Building Bridges from Walls: The Great Wall Marathon, Huangyaguan, China
My motivation to run comes in different forms, shapes, and sizes. I oscillate between wanting to run as fast as I can, to running as far as I can, to running big-city marathons, to running up mountains, to running at the bottom of the world. My motivation to travel follows a similar path: I want to see bold landscapes with strangers who've traveled far to get there, experience kitchy roadside attractions with my closest friends, capture the sunset on a lonely stretch of coast by myself.
But my desire to run in China came from someplace different.
America is at a crossroads. It’s obvious to everyone I’ve met on the road, and it’s obvious to people living within its boundaries. At its simplest, the intersection of America's divide splits people two ways: Those who supported a leader who lowered drawbridges to the suffering, and those who support a leader who’s putting up walls to shut those people out.
I follow the path that believes building walls in an age of technology and advanced communication is meaningless, weak, and embarassingly symbolic. But I understand that in parts of our ancient world, it was an arguable necessity.
The Great Wall Marathon is run on the third Saturday in May every year. It’s home to 5,134 stairs of varying sizes in a mere 6 miles of the race. The remaining miles are run through a sparse, poor Chinese village. The temperatures soar, the rocks on the wall bake, and your quads shake at the mercy of squatting down thigh-high stairs. It sounded unforgettable.
The weather on race day creeped to a staggering 101-degrees Fahrenheit with humidity to match and no opportunities for shade. Very aware of the implications of running an intense physical event under those conditions, the race directors altered the rules to ensure athletes finished safely and without feeling like they traveled to the other side of the world only to have their day cut early.
Conditions aside, the race was nothing short of brutal.
"You look a little too calm for what we're about to get into," my new travel buddy Dawn said to me as we stretched out pre-race. I loath the heat and wasn't looking forward to baking in the sun while putting out any sort of physical effort.
But I couldn't make myself get nervous about my race or the harsh weather. While sitting at the base of the ridgeline and looking at the stairs that disappeared over the hillside, my self-induced pain was nothing compared to the human effort that went into this Wonder of the World's construction.
The section of our race in the Tianjin province was built between the years 550 and 557. People lost their lives constructing this wall -- all at the command of ancient Chinese emperors and not personal choice -- and it's said their remains are plastered within the wall's cracks. This was sacred ground, and I felt honored to even be there.
The craftsmanship and details on the wall cannot be overlooked; the effort of lugging large stones up a mountain pass is astounding. And perhaps the most awkward and chaotic thought I had was that this construction -- much after its time -- is actually jaw-droppingly beautiful.
But aside from tourism, the wall no longer serves a purpose; the popularity of marathons allows everyday people the opportunity to break personal barriers. The Great Wall Marathon combines these elements on one symbolic backdrop: What once kept people apart now brings people together. More than 50 countries toed the starting line in Yin and Yang Square to defeat this particular beast. The villagers of Tianjin screamed words of encouragement to runners, their broken English putting my Mandarin phrases to shame. It truly was a magnificently orchestrated event that all walks of life came together for.
Experiencing the community -- running and culturally -- that the Great Wall has fostered gives me hope that, despite what happens in my home country, humanity will continue to find ways to build bridges from walls.