We stayed in a hotel about an hour from the Wall. So focused was I on the “race” I don’t even remember the name of the City, it had a population of three million and a lot of smog. The race was due to start at 7.30 in the morning when its cooler. The predicted temperature was for the day was 30° which would make running on the wall like being in a pizza oven with the white stone walls on either side reflecting the heat from the sun.
Ole and I shared a room and got out kit ready before going to sleep. The alarm went off at 4 o’clock, we were to leave the hotel at 5.30. I started the day by drinking a liter of water and ate some beetroot, which I’m told helps maintain electrolyte levels. We went down and had breakfast a light breakfast, there had been one of these pasta loading meals the evening before which I gone to, however I believe its more important to be well hydrated than stuffing my face and being weighed down by a couple of kilos of stodgy food as you run the race. My preparations for this was meticulous as anything I’ve ever done with and the athletes I have worked with over the years and I felt well prepared as we walked to the bus and sipped water all the way.
We arrived at the town of Huangyaguan at 6.30. I felt really emotional as we got off the bus and recorded my feelings to the camera. It was an amazing feeling seeing all these athletes gathering in this little Chinese town, then you looked up the mountain and you could see the Wall stretching into the distance. We walked into the square and Klaus came running over given me a big hug, I could see the concern in his face, as he still wasn’t sure how I was going to manage to run 42 km along this terrain. This was his 3rd year as the official photographer and he had seen how the wall could brake healthy fit people never mind someone who is recovering from chemotherapy and had his colostomy reversed 12 months to the day.
As we waited around in the square, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach, I just want to start running, unfortunately they have to have a civic reception, and a public warm-ups which seemed to go on for ever. Eventually we were called to the start line. The runners were to go in 4 waves according to their official times . My friends were all in the 1st wave and tried to enter the start but the security prevented me from going in because they had colour-coded the numbers. Rules are there to be broken so I waited until the official was looking the other way and went round the side and rolled under the railing and joined Ole and the others ready to start the race. Checked my Garmin watch was ready to keep a record of the run and switched on my iPod. 1st song to come on was David Bowie’s 5 years, thought that must be a good omen and we were off.
The First 6 km were uphill to the Wall on gradient of 5° . Everyone when off very quickly, I had prepared well and kept with Ole’s pace, but was worried this was the adrenalin and I was running at a much faster pace than I had trained on, so I told Ole to go off on his own. I felt more confident running the way I had trained listening to my music, each song has some kind of meaning for me and takes my mind away from the pain.
Even so I stayed with the main bunch for the first hour and was amazed how quickly I completed the first section of the Wall. Klaus had given me one of theos Go Pro video recorders to record the occasion and my commentary was starting to exhaust me. An Austrakian girl asked if I was going to talk for the whole race, I said I was doing it for a bet that I could talk for 42 Km and a number of people came over to be “interviewed by this mad Irishman as we ran along.
Klaus had told me The Go Pro battery would lat for 5 hours but it only lasted 45 minutes and I could not throw it away. The last thing you want you want to do while running a marathon is carry anything so when I eventually our paths crossed there are the pictures of me threatening to throw it at him.
After decending the first section of the wall we ran through the town square and headed out into the countryside and villages. Chinese people lined the roads and the kids are all giving you the high fives. Every five K’s there was a drinks station, I stopped at every one had a drink of about 30 cl of water, walked for about 50 meters and then started running again. It was about the 20 K mark Klaus appeared on a motorbike wondering what had happened to me. I had gone out so fast he had missed me and he took some pictures whikle I hurled abuse at him over his Go Pro Video that was not charged up.
At about 27 K there was an unexpected very difficult section of the race, three Ks down a very uneven dirt track strewn with boulders. Because it was was downhill and you could build up some pace and as my balance still wasn’t great after the chemo which caused a severe peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet I was afraid I was going to fall over and breaking my stride caused great pain in, but I made it .
I started running with this French girl, this was her way of recovering from a serious car accident. She began talking as many did after seeing my “cancer drove me up the Wall t Shirt” , amazing how many people have some experience of cancer and they understand why I was doing this marathon. All this stroking of my ego felt like I was floating on the road and it took my mind away from the pain in my legs.
There is a section of road that after 30Ks, that you share with runners who are approaching the finish. The finishers will be wearing yellow wrist bands which they get on the final section of Wall. One of the Danes Michael ( an experienced marathon runner) comes along side me on this section of road, notices my yellow wrist band ( Livestrong) he thinks I am beating him. I told everyone later he pushed me off the road so he could pass me. He looked very relieved when he saw me head off towards the wall, while he turned towards the finish.
I always knew this final section of the Wall was the hardest part of the marathon. You have run 35Ks and are facing a half kilometer of steps heading up into the sky. Each of these steps are about a foot high and you are very very tired. Before starting this climb there was a drinks station and I took a Gel with Caffeine, which on reflection was a mistake. The sugar rush made me feel sick as I started the climb and I coulkd feel my heart racing from the caffeine, I started breathing deeply to calm myself and then I would look up where I had to go and my heart would start racing again, I could not straighten my legs on each step so I was essentially crawling up the steps. I had an idea to stop me looking up, I took out the picture of the Girls I had in my pocket and as my hands were on each step I looked at the girls on the step rather than where I was headed. Not only did this calm me, but their involvement energized me. I took one step at a time, it took a long long time to complete this section and I remained patient event though many runners were now passing me, comforting myself with the knowledge how easy this was compared to how I felt in April 2012 going up the stairs in The Emirates Stadium after my 12th and final session of chemo.
Eventually I saw the last climb of steps and saw Klaus there taking pictures, when he saw me he started waving and I started blubing like a baby. I knew now I was going to make it, the last 5K were down hill, and for me I believed it also meant I was going to beat the cancer. When I got to the top Klaus did not embrace me he was too busy taking pictures of the moment and then he asked me to go back a bit so he could take some more. I laughed at the idea I would go back down to get a better picture, we were all crawling up the steps at this stage and we all found it amusing that Klaus thought we could just trot down and climb this section again.
Klaus had my I phone so he could send messages home as to how I was doing and gave me the Phone so I could records the last 5ks of the marathon. I thought this part was going to be easy, when in fact it was quite painful. I have had seven operations in my right knee have had the cruciate ligament reconstructed twice and did not bother last time I ruptured it in 2003. So when you run down hill the femur tends to slide forward on the tibia and its bloody painful. You can see me limping and wincing as I talk on the video.
Nevertheless the last 5K just flew by, in the emotion of the occasion and finally I am back on the section I ran with Michael. As I approach the finish and I’m holding the camera to record it assuming all the danes were waiting on the bus. As I turned the corner and entered the square, I heard this loud cheer, coming from these familiar faces, many I had only known for seven days. They were all there waiting from me to come in, I can put into words how I felt at that moment, My kids are never understand why the happiest moment of my life was when Charlie George clinched the double for Arsenal against Liverpool in1971, I was 14. Ole came over and hugged me, Klaus’s motorbike , like the camera had broken down so he was not there to share the moment, but as I sat down to rest my legs, the phone rings it was Janette and the girls on Skype. Did you win Daddy asked Eloise? Yes I did, darling and you helped me do it.
I had done what my doctors thought was impossible, Ole had not needed to give me a firemans lift to finish. This plan was something we had come up with in a bar in Copenhagen 8 months previously after too many beers, it had consumed me , but I have shown the kids they can do anything if they set their minds to it, and put in the graft. If need be they now have this video, if I am not there to make the speeches at their weddings. If my physical self is not there during their teenage years, they will have this video so my spirit may live on in them, the way my mother is still around 23 years after her passing.
I finished 1n 511th place there were over 100 people behind me