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Moving to China

Vox Populi

Category: Vox Populi

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beijing marathon

Great Wall Marathon: <p?The Famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.".  Every year in the middle of May 2,000 brave souls set forth "like modern-day Marco Polos" in the dirt, dust and blazing heat and take that first single the start of the Great Wall Marathon in Tianjin, China 3 hours outside of Beijiing. 


This single serpentine dragon-like figure climbs over mountains, plunges deep into valleys and snakes through the countryside and villages of China  passing a solitary farmer tilling his field in the mid-day sun. She is made of mud, straw, rocks and bricks standing defiantly today surviving thousands of years of bitter cold, brutal heat and endless wars with Mongols, Manchus and...modernization. The first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty in 221 A.D began integrating this ingenious defense system that sprawls and winds through 9 provinces to protect and defend a nation and its people with over 30 ramparts and watchtowers.

Heads of state, the famous and infamous alike have walked it, climbed it, hiked it and have camped next to it. You could ride your motorcycle on it. . In the 2003 movie "The Bucket List", two men who are given six months to live decide to do just that. They decide its no fun sitting around waiting to die so they  skydive, they drive stock cars at 200 mph...and ride motorcycles on the Great Wall. . And now of course you can run up the Great Wall. 40 years ago Mao Zedong famously said "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man".  If Chairman Mao were alive in 2010 he might make an addition to his famous statement : "He who climbs the Great Wall is a true man. And he who runs the Great Wall Marathon......." is Superman".


Beijing Scare-a-thon: To run in the “Beijing Scare-a-thon”….you better be Superman wearing a Super Surgical Mask. The race being in October looked a little bit like Halloween with all the masks. There were decorative masks like for a Cinderella at an elegant ball. Then there were gas masks to filter out the smog…that looked like they could be used if the runners were to come under chemical attack during their 21 kilometer or 42 kilometer trek. 


Three weeks after the marathon….factories in Beijing and the surrounding provinces were closed for one week to give APEC and visiting world leaders clean air to breathe. Maybe next year, for the 2015 Beijing Marathon, factories and automobile traffic will be shutdown for one full day for us “common folk” (*both Chinese and foreign alike)

 Great Wall Marathon: This is not a race for the timid or the faint hearted . Go on the official marathon website ( and the marathon course and you will discover that the directions alone will discourage.many "fence-sitters" and wannabes from ever reaching the starting line . For instance: Stretch #1 (highway) " must watch for traffic at all times....". Stretch #3 (Great Wall) "...please note that going downhill is especially dangerous...". Tower #9: "...the Wall takes a wide swing with a free fall on one side...." Stretch #6 (unpaved road) " might see some strange goings on as there will be a lot of people and tractors..." Stretch #6 - Section D-E- " have lost one of the sure signs of civilization...the asphalt road are running next to an irrigation canal. Allow yourself a moment to look at this means of agricultural improvement" Stretch #9 (mixed road surface) "....look out! the villagers will watch out for you but keep an eye out for the occasional chicken or duck darting out....". I guess you can say one might prepare for the wildlife and weather as much as hitting a glycogen-depleted "runner's wall" at the Great Wall Marathon..  


Armed with just a simple pair of new Nike Tailwind 2 running shoes ....maybe I should have packed a crash helmet, GPS, a road flair, a compass, reflective tape, a flak jacket and a reserve parachute to my running gear. (If I get lost...maybe the little chip that was affixed to my shoelace for time splits can beam to a satellite to give me a longitude and latitude) 

The website and race packet cautioned about the chickens and ducks on the course but neglected to mention to watch out for ".camels"..Between the first and second kilometer marker was (with no apparent explanation)a two-humped camel. Hmmmm...No sand and deserts here in Tianjin.... maybe the camel was merely a mirage. Nope. This camel was VERY real. Some runners did a double-take and others stopped to take photos with the camel. Shortly after seeing the camel- I wondered if I was going to be running in the Great Wall Marathon ..or entered in some sort of"Silk Road Marathon"  in Xi'an or Urumqi instead.  The camel didn't have a racing number so I thought maybe the two hump camel in question might serve as some sort of "medical transport" for dehydrated runners enroute to a first aid tent or medical clinic or something. And if the two-hump camel transport system can't bring me medical relief- I guess I could always wait until the twilight hours and send a smoke distress signal from watchtower to watchtower like Chinese soldiers did in ancient times*.... 


Billed  by the organizers as "probably the greatest running experience ever"- this race now in its 15th year, certainly lives up to that lofty goal.The course was well-run, the event was well-planned and well-orchestrated the staff were very professional. I felt the entry fee was fairly steep but worth every penny.


 I have been running races for over 35 years. The Beijing Marathon was 1) the worst race I have ever run 2) the worst organized race I have been in. I think there must have been a high-stakes poker game somewhere in Beijing on Saturday October 18th the night before the marathon. There were 7 players. The winner walked out with a 1/4 million dollars. The 6 losers were told that they had to report the following day on Sunday at 6 am in Tiananmen Square and become the “Beijing Marathon Committee”.

GREAT WALL MARATHON: So, you ask, WHY should I run the Great Wall Marathon? For most people it would be a dream com true just to be able to see the Great Wall or any one of the new or ancient "7 wonders of the world". After all-   the architectural genius of the Sydney Opera House.... .the complexity of Angkor Wat.....the religious significance of Christ the Redeemer....the pageantry of the Taj Mahal....the awe-inspiring statues of Easter Island....the ancient history of the Pyramids of Egypt....and the mystery surrounding Stonehenge all stand the test of time and are worthy of your attention  .So why run the Great Wall? The answer is simple. The Great Wall is the most wondrous of the 7 wonders. And...running the Great Wall of China is once-in-a-lifetime experience and history lesson that you will never forget.

BEIJING SCARE-A-THON: The Beijing Scare-a-Thon is also a race you will never forget. There was 3 hour cutoff for the half marathon. “Cutoff” is an apt description. We were cutoff from the race as we watched pylons, signage, volunteers and volunteer booths pack up and leave right in front of our very eyes. I felt I was watching the circus pack up the clowns, trapeze artists, elephants and the big tent…to move to another town.

.GREAT WALL MARATHON: After all,  this is the new China and the "Wild Wild East" so one should always best to expect the unexpected. Part-racing event, part-trail hike, part scavenger hunt.... the camel sighting was just of the beginning of the many fun surprises around every corner at the Great Wall Marathon   For many of the "partier types"  who took part in this "adventure run"  they ran the full course in costumes like it was  some sort of mad mid-summer Halloween party.. Two guys ran 26 miles in construction worker costumes. One young American.ran with a large Chinese coolie hat. Adventurous Australians ran in large packs chanting (their mating call perhaps?) "Auzzie, Auzzie, Auzzie!" and "Oy, oy, oy!". One guy ran with a plastic thing on his head that looked like a large red "LEGO" block.. Another runner had cheerleader's pom-poms. 

Local Chinese "enterpreneurs" had booths seemingly everywhere on the wall, on the route, at the starting line and finish line hawking Pepsi-Cola, Great Wall t-shirts, mini Great Wall paperweights,Chinese Army hats with red stars on them and a 1000 other trinkets. If you weren't a few pounds lighter at the end of 26 miles, chances are your wallet was lighter. 

Beijing Scare-a-thon: Trying to get my bag back after the race was worse then trying to reclaim “lost luggage” at Chicago O’Hare’s airport. When I went to claim my luggage at the end of the race…the whole site was GONE. In the “participant guide” there was no address of the Beijing Marathon Committee nor an address where unclaimed marathon bags might be stored. Neither the “Official Beijing Marathon Website” nor the Participant Guide had a name nor a phone number to contact about one’s bag. I checked in my bag at 7:40 in a giant series of booths the size of a football field that said “Half Marathon C1000-C1999”. My bib number was C1039. 

The participant guide said I had 5 days to pick up my bag .I went to one of the marathon sponsors the Traders East Hotel of Shangri-La. They were kind, cordial and quite helpful. Unfortunately they were unable to locate my bag. The marathon committee had stayed at their hotel. Unfortunately, they had already checked out. I went to see a journalist at the CHINA DAILY newspaper. The journalist called the marathon committee that “The marathon committee is on vacation…try back on Monday”.. 

If there is a next time (and I am certain there won’t be) I will be taking photos of my bag, the check-in site and the people handling my bag….like a detective . If I scour the local knockoff/ fake goods markets in Beijing, I am sure I will find my stuff. Maybe they will sell my bag and its contents back to me at a discount..


Great Wall Marathon: Though it was a serious  competition for many runners- it didn't feel like a competition at all. The 20 minute race warm-up felt like we were about to begin some sort of health club circuit training featuring dance music, calisthenics and......... aerobics.I have run in races in America where the theme song from the movie "Rocky" and "We Are The Champions" blared through every neighborhood for encouragement. Here local villagers chanted "jiao! jiao" ( "go, go" in Mandarin Chinese) as the shop owners, farmers, villagers ,children and the local police emptied out on the streets to  look on and cheer. You got the feeling they waited all year long for this race to come through their little villages. There was also audience of international curiosity-seekers on hand and  cheer you on as you traversed very nook and cranny of this special marathon challenge. And, believe me- you need all the encouragement and inner fortitude you can muster to complete the Great Wall Marathon. 

Beijing Scare-a-thon: I needed all the encouragement and fortitude I could muster to find my personal belongings after the race. I didn’t feel like a private eye, a sharp Sherlock Holmes hot on the trail to recover my goods. No, I felt like a bumbling, stumbling idiot like Elmer Fudd who got his stuff back by sheer accident or luck. Lucky, I live in Beijing….it took me 11 days to recover my bag. Was it my fault because I didn’t know enough Chinese? Was it because bureaucratic red tape? My bib number was no longer on my bag. It must have “fell off” somewhere on the way between the course and the China Athletic Office near Line 5 and the Temple of Heaven..  

Though it seems like a lot of fun and frivolity- elaborate preparation goes into a race like this by both race organizers and the participants. . The Great Wall in the Tianjin part of China is VERY VERY STEEP.( I am sure even mountain goats think twice before trying to tackle these peaks and summits.) Though technically this is a "running race"....I never saw anyone running up and down the wall- although some of the top runners may have. The Tianjin section of the Great Wall was built on a steep ridge as an unrelenting series of tough climbs and long steep descents, a combination of short steps, uneven stones and painful knee-extending high slabs. Thankfully, at the top of every body-aching, nerve-racking climb there is a cool, dark solitary  tower made of thick granite and limestone where medical personnel, and volunteers offer words of encouragement, water and electrolytes. In some parts of the race one had to run "single-file" with unexpected drop-offs and hairpin turns because...the Great Wall is not all restored bricks and mortar like you see in the photos.  My goal was simple: finish the race. 

BEIJING SCARE-A-THON: With advance apologies to my fellow U.S. Army veteran experience crossing the 21 kilometer finish line was my  “topple-the-Saddam-statue-”Mission-Accomplished moment”  (.* other words at the finish line was no a triumph....but the beginning of a seemingly endless set of problems...)

Nothing worse than training for months to get ready for a race..seemingly for no reason. Nothing worse than triumphantly crossing the finish line to find….1) no timer 2) no race judges and 3) no shuttle bus to the starting line or finish line. This race has been around for 35 years. I was dead tired and had to go to the subway and take line 10 and line 1 to get back to Tiananmen Square. .”

According to the 2014 Rules and Regulations  “…Route closure time limit: To ensure the race to be run securely and smoothly, the race route will be closed to the public traffic at successive sections during the race period. After the closure time, the road sections will open to public. Runners failing to finish corresponding distances at stipulated closing time shall cease the race and quit the race to avoid possible danger. Runners who exit the course may get on the pick-up coaches to the finish area….”

Sounds good on paper. 

Yet…because there was no one there to enforce WHEN to cease the race or “quit the race”….there were hundreds of runners running into traffic…A VERY DANGEROUS SITUATION.


Great Wall Marathon: Like a horse with blinders, I tried not to glance at  those intimidating road-racers passing me-  looking all toned, tan and lean-  like they just stepped off of a cover of a "Runner's World" magazine. "Mr. Fitness"came to the race with multiple banana-flavored glycogen gels and and cherry-flavored vitamin drinks  strapped in around their body like some sort of survival kit/ soldier's bandoleer or emergency medical aid bag. I am sure he and his ilk  finished 3 hours ahead of me....and that's just for the half marathon. 

Heck, if anything - I'm a realist. A beer-bellied, ex-military, ex-athlete/ couch potato/ "weekend warrior" like me is just hoping to have enough in the tank to cross the finish line and then collapse in the nearby tent with the massage tables. And I pretty much did just that. When I finally reached the finish line after my "everyman" 4 hour and 42 minute slog and they put a medal around my neck- I felt like I won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. ....and I only ran the HALF-marathon.!in advantage being able run twice a day up, down, in and around majestic Mount Taishan. Mount Tai proved to me a fantastic training ground for the Great Wall. I actually logged so many miles there that I ended up buying a "mountain pass" so I could ease around the daily hordes of tourists and backpackers.  advantage being able run twice a day up, down, in and around majestic Mount Taishan. backpackers. When I finally reached the finish line after my "everyman" 4 hour and 42 minute slog and they put a medal around my neck- I felt like I won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. ....and I only ran the HALF-marathon!

 You will never run a race with such a wide variety of terrain: asphalt, dirt, clay, a goat path, gravel roads, and of course the Great Wall itself. About 1/4 of the race is actually on the Great Wall proper......5,164 steps to be exact....and 130 kilometers from Beijing. Most of race takes place in rural settings and traditional Chinese villages.....a throwback to a simpler place and time. The crisp and clean air far away from the haze and smog of Beijing proper was a pure delight.

Beijing Scare-a-thon: There was a note in the “Participant Guide” that the cutoff for the 1/2 marathon was 3 hours and the full marathon was 6 hours. If that those were truly the cutoff times…then the “organizers” should have STOPPED runners at the 3 hour mark and the the 6 hour mark respectively. Instead hundreds of runners were left to duck, bob and weave through the heavy Beijing traffic. Runners (like myself) waited at stoplights for the lights to change. In some cases course directions and signs were either already taken down or missing. I estimated I ran an extra 2 or 3 kilometers….going the wrong direction. The poor air quality was not the only safely hazard….if it wasn’t the air…you could get hit by a car.

Great Wall Marathon: Running between the towers on the wall was by far the most challenging part of the course,. the seemingly endless series of staggered stairs up and down 17 individual towers. The arduous climb  had the effect of a runaway rollercoaster ride- that slow slog to the top and then free fall to the bottom. As the kilometer markers seemed to be moving farther apart I felt like I am running backwards or in some sort of slow-motion time-warp.... , I wanted to plant an American flag at the summit of the last tower to mark my accomplishment-  tower 17-  like the first an American who landed on the moon 40 years ago. Or better yet I could have posted a sign  with an arrow pointing west stating "U.S.A. West, 5,000 miles". After I plant my flag I will look up in the sky toward the moon because after all - American, Russian and Chinese astronauts can see the Great Wall from the they may also be watching our race through high-powered binoculars or a telescope right now so maybe they can see us running too. Upon landing and walking on the moon American astronaut Neil Armstrong once said: "That's one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. If it is really true that astronauts can see the Great Wall from the moon then maybe Neil  witnessed the 2,000 runners who took a collective leap for mankind this past May..

The Great Wall Marathon, now in its 15th Year, has developed into a premier international competition.The inaugural run in 1999 only tallied just over 50 charter entrants. 

This years field swelled to nearly 2000 competitors and curiosity seekers from 49 countries. And there was something for everyone tailored your training regimen, racing background and level of fitness: An exchange of culture bar none they hailed from all corners of the globe.....from Sweden to Slovakia.....Chile to Costa Rica..... Lichtenstein to Latvia. to race in the 5 kilometer race, 10 kilometer race, 21 kilometer race (Half-Marathon) and, of course, "the main event" the daunting 42K (full-marathon).The age differences of the competitors in 2010 were wide-ranging.... from the tender age of 8 to 78 years young.  The oldest marathoner and half-marathoner were both in their 70s (71 and 78 respectively). There was an 8 year old 5K finisher and a 9 year old 10K finisher. The youngest half-marathoner and marathoners were both just teenagers (13 and 16 respectively). 


Beijing Scare-a-thon: About 30% of the foreign participants did not show up in for the Beijing Marathon in 2014. I wish I would have been one of those lucky souls who stayed home. 

I ran the Chicago Marathon in the 1980s. The Beijing Marathon is closest to the New York Marathon in terms of crowds and pollution. A few years back,late night TV funnyman David Letterman featured Meb Keflezighi, the 2009 winner of the New York Marathon, on his show

Meb gave a “Top 10” list on the program…..


10. Cool! I found a 5 mile route on Mapquest!

 9.Am I experiencing Runner’s High or are those just the bus fumes?

 8. Is that the finish line or a crime scene?

 7. “Car”! 


Great Wall Marathon:  In 2007 Margaret Hegarty set a record becoming the oldest woman to run at the Great Wall at age 85. Hegarty is also the current 2007 Guinness Book of World Record Holder for the oldest woman to run a marathon on 7 continents. The Great Wall Marathon typically takes runners 50 percent longer to complete their average marathon. There were many different reasons why they came to run.  Deborah Lawrence of the United States ran in memory of the recent passing of her mother. Some ran the race for charitable causes benefitting the 2010 Qinghai Earthquake and last year's earthquake in Sichuan. Others that could not run the race donated their time and money.David Bonebrake and Amit Motwani were two American Businessmen from Tai'an who donated money to the Qinghai Earthquake based on each kilometer completed. Some runners ran the Great Wall Marathon to benefit an organization called BRICKS. "BRICKS/Great Wall Appeal" does great work caring and raising money for elderly Chinese who have no formal family support structure.

And as this race increases in size and worldwide exposure, heck, you never know who you might bump into next year....maybe you might actually RUN next to a famous person- you never know. No one expects to see Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Jackie Chan or David Beckham running or watching a race but I can think of a couple of famous politicians that should give this a try. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton who is now 63, just released his "Bucket List" Top on Clinton's list? To run a marathon! Then ther's George Bush, Sr. - he is definitely an adventurous sort. Bush, Sr. jumped out of airplane for his 75th, 80th and 90th birthday. I fully expect to see Bush Sr run the Great Wall at som point (after all he WAS an Ambassador to China from 1974 to 1075)

Beijing Scare-a-thon: This was not exactly a “celebrity friendly” race let alone a “runner-friendly” race.. On the following Monday, the local CHINA DAILY newspaper had a funny cartoon about the Beijing Marathon. The cartoon showed the first, second and third place of a “winner’s podium”. On each of the steps of the winners podium showed runners wearing a 1st place medal, a 2nd place medal and 3rd place medal. All 3 runners had on a gas mask. 

The highlight of the race for me was the Beijing Marathon Expo a few days before. All the race sponsors had booths with various freebies. The free fluorescent yellow race belt was particularly useful. I was able to store and use Power Bars, granola bars and PowerGel during the race. The reflective powers of my belt also helped ward off any incoming traffic.

So there you are chugging toward the 30 kilometer marker. You've reached a crucial point during the race. A turning point. A point of no return. A moment of truth. Your body tells you can't go any further. Agony.  Fatigue. Sweat pores down your face in buckets. The full impact of your legs hitting the ground 5,000 times a mile has turned your legs begin into a bowl of jello. Fatigue replaces enthusiasm. You have officially hit a physical and psychological barrier call it .... " the runner's wall at the Great Wall".  And then you consider this fact: And what keeps you going? You think about the fact that you aren't just running in a race you are running on one of the "modern 7 wonders of the world"...and for a very short time you are "part of a living postcard".  and, hey, you are running on 5,000 years of history  It is the ultimate irony that this mammoth man-made military defense system that was constructed to keep foreigners out of China is the #1 reason they visit China today. 

Beijing Scare-a-thon: The Beijing Marathon is the Great Wall Marathon’s “evil twin”.

I would have rather attended the race as journalist rather than a runner. There were many potentially fascinating human interest stories developing before, during and after the race. There were those whose ran in full costume regalia.  A man dressed as the Monkey King, a Spartan soldier and the cartoon character “Despicable Me” all ran along with the runners with or without surgical masks. It would have been interesting to talk to the scores of citizens along the course who waved, cheered and made banners and the hundreds of volunteers. I watched one woman complete the 1/2 marathon while pushing her baby and baby carriage the full 21 kilometers. I saw a number of corporate groups who ran for charity including a group of 20 wearing angels’ wings. 

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games have been rated as one of the best run Olympics of all time. I know it is true. I attended the 2008 Olympic Games.   I ran the Great Wall Half Marathon. The Graet Wall Marathon is one of the world’s world class “adventure marathons” along with the Polar Arctic Circle Marathon and Petra Desert Marathon in Jordan. The Great Wall Marathon is run as a world-class event. I know it is true. I wish I could say the same about the Beijing Marathon. As it was noted on CCTV News prior to the 2014 Beijing Marathon…..they planned to add more toilets on the course. Yes, there were an adequate number of toilets on the course this year. Well, that certainly is a start….. China, the city of Beijing and running community at large would certainly benefit from a complete overall of the planning and execution of the Beijing Marathon. 


- Jeff Walsh is a runner, freelance writer and English teacher at Beijing International Studies University. This is his 9th year in China. Walsh is originally from Chicago, USA.

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