On a hot, hazy, mid-may morning we set out whooping and cheering across the start line as if the following 42km were going to be a stroll in the park. Indeed, the whoops and cheers soon dissipated in favour of puffs and pants as the first 5km of the course took us up a constant slope to the foot of the Great Wall.
Slope became hill, hill became, stairs became boulders. In single file we reached the summit and paused breathless thanks to both the arduous 40 minute climb and the awe inducing vista of the wall, falling and swooping across the valley below us to the next peak in the range of mountains.
What followed was 8km of human rollercoaster. As the sun burned off the haze we picked our way along the wall, some sections rolling causeway, others steep uneven steps and others steep dirt paths with only a rope for comfort.
The middle section of the race took us off the wall and through rolling countryside. Locals greeted us with jiāyoú (go on!) poised to give us leaf-fans and collect our empty water bottles. My technique for the long-haul parts of a race is to find another runner going around the same speed and let them keep pace (…to keep at bay the urge to overtake everybody and burn out). However by the third person who gradually slowed to a walk ahead of me I could tell the sun, approaching 28c was having an effect. The midday training at Jiao Tong track had paid off.
Km35 and we had looped the countryside and the wall was looming ahead. As we ran back through the start/finish area I collected my last gel, sprinted past the cheering crowd and heard somewhere a commentator shout my name. Energized I followed the markers as we ascended the huge staircase up to the wall, in the reverse direction this time.
Exhausted runners were everywhere, sat pouring water over their heads or trying to stretch out a cramp. Some were climbing the steps backwards. I thanked my 40km cycling commute from Xujiahui to CEIBS and took as much water as possible as the day reached noon.
Five, six, seven drops and climbs later and just as I thought I could not manage another – the path fell away and met with the tarmac road that we had climbed at the beginning. I daren’t pause to catch my breath and pushed on.
The final 5km of downhill was an incredible test of tempo, by now I was alone on the road trying to find a rhythm between uncomfortably fast (fast = misnomer) and jarringly slow. I turned up the ipod and pushed on as the mile markers counted up and as the road reached the town was joined briefly by a steward who instructed me “500 metres to go. Cross the road. Keep left and be ready for the photos”
I uselessly tousled my salty hair, adjusted my shorts and forged on, rounding the final 100m in a sprint and five hours after starting, finished the Great Wall Marathon.