Stepping up the game at the Great Wall

I've never been into sports. Don't get me wrong - I like being healthy. I just prefer not to put much effort into it. I run occasionally, when I'm out of wine and need to get to the bottle shop before it closes. And I like watching the Olympics on TV, if that counts for anything. So the fact that, one sub-zero Beijing day, I found myself signing up to run 42 kilometres surprised everyone - myself included.

Perhaps it was the sedentary expat life during winter in the Chinese capital. Temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees on a regular basis and even colder winds whip over the city. I'd spent the best part of six years waiting out bleak, bone-chilling winters like this. It was time to stretch my legs.

I could have started my running "career" with something nice and easy: a 10-kilometre jaunt through the paper-flat streets of town, perhaps. But the next race on the country's calendar was the springtime Great Wall Marathon - all 5164 steps of it. Revered as one of the most challenging runs in the world, the event is described as "a tough, beautiful and definitely extraordinary experience".

I blocked out the first couple of words and spent the next four months getting into the spirit of the marathon with my running buddies. We'd wake in the dark, before the tai chi ladies had flicked their fans at Beihai Park, and would clamber up and down the stairwells of the city's tallest buildings. Two-dozen jiaozi (dumplings) was considered a light breakfast and bloodied feet and Gu (energy gel) were regular conversation topics. It was painful and just a little bit fun. And it in no way prepared me for the marathon itself.

Held in Tianjin, a couple of hours north-east of Beijing, the run begins with a five-kilometre ascent to the wall. The next four kilometres hold more than 2500 steps, followed by 12 kilometres on flat ground, running through rice fields and villages. I'd signed up to do this twice.

By step 50, first lap, my legs were next to useless and I would have given up had it not been for a kind volunteer ordering me to stop running - broken steps, irregular-size stones and sheer drops mean that walking, and crawling, are race regulation at times. So I stopped, shook my limbs and looked up.

For most people, just seeing the wall is a big deal, let alone being given the opportunity to take it over with runners of all ages and from all corners of the globe. Here I was, one of only 1000 souls given permission to gallop across the centuries-old structure. Millions of people died making the 9000-kilometre-long Barbarian barricade. To think I was whingeing about a broken toenail.

I forgot about my legs, sucked on my Gu, and concentrated on the wall, snaking through shrubs into the distance, and the cheering of villagers: "Jiayou, jiayou!" (Literally: "add more fuel to the machine".)

I finished in rather unspectacular form about five hours later - organisers comforted me with the fact that most participants clock times 50 per cent higher than they're used to here - and flopped down with my running buddies and the chanting locals to gnaw on pork skewers dusted in spice. And for once, there was no talk of bloodied feet or Lycra or pain. For once, we were completely lost for words.

The story Stepping up the game at the Great Wall first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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