Training for the Great Wall Marathon

Great Wall Marathon

Four weeks from today I will embark on what will be perhaps my greatest physical challenge: running the Great Wall Marathon in China.

Sure, I’ve completed seven previous marathons, two of them in temperatures reaching the mid-80s.

Sure, I hiked rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon in temperatures close to 100 degrees.

And sure, I hiked the Peaks of the Balkans trail through Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania, again in temperatures at or above 100 degrees.

But running and hiking are very different. And the course of the Great Wall Marathon is like nothing I have ever attempted before.

Here is a brief description:

After the first flat kilometre, the next 4.5km rises from 250m to 400m above sea level. The next three kilometres take place on the Great Wall of China, where you run up and down uneven steps. The highest point you reach is at 493m above sea level, and then you run back at the starting point altitude at 250m and have now completed the first 8.5km.

The next challenging ascent comes after 17km and peaks at the 22km mark with an overall ascent of nearly 200 metres.

After 34.5km, you’re back where you left the wall. You run this stretch in the reverse order, so 3km with steps that go from 250m to 493m above sea level. Then the route takes you down the same 4.5km down the hill to the last flat kilometre leading you to the finish line at the Yin and Yang Square.

Great Wall Marathon

To give you a sense of how much more challenging this will be than a typical marathon, the 2015 race only had three finishers under four hours (by comparison, the top finishers of the Boston Marathon last week came in close to two hours). 260 women and 513 men finished last year’s race under the maximum time of eight hours (and on an encouraging note, only 28 – 3.6% – did not finish in time to count as finishers). I fully anticipate it will take me at least seven hours to finish, but really, as long as I finish, I will be happy.

So how does one train for something like this?

First off, the fact that I moved to DC and all its hilly glory four months ago has made a world of difference. I am really not sure how I would adequately train if I still lived in Chicago. I joined a running group in January to train for the Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon in DC on March 12, and that training program incorporated both hill workouts and track workouts – neither of which I really had ever done in the past. But beyond that, DC is just a hilly city. I really can’t run anywhere without running up and down several times during my run. I have also lost close to 15 pounds since January, which means I have less weight to drag around as I run!

After the half marathon (which I finished in a new personal best of 2:13!), I ramped up my training for the Great Wall. A typical week has looked like this:

Monday: Easy run of 4-5 miles, followed by strength training.

Tuesday: Hill repeats on the hill leading out of Rock Creek Park to Calvert Road. I started off running up and down six times and have increased the repeats each week until last week I did a total of 11. While I was feeling really good about this, when I looked up the elevation of the hill to write this post, I realized it only rises 40 meters (over 0.15 miles), which isn’t all that much compares to some of the elevation increases on the marathon route.

Wednesday: Cross-training, usually 45 minutes on the elliptical, followed by strength training.

Thursday: Stairs, using two different stair machines at the gym. I’m not sure what they are each called but one really works my quads and butt and has me taking large, high steps, while the other works more of my calf muscles, taking smaller steps. I have worked my way up to a total of 50 minutes between the two.

Friday: Rest or elliptical. Try to also do some strength training.

Saturday: Long run.  I did 18 miles in New York City last weekend and next weekend will be my 20 miler, after which I will start to taper.

Sunday: Rest, although I usually try to still get at least 10,000 steps in (thanks, FitBit!)

Whether this will all prove to be sufficient, who knows? But I feel stronger in my running than I ever have before and I can feel the hills and the stairs getting easier. I finished my 10-mile run this morning going up 16th Street from U Street to Columbia and I couldn’t help but think of the first time I tried to run up the street after moving to DC. It is only a slight incline, but I was so unaccustomed to running on hills that I slowed down tremendously and was out of breath just half way up. Today I ran the entire stretch at close to my normal pace, feeling strong.

On the other hand, the temperature and humidity are not as easy to train for. My last three long runs have been in freezing rain, snow and rain in the 50s. Not exactly what I need to prepare for running in sunshine and high temperatures. On the plus side, I will arrive in Hong Kong on May 15, so I will have almost a week to get used to the temperatures and will do at least a couple short runs in the heat.

Great Wall Marathon 3

Looking ahead to the race itself, I think my strategy will be to take it slow and steady on the uphills, extremely slow while running on sections of the Wall itself (I may even just walk altogether and not even try to run those parts) and then maintain a typical easy run pace on the flat and downhill portions. I’ll find out a month from today how well that works!

To see more of what I’ll be facing, check out these photos and videos from past Great Wall Marathons.

Photos in this post courtesy of Albatros Adventures.

4 thoughts on “Training for the Great Wall Marathon”

  1. Say what!!! Wow you do like a challenge don’t you! I think we spent 5 hours walking on the wall and it had me absolutely buggered!!! Sounds like an awesome challenge though so wishing you all the best!

  2. Wow! Good luck with the marathon. It’s not something easy, but it seems like a great experience that anyone should try at least once in their life.

  3. Good luck. I climbed the wall four years ago and I must say the steps killed me. They are different heights all mixed together. Can’t wait to hear about how your race went when you are done.

  4. Wow, I can’t believe you’re doing this! I myself and no stranger to marathons, running this is just mind blowing. Those hills are so intense! I had enough trouble just hiking the Great Wall, (but I was totally out of shape then). Looking forward to your updates!

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