down in uncontrollable laughs, indicating the, ‘what’s the point in attempting something if you aren’t going to be the best,’ attitude evident amongst many people here. I didn’t care. I achieved what I set out to do. Only just!