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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Great Wall of China, Marathon. Why do people sign up for a challenge?

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

What is it that drives people to partake in events that push themselves? Why do people opt to partake rather than save the money and go on holiday? Why do they decide to have months of pain and tiredness for one day of potential glory?

Anything we know that is not going to be overly enjoyable, anything we are not going to find easy...but we sign up for it anyway, hoping we train enough, hoping we finish. That is the strange thing we are not even partaking to win! When asked "How did you do? Did you get placed?" We reply "Oh no but I finished". This is met by tumble weed and a confused look. "You mean all that training just to finish?"

This is the main comment I am met with. Especially now I have entered Iron Man, my family are all very on board with it and excited. "So if this triathlon goes well I guess you could enter the Olympics" Dad, not quite. I do these things to challenge myself and to see what breaks me and what lengths I can push myself to. For him this is an alien notion, what is the point in doing anything if you are not going to at least try and be the best?!

So, Why?

Well, there is obviously the feel-good factor associated with all the training you need to do to complete an Iron Man. The change in body shape, improvement in skills, the ability to bounce upstairs without wheezing and of course the feeling that you can eat anything you like (to an extent).

All this is very positive, but why do an Iron Man in particular? There are other successful events such as the ‘Tough Mudder’ assault course, Hell Runner, ‘Challenge’ Long Distance Triathlons etc. which are all significant races in their own right, and even identical distances in some cases; but these just don’t seem to carry the same kudos. Indeed when I tell people I have run a 70-mile road ultra marathon it just gets shrugged off for the most part!

So why do people do an Iron Man Triathlon?

It is simple, it’s the experience…Iron Man has managed to not only make the event aspirational, it makes a community out of those that take part.

On talking to a friend that completed the Austria Ironman 2017 the response was the following :

"The feeling of crossing the line after 13-16 hours, with the tannoy stating ‘you are an IRONMAN’ gives you immense satisfaction, not because you have always wanted to be one necessarily, but because it is the feeling that the last 6 plus months of training (All those early mornings and late night rides, runs and swims) have paid off.

Iron Man really makes you feel unique, even special…"

Reasons for me:

My reasons are the following.

1- Focus: I like to have a goal to work towards or I get bored.

2 - Bragging rights/kudos: Not many people in my circles can say they have done it, it would be something impressive to complete.

3- I like to eat: I eat a lot of food, and these challenges mean I can keep eating all the food in the world.

4- Skills: To learn the new skills of swimming and cycling.

5 - Fear: Overcoming fear of cycling.

6- Limits: Each year I test my limits a little bit more and push a little bit further. In a slightly sadistic way, I want to see what my limits are.

7- Discipline and routine: I find these calming. The training schedule needed for an Iron Man will require both.

8- Something new: Having never competed in a triathlon it is on my bucket list.

9- Boredom: Needing a goal to keep me pushing. OCR was not really doing that anymore.

10- China: The main reason I am attempting an Iron Man is because of the feeling of the Great Wall of China Marathon.....

The Great Wall of China marathon running
Enjoying the views of the Great Wall Marathon

The Great Wall of China Marathon:

I did not anticipate how hard it was going to be, I went in cocky and came out battered. It brought me down ten pegs in the arrogant "I can do anything" ladder and taught me an awful lot about myself. I did not particularly work hard leading up to the event, but boy did I have to dig deep and earn a medal on the day.

Training and the Lead-Up:

Just like the World OCR championships, I tried to get by on minimal running training for China. I went to the gym doing circuits and weights thinking this would be enough. I was fit but it was not until people started to mention that I should really be running during the week that I had a reality check. I was running a marathon, not only a marathon but one of the hardest ones you can do. A marathon upstairs. Therefore, bearing in mind I needed to cover 26 miles and 20,000 steps on the day I decided once a week I would run up and down a set of stairs in a field near me to cover the running side of things in training. I have always gotten by on minimal running training so the fact I was doing some running once a week made me think I was doing more than enough. This combined with one longer run a week (if I was racing) and I thought I would find China easily. Running a 20-mile OCR 5 days before I felt hindsight, this was probably because it was flat, only 20 miles and a fun run with a mate.


China was amazing, the week leading up to the race I saw the sites, ate all the food and relaxed. I think I had actually forgotten the reason I was there to an extent. The day before the race I set out all my gear, had pep talks with friends and got an early night for the 4 am start.

Sitting waiting for the bus to take us to the wall I was still not 100% mentally in the zone. I was not worried and was looking at everyone there thinking I would be fine. I saw a gentleman with a OCR worlds top on and thought "We are going to storm this" Oh how wrong I was.

The bus picked all runners up and 3 hours later we arrived at a rather disheveled-looking part of the Great Wall of China. Driving along narrow roads and rocky lanes I looked up to the mountains and hills above the road. Beautiful, truly beautiful, and still I did not see the issue with 26 miles running through these epic inclines. The bus offloaded and we all trundled a mile up the road to the start line for pre-race poos and bag drops.

Standing at the start line, I was still not in the slightest nervous. However, chatting with a few other racers changed that. Two mentioned that this was their second time after not completing last year. Another said they had done the half a few years ago and had gone away and trained for a year to do the full. I suddenly started to think "whoops". Go Pro switched on and the countdown underway we were set off. Seven checkpoints, 11-hour cut off, one wall...pretty straightforward yes? I thought so...

Conquer the wall marathon start line

The Race:

Running along the first mile or so towards the Great Wall, it was a gradual uphill slope, fairly simple. However, suddenly everyone slowed to a near stand still and it became apparent our first set of steps was upon us. I have always been very good at power walking up hills and sprinting down them, so on my high and mighty horse, I was getting a little impatient. Once we had all climbed the first set of steps onto the wall I made a move to overtake as many people as possible on the first downhill. Many participants were cautious of running downhill on broken stairs and on such steep slopes. I saw it as my only option to overtake the people that were doing the half marathon and thus taking their time.

The first 3 miles consisted of running along an unkempt part of the wall. We were not in the main tourist section and so the route was quiet and the views were stunningly historic. Due to the unstable and ruin-like state of the wall in this section, we not only ran along the wall but also in the surrounding areas. This involved running down sand slopes, through the forests on the hills and down into the valleys around the wall. This was where I excelled. Bounding down the slopes not fussed about sliding over I overtook a fair number of people. Expecting them to overtake me later on I pushed myself now whilst they were struggling down the tricky terrain to create a decent gap.

Great wall of china views
A beautiful run with stunning views at every window

Check Point 1:

Checkpoint one was a couple of miles past the valley run. Once back on the wall the paths had nothing to stop you from falling down the 100ft drop into the valleys. Most of the paths were no more than 3ft wide, which was to accommodate people running both ways. Potholes, loose bricks and paving slabs littered the way, tree roots peeked out from under the earth and 400-plus half-and-full marathon runners tried to manoeuvre their way past each other. I was quite happy, checkpoint one was not far off, I was being kept mentally engaged with the rough terrain and everyone was supporting each other to boost morale. Checkpoint one was down half a mile of steep stairs which was a little irritating and hammered the knees early on but the supplies were well worth it!

steep running

On leaving checkpoint one I was full of sugar, salt and buzzing. All I had to do was retrace my steps back to the start line for checkpoint 2 to get my second stamp. Power walking and sprinting combinations showed that the intervals up the stairs once a week back home had paid off. Music belting out, singing to Disney and cheering on people I passed, I was loving life. The views were nothing short of stunning which helped.

jumping for joy

Check Point 2:

On arriving at checkpoint 2 I still felt good and in high spirits. I was well under the cut-off times and had just stuffed my face with further snacks. The hills and stairs had been long and steep and the calves were beginning to feel it but I was not as battered as anticipated. Looking around there were not as many people around as expected. I had overtaken a lot of people and expected them to come whizzing past. Confidently I crammed more Oreos into my mouth, changed playlists and got climbing onto the second stage of the wall.

Check Point 3:

The next instalment was along the areas of the wall that had been restored. The ground was evenish and no sudden drops to the abyss of the valleys. However, the climbs had suddenly grown astronomically. It was almost as if someone had read my mind, see I was not overly phased by it all and gone "right let us make this harder and level it all up out of her league" Three staircase climbs in and the pain began to creep into my legs and back.

Happy climbing on the great wall of china

The stairs on the refurbished section were not only steep, but each step was also tall and required arms to climb for the most part. This marathon had gone from a joyful stair marathon to a rock climbing race. Running out towards checkpoint three many people were walking back towards me. Confused I stopped and talked to one man. "I am dropping out, I have bad cramps and I am not going to finish this, it's hell," he said. Once he had trundled on past me 7 others walked towards me, looking dishevelled and slightly like walking corpses, all cheering me on to keep going. They were all full marathon attempts that were dropping out. I began to panic as these people were built like whippets and looked to be decent runners, but also it spurred me on, imagine if I finished!

I carried on, up and down relentless climbs. Hips flexors began to seize up, salt crystals had formed huge mounds on my face from the 32-degree sun and I was beginning to see why people were dropping out. This was going to require mental grit, not physical fitness. So how do you stop a race from beating you mentally? You have small goals. In OCR that is simple, it's the obstacles "just get to the next obstacle" I tell myself in those races. So here I adopted a similar train of thought. Make it to the next lookout on top of the hill. Ten look-out towers later and on reaching checkpoint three there was one other runner there sitting down talking to the marshal, she had dropped out. I asked how many runners were in front of me and the marshal said around 40. Ecstatic that out of all the people at the start line I was 40th ish I got my stamp and belted off to checkpoint 4 which was only 2km away.

Happy running

Check Point 4:

I knew where checkpoint 4 was as the route to CP3 took you past the peel-off into the valleys for it. Five towers back along the wall, retracing my steps, and sure enough, there was the sign, "That did not take long" I mused "maybe it will all be a bit easier from now on". I ran down some steps into the valley. I kept running, storming my way further away from the wall, elated for the breather and leg stretch. Around halfway down I stopped at looked back. Back up at the wall, back up at how far down I had run, my heart sank. I had descended around 300m and was not at the checkpoint yet. "They are sods, this is going to kill my legs going back up here" I moaned. Disheartened, turning back towards the downhill I sighed and carried on. Food food food, that was all that was keeping me going. There had been no food or water at CP3 so I was starving and running low on fluid and salt. After what felt like an eternity checkpoint 4 appeared. A true oasis of drinks, salt, food, medical supplies, and everything you could wish for. I stocked up with the lady saying " you are going to have to hurry up if you want to make the checkpoint cut-offs". So off I popped. Standing at the bottom of these stairs I looked up to the wall, which looked so, so far away, I wanted to cry.

Check Point 5:

Summiting the stairs back onto the wall I sat for five minutes trying to curb the searing pain in my legs and glutes. This is where it all got a bit tricky. The temperature was still in the 30s, my legs were beginning to get sore and my arms were not too good from clambering up the steeper sets of stairs. I encountered a number of people on the route that sat down and resided themselves to not finishing. This only spurred me on. I pushed and pushed, my singing now more sporadic humming than anything else, I had energy left in the tank but my body was struggling to move efficiently. Occasional tourists shouted motivation and clapped as I jogged past, some uttering "She is mental, why on earth would anyone do this".

Tired running

Eventually, I spotted checkpoint 5 from the tower I was standing in, a matter of 200 meters away maybe. The issue was that 200 meters on the great wall takes about 10 minutes. On arrival at CP5, the marshal seemed worried. "You are 30 minutes under the cutoff point, you are really going to have to run to make it back to checkpoint 3 (6)".

This ever so slightly struck the fear of God into me. I hate not finishing things, I hate self failure and I was not about to go home and say I acquired a DNF. So rather than taking the time to run 100m down some stairs to get food and drink I got my stamp, turned around and made haste back out to CP3 which on your second loop was number 6.

Checkpoint 6:

I am not ashamed to say this is where I became a bit of a pansy. Every step was now against the clock, every muscle from the waist down was in agonising pain and I was hungry, very hungry. I am one of those people who when I am peckish if I do not eat I get moody, snappy and emotional. So by this point, if I tripped on a stone or missed a step I would burst into tears. However, as a silver lining, I do believe that the hunger was taking my mind off the physical pain a tad.

smiling running great wall of china

Around halfway to CP6 a girl caught up with me, she looked a mess, "God do I look this bad?" I thought to myself. She explained that there was she and one other girl behind me, we were the last three, and everyone else behind us had either not made the cut-off, or had not wanted to come back out and do the second loop.

We walked upstairs together for a bit in silence bar groaning when our legs had to lift for steps up to our knees. Eventually, she sat down and didn't get up. "Come on we can do this" I ushered, desperate to have some company in the hard stages. But she did not get up and she told me to carry on as she was not sure if she wanted to continue. "We still have to go up that ridiculous slope that took me about 15 minutes to get up, I do not want to do that again, I won't make the cut off so what is the point" she muttered.

I tried to motivate her without much luck and eventually decided I needed to crack on or I would seize up completely and would miss the cut-offs. I left the lady in the Wonder Woman shorts and plugged on on my own.

incredible views on the great wall of china

Standing at the bottom of the steep climb Wonder Women shorts was worried, I looked up and thought to myself "why am I doing this". It took me 20 minutes to crawl up the slope and steps, trying to master new ways of ascending in order to use muscles not yet used, desperate attempts to prevent further pain which were all in vain. If the casting manager of the Walking Dead had seen me I would have been offered a job as a Zombie there and then.

On making it to the top I sat and looked over the view. It was beautiful, honestly, in all the world this has to be the most spectacular marathon you can do. Yes, the climbs are vile, but when you get to the top of each one you are met with such beauty, a piece of natural art that Picasso himself could not rival. Forcing myself up and back down towards the base of the next climb I started to cry. Pain, weakness, exhaustion, hunger, I really do not know why. The lady at CP6 did look a little concerned when I turned up for my penultimate stamp and she asked if I was okay. I nodded and turned in silence to go back in search of checkpoint 7, which of course was the same as checkpoint 4 at the base of the valley stairs. The equivalent decent to the journey to the centre of the earth, or so it felt.

Check Point 7:

On getting to the peel-off sign for the descent into the valley Wonder Women shorts walked towards me. "Will I make the cut-off? Is the lady still there?" she quizzed. "YES!!!!" I cried, "GO GO GO! You can totally do this!". With that she halfheartedly jogged off (which by now felt like a sprint in the state we were in) I carried on happy that she might make it and I could potentially have a friend to chat with on the last stint.

The first time around I leapt down these stairs. This time around I flew. I was jumping down flights screaming "DO NOT CLOSE THE CHECKPOINT!" The lady at CP6 had said I was not going to make it unless I ran the entire way there and she meant the entire way. It was as if someone had given me an adrenaline shot, the pain did not matter, my legs kind of moved to a fashion and all that mattered was making that cut off. I met a man walking up the steps from the checkpoint as I was running down. "You are 1 minute under the cut-off, they are closing the checkpoint in 50 seconds, you need to hurry. I looked at him panicked, I had not come this far and endured so much pain to be told I could not finish. I hurtled down the steps, 6-9 at a time, not caring about where I was landing, not worrying about twisting an ankle, I was a woman possessed. All that mattered in life right then was making the cut-off.

"DO NOT CLOSE THE CHECKPOINT! DO NOT CLOSE THE CHECKPOINT! DO NOT CLOSE THE CHECKPOINT!!!" I cried out through the trees. Sliding around the corner I was met by the stamp lady with a smirk on her face "Oh my God, please no, please no" I thought.

"Well done, 8 seconds to spare" she mused. I honestly could have kissed her. "Back you go, you have an hour to get back to the finish now" she informed me.

An hour...this seems like a long time, but bear in mind it was taking me 20 minutes to climb a set of steps by now. I took my music out and just plodded, focusing on not stopping and not being sick. I was sick.

To the Finish:

Trudging back up the steps Wonder women shorts came trotting down. "Will I make it? Are they still there?" I didn't have the heart to tell her that I was there 5 minutes ago and I only just made it. "I am not sure, if you sprint you might make it" I fibbed.

I carried on, sure that I was the last one on the course. Every tower was now met with a sunset view. Any tourists that had been milling around before had gone home, water stops had shut up shop, the first aid people were less around the course and I was not a happy bunny. I was now lifting my legs with my arms to get upstairs. Going downstairs was hurting just as much as going up. I had shooting pains across my lower back from being stood up for so long. My mouth was arid to the point I could not breathe. I had been sick. The salt on my face and arms had set and gone crusty. Dirt from crawling around on the floor trying to get up slopes had embedded itself in any crevice or wrinkle. I felt a mess, looked homeless and really was not sure how I was going to get back to the finish. The point of exit looked so far away, approximately 7 towers. I sat and got my phone out. I had messages from a few friends and my parents on there saved, wishing me well from that morning and telling me I was amazing for even trying this venture.

sad walking

Trying was the word that got to me. That is the word that pushed me on. I was going to be dammed if people said "well done for trying" when I got home. I wanted to finish, I could finish. So one more vomit (just to make sure I was well and truly dehydrated), I shakily got to my feet and thought "I am not a quitter like all those other people, I do not want to come back and do this again, I need to finish it today". Combined with other thoughts of "imagine how much I can eat after" and " wow I am going to have an amazing bottom after this" I jogged on. Opting for hands and feet up steps and bottom sliding down for the most part. I was making up ground gradually.

I sang to try and keep entertained, talked to nothingness to keep myself company and played a *game of would you rather* with every option being would you rather do this marathon again or ...-insert horrendous act here-. I swore at every set of steps with language that sailors would be embarrassed about. I tried to cry again for emotional relief of some sort but was lacking the liquid to do so and I hugged every person that was still on the wall waiting for me to finish. They cheered me on and followed me behind for a bit to keep me going. I felt like a hero of war coming home, it was ridiculous, but hugely needed.

With a combination of the amazing marshals and my innate stubbornness, I finally completed all the ups and downs needed on the wall. Turning to have one final look at the splendour of the sunset among the hills I felt a wave of relief sweep over me. I was nearly done. Just a mile or so back to the finish, but it was all downhill or flat.

The Finish:

By the time I reached the gateway back to the finish, I was delirious. I was jogging in anything but a straight line, I had to ask directions as my mind could no longer read obvious signs and vomit attempted to pop out yet again though there was nothing left.

After my pathetic attempt at a jog down the final straight, the finish line eventually began to come into view. The marshals had put the banner back up and there was a large crowd waiting for me. A lady whizzed past me on a buggy with two runners in it, more DNFs. I ran alongside them, weaving side to side, feeling like I was going to pass out at any moment, or my legs were going to snap. 100 meters, 50 meters, 20 meters. I threw myself across the finish line to rapacious applause from the few marshals and organisers that remained.

Great wall of China marathon finish line

I wish I remembered this moment more but it was all a little foggy. I received my medal walked over to a patch of concrete and collapsed, literally. My legs gave in, my brain switched off and everything went black. My poor body had not been fulled well and had just given in, my own fault entirely. I woke up to a lady giving me a full body stretch in the tent by the finish with a few others. I turned my head and saw my medal, I smiled and thought "Bloody hell now I see why people think I am a bit odd".

I did not stand up for a bit but was brought food by the race organiser, funnily enough, the lady from CP4 and 7. "We were going to make you stop at the last checkpoint, but you flew down those stairs with such speed and determination that it was clear you were going to finish". Only 27 of the full marathon runners finished, 144 of you started you should be very proud of yourself, well done." Whether or not this was true I have no clue, I have never checked the results because I was technically last. However, I chose to believe the lady so I could feel some pride in coming last!

It was here I burst into further tears. Tears of happiness, exhaustion, pride, confusion, anger and elation. Food down, and the feeling coming back to my legs I got up and wandered over to the man with the OCR worlds top on, he had dropped out, as had the group of people next to him. A lot of people came up and congratulated me saying that few people finish this Great Wall marathon (there are two to pick from, the other is in the main touristy area this one out in the sticks) and that many have two or three attempts at it in order to get the medal. Proud did not come close to how I felt. I could not stop smiling.

hugs all round

Unfortunately, this was short-lived, walking back to the bus whilst recording the finish video update I was trying so hard not to cry (again) and when I got on the bus I silently sobbed at the pain my legs were in, how hungry I still was, how tired I was and the amount of salt falling off my face, what had I done to my body. Everyone else was asleep on the journey back but I was wide awake despite the tiredness, reliving every moment and wishing I had trained properly and thought about fueling. I underestimated this race, I treated it the same as a 30k OCR race and that was a huge mistake. It needed respect that I did not give and as a result, I struggled, Yes I finished but it was not pretty.

So Why Iron Man?!:

The feeling of completion of this race was like nothing I have ever experienced before. I felt a sense of overwhelming achievement but also of disappointment that I did not train leading up to the event as much as I could have done and that I did not give it the respect it deserved. I know Iron Man demands respect and I want to cross the line knowing I have done all I can. I want the feeling of triumph from China but without the regret and disappointment of knowing I did not do all I could have done. China was the hardest thing I have ever done to date mentally and physically, it very nearly finished me off. I have the feeling that without proper training I will not finish Iron Man. This is a race I do not want to fluke, this is a race you can not fluke, this will be the first race I have not fluked, and that in itself is a scary prospect, requiring a certain degree of growing up.

Therefore, the reason I am doing Iron Man is to capture that sense of pure elation again, but also to feel a deeper sense of achievement as I will have worked towards this goal more than anything else I have done previously sports-wise. I am rarely proud of myself, I brush achievements off, China is the first time I have actually been proud of myself. However, this is not going to merely be pride from one day's achievement. This will be pride when a new PB is reached on the bike when I learn to fix my bike on my own, when I swim faster than the week before, it will be pride during and from months and months of preparation. If that isn't a feeling worth chasing I do not know what is.

Organisation 8/10

Fun 8/10

Difficulty 9/10


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