A ‘bucket list’ adventure marathon said to be one of the toughest in the world. 5164 steps of hell set in the gorgeous mountain region surrounding The Great Wall of China.
Where: Huangyaguan, north east China.
When: Mid May (since 1999)
Size: 2000 runners (approx. 700 doing full marathon)
Difficulty: Challenging| Tough | Rock Hard
Organisation: Basic| Good | Great
- Train on the Stair Master or up flights of steps as much as you can
- Also practise extended hill training on medium inclines
- Take electrolyte drinks as it is hot and humid
- Beware of the big hill at around miles 14-17
- Try to keep running up the steepest hills, even if it’s a pathetic little ‘dad run’ as it’ll help avoid cramping
- Take food and nutrition with you as there aren’t many stations out on the course
- Eat lots of food especially before the second assault on that wall!
- Take it easy on the downhill stretches of the wall – there are small trenches that can trip people up
- Try to get into an early wave as they are less crowded and give you a head start on the midday sun
- Wear a cap to keep the sun off
- Say thanks to the local kids for their support – ‘Shei Shei’ is how you say thanks!
Short video report from Joe…
What’s the set up?
This is an expensive marathon. Domestic runners pay about £200 but Brits and other internationals are forced to buy a package with various tour providers that will set you back at least £1200 for 5 nights accommodation and transfers etc.
With the cost comes pretty good organisation though once you are out in China. Reps are English speaking and the hotels are fine/ good depending. Food’s a bit hit and miss but that’s part of the challenge.
A couple of days before the race there’s an inspection of the wall and talk from organisers which is good for runners to get their heads around things and realise what they’ve signed up for!
On race day everything starts early to avoid the afternoon sun and in the square where the race starts and finishes, there are medics and stewards on hand. Out on the course, runner care is pretty basic. There are no toilets that we saw and drink stops are far less frequent than most city marathons. There’s also an alarming lack of medics for such a tough race. That said, everything ran smoothly.
What’s the course like?
The course is incredible. It starts at the bottom of a valley and winds up a steep 5km road to the wall. It’s then man vs wall as runners climb to the top of, and along, the hill ridge. The view is insane. Gorgeous doesn’t cover it. See video/ pics.
The wall then dips and lips it’s way back down to the valley floor and into the square. That’s the first 6 miles done!
Then it’s out along the roads and dirt tracks through interesting little villages along the valley. But it’s not flat. Far from it! At about mile 14 there’s a climb to the top of a small village that lasts about 2 miles.
The race then winds its way back to the square along a mixture of roads, dirt tracks and even sandy lanes. Then runners attack the wall again in reverse. The last 5km ends with the same hill the race started on – this time downhill!
How difficult is the race?
It’s been described as one of the hardest standard distance marathons in the world (see links at the bottom for top lists). You only actually run/ climb the wall for about 8km in total but anymore wouldn’t be possible for most. It’s steep, the steps are uneven and some are at least 1.5ft tall. And you have to do it twice at the start and at the end after running 20miles. This is the hardest part by a long way – energy sapping on the way up and very painful on the way down. The humidity is also a factor as the air can be quite thick in the valley at times. What they also don’t really tell you about is that the valley course is extremely hilly too. Especially at mile 14-17.
It’s like a Salvador Dhali painting- all up with no down! (Still not sure how it’s even physically possible!)
Saying all of that, the reputation of this race is such that it seems strong marathon runners know what they’re letting themselves in for and can cope without major problems. Speaking to some hard core runners (the type who post 3hr15 for city marathons) they all said it was tough but not more than expected.
What’s the atmosphere and support like?
Inside the square which runners go through lots of times there is a great energy as spectators cheer runners on. The organiser is also very good at calling out runners’ names as they make their way across the square.
The nature of the race means runners are mainly on their own once outside the race square. There are lots of little villages that the course goes through and you get some support there from local kids who love to high 5!
The atmosphere amongst runners is brilliant. The race starts early and everyone is excited and taking pictures in the hours leading up to the horn.
There are points on the first leg of the wall where bottlenecks are caused but most people seem happy to wait in line. It can be quite dangerous so it’s a good job there aren’t any aggressive idiots shoulder-barging their way through or there could easily be accidents.
What is there to do in the area après-race?
Not a lot! This section of the wall is about 3 hours from Beijing and a good hour from a big town/ city. Immediately on the site though there’s an amazing garden and maze that really should be enjoyed! Most runners will be with a tour company and there is a big gala party the day after which is a great way to celebrate!
Other resources for the race…
Official race website here.
Hardest Marathons in the world list here.
Really good indepth look at the race and tour as a whole including some good tips here.
Official race video from 2013…
My Race Diary
Marathon No. 4
Time: 6hrs 15mins
Position: 496 of 776
This is the hardest race I have ever done. In the lead up to this I had done 3 marathons and 8 triathlons of varying distances but this was rock hard for me. I put in some good training despite having physio on my knee for the 3 months leading to the race. I did 3 X 16 mile runs, some stair sprints and completed Greater Manchester Marathon a few weeks before.
This last part of my training was one of the reasons I think I struggled. I pulled a muscle in my groin during the Manchester race and didn’t have enough time to fully recover.
The first 15 miles were pretty good for me. I kept up with my super fit running partner Dr Chris Milne (see pic of the Prince Harry lookalike!). After that the hills started sapping my energy and I was pretty ruined by the time we came back into the square at about mile 20.
On the wall my leg was hurting every time I lifted it above 6 inches so the ridiculous climb broke me. Almost. Big shout out to Chris for pulling me up that wall (sometimes literally!). I’ve never been as exhausted and in pain as that 2km climb up the wall.
The final 6km were a joy though as myself, Chris and another mate made our way down the hill to the finish knowing we’d completed a seriously tough race. I strongly recommend anyone to tackle this challenge!