In this marathon, runners really do hit the wall

Updated: May 17, 2007, 4:03 PM ET
Associated Press

KUAIHUOLIN, China -- In every marathon, there is the psychological barrier of "hitting the wall." In the Great Wall Marathon, it really happens.

China's most famous symbol twice confronts runners during this punishing ordeal over ancient ground: just after the start and again near the end.

"The cruel thing about this marathon is you literally do hit the wall after about (21 miles). It's here you know you have to run up the wall again," said Graham Wood, an English engineer working in Shanghai who completed the race last year and is back for Saturday's race.

"There is one stretch on the second portion of the Wall climb where people are crawling up the steps. This is what you're facing."

Some advice for those daring to run: Don't wear a watch.

The average four-hour marathoner will need six hours to finish. Few attempt to run the gnarled, uneven steps that make up about four miles of the 26.2-mile course. Many train by running up and down skyscraper stairwells.

Forget jogging -- everybody hikes the steps. Running is too exhausting and too dangerous, with some parts of the wall exposed to sheer cliffs. Most runners wind up stopping on the steps to recover, to shake out leg cramps or to contemplate what they've gotten into.

"We have a saying in Chinese," said race organizer Guo Feng, paraphrasing former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. "Unless you have climbed to the top of the Wall, you cannot say you are a man."

Henrik Brandt qualifies -- big-time.

This will be his eighth Great Wall Marathon, and the 48-year-old Dane will become the only person to complete every one. Brandt has run marathons in Berlin and Stockholm. He has gone the distance in Kenya, Tibet and Greenland. He's even run 80 laps on a cruise ship to get in a full marathon.

But none of the two dozen other marathons he's slogged through compares to the grueling 3,800 steps up and down the Great Wall.

"Some years they've almost killed me," he said. "But since this was the first marathon I ever ran, I fell in love with it. This is my marathon. In the rest, I'm a guest."

Portions of the Great Wall have stood for 2,000 years and once stretched 4,000 miles. Millions of feet have walked the monument, but its cobblestones and bricks are still jagged -- many unpolished by time.

The race goes across the remote Huang Ya Guan portion of the wall, about 80 miles north of Beijing.

Some steps on the wall are baby size. Some are giant and almost require jumping to climb. Towers, tunnels and ramparts dot the wall, cutting through pine-green mountain tops and clinging to the side of sandstone or slate-gray bluffs.

After the first wall climb, runners loop away from the wall, crossing villages that have stood unchanged for centuries. Chinese there have seldom seen a foreigner -- except on marathon day. Vendors will be out in force selling Mao memorabilia. Children whose only English is "hello" shout the greeting and exchange high-fives with runners.

"The Great Wall attracts the people, but they are going to be surprised running through the villages; how primitive they are and how friendly the people are," said Nancy Butler, 57, of San Diego who has run this marathon twice but is nursing an injury this time.

Of the 1,200 runners entered Saturday, about 450 each will start the marathon and half-marathon. The rest will run 10 or 5 kilometers. The men's marathon record is 3 hours, 25 minutes, 13 seconds -- more than an hour longer than the standard marathon mark. For the women, it's 4:12:42.

Dave Cundy of Australia briefed runners in Ying-Yang Square, the start and finish point.

"Remember the five D's," he cautioned, spelling out drinks, dehydration, danger, diarrhea -- and drugs. The last is recommended if No. 4 shows up.

For Kathy Loper, a travel organizer from San Diego, the marathon has brought her to China with runners almost every year since the first race in 1999. The 2003 race was canceled because of the SARS epidemic.

This year she has a contingent of 120, many paying about $3,400 for 13 nights in China, including airfare, hotel stays in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an and the marathon entry fee. It's as much a cultural exchange as marathon.

"It's not just about the run," said Loper, who ran the Boston Marathon 30 years ago in 2:57. She needed more than six hours to finish this one. "I can't compare this to Boston. Your body has a different level of fatigue, and you are out there much longer."

About 90 percent of the field is foreign, with some 60-70 local Chinese expected to run, hoping to emulate the mailman from their country who won two of the early races. The local entry fee of $13 to $100 is still too steep for most, with organizers relying on foreign money to fund the private race.

"Every year we try to let the locals know this race is for them, too," said Guo, the organizer.

Rosalie Chin, a Chinese-American living in Singapore who will run the half-marathon, offered another explanation.

"The locals are too smart to put themselves through this," she said. "And I'm too smart to do the whole marathon."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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