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Two brothers take on Great Wall marathon

great wall marathon2

Alexander Goble, left, and his brother Taylor after completing a grueling half-marathon on the Great Wall of China.

By Alexander Goble

“Beijing is like a crucible in which one cannot but be transformed.” An apt description of the city where I've found a second home, attributed to Mao Zedong no less, but the saying works for any foreign city one might live in. I find it a more appropriate description for the Great Wall Marathon, a race that occurs each April, falling on April 15th this year.

The marathon bills itself as "the most beautiful great wall, the most difficult marathon", running through a mountainous area 125 kilometers Northeast of Beijing called JinShanLing. If my Chinese was right (it's often wrong) I heard that there were about 1,300 runners this year from all around the world. We all stood near the starting line waiting for the "game" (as the Chinese translate it) to start and watched with amusement as the government representatives gave stuffy announcements for almost 10 minutes following a

coordinated warm-up that had every Chinese runner stretching and pumping in unison and everyone else staring openly or rolling their eyes, depending on how long they've been in China.

The Great Wall that most people know, built mostly during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), is a lumbering snake, lazily curving over the mountains of northern China, at once beautiful and awe-inspiring. Standing on it brings out the view, thins the air, and makes you wonder about how it was built and who died along the way. Running on the Great Wall breaks you down and makes you wonder if you can cross the finish line. I describe it as surviving the wall, not running, not jogging. Not even walking. And you shuffle past people who look like they died along the way.

The stones are old, uneven, and often broken. The paths are so steep that you have to use your hands to keep yourself from falling and gloves become almost necessary. Every watchtower creates a funnel of runners hopping through the same holes ancient soldiers moved through when the alarm bells rang. I only remember it that way now though. At the time I mostly wondered if I could actually make the jump or whether I should massage my muscles back to something like normal again (I had to work the cramps out at every watchtower on the way back) in front of the people in the corner who were ready to give up.

I have to admit that I might have quit if I had a sidewalk to step off onto instead of an eight-meter drop. That, and my brother passed me somewhere near the 15th kilometer. He was smart enough to train for the distance, while I started a new job and found excuses to skip workouts. We had six hours to finish, but I didn't care until an old Chinese man asked me if I was running the half marathon. I nodded and he said "three minutes," tapping his watch, and I picked up the pace like Keyser Soze leaving the police station. 

I finished in 5:57:29 and my brother was some 15 minutes ahead of me. We sat down under the beating sun wishing never to run again, took a quick photo and went back into the crowded city, limping our way around Beijing and moaning as we took each stair in the Forbidden City. And every step was worth it.