May 17, 2008 turned out to be the most amazing, awe-inspiring, emotional day that I have ever had on a marathon course. Our day began at 4:00 A.M. as we all boarded the buses for the 3-hour trip to Ying Yang Square, the gateway and starting point for the marathon. It was a much different morning than Thursday where everyone was excited about getting his or her first glimpse of the portion of the wall we were to run. This morning everyone was quiet, some sleeping, others listening to iPods. I had my iPod on listening to some very soothing sounds while visualizing what the next, hopefully 6 hours, would be like.
It was such a beautiful site to see the people from Huangyaguan come out to cheer everyone on, selling their wares, dancing, playing the drums and reveling in all the foreigners who had descended upon their village. Within Ying Yang Square, participants milled about getting prepared for the challenge of their life while others joined in the warm-up exercises. Opening remarks by Chinese Dignitaries began with a moment of silence for those who had lost their lives in last week’s earthquake. This was a sobering reminder of how fragile so many people in this world are to the effects of a natural disaster.
The countdown begins. The gun goes off at 7:30 and wave one (mine, Rich & Sara) heads through the gates and down the village streets to the 4.5 km long steep uphill slowly guiding us toward our first climb up The Great Wall. I had decided to break down the race into segments within my mind, taking each one separately so that I could enjoy the journey and not anticipate the pain! Challenge number 1 completed it was time for number 2, through the great white portal to the looming 1850 steps up and past 17 Towers. Rich was out of site and making his way up, Sara and I started the Wall together but she mutated into a “billy goat” and shot ahead up and over. I on the other hand, tentatively at first, watched every step choosing not to slip, fall or land in one of the water drains. After what seemed to be a lot shorter than Thursday´s trial run, the Great Wall Fort appeared before me, such a welcome site because this would mean level ground (or so I thought!). Now on to challenge number 3, about 7 ½ miles (26.2 km) through 5 villages, Duanzhuang, Xiaying, Qingshanling and Chedaoyu. I had caught up with Sara and we both were able to enjoy greeting the young children with their beautiful faces. We handed out our Run7on7 bracelets and thankfully accepted the flowers young girls were picking and arranging into bouquets. Running through the villages one’s senses were on overload with the sights, sounds and smells. We ran through open fields, orchards, and alley ways with outside cooking taking place. Before we knew it we were passing the halfway point and onto Challenge number 4 another major hill. This next 3 km almost seemed like it would never end, winding up and then finally over to a wonderful gradual descent….my legs screaming yes, yes, relief! Now heading back along rutted trails with loose gravel we finally approached the road leading back into “Village Zone”. Feeling extremely tired it was back through Ying Yang Square, up the fort steps and back to the Great Wall!!! It seemed almost impossible but Challenge number 5 had begun. With tired legs and the steps almost waist high it took all my strength to hoist myself up. I literally “hit the wall” on the Wall!!! Deciding to not look up or down my head was pounding, my breathing getting more labored and the steps continuing to rise!! Would this ever end? Knowing I would never give up mentally I was afraid that my legs would revolt. Concentration was key to seeing the other side of this monstrous Wall. Eureka!! A sigh of relief and I was now on to Challenge number 6 the 4.5 km descent on a very steep asphalt mountain road. If I thought my legs were screaming on the stairs they were now screaming in louder decibels! Knowing that the finish line was down this hill and 0.8 km through town I picked up an adrenalin rush. I could now hear the cheering crowds, see the Finish Line and with a smile on my face crossed.
I had completed number 2 of my 7 continents journey and what a journey this has already become. I am happy to write that Rich from The Renaissance Institute accomplished his goal of completing the marathon in under 6 hours, Sara, my daughter-in-law (now affectionately named Billy) crossed in about 6:01 and I happily crossed in about 6:14 (official results are not in at this writing.)
I will be traveling around China for one more week and then my focus will be on Marathon number 3, Easter Island taking place in about 20 days. Please come back to visit us often and should you ever get the desire to run the toughest marathon in the world, may I recommend “The Great Wall Marathon!!!”