Ever imagined what it would be like to run along the Great Wall of China, well you can says Capt Seshadri.
“Unless you have climbed to the top of the Wall, you cannot say you are a man” – old Chinese saying.
The Great Wall of China is reportedly the only man made structure that is visible to the naked eye from the moon, although it is probably now under intense competition as one of the oldest structures in the world, from the new, mammoth constructions in the Middle East.
Competition is not new to this Wall, having been originally constructed to keep out invaders and raiders. The latest in competition, however, though unwarlike and healthy, is the Great Wall Marathon that is traditionally held on the third Saturday of May, falling on the 19th of this year. Having taken its origin in 1999, with a few hundred runners, this extremely challenging course has, over the years, transformed from a full and half marathon, a 10k and 5 k event, to a combination of the latter two to an 8.5 km ‘fun run’.
The run isn’t all about fun however, with the participants having to negotiate 5,164 stone steps, several steep ascents and descents and, owing to the old age of the structure, stumble over loose stones and rubble. This portion makes for a virtual addition of 6.4 km to the 42 km course. In fact, there is a stretch where people actually crawl up the steps. Now, every marathon has a phase, generally around the 32nd km or so when the runner literally ‘hits the wall’ of endurance. Here, it may be taken as a little more than literal.
The ‘runnable’ portion of the Great Wall Marathon essentially traverses the Simatai section of the Wall and crosses the Huangya or Yellow Cliff pass. Such is the height and the location, that the best respite for the runners is possibly the breathtaking scenery along the route. But the view is not the only aspect of the marathon that will take one’s breath away. Loose gravel and crumbling steps are compounded by sections overgrown with wild foliage. In sectors where the Wall is not traversable, the course drops to trails alongside. The challenges are many and varied and make extreme physical demands on the participants. The steps, the upward slopes and downward gradients, are typically suited for those athletes who regularly do interval training.
Every marathon, in its present avatar, to encourage amateur participants and reward completion rather than winning, usually has the final batch timed in at 6 hours. The Great Wall Marathon however, sets a time of 10 hours for completion; such is the difficult nature of the course. On an average, the finisher of 4 hours for a regular marathon will require around 6 hours to finish here. This has not been the least bit of a deterrent to over 2,500 participants from over 50 countries. No wonder then, that the men’s record for this run is 3:25:13 and for the women it is 4:12:42. Henrik Brandt, a Danish runner, who has competed in every edition for the past 18 years says: “Some years they’ve almost killed me; but since this was the first marathon I ever ran, I fell in love with it.”
Of the 1,200 runners entered for Saturday the 19th, around 450 will start the marathon and half-marathon. The rest will run the shorter distance for fun.
All and all, it’s just another brick in the Wall. Or, is it, really?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.