Hitting the wall: How to train for a marathon

We talk to Tina Lewis about how to get race-ready for the Great Wall Marathon

Marathons are not to be underestimated. After all, the first ever participant, Pheidippides, famously died in the act. Had the Grecian tried his hand– or feet, rather – at the Great Wall Marathon, it’s unlikely he would have made it even halfway through. Running over 26 miles is difficult enough as it is, even without the 5,164 steps to contend with. Thank the gods you’ve got better running shoes than he did.

Held annually since 1999, the Great Wall Marathon takes China’s ambitious attempt at border control and turns it into an elongated sporting arena. The route, which winds along Huangyaguan, or ‘Yellow Cliff Pass’, definitely wasn’t built for speed. But with the right preparation, you can conquer it like no invading Mongol ever could.

The ideal training regime would, of course, involve daily runs on the wall itself. Canadian Tina Lewis, who placed second overall in last year’s women’s division, says replicating the most taxing elements of the course is the next best thing. ‘The Great Wall Marathon takes a toll on the body – more than any other race I’ve done – because of all the cement, steps and the cobblestone.

You’re always on uneven terrain. I would recommend pounding the pavement to get used to the beating your feet take on the Great Wall. Lift weights to get those quads super strong. Not only for the uphill, but also for the downhill – your quads are going to be put to the test.’Even with months of rigorous training, too quick a pace early on will have you huffing and puffing with a way still to go. Don’t let the first few miles dupe you. ‘[At the start] it’s a nice, steady climb and then you reach the Great Wall.That first section is fairly easy. I was able to run a lot of it,’ Lewis tells us. Far more daunting is the next section of wall, which brings even the fittest athletes to their hands and knees – quite literally. ‘I was definitely power-hiking it with my hands on my legs,’ says Lewis.‘Reserve your energy for the end so that you don’t bonk [hit the wall].

’Completing a marathon is as mentally demanding as it is physical. Luckily, motivation is all around you.The ever-changing scenic vistas area constant reminder. How many people get to do a marathon on the Great Wall? Lewis is ecstatic just recalling it nearly a year later.‘What kept me going was that I went into the race with the mindset of having fun,’ says Lewis. ‘The little kids running around screaming,“ni hao!” and clapping definitely inspires. Being up on the wall was amazing.

Veteran marathoners:ignore your watch.Checking mile splits may be an entrenched habit, but there are simply far too many steps standing in between you and a record-breaking finish. ‘A good rule of thumb is to add an hour to your regular marathon time,’ says Lewis. You’ll have to beat that personal best some other time. In most marathons only the runners struggling hit ‘the wall’; here it’s part of the route.

The Great Wall Marathon is at the Huanyaguang section of the Great Wall on May 17. Register at great-wall-marathon.com.
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