The World’s Toughest Marathon
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step
I. AM. READY.
315 days ago, I was staring at a screen with a only 12 characters: Run4Papa.com
Below the title? A flashing cursor and a blank screen. Fast forward to today – May 19th, 2012. I was 4 hours away from tackling the Great Wall of China Marathon and I couldn’t have been more prepared.
As my alarm went off at 3:33 AM, I lay sitting in my bed staring at the ceiling. All I could think about was in 12 hours time, I would be crossing the finish line. Was there any doubt? Not at that moment in time and since our bus was leaving at 4 AM, I hopped into the shower, put on my running gear and headed down to grab a quick breakfast.
Our running group walked out to the bus as we began our 2 hour ride to Huangyaguan, site of the Great Wall of China marathon. I tried my hardest to close my eyes and sleep but I couldn’t fool myself. I was amp’d. My adrenaline was pumping and despite my best efforts, I figured I might as well embrace these emotions than curb them. Around 5 AM, I woke my sister up and asked her to film some pre-race commentary on the bus. I spoke quietly so as not to wake the other runners who somehow were immersed in deep R.E.M. sleep patterns.
As we approached the entrance to the Great Wall, the sun was hanging high above the horizon. I glanced at my phone. 6AM. 1 hour and 40 minutes to go before our corral was to be released. Our group made our way to Ying Yang Square-the central site for spectators as well as the start/finish line-where many a picture was taken along with some extra footage for THE CAUSE. Per my usual routine, I wrote “PPA” (Primary Progressive Aphasia) on the back of my left hand and “PAPA” on the right while on my palms I had “CNADC” (Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center). After a couple more pictures, some video and hugs from my parents and sister, I was ready to begin one of the most amazing races of my life.
At approximately 7:40AM, the gun fired and our corral ran into the open terrain. I jogged out of Ying Yang Square and began running through the streets for about .3 miles before reaching the 3-mile hill leading to the beginning steps of the Great Wall. During Miles 1-3, I had to keep a very steady and slow pace. Two days before on inspection day, we had been driven up this mountain for our “walk-through” and I knew how intense this initial incline would be on my body. Running side-by-side my friend Adam, I kept glancing over and gesturing to see if we were keeping a steady pace. He responded with a thumbs up as he was listening to music. The temperature felt somewhat mild, maybe a cool 75 degrees, but of course it was only 8 AM and we were only several miles in.
Upon reaching the top of the mountain, we marched roughly 150 steps leading us to the beginning of the Great Wall of China. Step 1. “I am on the Great Wall of China, running the World’s Toughest Marathon. 5,163 steps to go. Focus.” The view and scenery were absolutely breathtaking as we climbed step after step-each easily equivalent to 2-3 steps in an office building stairwell-up and down various inclines/declines along this magnificent ‘Wonder of the World.’
At Mile 4, there was a massive logjam due to a narrow walkway on the wall. We waited 25 minutes and while not ideal, this time gave us a chance to catch our breath. I decided to stop briefly and kiss the wall figuring good karma couldn’t hurt the effort today. The temperature was quickly rising as we ran our way to the end of the wall and started making our descent. This 3/4 mile stretch lead us down more steps, an uneven uneven hiking path, and of course more steps. After the last step, we finally made our way onto a level part of the Great Wall bypassing Mile 5 and bringing us back into Ying Yang Square. Watching my family jumping up and down was a massive boost of adrenaline. I ran up to them and started going bonkers yelling “Let’s go! Let’s Go! It’s the Great Wall of China Marathon…who’s fired up?”
Miles 6-9 took us back through the streets of Huangyaguan where cars passed us on both sides, locals lined the streets to support the runners, and little kids happily extended their hands for High 5’s while some even ran side-by-side us for short stretches. Water consumption and proper hydration was essential; there was at least one water bottle in my hand at all times. If you waited until you were thirsty, it would be way too late. On top of that, I was constantly stopping to take pictures and capture film footage. This stopping and starting was taking a toll on my body; however, it was a conscious decision to soak-in this once-in-a-lifetime experience and put in a little extra effort.
Crossing mile marker 10, we continued running toward the farmlands. This terrain rotated from dirt roads to paved paths back to dirt roads while weaving up and down a bunch of obscenely tough hills. At mile 12, the half marathoners veered left while and the full marathoners continued on passing farm after farm and wildlife after wildlife. Besides the increasing temperature, the changes in terrain were challenging to say the least.
I glanced up briefly to see mile marker 13 juxtaposed aside a seemingly never-ending hill. I motioned to Adam and said, “I think we should walk this one and save the energy. We can make up the time on the way down.” In a marathon like this, you really have to be strategic and pick moments to push yourself while knowing when to relax and recover. And boy, did we make the right decision. While speed-walking up the mountain, we saw people who had started running initially but quickly slowed down to a complete stop and were breathing heavily. Halfway up the hill, there was a beautiful lake over-looking the mountain that screamed “Stop and enjoy the view!” And of course, that is what we did.
Reaching the peak of this hill was a massive relief. Miles 14-16 wrapped us down and around a winding area showcasing spectacular views. We were hydrating plenty, taking in a Goo packet every hour or so as well as a Starburst (for sugar purposes) to keep our bodies’ functioning at safe levels. Running in between little villages on side streets and up another steep incline, we saw a lady laying against a wall looking extremely dehydrated. We stopped to ask her if she was OK or needed any help. She replied, “Someone already went to get help. I am OK. I just can’t go on any further.” That utter look of exhaustion was one that we would see time and time again from runners.
As we pushed past Mile 17, there was a runner who decided enough was enough and took off their racing bib leaving it behind on a rock. The further we got into the race, the more and more people were dropping out due to physical exhaustion, dehydration and mental fatigue.
Mile 18 was memorable for two reasons. Earlier in the trip, my mother had been worrying and telling the ENTIRE running group that I had a tendency to cramp in marathons, specifically at Mile 18. Although this was an accurate statement of the facts, I told her to stop worrying but that isn’t exactly in my mother’s DNA. It’s like asking a pediatrician to stop caring for children, that would just never happen. So predictably, at Mile 18 a) My calves started cramping b) the terrain in front of us looked nothing like a marathon route. The path was an uneven and rocky trail in the middle of the farmlands. I dropped down to the ground as Adam stretched my calves reducing the cramps (for now). 8.2 more miles…no problem. After all, I was here to Run4Papa and nothing was going to stop me!
Mile 19: The cramps returned: BIGTIME! In my precious camel-pack that I carried everywhere on this trip and during the race-my running group appropriately labeled me “DORA The Explorer“-was a bar of soap my mother gave me before the race. She read online that rubbing soap along the area where cramps occur relieves the lactic acid and helps reduce/eliminate cramps in that specific area. Being skeptical and cynical was an understatement, but I figured there would be no harm in bringing a bar of soap from the hotel. I dropped to the ground, pulled out the bar of soap, rubbed my calves and…and…AND my cramps went away! I couldn’t believe it!
Looping back down the main road and into Ying Yang Square, I told Adam NOT to tell my family about the cramps. There was no sense in them worrying plus we only had 5.2 miles left to go. In the square, we reached Mile 21 in 5 hours and 30 minutes into the race. I recall my family being excited but I could barely summon enough energy besides a wry smile. I believe my dad said “Danielle is waiting on the wall for you guys.” Danielle, a member of our running group, mentioned she was going to try and run the last 5 miles with us to help for the final push. She ran the half marathon earlier and as we hiked up 15 steps onto the lower level of the Great Wall, she was waiting for us. She was essential on so many levels. We gave her a hug and Adam said “You have no idea how happy we are to see you!” Fact and fact.
We passed the final checkpoint/cut-off at 5 hours, 33 minutes-if you didn’t make this in 6 hours, you could not continue-and received our pink wristbands allowing us to attack the Great Wall yet again. 5 miles between us and the finish line.: just 5 measly miles. With 2 1/2 hours remaining, we thought the hike up the Great Wall would be a comfortable break between running through the farmlands. We thought wrongly.
In front of us was a mere 500 steps, followed by an uneven inclined trail path, and then 100 more steps. At the end of this 3/4 mile hike was the top of the Great Wall. After taking 5 steps, I was winded. I couldn’t believe it. I turned around and my friend Adam was hunched over a couple steps below. Looking up the steps, there were runners everywhere leaning against the wall or sitting down head slouched between their legs. Never before was I intimidated with this race until that very moment. We had so far to climb before actually reaching the wall. 20 steps in front of us, a fellow group runner named Chad, a marine, was sitting down with his head between his legs. I asked him, “Chad are you OK? Want some water? You got to keep moving.” He said nothing. I later found out that step would be his last as he was escorted down due to exhaustion.
Danielle was carrying my backpack, while Lyssette, another group runner and I, were hiking up the mountain downing our water quicker than inhaling fresh air. Between her and I, we were down to half a bottle; we were only halfway up. There were no water stations until the top and I was growing increasingly scared we were going to become dehydrated. Lyssette, who was speaking in English the entire race, starting mumbling something in Spanish to me. Our water was now extinct and we were struggling up this path. For some unknown and fortunate reason, a local was headed down the mountain carrying a full case of water on his left shoulder and another full case on his right. Lifesaver, literally. We grabbed two bottles for each of us as we eventually made it up the path and onto the Great Wall. I had to sit down.
In the distance, all I could hear were screams from people cramping up. I saw some runners being carried away in stretchers and there were race officials stopping people if they thought they could no longer continue. It was great to sit down. Too good. Lyssette grabbed me by the collar and said, “Stand up now. If you don’t, you may not want to get up again.” Danielle and Adam reached the top a couple minutes later and we were ready to move forward. Not much was said to one another besides “Keep moving.”
At his point in time, no one was running. Sliding past other runners, there was an overwhelming look of fatigue on their faces and no doubt, we had the identical look on ours. Not much was said to fellow runners besides gesturing a thumbs up. After walking down a handful of steps, we looked ahead and saw what could best be described as: Torture. The climb in front of us seemed downright “Unfair.” I think I used that word time and time again. Sometimes out loud and other times more graphic in my own mind. People were literally climbing these stairs on their hands and knees. We slowly climbed this treacherous part of the Great Wall making our way to the top. When we reached the peak, we saw 4 more brutal stretches similar to this one! The 4 of us looked at one another with deflating glances. Like marathons beforehand, it was another challenge and another wall to overcome. Yes, it was insanely tough, but this was what we had journeyed halfway across the globe to conquer! Had we been on our own, I can’t even fathom how we would’ve pushed past these mental and physical walls. I was thankful we were all together helping one another through this stretch.
Peak after peak, step after step, water bottle after water bottle. I kept asking “Are we good one time?” The answer was the same each time: “Yes!” The only thing that made sense was putting one leg in front of the other. Stopping was not a smart idea, unless it was in a small corner of shade or in-between a tunnel before the next peak. 3 steps away from the second to last peak, my right calf cramped up worse than I have ever experienced in my lifetime. I couldn’t move my leg and immediately sat down on the wall internally writhing in pain. A race official quickly approached me and said, “Mate, do you need help off this wall? We can go grab someone.” I looked him square in the eye-despite me thinking my calf was going to physically explode-and said “No chance. This is just a cramp and as soon as my friend Danielle rubs soap on my calf, I will be fine. The only way I am getting off and down this wall is on my own two feet!” The cramp was so painful that I asked Danielle to reach into my DORA backpack, grab the soap and rub it on my calf for about a minute. I knew if this didn’t go away, finishing this race would’ve been in serious jeopardy. The race official was intently examining this process and I was nervous to stand up and walk. Regardless, I was going to tell the official my leg was fine, but if the cramp didn’t go away, I don’t know how I would’ve faked it. Somehow, someway, the damn soap worked again! Thanks Mom!
We hit the midway point of the last peak. To make matters more interesting, the same cramp happened to my left leg! Again, Danielle grabbed the soap and proceeded to rub it against my calf. At that point in time, she said “We are OK on time, buuuuuut we need to run down the last 3 miles of the hill.” I stood up and decided that would be the final time I would stop and sit down for any cramps. We completed the final peak and descended several hundred stairs.
We were off the wall.
All that remained was the original 5K incline hill to start the race except this time, the last 3 miles would be straight down. Cue bright lights and smile. I started speed walking for a couple minutes and finally said to Danielle “Let’s Go, you are slowing me down!” Even in adverse conditions, sarcasm is always an outlet that helps motivate my inner core. I started jogging, then sprinting figuring at any point the cramps could and would return. The more I ran downhill, the closer I would be to the finish-line. At points, I would pull up and speed walk to catch my breath and avoid serious “cramp-age.”
During this 3-mile run I couldn’t help but get emotional. I was thinking about my Papa. I remembered walking back to my brother’s apartment in Manhattan after running the 2010 NYC Marathon and listening to him tell me about a marathon on the Great Wall. I certainly thought about my 1st ever post on the website. I was thinking of all the families who I met in-person and online through this cause battling PPA. I recalled meeting the CNADC staff and medical team who agreed to partner with me for this cause. I laughed about running side-by-side Bill Rodgers in Chicago, buying trail shoes for my first 10K trail race at the White Water Center, capturing pictures for an impromptu run in Tampa along The World’s Longest Continuous Sidewalk and scheduling meeting after meeting for potential sponsors. I thought about overcoming obstacle after obstacle in the mud at the Warrior Dash, running End-to-End in the sandbar in Michigan, jogging along the Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, and writing article after article for the website. I would never forget speaking at the unbelievable Reunite with Dr. Heyman – Support the Climb of 5,164 Steps fundraiser in Michigan in front of family and friends-surpassing $20,000 in 100 days and raising the goal to $50,000. I thought about waking up early in NYC and taking my sisters advice about running on the trendy High Line in Manhattan and being mistaken for being Justin Verlander. I remembered jet setting to the Mile High City like madmen preparing for the Gorilla Run 5K running wild through downtown Denver “Tebowing” left and right as well as training in altitude up the steps at the Red Rock Canyon Amphitheater. I thought about responding daily to emails, FB posts, tweets and phone calls about the campaign. I smiled thinking about writing, filming and directing What would you do for THE CAUSE? That was made in 2 days! I shuddered at taking an ice bath after the Thunder Road Half Marathon. I was proud to have orchestrated having Papa coming out to flip the coin for our Annual Turkey Bowl V Thanksgiving football game as both teams came together to support this cause (of course winning the game was extra special). I thought about sacrificing night after night of a social life because nothing was going to be posted until it had thoroughly been reviewed; I was determined to create original, provocative content whether the ideas succeeded or not. I thought about circling the Jackie Onassis Reservoir in the freezing cold while my brother graciously took pictures and filmed footage. I thought about Hustling up the Hancock Building (94 flights in 21 minutes) along with hosting the CNADC fundraiser (one of the best nights of my lifetime). I loved the idea of finding inspirational quotes 75 days and counting out from the Great Wall of China Marathon. I thought about flying to the Nation’s Capitol for my first Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon. I appreciated being invited to attend the Annual PPA Conference and being part of the World’s Largest 8K run where I filmed live footage of the race using my GoPro camera for the first time. I thought about how I booked a trip to The Lone Star and ended up running the Big D Half Marathon in the pouring rain. I picked up my pace thinking back to the ‘In Honor Of’ T-shirt idea for families battling PPA to feel more a part of this cause. I thought about being stuck at $45,000 two weeks out from Beijing and brainstorming with my friend Roni about the 5K for $5K Challenge that captivated people like no other and got us over the hump of $50,000! Traveling and training in 9 states and logging over 500+ miles in water and on land seems unimaginable in hindsight. Endless amount of time, sweat, creative ideas-some working, some not so much-and a tremendous support system from so many people across the globe all culminating right at this moment in time…
And just like that, we were .3 miles away from finishing this remarkable journey! It was mind-boggling to imagine 315 short days ago, I was staring at that flashing cursor. I remember my Papa saying at the fundraiser 6 months back, “I hope your legs and heart are strong.” I replied, ‘Strong enough to carry you, me and all our supporters on my backside for 26.2!” His lasting smile is one I will have etched into my memory for a lifetime.
Rounding the corner, I put on my GoPro camera, loudly ‘encouraged’ Danielle to run between Adam and I as we ran into Ying Yang Square to a huge applause. My mom was elevating as if she could slam dunk a basketball, my father had a smile from ear-to-ear and my sister was screaming like a mad woman. Hand-in-hand, Adam, Danielle and I crossed the finish line at: 7 hours, 30 minutes and 52 seconds.
From what I can recall, there was A LOT of hugging, high 5’s, screaming, relief and sheer satisfaction. I was so proud and honored for my Papa, for all the patients and families battling PPA, for the CNADC, for the sponsors, and of course for our family, friends, and supporters across the globe for believing that ‘an average person could do extraordinary things.‘
I wanted to desperately get a massage, but went to my sister after about 50 pictures were taken and said, “We need to go back on the wall to do post-race commentary. If I don’t do it now, I will be too exhausted when the adrenaline wears off.” We walked up about 150 steps and I let the emotion pour out.
Mission Accomplished! Only 570 people finished the marathon and I am proud to say this journey and challenge have been successfully created, achieved and finally completed. It’s hard to imagine this Run4Papa campaign being over.
At least, for now…
Jason F. Boschan – Great Wall of China Marathoner
To make a donation click: PPA Research and Education Fund (Run4Papa)
To see more photos, go to: My Great Wall of China Run
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