I conquered 'the toughest of them all'

RACHEL YOUNG
Last updated 08:31 06/06/2013

5164 - That's how many steps there are in the Great Wall of China Marathon.

42.4 - That's how many kilometres it is.

8 - That's how many hours I had to complete it.

1 - That's how many chances I had to do it.

Challenging. Exhilirating. Amazing. Tough. Mind-blowing. Crazy. Beautiful. Hard. Epic.

Those are just some of the words I've used when people have asked me about the Great Wall of China Marathon.

Late last month, I went to China with Marathon Tours to run the "toughest of them all".

Two days before the race, everyone has to inspect the wall section. It was a harsh, but beautiful, reality check. Especially, when you realised that the 5 kilometres up hill you had just driven in the bus was actually the beginning of the run.

Suddenly, the chatter quietened down. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts (for me it was self doubt mixed with excitement).

When the day arrived I was a ball of nervous energy. While communal squat toilets weren't exactly ideal for pre-race nerves they certainly provided a distraction from what I, and 299 other questionably insane people, were about to do. Meanwhile about 2700 others competed in the half marathon and the fun run.

When it was time for my wave to start I lined up at the back of the pack. Alongside me was Sarah, another Cantabrian. We'd met in Christchurch before flying over and had a solid race plan that went along the lines of walk the steps and run the bits in between.

By the time we'd run the 5kms to the entrance of the Wall I'd seen one person vomit. The next section involved several thousand steps up and down before heading into rural China.

Young Chinese children lined the streets giving us high fives and flowers as we ran past. Their laughter and smiles were contagious and proved an unexpected highlight of the race.

As we made our way through the villages, we saw another New Zealander making his way back. He assured us there was a nice down hill coming up. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down so next thing we were tackling a large hill.

We kept our pace even and took walking breaks on some of the steeper bits. Our aim was to conserve our energy for the last section across the wall.

The scenery was stunning. Every now and then either Sarah or I would comment about how we couldn't believe we were running a marathon in China.

We ran through villages, up hills, down hills, along a dirt path and beside the road.

At 34km we hit the Wall again. This is where it was particularly tough - we'd reached the dreaded Goat Track.

A steep climb that rises 300m in the space of one kilometre.

The legs burned. The lungs burned. I thought I might possibly be the first person ever to drown in my own sweat.

Sarah was pulling ahead, while I was falling further and further behind. I told her to leave me but she refused.

"We've come this far together, I'm not going to leave you now," she said.

At points I was climbing on all fours and using a well-placed rope or rail to pull me up. At one stage, I saw a man picking up discarded water bottles and tipping them over his head in an attempt to cool down. I urged him on with something I hoped sounded encouraging, but was more realistically a mumbled sentence.

After we'd finished the Wall section we had a five kilometre downhill back to the start. While hills tend to be my strong point, this proved challenging and where we lost all our time.

At 39kms pain sliced through my right knee causing me to double over and a noise, which sounded like I was being strangled, forced its way out of my throat.

My mind raced. This couldn't be happening. I felt a catch in my throat and my eyes started welling up. Crap.

It was so close to the end. Now was not the time to start doubting myself.

My twin brother's favourite phrase "pain is just weakness leaving your body" came to me.

I straightened up. Had a drink of water, popped some panadol and started to walk. Sarah, who should've left me long ago, fell into step beside me.

We started chatting and made our way to the final kilometre. The pain had eased, but there was one thing left to do - cross the square and the line running.

With 250m to go, the adrenaline kicked in.

We picked up our pace and ran into the square holding hands. Familiar faces, and unfamiliar ones, cheered us on as we crossed the finish line 6 hours 33 minutes after we started.

Suddenly the pain was gone and where tears had threatened earlier, a smile broke across my face. I was ecstatic.

Despite its toughness, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Yes there were some moments of pain, but they paled in comparison to the amount of fun I had (both during the run and with my tour group pre and post run).

The miracle for me wasn't that I finished, it was that I had the courage to start considering I was going in underprepared.

The Great Wall of China marathon was everything I had hoped it would be and more.

Photos don't do it justice. My words don't do it justice. The only way for someone to fully understand what it was like was to be there so if any of you are thinking of taking on this challenge then I'd say, to borrow Nike's slogan, just do it.

Thanks to everyone who sent me messages of encouragement since I announced on my blog I was heading over there.

Thanks to Air New Zealand, which covered my return flight to China.

Would you ever consider running the Great Wall of China Marathon? Have you ever pushed yourself to the limit? Email me on rachel.young@press.co.nz, comment below or follow me on Twitter.

- The Press

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