Diary… of a first-time marathon runner

At the end of April SAC Rachael David ventured to China to take part in the Great Wall Marathon. It is a challenging race for even the most seasoned of longdistance runner, so how would a 27-yearold from Port Talbot who has never done a Marathon cope?

23 Apr 14
Just over a week until the Marathon and the nerves are definitely starting to kick in. Maybe reading that the course record for a female is seven hours and fifty three minutes wasn’t such a great idea!

However, I’m still trying to think positive thoughts and the months of preparation and hard work holds some form of comfort.

For the past two weeks I have been tapering my training, conserving energy for the race. As this will be my first marathon, it’s difficult to say how my body will react.

27 Apr 14
Just a light run this morning to stretch the legs out before a 10-hour flight to Beijing. Feeling a few niggles but nothing too serious. My case is packed and prepped with kit and I’m looking forward to getting to China.

We shall be meeting other RAF and Army personnel from various units once we get to Heathrow, whereas the Lossiemouth crowd will be reconvening with us in Beijing, as they’re travelling via Frankfurt. Altogether, 23 military personnel from the UK will be running.

28 Apr 14
Finally arrive in China and through passport control to the greetings of the race organiser Katie Enquist. She then starts rounding us up for the one-hour bus ride to the Leo Hostel in the heart of Beijing.

China is seven hours ahead of the UK so it’s already midday and we’re all pretty tired and ready to drop our bags, freshen up and go explore the city.

We spend the next few hours walking around and taking in the various sights and sounds.

I find out that the people from Lossiemouth are delayed in transit. When they finally do arrive they tell us their luggage has also been delayed and won’t be delivered until it gets transported from the UK. This means they have one set of clothes and no kit to run with. However, they seem in good spirits and try and enjoy their experience anyway.

29 Apr 14
More sightseeing is on the cards today and some extremely unusual food to be eaten. Some of the group decide scorpions on sticks would be a delicious snack and get stuck in. I decide to opt out of that challenge and stick to noodles.

We take a walk to the Forbidden City and then the subway to the Olympic Park. On the way back we cross Tiananmen Square and see various troops marching and keeping guard.

31 Apr 14
Today we get a race brief at the nearby Shenzhou hotel. Unfortunately, it makes the majority of us feel slightly deflated, as it was haphazard to say the least. The route wasn’t properly established and soon confusion ensued. Finally an American woman took the reigns, along with an Australian called Brendan, who filmed the course whilst running in 2013. In addition, when the question of “Is this anyone’s first marathon?” was posed, the majority of our group raised their hands to the sound of resounding laughter. This secretly made me even more determined but more than a little worried. It is also confirmed that we have a ten hour cut off limit to finish the race.

At least we get free goodie bags to keep our minds occupied. They also give us a little gadget to attach to our trainers, which will clock our times on the finish line pad. We finally leave the hotel and hop on to the bus ready for the three hour journey to the Jinshanling region of the Great Wall. As we near our destination we can view the wall in all its glory and it looks terrifyingly beautiful.

Once we get to the Jinshan hotel situated at the base of the wall it is quite clear a massive lack of communication has occurred. They clearly were not expecting us! Despite this we all eventually get allocated a shared room, which is  unexpectedly large and comfortable. We end the evening with a meal at the hotel restaurant and some silent prayers for the next day.

1 May 14 – Race day
As the race is due to commence at 0600 I am awake and prepping my running kit at 0430 along with my roommate. This gives us the chance to let our porridge settle and tape and grease sufficiently! Running has never been a dignified sport.

Have a few pre race pictures and plod to the starting area where some groups are waiting patiently and warming up. People from all areas of the globe are trying their luck today, on the 5k, 10k, half or full Marathon. There will be around 400 people due to attend and a large amount of those are arriving from Beijing on the organised buses. Luckily we didn’t have a 0200 morning start like them.

About fifteen minutes before the expected start time, it is announced there will be a delay and the race won’t commence until 0700. Not exactly what we wanted to hear! With adrenaline already pumping we try and relax and wait out. I double check I’ve got all the gels and energy bars I need, along with extra Compeed and painkillers, which makes it feel more like a hike than a marathon at this point.

Runners begin filing in from the buses and milling around. I can hear the radio playing a Chinese dance song which I assume is ‘pump you up’ music. 0700 arrives after an anxious wait and the siren sounds. Feet start shuffling up the hill to the entrance of the Great Wall and we’re off!!

I turn on my MP3 player and try and work out some kind of plan for the first and largest loop of the wall, which will eventually bring us back to the start/finish area. I figure it’s best to run it at a decently quick pace and time how long it takes. That way I can account for pacing myself slightly more the rest of the way. Especially as not every loop is exactly the same. There’s also the slight problem of 20,000 steps to contend with along the way.

I haven’t got GPS on my watch, so I’m relying on good old fashioned clock watching as a pacer.

The camera in my bag is screaming to me as I take in the breathtaking views. The wall rolls and peaks in the distance and it is hard to believe it’s real. However, I refrain from taking any pictures at this early stage as I don’t want to slow down or stop.

Weather conditions are pretty decent and it’s still cool as we ease into the first few miles. The sun is slowly rising higher and I’m waiting for the heat to begin hitting. There’s an amazing atmosphere and along the route I spot members of my group and we all shout words of encouragement to one another. At certain points I join forces with people and we run a few miles together, which definitely helps morale.

A few hours in and I never expected to do so much scrambling and climbing. Some of the steps are waist height and the terrain undulating and rugged underfoot. I ask one of the guys I’ve been running with for a distance check and he tells me we’ve done around seven  miles, which seems unbelievable considering the time it’s taken. This is definitely not a normal run.

Along the course there are race volunteers checking your progress by placing a pen mark across your race number. Different colours signify the different loops you’ve completed.

At one stage they fail to send a few of us down the correct pathway, which results in us having to come back and complete a hellish step climb twice in succession, which veers off the side of the wall to the visitor centre and back up. Thank goodness for the Subway sandwiches and energy drinks they have set up at the bottom, which gives me a much needed boost.

With the first and second larger loops completed, I feel I’m making some kind of progress. The next stages are the smaller green loops, which take us back onto the wall before returning down an old horse track back to the start/finish. We need to complete three of these smaller loops before moving onto the final section. Around green loop two my knees are beginning to ache from the constant pounding and stress on the joints and I reach for the painkillers. This takes the edge off and I’m able to continue without any other problems.

As the hours tick by, I notice that cramp is beginning to plague some of my group and the run is pushing pain thresholds to the limit, but despite this the majority carry on and keep going. Once loop three of the green run is complete I breath a sigh of relief. I’m looking good for time, as the eighth hour approaches. I know there’s only one last steep incline up the old horse track to complete and then back down and onto the finish.

I get the final tick on my number at the top of the track and get told I’m nearly done. Another RAF girl from Lossiemouth completes the final section with me and we sprint to the finish line, crossing it at exactly the same time! 8 hours and 29 minutes in total.

For anyone who’s ever completed a marathon or any extreme distance, they will know the sense of elation that comes with finishing. As I sip a cold beer and cheer teammates through the final stretch it’s definitely given me the bug for the next one!