the great wall marathon
posted: May 8, 2014
For some people, just seeing the Great Wall of China warrants a check off life’s bucket list. For 2,500 others in 2014, including our ambassador Joe Rios, ticking it off his list means that on May 17th he will conquer 5,164 steps of one of the greatest human engineered structures in history—in less than eight hours.
The Great Wall Marathon, arguably the most difficult marathon in the world, is 26.2 miles (41km) of pure herculean effort. Parts of the course literally crumble beneath runners’ feet; each step measures at least half a metre wide and has many missing stones. There’s no getting into a rhythm here.
Runners start the race with 1km of flat terrain before the steep incline begins around 3.5km at the Huangyaguan section of the wall; all images via The Great Wall Marathon
There’s some bureaucracy involved in getting a spot in this extraordinary race. Every non-Chinese resident must sign up for a six or seven-day all-inclusive tour package, with a set itinerary covering Beijing and the Jixian village area surrounding the Wall.
“There’s a limited number of entries, and they want to govern it because it’s only sustainable to have a certain number of people running on the Wall at one time,” explains Joe. His goal is to run a marathon on all seven continents in support of the Canadian Diabetes Association and Team Diabetes, a charity very close to his heart (his father is diabetic, and he lost both of his grandparents to complications of the disease). So far, he’s raised $45,000 of his $75,000 goal.
Three and a half years ago, though, Joe wasn’t even a runner. He was overweight, unhealthy and a smoker. One day, a friend forced him out on a lunchtime run. “I couldn’t even finish 5km,” he says. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibility.”
After the Great Wall, Joe’s got two more races before joining the Seven Continents Club—and none of them are your ‘standard marathons,’ either. He has registered for the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (250km over six stages through the South African desert, with runners carrying everything—food, clothing, etc.—except water and shelter) and the Antarctic Marathon (where temperatures range from -25 degrees Celsius to 0 degrees Celsius). He’s already completed the Ottawa Marathon, Gold Coast Marathon, Reykjavik Marathon and Rio Marathon.
Parts of the Great Wall course require participants to share ledges and narrow passageways, and file down sections of the Wall that are too dangerous to run
For those who are still keen but a bit less ambitious, there is a half marathon and a 8.5km fun run on the Great Wall, too. All participants must show up the day before the race to walk the part of the course that’s on the Wall in order to ‘mentally prepare’ for race day. After getting up close and personal with the Wall, runners can then change the distance they signed up for. (Few increase their intended distance.)
Joe’s goal isn’t to get a personal best on the Great Wall. On a previous visit there, he recalls tripping on it while simply walking. Still, he’s committed to finishing the race in under five hours (the cut off time is eight hours, and runners who don’t finish by this time are picked up and driven to the finish line). Race organizers recommend adding an hour or two onto your regular race time because of the steep incline.
“The Great Wall is a whole different ball game. It’s not as much about time as it is about the adventure, even though it is a marathon,” he said.”If you look at the topography of it, it starts and ends pretty high.”
The rigorous altitude map for the Great Wall Marathon, shows an incline of nearly 500m at the start and again at the finish of the course
There are two particularly difficult up and down sections of the wall totalling 8km where the elevation reaches 493 metres and many participants quite literally hit the wall. Some steps are as high as kneecaps, requiring runners to get down on all fours and literally crawl up them.
Participants also take side paths through villages that have remained unchanged for centuries. The villagers, who rarely see foreigners, are in celebration mode on race day shouting hello, and high-fiving runners as they pass by.
Even the most seasoned marathoners have to rely on the Wall for support
Mao Zedong, former chairman of the Communist Party of China, wrote in one of his poems, “He who has not climbed the Great Wall cannot be deemed a man.”
“I’m sure I’ll look like I’m dying, but with a smile on my face,” Joe adds. “If it takes me seven hours, I’ll do it.”
Want to support Joe’s goal? Visit this site to find out how you can contribute directly to the charity. Follow along his epic journeys on Instagram or visit his site, Thrive With Joe. Sign up for next year’s waiting list to run the Great Wall of China Marathon here
Alicia-Rae is a writer, adventurer and our international blog coordinator. You’ll never catch her without her pen, notepad and camera in tow. She’s a DIY aficionado, and believes the best, and most beautiful, things in life are homemade. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.