Around mile 20 of a 26.2 mile/42 kilometer, marathon runners frequently "hit the wall." Physiologically it is a glycogen energy crash bringing the muscles to almost non-existent movement. Psychologically it is exhaustingly harrowing, making one question the wisdom of joining the race, as well as one's very sanity. Last week I ran a marathon and hit the wall twice. Running The Great Wall Marathon was one of the most amazing life experiences I have enjoyed while reveling in running. Additionally, it was the most beautiful and brutal thing I have accomplished since childbirth.
I was seeded in wave 3 of 4 launches. Off the start line I began at a moderate pace, breathing deeply the air and realization that the moment I had trained 6 months for was at last here. This is it I thought, commence this outstanding bucket list item. Pace yourself and take it ALL in. The first 5k was a radical pitch of a corkscrew leading us straight uphill
to The Wall. Having riden up this mini mountain on bus two days prior, I decided to power step this leg for efficiency. The plan worked and I found myself passing runners straining to sprint this formidable series of straight ups. My mind was void of any time goal other than finishing prior to the 8 hour course cut off. The rule of thumb is to add your marathon time plus your 1/2 marathon time to get a ballpark Wall figure. That marathon math for me would work out to be about 6 hours and 30 minutes. Plenty of walk cushion if I needed it. I figured I would save my steady running for the outlying village portion of the race. This would still allow plenty of interaction time with the villagers in the crowds. I was thrilled to make it to the entrance.
The morning had begun so crisp and cool I felt as though I were in God's country of my home state, Michigan. The temps warmed pretty quickly. The next 4 kilometers were a series of wall towers and steps of varying size, degrees and stability. The realization of running on one of the wonders of the world flooded me with emotion and gratitude. Don't cry, no good to dehydrate 8k into this race. I kept a nice steady jog touching the side wall when needed and marveling at the view. Reaching the "goat path" brought a bottleneck and a breather as only one to two runners could descend at a time. The name is apropos as really the terrain is better suited for a mountain goat than a human. This all added to the collective joy and challenge however. At this point the half and full marathon fields were still together.
Pǎo pǎo," give high fives and ask for autographs.
iè xie," I said smiling. I tucked them in the strap of my water pack and ran on. Dongjiafen, Qingshanling, Chedaoyu villages were next and brought us through small groves of trees and roads parched and dusty, to the 30k mark. I was eager to make it back to the 34k north wall fortress to receive my wrist band indicating I was commencing my second dance with The Wall. Just a 700 meter ascent to traverse the wall west to east now. I was feeling great...until I wasn't. Waves of nausea began to wash over my constitution. I wasn't sure I could keep that half of banana and handful of Brachs jellybeans down. You are FINE! Stop being a wimp, I internally admonished myself. I began to internally monologue much more kindly when I started to encounter lithe fit fellow-runners heaving, slumped, and lying down along the route. It dawned on me this was a maniacal merging of the figurative and literal running "wall." I knew I could not stop. I slowed drastically. My 6:30 shifted to an idea that "under 7 hours would be nice." Fellow field members dropped to the left and right of me and I slogged on one step at a time. I was immensely grateful for a divine breeze that bolstered me. I needed to settle my stomach. About that time a rogue group of tourists came flouncing down towards me, the teen in front holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. If I'd had enough energy I may have followed through with my desperate thought of wrenching the bottle from his hands and drinking the remaining contents. My lack of energy kept my manners in tact, and I soldiered on up the steps. The Australian woman in front of me kept lamenting, "I think I may vomit. If I could just let a burp," over and over like a chanted prayer. She disappeared around a turn and when I finally made the turn there she was with an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola in her hand. There was a hunched elderly lady selling browned bananas and Coke on the side of the path. The words were out before I could think, "Oh, could I please have a drink of your Coke?"
"Oh love," she replied, "let me buy you one!"
"No, no I couldn't possibly drink an entire bottle. My stomach feels like yours and just a sip will do. I won't touch my lips to the bottle..."
"Oh please love! Like I really care. Here! Take a swig!"
She handed me the bottle. I quaffed a bit of that carbonated salvation gifted to me by my Australian Coca-Cola angel. "Bless you!" I gasped. I trudged on and she sat down to drink the rest of her Coke. I began to notice members of the medical team along the remaining parts of the wall. They were massaging out cramped runners' muscles which were refusing to obey the commands of the minds and bodies to which they belonged. The medical team members were assessing whether or not each athlete was fit to continue. My knees were working on a violent coup themselves, which I squelched by step stretching as I plodded up the stairs. At long last I was off the wall and back on the last 5k to Yin Yang Square. One would think it may be a joy to finally meet a downhill portion, but it was quite an additional strain on my disgruntled knees. I alternated running and power walking to cover this last stretch. As I was coming back into the square center many half marathon finishers were there cheering us on to the finish. One gal shouted, "Just around the bend, get your run on to that finish line!" So that I did, with what energy I know not; weary and rejoicing I re-entered the square and crossed the finish line at 6 hours 57 minutes and 33 seconds simultaneously laughing and crying as I received my medal. My posse of people I had met were there waiting.
The race was over. The droves of runners that did not make it to the line in time would now be extracted from the course. I stifled some surges of tears I felt swelling within me for their situation. I boarded the transport, reuniting with my bus buddies to head back to our Beijing hotel. We were joined by a group of Brazilian blokes who made our Beijing Bus the most entertaining time I have ever had (or will ever have) on a bus.
Now a week later I find myself in post-race doldrums downward spiraling towards post-race depression. It is difficult to describe to my friends and family how life infusing and altering this experience was. I look the same (save the gimp of fatigue legs), but I have been changed. Primarily changed by the other runners I encountered and met throughout my time in China. In trying to pick up my Humpty-Dumpty pieces after coming off the wall, I came across this bit in my reading:
Randy Step of Running Fit advises, "Savor the pain, you deserve it. The couch potato lives in a body numb world not knowing the feeling of being totally awake, alive and aware."
With new life, I am alive.
I am awake.
I am aware.
I am amazed...