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The Great Wall Marathon in China

Another day in Beijing and I fly back home. After days of over 35 degrees, it's raining now and it is only 17 degrees. The Great Wall Marathon was an almost indescribable adventure, but I’ll give it a go. Do watch the video in the article below with an awesome recap of the Great Wall Marathon (check the 41st second: you may know that guy ;)).

Tuesday afternoon May 16th I flew to Beijing. At the airport we were picked up and brought to our hotel. After having checked in, I changed clothes and went to the famous Tiananmen Square. The heat, crowds and jet lag did not make it easy and when I stood on that immense square, I wondered: "what am I doing here?"

After a long search for lunch, I finally found something. With a full stomach I wandered through the beautiful Temple of Heaven Park. In the evening I had dinner with two great guys from the UK, Mike and Paul. We decided not to opt for tortoise and pig intestines but instead chose for some safe dishes.

That dinner for me was the start of unforgettable stories and inspiring people. Paul had a serious accident in 2012 whereby he suffered a brain hemorrhage and had to recover for three years. In that period he almost lost everything, his job, his partner and almost his future. How inspirational it is that he fought himself back and now daily works via Paul for Brain Recovery to support people affected by brain injury. Hero!

Thursday we took off early to Huangyaguang for the inspection day. After 2.5 hours by bus from Beijing to the wall, we were welcomed by the marathon organization on the Yin Yang Square. After that we went on the wall and we walked 3.5 km on this amazing piece of art. With 39 degrees Celsius it was not easy at all to put it mildly, but really great. (sorry reader, but there are more superlatives ;))

After having checked in the very nice hotel in Jixian, I went swimming. Apart from a few Chinese people there was another guy…. from the Netherlands….. called Paul. Good thing was that he could speak Chinese perfectly. In the evening we had a dinner buffet and we ended with a drink in the hotel.

Friday was my intention to do nothing and relax for the big day. At breakfast that changed that quickly, because I met Sandra and Kymian, two ladies from New York. I joined them to visit the impressive Qing Tombs and I had a really nice day with them.

Sandra inspired me tremendously with her mega-drive. She grew up in Romania in poor circumstances during the Ceaușescu regime. At the age of 21 she immigrated to New York. 2,5 years ago she started to run marathons to raise money to build schools in developing countries. Through #run2buildschools she is doing ten marathons this year and next year she is planning Antarctica! The first school she build in Nepal last year, Senegal is planned for this year and there are plans for Nicaragua, Malawi, Burkina Faso and Haiti. Hero!

At the hotel we ate a late lunch and we decided not to join to the buffet. We were all going to prepare for the big day and my tension rose more and more. 

I slept very bad and was happy when it was 3:00. Yes, yes indeed: 3:00! I got up, showered, had breakfast and checked out. The bus took us to the start. Tension, tension, tension ... and then we arrived. WHAT AN ATMOSPHERE! I feel the emotions while typing this. At the entrance a Chinese Orchestra was playing Jingle Bells. A “beautiful” Christmas atmosphere in these hot circumstances. Rushing through the snow….Die-hards from 59 countries prepared themselves for the battle. The shadow slowly disappeared and the sun emerged. On the bus I had joked to Julia from New Zealand that we all had to go do a Haka (Māori dance). After the warm-up 30 men and women from New Zealand came on stage to actually do a Haka. Goosebumps everywhere! Heroes!

7:30 wave 1 started and the months, weeks, days and hours were reduced to minutes. I was in wave 2, and 7:40 only seconds were left and the battle started. In the first few meters I felt that the heat and conditions were incomparable with all the training that I had done. After 1 km the first climb started (according to my watch a total of 1165 meters up and 1165 down!!). It went pretty well, but due to the heat and steepness you simply couldn't continue running, and it became more a powerwalk at certain parts. After 5 km the the first part of the Great Wall began and there was no one left that could run on it. Toiling away we braved the first steps of the 5164 steps that followed.

Once down the race route led us through small villages with enthusiastic kids and people along the side. I gave the kids all a high five and this motivated to keep running, but after 10 km it was already very tough. At 15 km it became even heavier and steeper. At each water station I was drinking water and throwing it over my head. At 21 km it was so difficult that I just had to sit and had to walk many times. Downhill I got some energy back and had the spirit to run like a gazelle. ;) 

Along the way, I also had a lot of contact with the other runners from Australia to Argentina. I also recognized someone by his shirt that Sandra had told me about and spoke to him. A very congenial man from New Zealand. As a former soldier Shadi voluntarily works at MAG International where he cleans landmines in war zones like Syria. Hero!

Such people gave me so much incentive and inspiration to continue. At 25 km I had various blisters and stopped at a first aid station With 38 degrees Celsius it was now pure surviving. Time was also ticking and I had to make sure that I got to the last point of the wall within the time limit of 6 hours. With 5:38 I got a bracelet and I started the last 8 kilometers. Heavier than heavy! Sweating like an otter and toiling away like a horse I walked step by step. Giving up was not an option!

The wall felt like it was killing us all and everyone helped each other through it and we did an attempt to sing. "Always look on the bright side of life" and "Stairway to heaven". After the wall it was 5 more kilometers down, but I had no more energy and 8 blisters did not help either (4 large and 4 small marbles).

The time ticked and fortunately the meters got less. The end was in sight! I was going to get it! Emotionally I crossed the finish line. It took me 7:45. I f.. king did it! WOW! A beautiful Danish lady gave me my well-deserved medal. Soren and Kymian waited for me. Many of the people I had gotten to know in the last few days had already finished, but Sandra from New York was not there yet. We waited for her in suspense. They had extended the time limit of 8 hours with 20 minutes and she crossed the line at 8:19:53! She had to go to the first aid as it looked like she was quite weak and I also had my blisters treated. Fortunately everything went well and we were able to take the bus back to Beijing. Tired to the bone I fell asleep. 

215 of the 825 marathon participants either stopped or did not meet the time limit. Only 39 participants ran within 5 hours. So I am very proud that I endured.

The next day I squeezed all blisters and went to the Forbidden City with two Dutch people, Roos and Dick. I had some great talks with Roos about about passion, independence and growth. In the evening we had a closing gala dinner at the Olympic Stadium and a film was shown of the marathon day. After the gala dinner we went to a party and we enjoyed the necessary Tsing Tao beers. Paul and I ended up in club Mix. 5:00 it started to get light, but for me the lights went out. 

The energy, humanity, cooperation, and inspiration of all the nations together made this a unforgettable life experience and has definitely entered my top 10 of my life’s highlights. 

As Sandra said: “If the World would be a like the atmosphere in a marathon the World would be an awesome place!” 

So Trump, Kim Jong-un, Poetin, Duterte, Zuma, Erdogan and other …….. (fill in what you think ;)) people, please buy some running shoes, start training (can give you a nice scheme and happy to support you) and subscribe for next year’s Great Wall Marathon. 

Big thanks, respect and a deep bow for Sandra, Kymian, Soren, Paul, Mike, Roos, Dick, Shadi, Paul, Lauren, Amanda and all 2017 participants.

And now I'm sitting in the hotel lobby with a cup of jasmine tea with muscle aches, sore feet, but proud, sad, happy, inspired and motivated to the bone for the next challenges.

To be com-tinued ;)

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