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How to Prepare for the Great Wall Marathon in 8 Steps

One wall. Two races. One big adventure.

China has two major marathons, the Great Wall Marathon and the easily confused Great Wall China Marathon. Both are intense, both require lots of training and a high level of physical fitness. Neither are recommended for a first-time marathon runner.

Thinking of running? This year’s races are both held in May, a short distance from Beijing. Lace up your runners and start preparing now!

Step 1: Choose your race

The more popular GWC sold out well in advance in 2013, so be sure to book early and secure a spot BEFORE booking flights and accommodation. Both races offer full marathon (42k), half marathon (21k), and fun run (8.5k or 5.5k) options.

The Great Wall Marathon (GWM)

Location: Huangyaguan Pass in Tianjin

Date: May 17, 2014

Registration deadline: March 20, 2014

Map: Click to view GWM map

Age limit: Full marathon (18+), half marathon (16+), fun run (12+, under 12 must be accompanied by an adult)

Pros: Established in 1999, the GWM is the most popular Great Wall race, with upwards of  3,000 participants in 2013. Unlike its counterpart, the GWM is acknowledged by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS).

Cons: Non-resident participants cannot register without buying either the six-day or seven-day tour package. Only residents of China can register for the race. Though the website claims that start times are based on projected finish times of runners, past participants have complained that full marathon runners and half marathon runners all started at the same time based on tour groups, causing major congestion and long slow-downs on the wall. 

Great Wall China Marathon

Location: Simatai and Jinshanling section of the Great Wall

Date: May 1, 2014

Registration deadline: April 15, 2014

Map: Click to view map

Age limit: Full and half marathon (18+), fun run (all ages)

Pros: A much smaller race at 500+ participants, the Great Wall China Marathon is much less likely to have congestion on the wall, a common problem in the GWM. Corrals are based on estimation finish times provided at registration. Unlike the GWM, most of the race is run on the wall. The marathon’s website offers a basic training program and intermediate training program for more advanced runners.

Cons: Runners must also register for a tour package in order to participate in the race. If the energy of the crowd is your thing, the GWM might be a better option since this race is much smaller than its counterpart. Many sections of the wall on this route are unrepaired, which means you have to keep entering and exiting to avoid danger spots. 

Step 2

Train well for stairs and hills. On the GWM, even the non-wall part is uphill. See their altitude diagram for details. Regardless of which race you’re running, stair running should make up a large portion of your training in the months leading up to race day. Hit the stairmaster at the gym a few times a week for interval training, and train with as much uphill running as possible. Strength training is important, since those muscles will be working on overtime on the wall. Endurance training should be a no-brainer.

Step 3

Apply for a visa. Once your race registration is confirmed, and flights and accommodations are booked, you’ll need to apply for a tourist visa. Contact your local Chinese embassy for details. In order to obtain a visa, your passport must be valid for at least six months after your date of entry.

Step 4

Get your gear in order. This race is challenging! Give yourself a head start by showing up with the best gear your pocketbook can manage. If you’ve got new shoes, be sure to train in them for a while. Test them out on at least a 10k run, making sure you don’t get any discomfort or blisters. Wear a visor rather than a hat; the average high in May is about 26°C/79°F, with about 50 percent humidity. Pack light coloured running clothes and plenty of sunblock. Wear material that breathes. Forget cotton.

Step 5

Be prepared for some slow downs on race day. These events are as much for tourists as they are for runners. Even though it takes a serious runner to complete the marathon, this is after all the Great Wall. It’s pretty spectacular to look at. To boot, GWM hosts thousands of people, crowds the wall isn’t well-equipped to handle all at once.

In 2012, GWM starts were based on tour groups and not previous marathon times. This appears to have been corrected but runners would do well to keep an open mind. Accept that there may be delays and enjoy the race anyway.

Step 6

Be prepared with plenty of water and extra calories. Past participants have complained about availability of water, watered down sports drinks, etc. While this too appears to have been corrected in recent years, it never hurts to come prepared. If you want to avoid hitting a wall halfway through the marathon (hopefully not the Great Wall!), you should replenish your carbs about every 90 minutes. Like a car, your body can only hold so much fuel. After two hours, it’ll be all burned up. 

Step 7

Prepare a meet-up time with your friends and family BEFORE the race. Lots of people will be finishing the race at once. Crowds get crazy. Don’t count on your cell phone, unless you intend to race with it. Scope out the finish point point before the race and choose a good spot. The finish line won’t be far from the starting point, but it’s still better not to leave it until the morning of the race.

Step 8

Stay open minded and have fun. The Great Wall is a marathon like no other. Race day is unpredictable. Commit to having fun and staying flexible, no matter what happens, and you’re almost guaranteed the experience of a lifetime.


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