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My Great Wall Marathon: 10 Lessons Learned The Hard Way


May 15, 2017 The time is finally here! After Almost 2 years of planning and 6 months of training, I'm about to board for a long, LONG flight to China to run the Great Wall of China Marathon! In sitting at the Au Bon Pain at Laguardia awaiting my already delayed flight, I can't help but look back at the path I had to take to train for one of the world's most challenging marathons.

Marathon training tip #1: Whatever program you choose, add 2 weeks for set-backs.

I planned for this race two years earlier at an ashram in India. I met Dawn, one of my now best friends at a yoga retreat, and she was a fellow runner. We wondered when the next time was going to be that we would meet again, and we decided that an adventure race sounds perfect. Enter: The Great Wall of China Marathon 2017.

Official training began with all other New Years Resolutions...January 1. It is really a long time for a marathon training program, but in the extra time I built in set backs, such as bad weather, illness, and too-tired-might-as-well-sit-on-the-couch-and-eat-carbs-today-days. I certainly experienced all of them. Adding on, training in NYC had plenty of its struggles. Marathon training tip #2: For the best success, plan your life around your runs. In my earlier weeks I had short enough runs that I could just go out the door for half an hour or so. Once the mileage really increased, though, I had to start getting creative. It's one thing to train on your hometown, where you know all the trails and the routes that will get your distance with no problem...but I just moved to NYC four months prior. When I went for a run I had to trust that when I went in one direction, that it was the way I needed and would get me back safe, and, in time. I often spent my lunch break at work running along the Hudson river, a mix of car and boat exhaust, with small breaks of greenery and a breeze off the water that almost made me forget I was running in the city.

What ended up happening most often was Chris and I would go to our favorite bagel shop by the apartment on Saturdays and drive 45 mins up Long Island to a beautiful running trail. It was worth the drive. Marathon training tip #3: Educate yourself as much as you can BEFORE training starts. then keep asking questions along the way, because stuff is going to keep happening that you need answers to. I have never trained for a run like this. I read books, articles, talked to fellow runners, and tried my hardest to stay the course, but I tell you what, most of the time I was craving carbs 100% of the time. I learned some of the best tips simply by reaching out to friends and family who know marathons. Our first plane will be boarding soon, but I will keep posting updates of my journey as we go along! Bon Voyage! GREAT WALL OF CHINA MARATHON! CHAPTER 2: TIRED AF

May 16, 2017 I'm laying in one of two tiny doubles in our hotel, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and staring down my bag of snacks that I packed for the trip...granola bars, bulk candy, chocolate, Starbucks VIA instant coffee, bacon snacks, and I'm trying my hardest to make a good choice. Chia bar it is. Marathon training tip #4: eat familiar foods in the days leading up to and including the race. With regards to diet during race training, consistency is key. Sampling a bit when you are abroad is indeed part of the whole experience, but pack an arsenal of staples like energy bars and trail mix to keep snacking and post-run foods consistent. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a bathroom for hours on end, or worse, stomach upset to suddenly appear mid-run.

The flight to Toronto was a hour, no big deal. Slightly delayed, we had just enough time to sit at a restaurant and order panini before boarding called. We boarded, settled in, and I then spent 13 hours confirming with myself once again that I cannot sleep sitting up on an airplane. So, three meals, one season of Atlanta, numerous games and ...I fell asleep typing that last bit. Sitting up, ironically. It's Wednesday morning now. Continuing: ...numerous games and movies paired with uncomfortable sitting positions later, I slept a total of zero hours. All good, though, as I managed to stay awake through the ride to the hotel, checking in with the tour group, showering, and exploring 3 minutes worth of walking down the street in order to buy 6 total litres of bottled water for a grand total of 12 yuen (approx. 45 cents per bottle, yay!). Marathon training tip #5: stay hydrated, all the time, at all costs...ESPECIALLY when travelling.

Airplanes keep the humidity as close to zero as possible to maintain sanitary cabin conditions. Which is like being stuck in a hotel room with the AC on blast for the duration of all three Lord of The Rings movies back-to-back. So when they come around with beverage service...accept!

As a safety precaution just don't drink tap water from other countries. It’s not always a contamination issue (but hey depends where you are), the amoebas and naturally occurring trace stuff are just different enough than what you are used to in your water, enough to cause anything from stomach upset to being exiled to the bathroom.

Take a walk to the nearest bodega and buy a few 1.5 litre bottles, plus at least 1 gallon to keep in your hotel room to refill or make tea/coffee with if needed. We both ended up waking back up around 2:30AM Beijing time, so instead of tossing and turning for hours we brought out the Uno Cards and Bulk candy, and allowed our brains to adjust and get tired enough again to fall asleep for a few hours. Success! 6:00 rolled around and we got up preparing ourselves enough to look like reasonably-OK Americans at the dining room for breakfast. If you haven't interacted with me first thing in the morning, you don't know how really truly important coffee is to my functionality. As in, the first thing I packed for this trip was Starbucks VIA singles. You know, just for safety.

Marathon training tip #6: you better make peace with your relationship with carbs before committing to training for an endurance race.

The dining room was a beautifully decorated banquet room with a combination of Chinese, Western, and Scandinavian breakfast items. Which meant my plate included waffles, lo-mein, and cheese danish. Found an empty dining table closest to the coffee. GREAT WALL OF CHINA MARATHON! CHAPTER 3: HOT AF

May 17&18, 2017

Day 2: Not too far of a bus ride away was Tiannmen square and the Forbidden City. What I took away from our 5ish hours walking around in the humid heat was that politically and socially, Chinese prepare to host some of the biggest parties around. The parliament building could host 10,000 people. The main square could hold 1 million people. The emperor had 10,000 rooms built in the forbidden city. Like the Louvre in France, to see every part of this place would take weeks. I'm grateful we had the abridged version of the tour, and that I had my super-comfy Nike flats on for the day. Which brings me to my next point: Marathon training tip #7: like your running shoes, choose leisure footwear wisely.

One of the most difficult things to do is choose footwear based on its functionality instead of its looks. However, when you know the trip you’re going on will include lots of walking, choose shoes that have cushioning and perhaps a bit of arch support for the parts of the day you’ll be moving around the most. This will keep your feet, legs, and even back in tip-top shape the entire journey. Biggest takeaway: don’t pack flip flops unless you’re heading to a beach.

Marathon training tip #8: Check your ego at the door.

I feel like we will be buying our bodyweight in bottles of water over the duration of the trip. Living in NYC I spent 85% of my training in cold weather and layers. I knew it was springtime in China, but they are in a heat wave. So, race day is going to be near 90 degrees. In most cases, this is cause to back out or go down to the half...but this isn't a race for a good time. This is a race to complete, at almost all costs, which means there will be plenty of walking. Your body knows your limits and doesn't give a sh*t if you feel you have to run a certain place or make a certain time. Listen to your body, and you'll be fine. Day 3: Today we drove out to the race site and walked the hardest 3.5 kilometers of the race. Not for fun, it was mandatory to participate in the race. The organization prepared us for the agenda on race day, and highly encouraged people to consider dropping to the shorter race if they aren't confident after this short test. (There's an 8k fun race along with the half and full marathon.) The Wall is an incredible sight. It was eye opening and a rude awakening as to what lies ahead for us. Along any normal person's fear of not being strong enough to finish, the curve ball of unnaturally high heat makes for some serious contemplation. At this point, you better have some killer internal motivation to keep on keeping on.

Marathon training tip #9: Get out of your own head, or change the script.

When your internal dialogue is telling you that you aren't strong enough, or you don't deserve to finish this, or is making deals in exchange for giving up, always remember that you can change the script in your head just as easily. So do it. And go run it. And when you can't run, walk it. You've prepared, you are strong, you can do this. GREAT WALL OF CHINA MARATHON CHAPTER 4: RACE DAY May 19, 2017 Last night I dreamt that we were running in the dark. The path was lit enough to see, but the cover of darkness kept the course cool and easy. In waking from this I felt a sense of calm about me. Even though the sun will be up and the heat will be intense by the time I start, dreaming about an easy race eased the anxiety I had the previous night. Yesterday we opted out of the excursion to the Ming tombs. Chris, Dawn, and Conway all agreed we wanted to take the eve of the race very easy. So instead, we spent a long time at breakfast chatting with other runners and the tour guide, then made our way to a big, beautiful park to stretch and keep moving.

Marathon Training Tip #10: Treat the day before race day as a sacred ritual.

Mentally prepare for what’s about to happen. Visualize as much of the course as you can, and imagine yourself running each leg with ease, up to and including crossing the finish line. This is the type of mental training that Olympic champion Michael Phelps used before his competitions.

Set out all of equipment on the bed or table (take a pic and share your excitement with the world) and make sure you have every single thing you need for the event.

Take an easy jog, stretch, eat, reflect on your training. A marathon is actually hundreds of miles and months of running. The race is just the last 26.2. Really sense the gratitude of your body and everything you were able to do to get yourself to this point. The bus was scheduled to leave at 330am the next morning, so we planned for a 7pm bedtime. Thankfully we ended up in an interior room so sunlight wasn't a problem. We planned our outfits, packed shower supplies and a change of clothes, and I had my meltdown. Any person would be nervous before a traditional marathon, hell I was nervous the night before my second half marathon. I always felt like I could have trained better, longer. Then the heat wave added on to the course really escalated the situation. The leader who has organized these races for years strongly suggested we drop to the half course. There's a lot of doubt going around here. But there's a bright side. Participants have 8 hours to complete the marathon course. Do I want to be out that long? Absolutely not. But as Dawn and Conway said, think of it as a nice hike, and we will be fine. I have a 1.5L Camelback filled with Gatorade, two Cliff bars, three gels, and salt pills.

The course has water, banana, gel, and medical stations. I am with a group of people who are tremendously supportive and in it with me to the end. It's 5am, and my wave starts at 8. To you back home, I'm 12 hours ahead of you, so when it's 8pm there I'll be on my way. I will post an update when I return and when my phone is charged, wish me luck.

GREAT WALL OF CHINA MARATHON CHAPTER 5: RACE RESULTS May 20, 2017 I'm sure you all were waiting for some awesome post of me at the finish line. Well, I was too. I won't pussyfoot around it: I didn't make it. It wasn't the first 5k of the race that was up a steep and winding hill. It wasn't the 3.5k climb up and over the wall, hell, that was my favorite and best part. It was the heat. It was the hot midday sun beating down on the unshaded concrete. Mile after mile of no escape from it. I hydrated, I ate bananas and cliff bars, I took salt pills and drank Gatorade. My feet were fine, my legs were ok. It was my lungs and the temperature that defeated me. Let me explain why: Since January I had been training in temperatures 60 degrees and colder. I love it. The colder for me, the better. Only in the last month did the temperature climb, and in most cases, when you're training for an outdoor event, you should gradually increase the temperature and time spent in the heat to acclimate. I didn't have the chance to. The doctors there said it was the worst conditions they've ever seen. On average, each race sees 10% in dropouts due to injury or similar...that's about 250 people. They even brought more medical teams in last minute when they saw what the weather was predicting. I could have handled upper 70s, which was the average this time of year. It was above 90. I had the chance to follow the half marathon runners at mile 8.5 or split off and do the marathon route. I felt ok at the time and my heart was in it 100%, so when Chris went left, I went right. It was about mile 11 that I started to check in with myself and not like the results: Shallow breathing, any attempt at taking deep breaths hurt and made me nauseous. Nothing cooled me off. Food wasn't helping. I've been a lifeguard for 7 years. I know the signs and causes of heat stroke and heat exhaustion...and rural China was the last place I wanted to drop to the ground. I walked 2 more miles to the 21k checkpoint (that's 13.1 miles, technically half a marathon.) One tent of shade supplying warm water and Gatorade. I drank, squatted down to stretch my legs in the shade, and nothing was making me feel better. This was only half way! I checked in with myself...even if I did make it back, there's no way I could do the final 8.5k of the wall again and back down the first hill. Remember when I said you have to check your ego at the door? I had to. It was life and death. I promise, there was nothing more I wanted than this victory, but not at the cost of my safety, even my life. The universe must have been listening to my thought process, for as I was lamenting the idea of moving forward, the medic van showed up to check on runners. I walked up to the Danish doctor and said to her, "I think I need to stop." She asked me my symptoms, and replied back, "This is supposed to be fun. If you're not enjoying it, then there's no shame at all in stopping." The girl who also stopped and was already in the van chimed in "She's right. We made it half way and that's amazing itself." I cried right there, under my sweaty hat and sunglasses, in front of two women who don't know me but still knew just what to say. We took the van back to the medical area at the end of the course. After some time in the shade I was ok, and Chris found me and we got our things and food and headed back on the bus. "You're still proud of what I did, right?" I sobbed through my shades. I think I was really asking myself that question. Like many other people, I can be particularly critical and hard on myself. Hindsight is always 20/20, right? Should have done more of this, less of that, maybe not make this my first marathon who knows. But it makes me think about the definition of failure and how I take these moments in my life. I can look at it simply that I had a goal, didn't make it, and failed...but that does me no good. My body gave up before my spirit. I didn't take the half marathon route. I didn't psyche myself out of running. I didn't stubbornly push on and end up passing out and God knows what else. I made it back safely, and I call that a win.

My visa for China lasts 10 years. The way I see it, I have a decade to get back there and do it again...and this time, finish strong.

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