As I got ready to study for a year in China with CUI’s Master of Arts in International Studies (MAIS) program, I started looking for marathon races there. Several classmates were also excited about running and we made it our goal to participate in the Great Wall of China Marathon which winds through villages and up and down the great Wall for 26.2 miles. We were sure it would be a challenging but not-too-difficult experience.
We began training amidst our class schedules in the cities of Hangzhou, Shanghai and Kunming. We were all learning and teaching during our two semesters in China. Sixty students from CUI were there studying international education or business through the MAIS.
In Hangzhou it was a challenge to train for a marathon in a highly urban setting. We joined a running club which met Tuesdays to run around the famously beautiful Westlake, but it was so crowded that we found ourselves dodging people constantly. Pollution was another challenge. At one point I developed a cough, and some students quit training when pollution levels were high.
Finally the big day arrived and we headed to the Great Wall. The first three miles of the race took place on the Wall and it was exhilarating. The scenery was beautiful, the runners fresh and energetic. I looked at my iPhone to keep track of my time. I was pretty confident I would meet my ambitious time goal. The music piping through my headphones made it seem all the more possible. Life was good.
The next eighteen miles took us off the Wall and around nearby villages. I was the only CUI student intending to run the full marathon so I waved cheerfully to my classmates as they crossed the half-marathon finish line and stopped. On I went.
With a jolt of dread I saw that the course was taking us back on the Wall via the same set of stairs we had started on. It was daunting, hundreds and hundreds of stairs and steep elevation gain for two miles. My calves started complaining right away and I thought, I’m not prepared for this. I hadn’t trained on stairs because there were so few where I lived. Now I was facing an unexpected challenge.
I made a strategic choice to go slower. I’ll pass people up again after these stairs when I can pick up my pace, I thought. But my energy continued to flag and I realized I wasn’t going to make my time goal. I mentally set a new goal. Then my iPhone died and I couldn't keep track of my time at all. The music was gone, too. My mood deflated. A couple of runners near me collapsed and needed medical treatment. Could that be me? I wondered. I had reached the top of the Wall and quitting would mean walking down the stairs anyway. Exhausted, I tried to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It felt ten times harder than any race I had done before.
"The race was mirroring my experience in the MAIS program."
Confident in my organization and study skills, I thought I would sail through pretty easily. The first part of the program felt as natural as running through the villages below.
Then I started work on my thesis — and hit the wall. My thesis subject was foreign teacher recruiting. I wanted to know how well recruiting agencies are serving teachers who go abroad to teach. I hoped to survey 500 teachers who had served as foreign teachers, but of the 500 surveys I sent, only sixty were returned. That delayed my writing and as a result I didn’t get my thesis submitted by the first deadline. I was forced to aim for the fallback deadline in winter. I came to realize that I should have started data collection sooner. As organized as I felt I was, an unexpected obstacle had almost stopped me.
Just like those Great Wall stairs.
As I jogged limply on top of the Wall I reflected on how confident I had been at the start of the race — overly confident, perhaps. Now I just wanted to quit. The course led back down the Wall and when I reached the bottom I started walking. My new goal was simply to finish, but even that was dimming.
Then another American guy came up beside me. I had never met him. I learned he was from Colorado. He encouraged me to get running again. For the last two miles we ran side-by-side and pushed each other to finish. That helped me reach my goal that day and is what I love about marathons — how people help each other in those moments of crisis.
We came around a bend and saw the finish line. There were my classmates. A surge of excitement drove me across the finish line and I collapsed to my hands and knees. I’m so glad that’s over, I thought. I gave high fives and hugs to everyone. It had taken 6.5 hours, but I hadn’t quit. And friendships we had formed would last well beyond that day.
It took me two weeks not to feel sore. The next day we toured Beijing, all of us limping and hobbling around comically.
It’s awesome to set a big goal and finish it. Running the Great Wall Marathon and studying in the MAIS program taught me that unanticipated challenges may arise suddenly, but they don’t have to stop you from finishing strong.