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Running the Chinese Great Wall Marathon

Considered one of the most challenging runs on the planet due to comprising of over 5,000 stone steps, the Great Wall Marathon is one of China’s most popular running events for foreigners. We chat with On friend Ida B Olsson on how she found it competing in the unique event earlier this year.


Ida B Olsson is a 35 year old runner and blogger living in Vara, in the west south of Sweden together with her husband Daniel and two children Stella and Charlie. Working as a health entrepreneur, personal trainer, yoga teacher and running coach amongst many other hats, sport is obviously a huge part of her life and seeking out new challenges and next to be uncovered adventures - just like the Great Wall Marathon.



Thank for taking the time Ida. So let’s jump right in: how did you hear about the Great Wall Marathon?

I read about it on Instagram and I was curious about it. I asked my husband if he would come along on an adventure like this and from there away we went!


What made you want to do it?

It’s once-in-a-life-time experience! Shortly before I read about The Great Wall Marathon I had run a marathon in the south of Sweden in Bjäre. From that, I felt marathon running was something for me.

The main thing about the GWM was that I was not interested in a regular marathon but to have a real challenge thrown in on top. When I read about it the more I understood that this race was one of the toughest in the world. That’s exactly what I loved about it!


What training did you do for the marathon leading up to it?

My husband and I ran a few long distance routes together and 3D-training, uphill training. The main reason for our 3D-training was to strengthen our joints in the feet, knees and hips. Then I ran a few intervals and had a few on the bike as well. As for weight training we focused on areas such as legs and core.


Where did you stay for the event?

We stayed at Beijing Hotel and the Mariott in Jinxan (roughlz an hour from the race start).


What was your raceday kit and shoes?

I wore a sleeveless tee, shorts and sunhat. Then, of course, my Cloudsurfers.



Take us through the race day itself what was the run like?

We had done all the preparation the night before and I actually had a sever sinus infection. I slept the entire day before the race but I never doubted that I would not participate in this “race of my life”. I said to my husband; “ I have not travelled all the way to China not run the race. I will make it!“


We woke up at 3:30am.

We got dressed and had a large breakfast with focus on the carbs and water.

Then there was a very long bus journey to the start line at Yin Yang Square in Jinxian.

When we arrived there was a big party everywhere and everyone kept running to the restrooms thinking they needed to go… Before we entered the square there was a big festivity and a band playing Christmas-carols in May, which made the whole thing seem almost surreal.  Inside the square we had to wait for the warm-up to begin and welcoming ceremony to take place. Then we checked in our luggage and went to the restrooms one more time.  They had 4 different start groups plus the “run-for-fun-race” and half marathon. I was in the second group and my husband in the third.


At the starting line the feeling was overwhelming! I had a high pulse but also a calm mind and I tried to feel all the energy from the participants and the atmosphere. It was a magic moment and I decided to stay with my goals to have a fun race and to complete it whatever it took. My sinus-infection was there but I did not waste my focus on that. I was about to accomplish one of my life’s largest challenges.


The first part of the race consisted of a steep hill for 5 km. We decided to meet up after the hill and before entering “The Wall” itself. We did it this way because Daniel is a bit faster than me but we wanted to run this race together and changing start group was not an option. My plan was to have a quite slow tempo in the first hill to prevent to waist too much of my energy. I had been warned the first hill to be very challenging. I had quite a slow pace in the beginning and stopped for pictures together with the villagers along the path. One fellow runner was kind enough to tell me that I should keep taking pics because I wouldn’t finish with a good result!


When I was on my way up the hill I realized that I could run intervals instead of a slow pace and that made me finish the hill faster than I had planned for and, along the way, I passed the gentleman who earlier had told me not to take pics…


At the beginning of the wall, it was narrow and crowded and we had to walk for 20 min or so to ascend. When the crowd decreased we could both run a few steps and then walk a few steps and so on.


The steps on the wall are very uneven, some steps are very high and narrow and some of them are low and deep. The challenge was to find different muscles to work with to be able to run and not tire our legs. It worked!



When we had finished the first part of the wall we felt really energetic. Our plan was to drink electrolytes every hour and eat something every half hour. We also stopped at every water-station and poured one bottle of water over our heads and one to drink. The hottest temperature during the race showed 37 degrees Celsuis – aka hot! And to keep running upwards with that beating down…Puh!


The following 25 kilometers we stuck to our plan on drinking and eating and keeping our race-pace. I had a watch that measured my heart rate since I had an infection in my body I did not want to go beyond 160 bpm. Everything went smoothly and we rant through small villages and experienced in a way different cultures - it was amazing! Then we reached 32 km… And my blood sugar went down and the heat was overwhelming. I tried to eat some bars and drink water but nothing helped so I had to start walking for a km or so.


My husband ran and tried to fix something for me. He soon came back with a cold Coca-Cola. I never drink Coca-Cola! I first was really angry... Why Coke? Why? But he made drink a sip. It tasted soooooo good! Then I took another sip and I felt like I was flying again! I got high! On Coca-Cola!


The last two parts of the race were the wall one more time and then downhill. Since we had our Coke in hand we kept on sipping and thanks to it we endured the whole race fine.


Along the final part of the race we passed people who were lying everywhere and were completely out. We offered some of them our “secret drink” but they were too tired to even have a sip… There were doctors who took care of all the runners that needed it.


When we ran downhill at the end my whole body was acing especially knees and hips. But as soon as we heard the crowd cheering in Yin Yang square we had new energy. When we entered the square my tears just burst out and I could not keep them away. They were all for happiness! To cross the finish line together with my husband was the coolest thing I have ever done (well, except for giving birth to my two children)!



What were the major differences between this race and others races you’ve done?

The climate and the steps. It was so hot and the steps were so hard.


And the shoes?

They saved us! I can sure tell you that! After my first marathon I wore another brand and my feet hurt for several weeks after. When I wore the Cloudsurfers, I could go for a run three days after the marathon and everything felt great!


What’s the marathon scene like in China?

I would say that the majority of the runners are from other countries. A big group from New Zealand runners were spreading a lot of joy during the race. Not so many participants from China itself that I saw. There are so many inhabitants in this country that a race like this is not much of a big deal to the people living here. People in the villages along the racetrack was very excited though! The laughed, took pictures and cheered us on!


Would you recommend China for other runners?

For this marathon, yes! It was a lifetime experience! I will never regret doing this and I will take out the memories for a long long time. To feel the history of the wall and see the views from the top were epic!


What’s your next adventure?

I am now looking at another marathon with experience like this. Maybe a regular marathon would be “boring” after the wall. Time will tell…


What advice do you have for others considering to do the Great Wall Marathon?

Travelling to China is quite different from other countries, so here are some tips.

- I would really recommend going as a group and fix a group-visa.

- Do strength training instead of just focus on the cardio for this race.

- Take a few days in China before the race to get off your jet-lag.

- Bring your own snacks for the race.

- Know the course before the race to plan food, drink and breaks.

- Don’t think- just do! It’s amazing!