Runner's Footprints

Runner's Footprints

Friday, July 29, 2016

Great Wall of China Marathon

Race Report & Tips

My first international trip was at age 11. I went to visit family in Toronto. As a little girl, flying in a plane alone, I felt like an eagle. My parents trusted me and the airlines escort children traveling alone to ensure their safety. When my 15th birthday came around, my parents asked: would you like a big 'quinceñera'? My immediate answer: "No. Can I use the $3,000 you plan to spend and take an educational school trip to London?" Back then quinceñeras didn't cost as much as a mini wedding. My mom was disappointed not being able to plan a party for me but supportive. I traveled with a small school group of six with chaperones sightseeing the historic sights of London, watched plays, and experienced history. I decided then exploring the world was of high importance in my life. Exploring the world is when we can embrace different cultures, learn about different values, and open our minds to accept the world's differences. 

At age 16, my 3rd international trip was fundraised by me. Coming from an immigrant family, we did not come from money, but I was taught how to manage my money. At age 16, I fundraised $800 for a city-sponsored student exchange program to Bavaria, Germany for three weeks by selling chocolates. It was the trip of a lifetime. In my young teen years, as I traveled to Europe to experience its culture versus going there to simply party, it taught me tolerance and acceptance. We should never judge other cultures due to a country's history. Through turmoil, we can be fed biased or skewed view via news and social media. Exploring a country with a native family taught me there are still good people out there, people can change, and my heart will hold onto that. 

At age 17, I moved out to live near campus at UCLA. My fourth international trip was to Jerusalem, Israel at age 19 with a college group. We had six armed soldiers escort us the entire trip as we went sightseeing historical cites, the Dead Sea, and more. My parents were afraid I went, but I have found that we often fear what we don't know. Yes, there is an inherent danger; however, that is true for everywhere. Think about where you currently live. Within a 20 mile radius, there are many dangers we always need to be conscious about, but learning to be mindful makes us more conscious citizens. Fear stops us from living. 

At age 20, after I completed undergraduate and graduate school in 2005, I then discovered marathons were all over the world. I was ecstatic! This is when I wanted to combine my travels with running races. I chose a dream race, made a financial plan, and ensured I took the steps DAILY to get myself one step closer to that race. It could have been the NYCM or Bermuda Marathon. I didn't care if I had to go alone (fortunately I didn't), but I would do what it took to get there. Train daily, save daily, skip on Starbucks (because, yes, it's overpriced), pack work lunches (saves up to $4K annually), and, for me, practice family planning. It's the little things we do daily that collectively get us to our big goals. I don't believe in a "bucket list". I had a cancer scare in college that most don't know about (now you do), but it scared me horrifically. I endured it alone by choice not telling my family and feared I was going to leave this world too early. What is the point of only working for retirement in our 60s, 70s, 80s? What if we never make it?? What about our 30s or 40s? I am all for planning intelligently for the future, while opening our hearts to living in the present. I vowed to have a to-do list instead. There are things that are definitely out of my control; however, that should never stop us from taking the little steps daily towards our dreams. We need to wake up and live our dreams. Traveling is one way I make sure I do, even if I had to sleep in my car to save money (which I did for a period back in college). We sometimes need to make sacrifices at different and even multiple stages of our lives.

* * * * 

Wake up call rang at 3:30am. I rolled out of bed, followed my pre-race ritual, and helped my mom make a final check list of what she needed. We headed down to the hotel lobby with our luggage to board the race shuttle buses. Unfortunately, my mom left her luggage unattended in the lobby for less than 15 minutes and everything was gone, including her passport. Extreme panic set in. My mom burst into tears. My dad and I rushed everywhere looking for it on the five nearest shuttles. Nowhere to be found, our tour guide told us they would do what they could to find it as we needed to head to the race start. My mom cried in my arms and I called my sister back in the states to contact the embassy to see how we can get mom home without a passport. Losing all your luggage, phone, money, and passport in a foreign county is scary. My mom is a little humble woman so I felt at blame for not putting her under my wing. She cried and cried. I tried comforting her and told her after the race, we will do what we can to find her luggage and get her home. 

My dad and I kissed my mom's head as we walked to the start line. The marathon and half marathon started together in four waves. My dad and I were in wave 1; my mom was in wave 4. Without words, I looked to my dad for reassurance and comfort. My dad and I don't have to say much to each other, but with just one look, we knew were in for a beating. The gun went off and I said to my dad as usual: "I'll see you at the finish, Papa dog!" 2,500 runners gathered in the Ying Yang Square for the marathon, half marathon, and 10K from 70 countries around the world. It was exhilarating to see so many different cultures and hear so many different languages all in one place. The first of four waves went off at 7:30am just as the sun began to peak over the mountainside. A light breeze cooled the morning, but we weren't fooled. We knew it was going to be an exposed scorcher very shortly. 

Sure enough, peak race temperatures were in the high 80s with 85% humidity. To compare, some states  on the east coast vary between 30-60%, most summer months. Hawaii tends to hover around 70-80%. The Philippines, the most wet heat I've raced in, settles at 100% humidity while in the high 90s. Heat is heat, but add humidity and we're talking a different story. But everyone sucked it up quietly. The first mile left the Ying Yang Square into the village and swung a quick left into a steep road climb. For the next 3 miles we climbed straight up on a winding road to an entrance for the Great Wall. I'll admit, as a trail runner or within some of the ultras I've done, we are advised to walk/hike the long uphills. On the roads, it's a different story. If you're in the front to middle of the field, you don't walk, you push through. I wanted to walk already so bad! I looked around and no one was walking so I pushed on. I guess this is what I get for starting in wave 1 with an international field 70 countries deep. Sun out, heat on our backs, incline under our shoes, everyone pushed forward. Mile 4, we were climbing stairs. Steep. High. Short. And uneven. I looked around and the field was brought to a slow climb on these stairs. Maybe it would be smart to slow down here.... I took my first snapchat clip. 1200' gain so far. 

The stairs were never ending it seemed. I can run hills. I can hike a steep incline very aggressively. I tried to insert as much stair training as I could during my months of training. But I still felt the burn race day. That's the amazing thing: no matter how prepared we feel or no matter how unprepared we feel for a race, we can always just give it what we got. I signed up for this race five months prior with the full intention to train smart, train hard, and make it to Top 3 women in an international field. I reviewed reports, I stalked years of women's race results, and I knew I could do it. There is no prize money. I wanted to do it for me and prove to myself I could. I knew I was willing to work for it. Sometimes, crap in life gets in the way. That didn't mean I was going to stop trying and say: oh well, at least I finished. I knew that wasn't good enough. I pushed on. Mile 5, my thighs burned, my head pounded, and my knee was flaring up. Up down, up down, up down.... have you ever done real heavy squats and your quads shiver in muscle spasms afterwards? That's what my legs were going through. After each set of stairs, there was a small section on the wall to run to the next set of stairs. Up. Down. Up. Up. Down. Down. Mile 6, slowed to a 20:00 min/mile. At this point, it was very hard to keep my head in the game. Why wasn't I going faster? I wonder how my dad is doing? I hope my mom is ok. 

I took a moment to look around and the beautiful mountainside. Beijing is very populated and polluted, similar to Los Angeles. But the Great Wall was about a 2.5hr drive outside the city within green, mountainous beauty. Probably still polluted slightly. I didn't care. I was here. I was living this moment. It hurt and I was already disappointed, but I put myself in check: I am grateful. I was running the Great Wall of China Marathon. Millions have visited this site through history, but a very small sect can ever say they ran a race on the challenging terrain of this moment in history, the Great Wall. Mile 7, we finally emerged from the wall back into the Ying Yang Square, the race start. The crowds cheered as marathoners and half marathoners ran through it to exit quickly again. Seven miles on my legs and they felt like I had done 30 miles already. As the terrain flattened on the roads, it was time to pick up my cadence to make up some serious time! I dropped my pace to about 8:30s with tremendous effort. My legs felt enormously heavy. Keep pushing. Keep pushing. You don't give in easy. So what if you can't go faster, you're NOT going to choose to go slower.... 

I repeated it over and over, but something was missing. I was missing the "Nadia hunger" where I am relentlessly pushing forward while making it look effortless. I could only imagine I looked like a mess. It was 85F, Mile 10, and the hills weren't as dramatic, but they were still there punishing us. Mile 7 - 19 ran within the rolling road hills of the village. Children and families came out to cheer us on with their cameras and the biggest smiles you can imagine. How awesome is that! It reminded me of the village children in Legazpi, Philippines and their excitement to see athletes race within their town. It was comfort I needed as my mind was going dark fast. Mile 10, I felt I threw in the towel mentally. I consciously made the choice to walk. Screw this! I'm hot. I'm tired. I don't know why I am pushing so hard when I'm so far behind from my planned race strategy. I'll confess: I looked back for the first time to see if I saw my dad. Maybe I should just wait for him and jog it in with him....

The mind game when you're hurting is a roller coaster. Do you want to give into slowing down? Or, honestly, how bad do you want it? Sure I can choose to slow down, but will it really hurt less? Maybe my legs, but not my pride. When I choose to sign up for a race, I make the commitment to myself to give it my all. I came to the start line and said I would give it what I had. Whether I felt I was prepared or not, I CAN give it all I have. Just as much as my dad is. Just as much as my mom is. Just as much as the runner next to me. You can give in or you can give it all you got. We decide that at every race and every day we wake up. Today, I woke up to race this race and dammit it I will!

I started my slow shuffle and whimpered. No going back now. If my dad catches up to me, he does but at least he did it while I'm trying my best not while I gave in and waited for him. Mile 13, another two mile climb started and I looked below to see my dad's big hat and yellow jersey down below. PAPA DOG!!!!! I couldn't believe how close he was. He was doing great for him! Actually, anytime a race is a scorcher, he does relatively very well. Not because he is not suffering, but because he can accept the suffering. He just keeps pushing forward. He raised his hand and smiled. I smiled back and kept pushing forward. Shuffle to the finish I would and if I would need to crawl, I will. 

Mile 18, the marathon route began to overlap the half marathon route as we began returning to the Ying Yang Square. Mile 19, I saw my red long sleeve shirt on a little woman with her hat sideways to block the sun. MAMITA!! Tears came down my cheeks as I ran to hug her. She smiled with tears. As broken hearted as she felt, she decided to walk the half marathon after all without training or running a single mile this year. "I love you, Mamita!! I love you, mija! I'll see you at the finish, Mamita!!" With a wave and blowing a kiss, I turned around and charged. Game finally on! I was back. The Nadia hunger. 

My pace dramatically sped up. Did it still hurt? Yes. Was it still scorching hot? Yes. Was the hardest section coming up? Yes. The marathoners ran through the Ying Yang Square for a second time and back on the wall we go. We basically run the first six miles of the marathon on the wall shredding our legs for the rest of the race. Then we return and run the last six miles on the wall when we are at our absolutely weakest. You push yourself to your limit at any race and any distance will be a challenge. That goes for an Ironman, a 100 mile race, or even the 400m dash. Ask any professional 400m sprinter: they train 20-30hrs/week for that one minute to give it ALL they got. That is the beauty of a race. That is the beauty of any individual. We all can do that--give it all we got. Mile 20, the climbing resumed on the stairs. This time, I was charging. I was huffing so hard men that I passed turned out in shock, probably thinking, "who the hell is that?" The moment I passed another male, each one huffed under their breathe: great work! My dad was giving it all he got. My mom was. I had too. My fire was back. Maybe it was seeing and knowing my mom was ok at mile 19. It may have been too late to catch the top women. I didn't care. I would push forward and start counting how many I would pass to help ease the physical pain. Mile 22, men were sitting on the shaded steps to find some refuge from the scaling heat. Mile 23, men were crawling on all fours up the stairs. Hot, humid, relentless stairs for this long are just another story. I kept pushing forward, cursing in my head, but smiling on the inside because this is what I came for: to make it burn and give it what I got. 

I passed men. I passed a few women. And shuffled my way down the last 2 mile descent to the finish! Returning once again to the Ying Yang Square, I crossed the finish line with a big, huge smile. I did it. One of the hardest road marathons in the world and I didn't let it defeat me. I completed it and gave it all I had. 

Marathon #127 in 5:07
Top 25 Women
Dad finished his 66th marathon in 5:33
THANK YOU Que Noche for making this dream a reality.

Great Wall Marathon
  • 900 marathoners
  • 1200 half marathoners
  • 600 10K participants 
  • 70 countries represented
  • 46% of field were women
  • 5,164' stairs on the Great Wall
  • 4,950' vertical gain
  • 90F / 85% humidity (peak temp)
  • Official tour company: Albatros Adventure Marathons

Race Tips
  • Train in heat.
  • Train in humidity.
  • Practice specific hydration and fueling needs for high temps and humidity.
  • Aid stations are about every 5K so carry your needs accordingly.
  • Use road shoes race day. I made the mistake of using trail shoes when they weren't necessary.
  • Incorporate stair climbing at least once per week up to 4-5 months prior: long outdoor staircases are optimal or begin to get a close bond with your gym's stair climber
  • Follow your regular marathon training plan adding lots of hill training as it has almost 5K gain.
  • Depending how well you train, plan to add about 60-90min to your regular road marathon time. 

Race Stats
25th FOA
99th Overall
International Marathon #8
Marathon #127


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    1. Thank you! I appreciate the feedback and hope to provide some helpful insight for my readers.

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  3. Hi Nadia, could you kindly recommend a budget hotel to stay for Great Wall Marathon ? I'm looking for a hotel with easy transport to the marathon event. Thank you . Marvel