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The Great Wall Run

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The Great Wall IOk

 Silver Strider article – 2010


In 1985 Richard and Barbara Olafson had the opportunity to visit China.
It was a very different China back then. China was at the beginning of great political and economic change and had only recently opened it’s doors to tourists.

Bob Glover, author of The Runner’s Handbook, put together a group of 15 runners from the U.S.A. to travel to China. The Olafsons signed up for the 12 day trip on April 25, 1985.

The highlight of the trip was the Great Wall Run in Jinan. Richard and Barbara had signed up for a 5k. When they arrived in China, they found to their surprise, that race was actually going to be a 10k. Neither of them had run this distance before.

They were to join more than 80 runners from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Japan, as well as over 1000 local runners. The goal of the Chinese government in promoting this race was to encourage its people to exercise.

The athletes were welcomed with caution by Chinese officials. Photographers were assigned to accompany them at all times. This was an indication of the sensitive political climate. None of the so-called “photographers” knew how to load a camera.

The athletes were among the first people to stay in a new hotel. It was very fancy by Chinese standards. Each room had an adjoining bathroom which was considered quite a luxury. The water in the pipes was so rusty it turned the towels bright orange.

The Olafsons were permitted to tour China during their stay. They visited homes and hospitals. They were able to visit the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, Temple of Heaven and even climbed Mt. Tai. At the top of Mt. Tai , they were startled to find a Coca Cola machine.

On May 1st, The Great Wall Run began with much fanfare. Hundreds of doves were released to signal the start of the race.There were about 100,000 spectators lining the course to watch the race. The course was a loop through the city. A course map and signs were posted but visiting athletes were unable to read them since they were in Chinese.

A segment of marchers

The runners wore numbers made of cloth rather than paper. The weather was extremely humid. runners were montitored to some degree during the race but there were no aid stations. Even if water had been available, the runners were warned not to drink it.

Because of the humidity, some of the runners became very ill during the race. Three wound up in the hospital.

As Barbara ran, she noticed that a young woman ahead of her was in trouble.The girl was staggering unsteadily and looked like she was going to fall. Barbara left the course to find medics. Once she made sure the girl had medical attention, Barbara resumed running. As a result of the interruption, Barbara just missed winning her age division.

At the conclusion of the race, there was a spectacular awards ceremony. Spectators cheered the finishers.

The runners were celebrated with colorful parades including marching flag holders and dancers in brilliant costumes.

Awards were presented to the first three American finishers. They each received a beautiful cup signifying their achievement. Every age division winner received a commemorative medallion. Richard received a first place winner’s medallion.

Richard and Barbara used to race nearly every weekend. They entered fun runs and races because it allowed them to experience “historical sites, wonderful people, interesting parks and different communities.”

Their trip to China was one of their “most cherished memories.” Racing the Great Wall Run was their all-time favorite running adventure.




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