Beijing: The Great Wall Marathon

I hated this feeling I had. Apathy.  The mutual blend of lethargy and blah.

“Wait, why am i not overwhelmed with excitement or nerves about tomorrow’s race?”

I started to feel this way as I stared out of the train window. The Chinese countryside flashed by me at a slow fast 307 km speed. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t sitting next to Tim like I thought I would. Or perhaps I am majorly PMSing. Or perhaps this week’s back and forth with feeling sick again would just not leave me alone. Or perhaps it was the first time we left Hezzie & Nezzie alone since we moved here. Or perhaps because I conveniently forgot the one thing that every female runner needs on the race day – a sports bra. Or because I was majorly PMSing. Or perhaps it was because we were in a cabin with the loudest Chinese tour group that would not stop talking until hour 4-of-5. [Side-note: I photographed this glorious moment when silence slid its beautiful self through the cabin. Images below.] Up until that hour, my earphones lost the fight. Heck, a Boeing 777 would have lost that fight, too. To top it off, the cabin smelt of raw shrimp. Okay, I was definitely PMSing.  A sweet Chinese-born-Los-Angeles-resident sitting next to Tim took the responsibility upon herself to apologize on behalf of her fellow citizens.  Luckily, as promised, the high-speed Shanghai-Beijing train arrived promptly and we said our farewell to the tour group by exiting stage right as fast as possible.

Before I knew it, my alarm was going off on race day. It was 2:30 am.  Gratefully, I was able to sneak in 4.5 hours of sleep. That’s enough to get me through, I thought. I hoped. Our first accomplishment of the day was confusing the hotel staff by taking a taxi to another hotel in the middle of the night. As we drove up to the Beijing International Hotel, we knew we had arrived as hundreds of foreigners huddled together in a blanket of Beijing darkness. Boarding the bus was one of the first incredible feelings I experienced that trip. No one was pushing against my back.  Everyone was patient. Ahhhhh, solace! TK and I found two spots across the aisle from each other. I sat next to Will, a cool guy from Hong Kong, who made the journey with some friends to run the 8k fun run. “Oh, the half marathon? You are really brave,” he told me. Wait, brave? What do you mean? I need to be brave today? Why? Tell me what you know about this wall!!!

Instead, I opted to beg Bon Iver to put me back to sleep. As always, Re:Stacks pulled through. I passed out. So did the entire running crew until our bus came to a halt.  As hints of light started to appear along the horizon, the engine turned off. The door opened and the sound of dramatic Mandarin woke my attention. For unknown reasons, the police barricaded the entire freeway and engines were silent. In the distance, I saw smoke rise from a circle of taxi drivers puffing their cigs and yelling at the cops. Naturally, the bus drivers joined in the fun.  Eventually, series of light bulbs turned on and traffic moved forward. It was my cue to doze off again. The next time I woke up, the sun was already fully awake and we were enveloped in the mountains. Beautiful mountains and lakes. I missed this – nature. The longer I live in Shanghai, the more I realize that I am not a city person. Trees, mountains, beaches. This is what I want. A mutual feeling TK and I have discovered about ourselves over the years. Our next adventure must be in the midst of some sort of God-given nature.

The ripple effect of our bus journey woke everyone up. In a very careful Chinese way, we swerved down the hill at a rapid speed to greet the bottom of the valley. What none of us realized was that we would have to run back up the mountain side for the first portion of our race. But at the time, I stretched, ate an energy bar, got upset at myself for not bringing  bananas from home, and merely anticipated our arrival.

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I had never seen the Great Wall before this moment. But there it was. Just as I had pictured in a eerie sort of way. Sometimes seeing things for the first time is a creepy feeling. Like it shouldn’t be real. It shouldn’t exist. Only in my mind does it look like that. But there it was…well, only a slither of a 13,000 mile thousand-year-old-wall.

Ironically, in the valley below, there was also a 13,000 mile long bathroom line. Thus, TK and I decided to check-in and find our “team” spot on the bleachers in Yin and Yang Square before joining the notorious nervous pee-ers of the race world.   It was time for our Beth/TK Team pep talk. We I had one prepared.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we have waited over a year for this. And it’s here. Like seeing the Great Wall has been number one on my bucket list for years. And running the race has been on there for over a year.  I am so pumped. We are finally doing it!!………TK, everyone here looks so profesh. Crap, I just saw two Boston Marathon participant shirts!! Crap, I hope I survive. What am I doing with my life?”

Per usual, TK interrupted. It was time for him to take over and give the realistic version of what I meant to say. As always, it helped me to refocus on how I can do this…and that lasted for two seconds.

In sandals and running shorts, I quickly realized that Chinese mountains stay true to mountain-hood. It was freezing. For a chilly hour, I ate an overpriced banana and continued to secretly give myself a mental pep-down.

“I can’t believe I’m looking at the Great Wall…Oh my gosh, that girl is ripped. ”

Later on the run, I would realize that we were all in for a rude-awakening…no matter who was ripped or had pudgy white thighs…we were all screwed.

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Bags checked. GoPro strapped on the chest. Butterflies doing backflips in my stomach. TK waiting in the line at the port o’ squatty potty. Then comes Tommy.

Meet Tommy. Tommy is a retired New York City garbage man who invested his life’s savings in traveling the world and running it’s marathons. The Great Wall was his 99th marathon. He has ran on five continents and the year before had a double-knee replacement. This was his first race since his new knees and he was so excited to encourage a newbie runner like myself.

“Don’t try for your PR (Personal Record) on this one. You will hurt yourself. Just embrace where you are running and enjoy it. Next time, go for a PR. On the little steps, skip every other one. On the bigger steps, run each one. Don’t skip. Use all upper body on the wall….”

The encouragement went on and on. And it was very much appreciated. However, I do think a marble or two was missing upstairs because he started from the beginning twice. Who cares though because here a 70-something man was running double the distance I would that day. I felt admiration for him as I imagined and hoped that I could be running marathons one day in my 70s.

Something runners will often talk about is the runner’s club. It’s the mutual bond that you have with one another. Everyone has always had their “first” race. And once you have, it is as if you are in a secret club with people from all over the world. I figure the club would be even cooler as a 26.2-er (full marathoner). Maybe one day, I could claim that fame. For now, I will reel in the bond I have as a now-2-time 13.1-er (half marathoner). This bond grows with each race I have experienced. From my first measily 5K in November 2013 to the most international race I might ever run. As I panted through the 21 kilometers of pain, I was alongside Perusians, French, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Mexican, American, Canadian, Kiwis, Afrikans and Australians, and 60+ other countries. National flags flapped in the wind and the Great Wall felt as if it was transformed into the Tower of Babel for a day.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….

The crowd slowly skootched forward. More and more my legs picked up. We moved forward under a brick wall out into the public arena where a Chinese band played “Jingle Bells”  out of what I could only imagine is decency and respect for western runners. The villagers had gathered around as we ran down the main road towards the mountain. Local children lined up with their dirt-covered palms reaching out for us to slap. Men and women flashed iPhones and cheered for us as we passed.

I love the beginning of races – so much adrenaline pumping through your freshly strong legs. Knowing we are all united in accomplishing the same thing – we were all little ants on the mountains in Northern China.  Eventually, we curved left leaving the crowds behind us. Slowly the realization that we have to run back up the swerving roads became a reality.  This was where the ants slowly dispersed.

The night before the race, TK had downloaded a few new songs for me to add to my running playlist. Appropriately, Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man out of You” was the first on my playlist that morning.  This song was stuck in my pee-sized brain since the week prior. It came about when one of my adult tutor students answered the question:

“If you could give American’s one reason to visit China, what would you tell them?”

His answer:

 “Only real (wo)men will climb the Great Wall”.

So, of course, I took this to heart. And for six days have been singing the Disney song. Gratefully, it was actually pumping me up as I ran, prayed, loved up the mountain.

We passed Tommy on the hill and never saw him again. Although, I looked for him almost the entire run.

“TK, do you think his new knees were okay on the wall?”

“Yeah, I think he is okay. He has done this a ton of times.”

“Yeah but my knees are killing me. I just hope he finishes.”

I don’t know if he ever finished.

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We entered the Great Wall. The first few stairs were pretty easy as I ran up them two by two. When we turned the corner, the stairs magically doubled in size. On my right side, I skipped over vomit. The next section of stairs would house additional vomit puddles.

Okay, Im doing well. I haven’t vomited, I thought.

From here, the Great Wall was the most unpredictable thing I have ever came face to face with. One moment it was a 90-degree angle to ascend. The next moment, we were in a single file line slipping and skipping down flat asphalt/rock.

“Clearly, someone took a coffee break when it came to working on this part of the wall” TK joked. 

I laughed. Really hard.

The next moment, we found ourselves climbing up the flat surface searching for any opening for our feet to step into. This pattern continued and continued and continued.  At times, we were walking without the potential to pass any racers. This was why they told us not to aim for a PR. It would take pushing people over the wall in order to break your record. And then go to jail. 

I felt that the wall was my strongest point of the race. I am a slow runner and have a horrible attitude when it is over 80-degrees out. But I am a fast climber.  And although the descent was even harder than the climb, I felt myself keeping up with the big guys.  The views were breathtaking from the top. The sky was the bluest I had seen in China. The morning breeze was still a bit cold and the draft was heavy. It was by far my favorite part of the entire experience. But I still had half the race to go and it would take place in the hot valley.

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We ran on top of the Yin and Yang Square walls, down the stairs to the finish line where we were directed to keep going out into the village again. Really fast fun runners were finishing and we were less than half way. The marathoners were only a quarter of a way. And everyone was exhausted. The crowds greeted us with more cheers but it didn’t really help. There was no breeze in the valley floors and the sun was scorching. We ran along the main road from one village to the next on asphalt. I felt like I had accidentally shown up for the Petra, Jordan race. I also forgot sunscreen when I noticed my shoulders were no longer pale white but a strong bold pink. Crap. How long is this road?

It was about mile eight, when a previous conversation(s) with my Chinese coworker rushed to the forefront of my mind.

“Bess (Chinese pronunciation for Beth), she said concerned. “Don’t you have to train for something like that?”

As if that hadn’t crossed my mind. As if I had been climbing the stairs to my 12th floor for fun. Or running on cobblestone sidewalks to strain my knee just to feel jolly. Or choosing to walk the 2.5 miles to work on multiple unpredictable hot Spring days.

“Yes, you do,” I graciously responded.

Well, not always gracious. The first time was gracious. The fourth time wasn’t so. I immediately allowed my self-confidence to be rocked by such a question. Couldn’t she tell that I have lost 10lbs since she met me? Couldn’t she see me show up in my running gear? It was this conversation that I pondered as I slowly jogged my way through the two miles of hot 95-100 degree dusty asphalt from one village to the next. Crap, why the heck did I not train harder for this?!? In that moment, I realized there was no way you could know unless you previously knew the route. The FAQ section of the marathon website failed significantly in portraying the route to us. So naturally, I felt slightly encouraged and badass to be running aside “Boston Marathon” runners who matched my panting level.

Okay, it isn’t just me, I thought.

Soon we were directed off of the main road onto a dirt driveway covered with shards of rocks and litter. Finally my knees started to feel it. The next three miles would be on various terrains: dirt patches, through village alleyways where waste and feces covered the ground, uphill over branches and roots, through the neighborhoods getting splashed with water by the local kids, back to the dirt driveway and inevitably returning to the hot-ass asphalt. During my journey through the village, P!nk’s “Try” was on repeat. As cheesy as that is, that simple song has sung me through a lot of  low points on my races.

“Where there is a desire, there is going to be a flame, where there is a flame, someone is bound to get burned. Just because you burn doesn’t mean you are going to die, you got to get up and try, try, try.”

Every race I have done has started with an immense desire to accomplish it. To show myself that I can conquer something that for 27 years had been something I never thought I could do well. If I think I can’t do it, then I always want to try to do it. It’s a blessing and curse that I deal with in my life. As for running, I still can’t do it well. Not even close. The video footage that TK captured of me running looks like a chicken running from the ax. But this silly song always helps me finish what I began.

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At this point, TK and I decided to split as our bodies were begging us for different paces. He took off in front of me. I pepped talked myself one last time and picked up my pace. The village was ahead of me, the crowds, the sound of the applause. To my left, were rows of masseuses providing comfort to the soles of finished runners. Ugh, a massage sounds amazing.  I pushed record on my GoPro and told my body to gooooo faster! My wobbly legs picked up speed and I finished. The feeling of hearing your name being called over the mic “Bethany Carlson of the US”, bowing my head to receive my medal and getting congratulated is the best feeling in the world.

The Great Wall marathon race was by far the most physically demanding race I have ever experienced. Actually, it was the most physically demanding anything that I have ever encountered. Stalking the #greatwallmarathon hashtag helped me to know that it was also a TON of other people’s most physically demanding experience – half or full. Now that it is said and done, I feel that a full marathon is definitely doable. And that realization scares the crap out of me. And if I know anything about myself – that is when I tell myself that I now have to do it. Crap.

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Photo Time

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silcence is golden.
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didn’t shoot anything after the train and before the race day. this mountain is the one that we had to run up.
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jingle bell rock.
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GO PRO & iPHONE IMAGES:
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yin & yang square
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two sweet french girls asked me what a gopro was…so i photographed them.
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all the different types of terrain…
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The next day we went on a mini Beijing bike tour [tiananmen square, forbidden city, etc.] It was super hot, muggy and eventually turned to a thunder storm…and let’s be honest, we were pretty sore. This trip to Beijing was definitely not thorough enough but we got to see a few of the big guys. Here are a few snaps of our last day:

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and of course, westerners always oblige to take a photo with the locals.
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biking tour with my love.
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