Running the Great Wall of China was a pipe dream. I confidently stated this one was top of my wishlist even though I couldn’t really explain why. There were so many amazing runs out there to do, but it was just the one that needed to be my first international race. Forty was looming so why not pencil it in as a birthday present to myself?!
I am fortunate to know a lot of inspiring people, none less so that my dear friend Kelvin who over the course of the last eleven years has completed 34 marathons including on Easter Island, Petra, Bagan Temples, Boston, New York, Tokyo… the list goes on! He was the one who I’d first floated the idea with and if I was going to do the trip it had to be with him.
May 2019 was scheduled to be ‘our year’ for China however in November 2017 my husband Paul and I shared the news with Kelvin that after several rounds of IVF we were pregnant and due in June 2018. He was super happy for us of course and over dinner graciously suggested that maybe 2019 wouldn’t be the year for China and perhaps we postpone it to 2020. 11 months was a relatively quick turnaround to birth a baby and be back running marathon distance after all. Perhaps I could do the half-marathon I suggested, but Paul being Paul said if you are going all the way to China you’d be crazy not to do the full! It didn’t need to be fast , I just needed to do it and conquer those steps so it was the perfect event to aim for! I had his blessing to go, despite the fact that logistically he wouldn’t be able to join us, now all we had to do was have our baby and then make a running come back!
As an Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer of over 20 years I was determined to be smart about my post baby running and viewed it as the opportunity to build the foundation from scratch. It’s not often you get to do that in life as its typically imbalances and injuries you are constantly trying to correct while still training. Through my pregnancy I had constant nausea, chronic headaches from 16-30 weeks and food aversions but my saving grace had been the gym sessions and yoga right up til the end. While in my head I had hoped to jog during my pregnancy it just didn’t feel ‘right’ so from 18 weeks I gave up on trying and slowed to walking for the next six months.
I won’t go into it too much detail here as its a blog for another time, but let’s just say that post emergency C-section and the (thankfully!) safe arrival of our baby girl Georgie in May 2018, life definitely changed in more ways than I could have ever imagined. I knew that things would be challenging and that she would dictate the days’ timeline but there were factors I never considered. Thankfully from the very start she enjoyed being outdoors and in the pram – important being the child of a woman who hates being inside!
While I was sure I would be able to do hikes with her in the carrier and get out for runs while she napped and my husband was home the reality was not so simple. She was a great sleeper from early on, but she HATED the car and when she cried, I cried. I don’t remember being warned about this! Subsequently my trips to the hills with her never really took off as we would be so emotional by the time we got anywhere the joy was somewhat lost. Similarly, as the training runs got longer and I had to factor in travel time it made for a long time away and being restricted to running after the morning breastfeed… well you get the gist! Despite the challenges, we made it work as best we could! While the choice of a hilly marathon had made sense at the time, the reality of living in the pancake flat Inner West of Melbourne did not!! Never before had my strength and mobility training become so important. I committed to 4-6 sessions a week that I could do at home with minimal issues. As I said, there will be more about the logistics of training as a new Mum in a future blog!
As our departure to China grew ever closer there were so many mixed emotions…
How would I go being away from my little girl and my husband for 10 days?
How under-done was I with my training?
Why did I think this had been a good idea?
Why had we booked the 9 day tour and not the 6?
But equally there was so much excitement. I was really going to plant my feet on the wall, experience an incredible culture, complete a whirlwind tour of Beijing and Xi’an, share it with people incredibly dear to me (both our Mum’s were coming too!) and also have time away on my own to remember who I was before becoming a Mum. In the days leading up to departure, there would be tears, then crazy excitement. Sometimes both at the same time! I had doubts, but I had more measures of determination and excitement so when I left, I was ready to go and farewelled my little family with a Cheshire grin and a spring in my step.
We had chosen the Travelling Fit Group as Kelvin booked with them several times before and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. The organisation, communication, site-seeing itinerary and the ease with which we travelled was beyond our expectations. Sure, the ultimate goal of the trip was to complete the Marathon on one of the World’s Great Wonders but the immersion in the Chinese culture, shared experiences and new friends remain highlights of the trip.
We were based in Beijing and the section of wall we were to climb was three hours away at Huangyaguan. On the Thursday before race day we journeyed out to the wall for a familiarisation day and the energy was electric with a dash of nerves! It was mandatory for every competitor to walk the 3.55km section of the wall for safety reasons and support crews were welcome to join us. As we snaked up the mountains on the bus we spotted ‘the wall’ far off in the distance. As we got closer the sheer enormity of it really started to hit home; as did the fact it was built by hand, carting the stone up those mountain sides for thousands of kilometres. The day was filled with looking around, taking our time to breathe it all in, snapping a million photos and chatting to the others on the wall. We wanted to make sure that we took this opportunity to take it all in whilst we could and when Phil (one of the Canberran’s on our tour) pulled out the Digeridoo to play on the wall. It certainly made for a breath-taking experience!
The downside of this time on the wall, two days prior to event day was that it was incredibly hot and incredibly slow. The bottlenecks were extensive and as time dragged and the temperature rose it was tough not to get frustrated. There were only just over 1000 people entered for race day, but add in friends and family and it was like the concourse of the MCG on Grand final Day! After two hours, and by the time we got back to the event village, we were tired. Walking the sharp final descent, ‘the goat track’ definitely tested the quads, even more so when we had to go so slow. Despite the frustration, the energy was intense and the anticipation for race day definitely building. Sure it wasn’t the perfect pre-race prep but was any of this trip?! The quad tightness on Friday wasn’t, nor were the walking tours, long bus trips in the days leading up and eating all new foods!
With my kit flat laided, dress rehearsal done, stretch and roll conducted, bag packed and a few hours of sleep banked it was suddenly race morning with a crazy alarm time of 2:45am for a 3:30am bus that departed in true Chinese style, exactly on time! The three hour journey involved several naps, Chinese brekkie out of a box, an interesting attempt to stretch in a bus seat and a toilet line over squat cubicles longer but faster moving than I had ever experienced. As we got closer to the event hub at ‘Yin Yang village’ the energy certainly lifted and there was a very tangible buzz. As we joined the crowds waiting to enter the village I was surrounded by people who all seemed to be sharing stories of the tracks they had run, the trails they had climbed and the notable mountains they had hill repeated on. I knew my training hadn’t involved the climbing I had planned so it took all of my concentration to stay in my own confident head space. It was too late now to worry about any of that and realised the next few hours would just hurt A LOT!
Wonderfully Kelvin and I had both been allocated start group one and as the gun time drew close we stood shoulder to shoulder ready to tackle this goal together. The course ahead was a 5km gradual climb up to the Great Wall, 3.55km over the wall and back to the event hub, out through the local villages for 25ish km, again through the event hub, back up the wall in reverse and then the final 5km downhill to the finish. With the crack of the starters’ gun we shuffled off with huge smiles and a touch of nervousness not knowing how many hours we had ahead. From studying previous times we had worked out we were likely looking at anywhere between 5 ½ & 6 ½ hours.
The steady 5km climb up to the Wall felt like the most perfect start to this magical event and the cheers of the spectators lining the streets was just brilliant. We held a nice constant pace up and as we came through the gates to approach the Wall we stopped to capture the all-important selfie at the official Great Wall of China placard! One of my favourite things about Kelvins running stories are his ability to take so many incredible pic’s while still doing brilliant times! As we climbed up the first section of stairs and found ourselves facing a relatively empty section of this magical structure I was overcome with so many emotions and don’t deny tearing up. It took me totally by surprise but completely summed up the depth of commitment it had taken to get to this point, the sacrifices made and the fact that my husband and daughter couldn’t share this with me. We headed along the wall, snapping pic’s here and there and enjoying some jogging between the stints of intense concentration while climbing or descending the 5164 stone steps! Some were incredibly even, others on extreme gradients and some as high as my knees. At times we were using our hands to assist with the climbs!
The temperature range over the 20 years the event had been held was 16-36o so during our prep that had been a bit of a concern. Luck was on our side in 2019 and while the humidity was high the temperature only reached 23o with a misty rain falling for most of the morning. It was brilliant to help cool us down. The descent off the wall back to the event village was steep and winding and we trotted down at speed, around the perimeter of Yin Yan Village Square on top of the stone city walls and back past the crowds at the start finish line. It was just brilliant seeing our Mum’s and new friends and we headed back out feeling like superstars!
The middle section of the marathon took in the local villages and included some decent steady climbs, muddy tracks from the heavy overnight rain and through lines and lines of people cheering ‘Ni Hao!’ (or similar!) It took us nearly 30km but we eventually found out they were cheering Come on, Come on!! The energy and enthusiasm of the villagers was beautiful and definitely made the time fly past. As did the constant chatting between Kelvin and I. At around the 22km mark one of our tour mates Paul caught up to us and later commented that all he could hear for ages behind him was us nattering away and barely drawing breath!! Despite this our pace remained solid and we were feeling great. So great in fact that we came through the event hub ready for the final 8.5km at 3.50 hours! We were in shock and feeling on top of the world. We just had to conquer the 3.55km back up and over the wall and then it was the 5km steady downhill to the finish line! We so had this, we were potentially going to come in under five hours on an event we thought would take us over six!
And then the Wall showed us who was boss.
Ironically, despite knowing the Goat track down off the wall to the village was steep I don’t really remember thinking what that would mean in reverse! To this point we had both been consistently getting in nutrition and decent amounts of electrolyte. Combine that with the lactate of what turned out to be a 46% incline over 400m and like a switch the nausea hit us both. As I considered the fact I was potentially about to vomit (not at all unusual for me!) I heard a noise behind me and turned to see Kelvin leaning over the Great Wall of China. In 34 marathons he had never vomited and now this momentus first was achieved off the Great Wall!! Somehow I kept my nutrition down and we marched onwards, with considerably less chatter.
Coming down off the wall was the most incredible sense of relief but with a touch of sadness knowing it was behind us now. We had the beautiful winding road to go and knew it was only 5km to the finish. Looking at our watches I think we both almost stopped in our tracks. It had taken us an hour and two minutes to do 3.5km!! That really put its size and gradient in perspective for me. She sure had showed us who was boss! With the assistance of gravity we let our legs roll on, pushing our quads hard on those last kilometres. There had been several times through the past few hours where one of us had urged the other to go ahead, but we had stayed together and supported each other through the journey. As the road flattened out for the final 800m I found myself really being challenged and for a good few hundred metres it took all I had in me to keep my legs ticking over and to remain on Kelvins shoulder. Magically, as we rounded the bend to see the village flags ahead, we found our final wind and hand in hand turned in to the Village to cross the finish line in a time of 5 hours and 16 minutes! We had done it, finished the Great Wall of China Marathon and in a time neither of us ever imagined. And to top it off we had our Mum’s there to share the finish line smiles, jubilation and tears. We had conquered The Great Wall of China in a way few ever do and it would certainly be a challenge hard to top!!
Kylie Royal Meehan
Note: Special thanks and mention to Chris @Go Run for writing me a program that kept me challenged but with my post-natal body in check. Not once did he question my commitment to the program and his patience and understanding around our weeks of illness and sleep deprivation played a big part in keeping my head in check. He kept me on track with my training but not once allowed me to feel like I was letting anyone down. I look forward to many training sessions ahead and continuing to learn from you as I embark on my run coaching career with Go Run.