Im surprised the Chinese girls plimsolls arent melting as she passes me on the hill. Its 35°C and rising at the start of the second annual Great Wall Marathon.
No amount of sunblock or light-coloured headgear makes it seem like anything less. As this frail form pulls ahead, I notice a red ribbon tied around her ankle. Attached to it is her electronic timing chip, the one the rest of us have looped through our shoelaces. A closer look reveals that not only is the girl running in canvas gym shoes: the slip-on uppers dont even have laces.
Wang Wei Hua the girl in question is one of 85 runners in Tianjiin province today. Our nationalities are as diverse as our abilities 11 from China, a majority from Denmark (home of the race organisers), half a dozen from the US, some from France, Sweden, Germany, and me from the UK. For the first 5K were grinding up a narrow tarmac road in bright, clear sunlight, past a few homes and a small, dusty building site. The seasoned campaigners are going slowly because they know what to expect in a race of this distance. The first-timers are going slowly because they dont. Were all going slowly.
At the top of the road a path leads through a brushing of small trees, up 20 stone steps and onto the Great Wall. If you joined all the Walls surviving sections together, they could stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Today well just be running a pristine two-mile section which clings to the hilly landscape as if it was drawn on with a pen.
Its hard, at the best of times, to take in the scale of the Great Wall of China. Not just the mind-boggling physical size of it (it covers 3700 miles, and if rebuilt five metres high and one metre thick would encircle the entire globe), but also the crushing human endeavour that went into its construction at the urgent commands of a succession of emperors. Thousands of workers died of exhaustion as they slaved to separate China from its perceived enemies. Chillingly, their corpses are believed to have been buried in the Walls foundations.
We can only reflect on this in the quiet time after the race, however; at the moment the running is taking our complete focus.
The Great Wall is an almost relentless series of climbs and descents; a mixture of small, shallow steps, and painful, knee-high ones. Mercifully, at the top of every head-spinning, gut-wrenching climb theres a cool, dark watchtower made of thick stone slabs, where clusters of volunteers and medics offer drinks, sponges and words of encouragement. Its no surprise that the watchtowers also house gatherings of lingering runners steeling themselves for the plunge back into the furnace outside.
I approach the end of the first Wall section and the sight of the main road section with relief, even though it means negotiating a plummeting 562-step descent. This descent, which combines stone steps with short sections of hard dirt path, is lined with small, fragrant trees and stunted shrubs. Its also lined, at any hint of danger or fork in the path, with unfailingly kind and deferential local helpers. Around the whole course they shyly offer words of encouragement, their broken English putting our Chinese to shame.
Safely back down on the valley road where we started, I fall into step with Søren Skov, a 55-year-old runner from Denmark whose brother ran the inaugural Great Wall Marathon the previous year. Hes a veteran of 25 marathons, and as we seem to be on 4:30 pace Im surprised to find that hes predicting himself a finish time nearer six hours. Later I realise he had the advantage of insight.
The valley passes through a one-street village on a smoothly tarmaced main road. The term main road is relative fewer than half a dozen cars pass us in a mile. Villagers watch us quietly, down on their haunches on the hard-packed dirt in front of their houses and shops, or sitting on their concrete steps. They only break out in smiles and return our greetings when we call to them. Some of them practice all their English in a burst hello!goodbye!how-are-you! while others thrust their delighted, round-faced children forward to wave and beam at the crazy Westerners.
This is a good part of the race flat, shaded, and the first chance weve had to find any kind of rhythm. Still, the kilometre markers are coming awfully slowly.
Soon were guided onto one of the undulating scorched-earth tracks that will form nearly half of the course. A riverbed running alongside looks the way the insides of our mouths feel by now. The surface of cracked mud and smooth white stones is bone dry and blazing in the heat.
Further back on the road, runners are already having problems, with little over a third of the marathon under their belts. Theyre mindful of the need to keep drinking and theyre trying to make the most of the frequent water stations, but the heat is making them nauseous. The worse they feel, the less they drink, until they find themselves in a downward spiral that grinds some of them to a halt. Its to the fields credit that only 17 of the 85 starters drop out.
Most of us have been able to train for the marathon distance, and some for the climbs, but its the temperature thats the unknown quantity. Tellingly, one group of finishers will look incongruously cheerful as they cross the line, despite the fact theyll have been out on the course for six and a half hours and that this is not only the first marathon for most of them, but some of them havent even tackled a road race before. Their secret? Theyve been training on the high-altitude, sun-baked lava fields of Hawaii, where they live. And, nearly as importantly, theyve been listening to their bodies today and taking their time.
Many of the sights from the race and our sightseeing in Beijing the racks of sliced lychees drying in the sun near the Wall; the peaceful rivers of cyclists drifting through rush-hour traffic in the capital are exotic and unusual. But some are just unforgettably bizarre. Well all take different mental snapshots back home with us, and heres one of mine: as we run through the dusty main street of the small town of Xiaying, we pass ad hoc stalls offering crates of warm soft drinks and slabs of meat on hooks. Sandwiched in among them is a group of men playing pool on a beaten-up table in the street. They all share a single cue and negotiate the balls around a ripped, threadbare baize. On second glance, I see that one of the players has a metal hook where his hand should be. He plays as normal, as if he doesnt even think about it.
Past halfway in the race, were feeling more beaten-up than that rickety pool table. My own run-walk routine has faded from eight minutes run, one minute walk, to five minutes/two minutes and the really scary thing is that Im still passing people.
By the time we reach 34K and get to the Wall for the second time, were fried. This time well be tracing the two-mile Wall section in the opposite direction, before descending the original 5K hill to the finish. The really warped joke is that to get back onto it we have to make our way up the same 562 steps we hobbled down so many hours ago. This part of the race literally brings some runners to their knees and encourages others to dispose involuntarily of the contents of their stomachs. On the climb, many experiment with walk-rest combinations that become as desperate as three steps at a time.
The ascent takes 15 minutes for some; over 30 for others. On the top, most of the Wall is a 15ft-wide staircase with tall walls on both sides, but the first part of our return journey is a suntrap an uneven walkway with a single brick wall to the left of it. Handrails and the ever-present marshals help here, but by now all of us just want to get off the Wall and down to the primitive cold showers at the finish. When we get back home, friends will invariably ask us if the whole of the marathon was on the Wall. We will smile wryly and tell them that four miles hit the spot just fine.
A film crew for Eurosport asks me how Im doing. I lie that things arent going too badly. The reality is that while the Wall itself isnt treating me as harshly as I feared, Im worried about the final leg on the road. Ordinarily a steep downhill 5K would be a PB-busting delight, but now every gingerly-taken down-step on the wall is a jolt to my fraying muscles.
By the time I get to the pine-lined asphalt, Ive prepared myself for a near-walk of another hour. But after a few tentative steps, Im almost jogging smoothly, then actually running with the downhill, turning my stride lightly so I can barely feel the road under me. Chances are that photographic evidence proves otherwise, but my memory is of feeling that way until I reach the finish line.
Once I get there I cant even make my mouth work or think about anything until Ive collapsed in the shade. What a race: you versus the only manmade object visible from space. If it wasnt for the Chinese runners who, in their stripped-down shoes still manage to come across the timing mat in five, six and seven hours, youd think the odds were stacked impossibly against you.