Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Great Wall of China Marathon

On May 15, 2010, I completed one of the hardest marathons in the world and loved every minute of it. I felt stronger than Lima and didn't struggle as much, even though my finish time was longer. I went with a marathon tour group to Beijing and had the absolute best experience—met lifelong friends.

Race Day
My group got up at 3:00am and took a two hour drive to the start line. When I was getting out of the bus, I heard "Jennifer" and turned around and yelled, “shut up!!” A group of people I did Antarctica with were standing right there! It was an Antarctica reunion! Then I walked to the start line and bumped into a bunch of Phoenix runners I know. Shut up again! Apparently we all meet up in random parts of the world to run.

So the race started and up the hill we went for a 5K elevation change of 1000 feet and the entrance to the Great Wall, where I climbed over 5100 steps of various sizes. So hard and the course bottlenecked quite a bit. But then we got to the road and ran through the villages. It was awesome!

Throughout the race in the villages, little kids came out and yelled "hello" with their cute faces. All were standing there wanting to give us high fives. Little girls picked bouquets of dandelions to give to us and when we'd take it, they'd get so excited. I'd ask to take some of the kids’ pictures and they would all give me these incredibly funny poses with the peace sign. They were the most precious thing I've ever seen in my life. Adults came out with their kids and started clapping and I couldn’t stop smiling through my pain. We ran past a school where children would sing a song each time a runner passed. They all held flags and would jump up and down singing. What a beautiful running experience!

We went up many hills and had beautiful views, then through farmland on very strange soil with lots of rocks.

Then came the wall again and this time around was so hard. It started at mile 21 and was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen in my life. If someone ever asks me what the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, I will say mile 21 and 22 of the Great Wall of China Marathon. It looked like a war zone. Bodies were strewn about. People just collapsed over the steps. I looked over next to me and a woman was crawling up the steps and I felt so badly for her, but then three minutes later I was doing the same thing. It actually made it easier to crawl. One guy was cramping so badly he was laying over the whole step and we had to go over him. Men who looked incredibly, incredibly, incredibly athletic would take 10 steps, and then turn around and just sit. One girl sat down and tried going up the steps backwards while sitting. There was also no water for the hardest part of the course. The aid stations ran out (Lima all over again). So there were all these empty water bottles lining the wall and all of us who weren't dead lying on the steps were going through them trying to find some that had just even a little water in them. We all looked homeless or dead. I'm glad my sense of humor was still alive because this was the funniest thing ever. By the end, the last 5K was downhill and I just ran an 8:30 pace.

I went to a silk factory, the Forbidden City, saw the flag raising at Tiananmen Square, went through local neighborhoods on rickshaws, had lunch in local person's home and saw all the Olympic stuff--Bird's Nest and the Water Cube where Michael Phelps won all his medals.

We had an evening gala for all the runners, which included an ice sculpture of the Great Wall. The gala took place at the Beijing Hotel, which is grand and luxurious and I was escorted in by men holding umbrellas over my head—how celebrityish did I feel?

I also went to the Temple of Heaven, which lived up to its name. It was a park that had Chinese people doing all this line dancing and exercises and just simply playing together. I've never really seen adults play. They had hacky sack, cards and people doing sing-a-longs. In one area, there was a band playing with a conductor and everyone had song books. So someone would get up and say let's sing page 98 and everyone would turn to that page and this whole crowd would start singing. How cool is that??? One area of the park had people doing all these dances like the electric slide and another area had these couples ballroom dancing, then a designated area with outside gym equipment. I've never, in all the places I've ever been, have ever seen anything like it.

I also went to an acrobatic show with these young men and women who are Cirque de Soleil and Chinese gymnastic team trainees. They are incredibly strong and mold their bodies into very uncomfortable-looking positions. At one point, about 15 women were straddled on top of each other on one single bike as one girl kept pedaling.

While out shopping at the market, I bartered for a necklace with a Chinese symbol on it. I could choose between a symbol that said “Love”, “Happiness” or “Good Health”. I chose good health. I pondered why I would choose health over love and happiness. Why is health the most important to me? Is it because when you have your health you have everything? I think it is because if I can fill my life with experiences like the one I had in China, running and discovering a new place in the world and doing what I love, it makes me happy. But I cannot do that without my health. I guess if I have my health, I can continue to do what I love and that brings me an incredible amount of joy and happiness.