Great Wall Reflections

Posted On:
Monday, May 17, 2021
Updated On:
Friday, May 17, 2024
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Me smiling on The Great Wall of China in the middle of running The Great Wall Marathon.

Every May 17, I think back to May 17, 2014 and I smile.

On May 17, 2014, I ran The Great Wall Marathon in China.  To date, it is the hardest thing I have ever done physically (an IRONMAN was easier for me, if you can believe that).

My experience at The Great Wall Marathon taught me that I can accomplish incredibly hard things when I set my mind to it, and that I can persevere in the face of adversity.  On May 17, 2014, I had an off day, and I just didn't feel good throughout the race. Honestly, I seriously considered DNFing the race at Mile 21.  I had traveled literally halfway around the world - more than 6,000 miles! - to do this race, and I was considering withdrawing.  I ended up continuing, but it still ranks as the hardest thing I've ever done physically.

Off days happen, though it's super unfortunate when they do happen on a race day.  On top of me just having an off day, at the time that I ran it, The Great Wall Marathon was ranked as the fifth-hardest marathon in the world.  It includes 5,164 stairs on The Great Wall of China and has over 4,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the 26.2-mile course.  It’s exhilarating, it’s challenging, it's beautiful, and it’s amazing.

I’ve included my post-race notes that I wrote the day following the race below.  Whenever I revisit these notes, I am reminded of how important it is to take good notes in training and racing so that I can reflect back on what worked, what didn’t, and most importantly: remember details from the experience that fade in my brain with the passage of time.  By re-reading my notes and replaying my brain movies from that day, I have gotten to experience The Great Wall Marathon over and over again.

When we were saying goodbye in China, one of the friends I met (Tony) told me "I hope that you have the most wonderful life."  He died two years later, but I've never forgotten that he wished that for me.  The experience we had in China was wonderful and is one that I'm extremely grateful for.  I've tried my best since then to have and live a wonderful life.

I could not run The Great Wall Marathon today even if my heart and mind desperately wanted to.  I am not in any shape close to what it would take to complete this event successfully, but this is not cause for sadness or disappointment.  Life has taken me on many ups and downs since May 17, 2014, but that doesn’t mean that my current self is less than the self who was able to conquer The Great Wall Marathon in 2014.  Even after all these years, my current self looks back on this experience with pride, joy, awe, and happiness.

It’s important to remember the joy we experience over the course of our lives.  And it’s equally as important to not compare our current selves with our past selves as we look back on these memories and allow the Comparison Monster to influence our feelings about these experiences.  Even if we’re different now that we were then, it doesn’t take away from how significant our accomplishments were and still are.

So today, I encourage you to look back (either literally at photos or notes or mentally within your brain movies) at your most significant athletic accomplishment to-date.  Remember how you felt in that moment.  Celebrate what you accomplished, and what it took for you to make it so you could accomplish it, without reservations and with a smile. :)

Post-Race Notes from The Great Wall Marathon

Weather Conditions: 80-90ºF & Mostly Sunny
Surface Conditions: Dry
Surface Surface: Asphalt/Concrete/Dirt Roads/Great Wall of China

The Great Wall Marathon – 2nd Marathon on my second continent!
Official Time: 7:19:33 (16:45 average pace per mile)

My Garmin lasted for 6:41:21, which is way longer than I expected it to since it’s about 4 ½ years old now.  It took forever to find the satellites, so I wasn’t able to start it until about 2:00 into the race.

All of the below details aside, this ties for first place as the best experience of my life.  The people along the route in the rural villages and the children cheering for us and giving us flowers, high-fives, and praise were absolutely wonderful.  The event was extremely organized and all of the participants were equally excited to be a part of this amazing event in such a beautiful place.  Even once my camera died, I took brain pictures all along the way and have been replaying scenes from Saturday in my mind almost non-stop. :)

This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically.  I felt fine through the first two hours, and then I felt like absolute crap.  I felt like I couldn’t control my heart rate and that I couldn’t keep running.  I ended up taking progressively longer walking breaks through Mile 22.5.  I walked all of the Great Wall portions of the race (approximately four total miles and a total of 5,164 stairs).

Things got worse along the course…I felt extremely hot and nauseous and dizzy.  I wasn’t able to talk much from miles 6-22 (I was focusing on just getting one foot in front of the other).  I started off the race well-hydrated and stayed on top of it throughout the race, but I think I was dehydrated.  I couldn’t consume any food/fuel besides liquids from miles 13-22.5.  At mile 21, where the course goes back onto the Great Wall, I was extremely light-headed and weak.  I actually sat for a moment on that climb (more than 800 feet of elevation gain on those stairs in less than 0.1 miles) and had to make the decision about whether or not I was going to pull out of the race.  I knew that there was an aid station at the top of that particular climb (it’s called the Goat Track), and decided I would push through until then and see how I felt once I got some more water in me.  

During this time, I consumed 24 ounces of electrolyte fluid.  I took a 24 ounce bottle of water from that aid station and drank most of it.  Within 10-20 minutes I started feeling much better.  In total, I consumed over 100 ounces of fluids while I was on the Great Wall for the second time (and over 300 ounces total over the course of the race).  By the time that section was ending, I was able to take a gel and run most of the final 3.5 miles down the mountain back to Yin Yang Square to finish the race.  I ended up having the worst side stitch I have ever had while running during that final 3.5 miles, so I still had to take a couple of walking breaks, but overall I felt much better.

I don’t think I could have done much differently as far as pre-race preparation goes.  I was well-hydrated and made sure I ate similar foods to what I normally eat (as far as carbs/protein goes) before I do long training rides and runs.  I stuck to my usual mid-workout routine of hydration/fuel (well, I fueled as long as I could….I kept taking fluids throughout the race).  I honestly think that it was just an “off” day for me, but I believe I made the best of it and pushed through.  I finished, and that was always the goal.  The Great Wall Marathon is currently ranked as the 5th most difficult marathon in the world, so I am pretty proud that I can count myself among its finishers.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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