The International Writers Magazine: Great Wall of China Half-Marathon 2011
If I Can Do It, You Can Do It
I am no runner. I bought proper running shoes for the first time this year; the cheap variety. Even at that point the thought of running half a marathon was unreal. My life was at somewhat of a plateau, a stalemate. I was lacking a challenge in my life and when my sister sent me an email from Beijing, suggesting I join her in running half of The Great Wall Marathon, something in me felt excited again.
I needed a new focus and part of me, although I have never enjoyed running, thought what better way to ascertain whether I could reach the enjoyment stage, than training for a marathon.
I read the blurb on the website. It described an adventure run rambling across the steps of The Great Wall of China, having to hold onto ropes in order not to fall down the sheer edges, travelling in single file where the path narrows into one passable length of wall, dashing through little Chinese villages tucked away in rice paddies; it sounded more like an obstacle course than a marathon. As I read through the description I somehow felt more and more encouraged. Perhaps it was the realisation that in order for people to pass in single file there is likely to be somewhat of a slower pace, maybe even chances to take in the view. I am a photographer, that prospect was appealing. When my sister then offered to buy my ticket as a birthday present too – and a massage after – I also realised what better gift to have as a present than an experience, and what an incredible experience to have before I turn 25. Let the training begin.
Being ideally located in Scotland in the months leading up to my voyage to China, I was preparing myself for the hills with frequent runs down to the banks of the River Tay, and the odd steep incline buried within Perthshire’s landscape. One day I found myself knee deep in scratchy dead bracken on a steep verge, wanting to curse whoever had persuaded me into this: myself. I trudged along though, more often than not enjoying the feeling once I was actually out there doing it. I might even say I started to look forward to my half hour escape – sometimes. I eagerly looked out for three roe deer, which were beginning to feel like my running mascots, regularly darting in and out of the forest floor. Being able to run for longer than ten minutes without wanting to turn around and go home was real progress. I had never trained for a marathon before but I felt I was doing my best. Admittedly, I was only conquering forty-minute runs at the most, but for me that was just fine. I was not doing this run for a record-breaking time; I was pushing myself to achieve something I never imagined.
We got up before the sun, with that treasured feeling from childhood of awakening whilst the moon still shines to go on holiday. There was definite excitement in the air. As we bumbled along the highway out of Beijing, this fierce looking ball of orange gradually emerged from behind the distant mountains. I slept, but did not want to sleep, suddenly feeling that I had to feed my body the right signals. If I fell asleep again, it might think I was heading back to bed, rather than actually gearing up for the biggest push of its life. I dozed. I ate a cereal bar. I drank some water. I thought about how this run would all be over before some people had even got out of bed. The clock ticked on as we approached Yin and Yang Square and soon enough we were within the central hub of runners, awaiting the inevitable.
The queue for the toilet was to be expected, as was the pungent urine smell. Once outside again we were just in time to join the warm up. Two very fit and healthy looking ladies stood on the stage and started pumping out some very synchronised aerobics moves. Unfortunately, I was stood in the left hand corner, the same corner that all the camera men seemed to have chosen. When it comes to aerobics I need a little time to get co-ordinated – particularly at seven o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, whatever my moves were, they got me going.
After all this, I wasn't prepared. As we set off out of the square we were introduced to our first hurdle, a 5km hill, upwards all the way, with no let-up whatsoever. I was supposed to be ready for this. At that point I screamed in my head, wondering what on earth I had let myself in for and how on earth I was going to survive 21kms. Runners started petering out after just five minutes. I could not give in this early. I strove forward, one step at a time.
I eventually found myself at the foot of the infamous steps and I heaved a big sigh, partly at reaching the top of the hill, and partly at the prospect of what lay ahead: 2582 steps to be precise. The bonus had come when I discovered beforehand that the anticipated 5164 steps was just for the marathon runners; that unquestionably made the feat seem more possible. What I had been most worried about, having seen for myself the week before that some of the steps were as tall as half my leg, unexpectedly became the easiest part of the run. Whilst on the Wall there was a mix of traversing up steps, through level towers, down steps and then back to quickening up the pace again along flat sections. I actually began to enjoy myself, taking in the sheer volume of wall stretching across hundreds of kilometres into the distance. Here I was on The Great Wall of China, a place that filled our history books. I felt honoured.
The beauty of the Wall was that it was split into manageable chunks. This was accentuated once leaving the Wall when a lengthy road appeared that seemed to stretch as far away as the city we had come from. The endurance test had begun. There were no people to have to wait behind, which the narrow sections of Wall had required. Suddenly I had no excuse for not running and I was only halfway. My legs were beginning to ache. I felt the sun beating down a little more aggressively. After another 3kms we skirted off the road onto a dirt track and that was when it really started to hurt. The path was dotted with lots of uneven, jagged stones that were jarring into the soles of my feet. I had covered my ankles and soles with tape to prevent the inevitable blisters that had reared their ugly heads for the first time during our two-hour practise run. The sharp jars were too much; I had to slow down again and watch my footing. Then my sister started edging ahead, disappearing it felt, leaving me behind. I knew what she was doing. We had gone through these moments during training. She would keep running whilst I enjoyed a few steps of walking. Then I would pay for the pleasure by having to up my speed and catch up with her. She knew that and I knew that. Plus she had the bag of jelly babies!
We crossed over a stone bridge, with a waterless river bed beneath and entered the dusty villages housing children, grandparents, chickens and the odd ‘marathon assistant’. They had been placed at strategic locations on the course in order to point us in the right direction. Children lined much of the alleyways sticking their hands out inviting us to slap them as we ran past. One girl even gave me a freshly picked posy of greenery to take with me. I was touched, though also certain that I could not carry it for another 6kms. Not only would it be a nuisance but it would surely have wilted in my clammy hands by the time I finished. I kept running and looked out for an appropriate spot to lay the delightful arrangement. I found an old stone wall that reminded me of Scotland and thought it the perfect place: a thank you to where my training had begun.
||I was finally getting there. We were heading back out of the village, having endured an unnecessary hill in the middle of a field, and were back on the road. I was running past others who still had the whole village to run through as well as marathon runners who still had another Wall to run around. That made me feel good. We had 3km to go. My legs felt like they were going to break. My left knee was crying out. I looked at my watch and we had 20 minutes before we reached the three hour mark.
I told my sister, who had been by my side throughout, and she found within her a new spurt of energy – for the both of us. This overwhelming feeling of emotion came over me. I immensely wanted to reach the finish line under the three hours, not really for me but for my sister. She had held back, being so much more capable of running than I am. Then my body screamed again and in a flash I wanted to shout out and accept that, after all this, I was never going to finish. There was a sudden realisation that I was 3km away from finishing a half marathon and tears started welling up. I gasped. I was so in need of water at this point too that I felt I was having to run on no energy. Then I looked up beyond the red Chinese lanterns adorning the roadside buildings and saw the Wall again. I could do this, maybe not under the three hours, but I could damn well do this. I pushed my body like I have never pushed it before.
The last kilometre was the hardest. My sister started making up a song; that was how delirious it had become. If we were not going to beat the three hours we were most certainly going to beat the man shouldering us on the other side of the road. I remembered a quote from a book by a marathon runner, ‘The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself’. Then the American bystander called out again. This was the third time I had seen him. He had picked the perfect spots to pick me up – not in the American way, in the marathon-running way! His last words as I took on the last five hundred metres were, ‘you got it made girls, good job’. I suddenly knew I was almost there and I had to keep on running. Then the final words: that lady, standing on the corner of Yin and Yang Square directing us through the tunnel, a grin across her face saying, ‘you’re there girls, you’re there.’ We were there. My sister warned me not to collapse in a heap as soon as I crossed the line. I could hear the cheers. Then I could see all the faces. Running straight down the middle an overpowering sense of achievement came over me. A man, a random man, placed a medal around my neck and I wrapped my arms around my sister and burst into tears. I had really finished a half-marathon.
Was I prepared? Nothing could ever truly have prepared me. Had I trained enough for it? Of course not! As I said at the beginning, I am no runner. I learnt that a good level of fitness is surely required, but I think marathons are about going beyond your limits, beyond what you know you can do. This experience goes down as one of the best of my life. If you truly believe you can do something, you can. One thing is for sure, if I ever do partake in another marathon, I will invest in an expensive pair of running shoes. The blisters on the soles of my feet are not thanking me for that cheap pair I found on e-bay.
© Josephine Green – May 26th 2011
jgreen27 at hotmail.co.uk