Marathon Spotlight: The Great Wall Marathon

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A look at the Great Wall Marathon Marathon Spotlight: The Great Wall Marathon

Want to add a life changing experience to your bucket list of must-do races? The Great Wall Marathon is definitely it! The race is presented by Albatros Adventure Marathons and comes in an all-inclusive holiday package. So not only do you get to participate in one of the most rewarding challenges in Asia, you also get to experience some of the culture and natural beauty of the country.

The Great Wall Marathon race includes a full marathon option, a half-marathon and a 8.5 km fun run. The event had its inception in 1999 and has grown steadily to a sell-out of the 2500 spots over the three races. 

The Package

Albatros Adventure Marathons presents a six or a seven day holiday option for runners to choose from as part of the Great Wall Marathon package. Athletes will explore more of China’s capital, Beijing City, when they choose the seven day package, while those on the six day package will stay closer to the race location in Jixian. Both these packages include various interesting day tour options for participants to choose from. Attractions include the Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Beijing Zoo and more. The adventure is concluded by a fancy gala dinner on the evening of the day after the race.

Non-Chinese residents can only participate in the Great Wall Marathon as part of the holiday package, but it is a vastly rewarding experience. After 18 years of presenting this event Albatros has the organisation of the entire adventure down to a T. For an entire week they look after, cater for and entertain a group of highly diverse people from over 50 countries from all walks of life. From personal experience and evident from the feedback on their website it can be said that this is an impeccably organised, highly recommended experience for anyone who has the inclination to run to travel or travel to run.

Tip: Most runners will arrive in Beijing after crossing (several) time zones. Book an additional day in Beijing ahead of the start of the tour package to sleep off most of the grog before embarking on the sightseeing tours.

Tiananmen Square Gardens, Beijing.

The Race

The Great Wall Marathon takes place on the Huangyaguan Pass in Tianjin, in rural China. The race usually takes place in May, which marks early summer in China and one of the months with the lowest smog levels.

Two days before race day, athletes are treated to a compulsory inspection of the 3 km section of the Great Wall which will be run on race day (twice by full Marathon runners). Runners have a chance to experience, at their own leisure, the 5,164 steps on one of the world’s most iconic historical landmarks located in an incredibly beautiful natural setting.

After the hair-raising, fear-instilling pre-race experience of the steps on the Wall, runners have an opportunity to downgrade from the full- or half-marathon to a shorter distance.

Tip: Route courses usually look much tougher on route inspection day than what it is when you are actually in the race. If you entered the full marathon, don’t downgrade ahead of the race. The mind has an uncanny way of preparing the body to adapt to the task at hand. Be brave and stick to your guns, you will be so happy you did!

Breakfast is served at 4:00 am on race morning and buses leave the hotel for the race venue 5:00 am (or 3:30 am from Beijing). Although it is wise to stay off your feet as much as possible before a race, it is recommended that you go on one of the sightseeing tours on the day before. The reason is twofold. Firstly, it will take the mind and nerves off the race, and secondly it will keep you awake and ensure a much needed good night’s rest ahead of the race.

Tip: However tempting it may be, the day before a race is not a good time to try your adventurous palate at the local markets. You do not want to take your changes with ‘the runs’ on an already arduous run in rural China. Stick to foods that can be easily identified, with preference to fresh, whole foods. One can never go wrong with a banana!

The Course

After a race briefing in Yin and Yang Square in the old Huangyaguan fortress, the course follows an 8.5 km loop back to the square. The loop includes a 5 km asphalt section towards the entrance of the Wall, followed by a 3 km section on the Wall itself. The race description claims that there are 5 164 steps to conquer on the Wall, but according to some sources there are more. However many they are, no two steps are the same. They all vary in height, with some wide and some very narrow, making it hard to find a good rhythm in climbing them. This section is tough, as can be expected, but the views and the sense of awe as one crosses this magnificent structure is invigorating.

The old Huangyaguan fortress, start of the Great Wall Marathon.

After passing through the Yin Yang square again, marathoners and half-marathoners head out towards the spectator-lined countryside. The route passes through various villages where children and elders endearingly cheers “happy new year!”, probably the only English they know. The section on the Wall may very well be intimidating, but the route through the countryside is far from flat. Two long hills with another 300 m worth of climb is wickedly tucked in the middle of the course. This may very well prove to be the real killer. By that time temperatures and humidity are soaring and the views are less dramatic than on the Wall. Aid stations are roughly 4 km apart and well-stocked with water, bananas and energy drinks.

Tip: Prepare for high temperatures and humidity by carrying salt tablets or electrolyte supplements. Hydrate well and often.

Local children cheering along the route.

Returning to the Yin Yang square, half-marathoners finish the race. Full marathoners will have to complete the initial 8.5 km loop again, now from west to east. Probably the most notorious and feared part of the entire race is the “Goat Track”. This section of stairs is roughly 700 m long with a up to 80 % gradient in places. Thereafter the final challenge lies in keeping up the pace as it is mostly downhill towards the finish line. The total time to cut-off for the full marathon is 8 hours, which is more than ample to allow for easy going on the Wall.

The race finishes where it started in the Yin and Yang Square, amidst hundreds of spectators, supporters and athletes cheering. The finisher’s medal is some bling of note, and a very well-deserved one at that.

Tip: Do not forgo the complimentary massage on your way to the bus. All the aches and pains will vanish beneath the hands of the very capable physios and walking will actually become a possibility the following day.

Great Wall Marathon at a Glance

  • Setting: Rural China with remarkable natural, historical and cultural features.
  • Distances: Marathon, Half-marathon or 8.5 km fun run.
  • Difficulty: The 3 km (x 2 for the marathon) section on the wall with varying step height makes the course technical.
  • Course terrain: paved roads, gravel roads, Great Wall steps.
  • Total elevation gain: 970 m (marathon)
  • Aid stations roughly every 4 km.
  • The package includes a unique six or seven day cultural experience, fully inclusive and exceptionally well organised.




  1. Albatross Adventure Marathons, Great Wall Marathon, Official Website