Conquering the Great Wall Marathon

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When I was in The Maldives celebrating my 34th birthday, I got chatting to someone from China who suggested I take part in the Great Wall Marathon. Wait…what?!! The Great Wall whaaaaaaaaaaaat?! I didn’t even know they had a marathon there on the Wall, let alone a marathon on one of the seven Wonders of the World. In the name of ‘research’, I went online, checked out the registration details, and debated so many times whether that year would be the year I would pluck up the courage to complete this life changing event.

I decided that 2016 would be that year. I remember I had a heart to heart with my good friend Rachel, who shared how important it was for me to plan out and lay out my resolutions for each year. On top of the list was the Great Wall Marathon in May 2016, and after my leave was approved in March, I started serious training.

My training composed of one long run of around 16km each week, accompanied by shorter runs with cross training three or four times a week. I also added step training and climbed the stairs to my apartment on the 25th floor every day, just to try to simulate the 5164 steps that would need to be climbed on Marathon day.

Inspection day
After landing in Beijing in the early hours of 18th May, I made my way to the Wall on the 19th. In order to register, you are required to sign up for a China Tour, and a site inspection is a compulsory activity. There’s a briefing and then you are required to walk across the wall. The wall itself is so serene and majestic that it takes your breath away when you lay eyes at it at first. No, really, I was breathless. I climbed all the steps, took loads of pictures and snapchatted a good bit too.
But that was WRONG.
You shouldn’t walk and climb the full wall just two days before the marathon.The following morning, I woke up so sore and couldn’t work out how I would attempt the full marathon the day after. I was even scared to share this with anyone on the bus the following day for fear I would be the only one. But slowly, other runners started to admit that they too were sore. It didn’t give me peace of mind as much as it made me realise that no matter how much training you had done, the steps will always be challenging. There was an option of downgrading to the Half Marathon category but I (wo) manned up and was not going to give in to my fears like this. Or self doubts. Or insecurities. Never. Not now.

Race Day
We arrived at the Wall at 7am. My nerves were under control, but I had sore legs, a sick stomach and a million doubts about whether I could finish.

Myself and Danielle, a girl I had met, stood in a long queue, waiting for our faces to be painted with our countries flags. When it was my turn, the lady looked at me and didn’t know where Egypt was. What…how come?! “Well miss, Egypt has never participated before.” That really gave me an incentive. I was going to conquer, living or dead. I wanted to make history as perhaps the first Egyptian female runner to finish the Great Wall Marathon.
I proceeded to the start line, ready for the 7:50am start.

The marathon is composed of five stages:
1. 5km uphill, leading up to the wall
2. 3km across the wall
3. 26km through the Chinese villages
4. 3km across the wall
5. 5km downhill to the finish line.

To tell you that I severely struggled on that 5km uphill would not be lying. My legs were cramping, and I started crying after the first kilometer. However, I suddenly remembered my cause and what I had dedicated my run to; my late friend JB, in order to celebrate his beautiful soul.

I remembered him and it made me cry even more.

He had encouraged me to take up long distance running back in 2011, and to this day, I owe him all my running accomplishments.

There happened to be two other awesome Egyptian runners, Hisham and Mahmoud, who somehow appeared out of nowhere on that 5km stretch. They cheered me on, yelling and screaming, and urged me to keep pushing through.

You are not supposed to ‘hit the wall’, in marathon terminology, anytime before the 32nd to the 34th km. I hit the wall at the 6km. You hit the wall in a marathon when you can no longer push your legs through, when you just want to stop and quit. That’s how it felt when I reached 6km. It was an awful feeling, but that’s when you really learn and train your mind to take over physical pain and switch on to auto pilot. You are going to just have to do it and shut up about it. You have come this far, there’s no turning back now.

We walked/ran that 3km leg of the race.
I was still clinging on to my Egyptian runners for support and motivation until we all started to take different paces and eventually split once we hit the villages.

Running the 26km leg in the villages
By this point, my pain was starting to subside as my mind began taking over. Kids were appearing everywhere, holding plates that they invited the runners to sign. I stopped at every corner, both for the pictures and for the memories, but my eyes were always on my watch, making sure I hit the wall to go back down before 2pm.

The 26km stretch was long and got quite boring towards the end. I tried to think of everything and anything I could, still in the knowledge that I had to reach the wall again before 2pm. Anytime there was a downhill, I would fly down just to make up for the time lost on uphills.

Hitting the wall, round two
I hit the wall at 12:30pm. I was so proud of myself. You get a band to prove that you’ve gone through the wall twice, and that red band was the most precious thing I received that day.

The sun was starting to intensify, and this was when I became grateful for the Dubai weather. Everyone else was clearly having issues with the heat, yet it was not a problem for me. It was hot and humid, but again I was only focused on the finish line and finishing in a decent time to represent Egypt. I wear the Hijab, but over the years I have learnt how to deal with it and what to wear especially on races like this.

I decided I wanted to speak to my dad at 35km. He lives in Kuwait, where the time would be around 7am. I called him twice, but there was no answer. I broke down and felt so alone; I needed to hear a familiar voice. I tried again at 36km and he finally answered. I was panting going up the wall and just needed reassurance. He asked how far I needed to go, and when I told him it was just 6km, in all innocence he said, “Wow, you can walk those since you’ve come so far.”

Of course that comment had exactly the opposite effect!

The last 5km was so smooth that I couldn’t believe how quickly it went by. I remember I shut off completely and couldn’t wait for the moment that I would take out the Egyptian flag and raise it high. I ran in silence inside my head. I only put two songs on repeat from my Great Wall Marathon playlist; somehow Jason Derulo’s “If this ain’t love” and Rihanna’s “This is what you came for” resonated so much with what I was doing and why I was there.

I remember seeing the 41km sign. It was heaven. I slowly took out my flag and wore it on my back. It felt amazing. I had tears in my eyes. The little children were cheering and it was me, my flag and the finish line.

I crossed the finish line after 6 hours  24 minutes and 24 seconds. I broke down and cried for having conquered the Wall, but first and foremost myself and all the voices that played games with my mind. I was told I was the first Egyptian female to conquer the wall. I was going to take that, make history and forever feel ever so proud.

Words: Manal Rostom
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