Image: Great Wall
Elizabeth Dalziel  /  AP
Marathon runners inspect the route for the eighth Great Wall Marathon in Kuaihuolin, China. Few other marathons compare to the grueling 3,800 steps up and down China's most famous symbol.
updated 5/18/2007 11:43:05 AM ET 2007-05-18T15:43:05

In every marathon, there is the psychological barrier of "hitting the wall." In the Great Wall Marathon, it really happens.

China's most famous symbol twice confronts runners during this punishing ordeal over ancient ground: just after the start and again near the end.

"The cruel thing about this marathon is you literally do hit the wall" at about 21 miles, said Graham Wood, an English engineer working in Shanghai who completed the race last year and is back for Saturday's race.

"There is one stretch on the second portion of the (Great) Wall climb where people are crawling up the steps," he added.

A competitor who normally averages about four hours for a marathon will need six hours to finish this one. The men's record here is 3 hours, 25 minutes, 13 seconds — more than an hour longer than the standard marathon mark. For the women, it's 4:12:42.

Few attempt to run the gnarled, uneven steps that make up about 4 miles of the 26.2-mile course. Many train by running up and down skyscraper stairwells.

Forget jogging — everybody hikes the steps. Running is too exhausting and too dangerous, with some parts of the wall exposed to sheer cliffs. Most runners wind up stopping on the steps to recover, shake out leg cramps or contemplate what they've gotten into.

"We have a saying in Chinese: Unless you have climbed to the top of the Wall, you cannot say you are a man," race organizer Guo Feng said, paraphrasing the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Killer steps
Henrik Brandt qualifies. The 48-year-old Dane has entered all eight runnings of the Great Wall Marathon, which began in 1999 but wasn't held in 2003 because of the SARS outbreak.

Brandt has competed in marathons in Germany and Sweden. He has gone the distance in Kenya, Tibet and Greenland. He's even run 80 laps on a cruise ship to get in a full marathon. But none compares to the grueling 3,800 steps up and down the Great Wall.

"Some years they've almost killed me," he said. "But since this was the first marathon I ever ran, I fell in love with it."

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The race goes across the remote Huang Ya Guan portion of the wall, about 80 miles north of Beijing.

Some steps are baby size. Some are giant and almost require jumping to climb. Towers, tunnels and ramparts dot the wall, cutting through pine-green mountain tops and clinging to the side of sandstone or slate-gray bluffs.

After the first wall climb, runners loop away from the wall, crossing villages that have stood unchanged for centuries. Chinese there seldom see a foreigner — except on marathon day. Vendors will be out selling Mao memorabilia. Children whose only English is "hello" shout the greeting and exchange high-fives with runners.

"The Great Wall attracts the people, but they are going to be surprised running through the villages — how primitive they are and how friendly the people are," said Nancy Butler, 57, of San Diego, who has run this marathon twice but is nursing an injury this time.

Of the 1,200 runners entered Saturday, about 450 each will start the marathon and half-marathon. The rest will run 10 or 5 kilometers. About 90 percent of the field is foreign.

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