China Marathon Log 005 Part 2

Sunday 15th May 2016

(Forewarning:  This is a bit of long one)

Apologies in advance for the lack of pictures, typos and poor quality paragraphs. The restrictions on social media and WordPress in China is problematic. It’s taken me about 6 hours to get to this stage, and I lost one post.

It’s Saturday evening, the night before the marathon and I have just completed China Marathon Log 004 and I’m too wide awake to sleep.

I’ve become quite good at meditating recently and reckon if I do that, I can get into a deep with little effort. Oh, how I was wrong. My heart was beating so hard, not fast but hard, that I could feel my chest vibrating with each beat.  And I could not only hear it but feel it in my ears.  I concentrated on very deep breathing in an attempt to clear my mind.

The adrenaline in my body is making my hearing super sensitive and everything is so loud, even in the middle of the night. I have quite sensitive hearing anyway, but right now I can hear the electric coming into the room.  The pulsating buzz entering the plug points, so highly pitched I am sure only dogs (and me) can hear it.  Every time I try to stop hearing it, it gets louder.

An hour passes, now I only have 2 hours to get some sleep.

The person in a room opposite starts clearing the phlegm from deep inside their throat and spitting it out. WTF! It’s 23:45. Surely, that’s an activity for the day?  I haven’t heard a single noise from their room before this and they decide to do it now? The deep breathing continues.

00:30 – I concentrate on the deep hum of the air-conditioning unit which cancels out the high pitched buzzing from the electrics.  My heart is now beating normally, I am still taking deep breathes and my arm twitches. Yes!  This indicates I will be asleep soon.

I do not remember falling asleep.  Finally, my mind is relaxed.  The alarm goes off at 01:00. I have slept for 10 minutes.  Brilliant. The biggest event of my life so far and I have had 10 minutes sleep.  The plan to not have a plan is going well.

My kit is all laid out on the floor ready. It’s about the only thing I’ve done to prepare.  There’s no breakfast except for a Meridian Peanut and Cocoa Bar.
We’ve ordered a taxi in advance and I’m shocked to see him waiting on the street for us…. on time!!!

The reception area in one of grandest hotels I have ever been to starts to fill up with excited runners, ready for the coach at 03:00. I make Facetime calls to loved ones and receive some last minute advice.  Informing them I haven’t slept doesn’t fill them with confidence but they also tell me they know I will do it. It’s what I need to hear to make me feel happy and calm, in amongst the chaos going on around me.

I know I’m going to be ok with no sleep as I’ve completed a 48 hour event before with no sleep.  I was so tired at one point in that event, I fell asleep and fell into the side of the road whilst walking. I woke up once we had to perform physical exercise and tasks though, so I knew running 26.2 miles across the Great Wall of China would wake me up.

On the bus to the start line (2 hours), sleep was out of the question due to the crazy Chinese roads and bus driver, so used my Headspace app to do 2 meditation sessions.

The race was meant to start at 06:00 but that’s the time we arrive at the event village. I’m quickly learning, in China nothing goes to plan and they go with the flow.  That fits nicely with my plan.

It’s windy and chilly in the valley this early and I feel a little silly applying suncream but I know it’s the most sensible thing to do.

At 06:45, it seems like the run is about to start.  I strip into my race gear and head to the start line, but people have already started running.  What’s going on?  It’s so unorganised. Apparently the full marathon has started so there’s not even a chance to say bye to my friend Erik and properly pack my bag. I whizz over to the start line, start running, not even fully knowing if this is my race. My event begins. That wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but at least I wasn’t given any time to get nervous.

400m into the run, I meet a lovely lady called Jo.  She is from the UK and takes part in obstacle races. She asks if I’ve been training much and I tell her I’m a rower (Ha! Ridiculous, I’m far from a rower, but it’s worth a try). She instantly knows I am training to row across the Atlantic and has seen me on the Obstacle Race UK Facebook page.  Incredible! 300 runners and I make friends with Jo.  I just love how the world works.  I run with her for a bit then get on my way.

I’m looking forward to spending the event by myself and having time to think, or quite the opposite, time to not think about anything.

The first 5k is a loop on tarmac that I’m guessing is included just to make up the distance. It’s pretty but far from what I had imagined.

Then it gets good.  We hit a single track trail and I am forced to walking pace within 10m. And that’s it from now on, it’s walking for pretty much the entire event.  If there were any flats or mild downhill, I would run.  Other than that, it was steep up and down and many many stairs!!!

It amazed me the different kinds of people doing the event. There were very fit and experienced athletes, fit, unfit, and some very unfit participants. There were some geared up to the eyeballs with all top end sports kit, race vests, bottles and lycra, and then there were others wearing cotton shorts and t-shirts with their iPhone arm pouches and earphones, like they were going out for a short morning run. They didn’t even have a hydration pack. How very strange.  I saw one girl wearing Earth Runner sandals (I want a pair), one guy was wearing this strange see-through green poncho thing (he wore it for the whole race even in the mid day sun) and one guy was running the whole marathon barefoot.  Plenty were obviously acclimatised to the heat, as they wore hoodies, waterproofs and running jackets. Blimey!

I knew nothing about the course as I purposefully didn’t look at the map during the race briefing. The whole marathon route consisted of 2 loops of 4 sections.  We ran each section there and back, then repeated the whole course again.
The first complete loop took me about 4 hours.  Snack stations were few and far between and I was pleased I’d bought my Vitargo powder with me. As recommended, I drank even when I wasn’t thirsty, sipped on my carbohydrate mix every 10-15 minutes and saturated my hat with plain water every 15 minutes.

The weather was EXTREMELY kind to me. I felt like I was being protected by a special force, as there was a strong breeze on top of the wall, the sun was out but it wasn’t too strong. (Today in Beijing, as I write this, it’s 30+ degrees. If I had run in that, my marathon story would be very different indeed).

The stairs and climbs were intense.  Each step was a different height from the last so it meant there was no rhythm to the climb. There were quite literally thousands of steps!
Up, then down, then up, then down, you’d see the next checkpoint and then see the number of steps to complete before getting there.  And when you got there, you just turn around and head straight back.  It was a real physical and mental game.

The 4 sections were :
1. the tarmac road.
2. the trail climb to the wall
3. the restored wall (with nice steps)
4. the old wall (a minefield of broken, dusty, crumbling rocky steps).

The old wall was crazy!  I’m not too fearful of heights and balancing, I thank obstacle racing for that, but some sections were so crumbly, that some people had a hard time navigating their way up and down the deteriorating steps.  One slip could have ended up in not a very nice situation.

Towards the end of section 4 I saw a girl up ahead.  She looked like my friend, Fi Silk. In my head I pretended we were on a fun day out and that I wasn’t only 35% through my monster challenge. Pretend-Fi was about the same speed as me and I stayed the same distance behind her until the next checkpoint.  Here we made friends and stuck together for a bit.  Her name was Lauren.  We had similar body shapes (which made me think we’d have similar strengths), enjoyed the same sports and both agreed we liked stairs better than running.  I thought “she’d be good to hang with for a bit” so we did.
It was great, we were the same pace, had the same game plan, there was chit chat and best of all, when we were silent, it felt relaxed.  We completed the last part of loop one together (half marathon distance) and began our second round.

Halfway through section 2, we only had 1.5 hours to reach the checkpoint at the other side of the wall and were cutting it fine.  If we didn’t get there in time, we wouldn’t be able to finish the race. We had now been on the move for 6.5+ hours.
The heat was increasing and my knees were starting to tell me they weren’t having a good time. Without notice, Lauren ran off but I was cool with that, I knew she was keen to make the checkpoint.  I was also pleased to be inside my own head for a bit.  I stuck next to the edge of the wall where there was a bit of shade.  The sun had got his hat on and was definitely coming out to play and my legs were red.  I couldn’t work out if they were burnt or just had lots of blood in them from the amount of activity. I never wear shorts, even when exercising so had never seen my legs look like that. They didn’t feel burnt and I was applying suncream frequency but stuck in the shade all the same.

I enjoyed the time alone.  There was no one else around me, just a few runners who I passed running out towards the checkpoint I had just been too. I can’t even remember what I was thinking about.  Despite being a challenge, I wasn’t wishing that it would be over soon.  I had formed a rhythm with my breathing with my running/stairs/steps.  Each 2 steps was an inhale, the next 2 were an exhale and so on. I had been doing this for hours and was now on auto pilot.  It was like an active version of meditating. I felt relaxed.

Some steps were so steep, I had to bear crawl up them using my hands. (check out the video here)

Without intention, I caught Lauren up on section 4 towards the last checkpoint.  She thanked me for the emergency ‘morale-boosting’ peanut M&M’s I gave her earlier in the race and that they had worked. We had to push quite hard to beat the cut off time of 3pm. This was the hardest I’d worked all day, as had been pacing myself steadily up until then. Arriving with about 8 minutes to spare, we celebrated with a Subway sandwich and an Ibuprofen party.
Lauren is a very clean eater like me. She was fuelling on nuts and little sugar for the event but my plan-to-not-have-a-plan was contagious.  We popped painkillers, gels, chews, bread and all kinds of processed food in the final 2 hours.

I’ve been gluten free for 12 years and haven’t eaten bread in that time.  There I was, sitting in the dirt, eating a processed ham and soft cheese white bread roll from Subway (!!!!!!) that had been sitting in the sun for 6 hours, so much so that the lettuce had gone brown.  It tasted delicious!  I ate another one!

I applied a few Compeeds on the balls of each foot as a precaution, and after a little rest, we were on our way to the finish line.  We now had to climb the end of section 4 and descend section 2. Both were steep.  I wasn’t in any rush to get back, plus the heat had really ramped up, so we decided to take it slow and enjoy the views.

These final 2 sections were when it got really tough!
I still felt strong and my mind felt good but my legs weren’t moving like I wanted them too.  The painkillers were working a treat but I just wasn’t moving very fast.  Despite having ‘run’ this part of the course earlier in the day, I couldn’t remember it.  It all felt so hard and I was becoming clumsy. The crumbling wall was now even worse having had so many people run over it and we were now going at a snail’s pace climbing down.  It was very dangerous (video to demonstrate). I was very tired and was now being over cautious.

I kept looking ahead for where we turn off towards the finish line but couldn’t see it.  The wall twisted and turned, up and down endlessly, and I hoped round each corner the finish would be in sight.

I thought about my friend Darren who had given me some advice before coming out here. Next week he’ll be taking part in the Cape Wrath Ultra Marathon – a 230-mile running adventure through Scotland taking place over 8 days. My activity was just 1/8th of his. I then thought about my Atlantic row challenge. There would be no ‘corners’ or physical landmarks to aim for in the middle of the Atlantic, nothing to see except for ocean every day for 50+ days. This was a walk in the park in comparison. That thought was enough to clear my head of ‘wishing it was over.’

And suddenly, before I knew it, the turning was right there! Lauren was confident at downhill running so she agreed to meet me at the finish line and whizzed off. If my knees didn’t feel like they were being eroded by acid, I may have given it a go but instead, I trotted along the tree-lined trail, taking in the nature and wildlife of the final few kilometres. I was completely alone. It was beautiful. I almost didn’t want it to end. I can now see why people take part in ultra marathons, the time alone to relax in my mind was wonderful.

As the land began to flatten out, I was surprised at how fast I was running. It’s weird, the descends in the event cancelled the effects of the climbs. The climbs cancelled the effects of the descents. The running cancelled the effects of the 2, jiggling my muscles around and removing the lactic acid and aches. I carried on running, enjoying being covered by lush green trees and listening to the birds. The noise soon turned into cheers coming from the finish line and even though I didn’t want it to end, it made me run faster!

Emerging from the trees, I couldn’t believe I had done it. I also couldn’t believe I’d been out there for so long and still felt reasonably OK. I thought there might be points where I’d cry, get fed up with my kit, get frustrated and having to push myself to the limit, but it all felt great.

As I ran down the final 50m, spectators and fellow runners cheered and I felt so happy!

Lauren and Erik were at the finish line waiting (Erik had been volunteering all day due to injury). I collected the best medal I have ever received and gave Lauren a massive hug!
My time was 10 hours 10 minutes 11.5 seconds. This is the longest continuous cardio-based event I have ever done so far.

After many pictures and cereal bars, we crammed ourselves into a bus that was clearly designed for tiny Chinese people, bending our swollen, tired limbs between the seats. It didn’t take long before I was dribbling all over my travel pillow, fast asleep.

The rest of the evening consisted of a post-event gathering, food, food, socialising, food, chatter and food. I was fit to burst with food when leaving the restaurant but on the way back to our hotel, my insatiable hunger activated again and I ended up buying 2 ice creams and a packet of cookies from the little shop round the corner from our hotel. I then proceeded to sit in bed spooning ice cream on top of the cookies – carbs, lactose and sugar – all things I don’t usually eat – complete and utter yum!

I effortlessly fell into a comatose sleep…….. after I located the high pitched noise coming from the TV plug. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

My race review and thoughts on my (lack of) planning feature here:
How Not to Prepare for a Marathon Abroad
Conquer the Wall China Marathon