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Could you finish the Great Wall Marathon?

The challenge:

After exiting the Square, the route spirals around a mountain for about three miles before reaching the Wall. Its steps differ dramatically in height, width, and surface, which makes this stretch mentally and physically exhausting. Some of them are made of broken rocks or brick; others are so tall that runners have to use their arms to push themselves on top of them. In certain parts, there are no steps at all, but rather ramps made of rock and concrete.

The elevation change demands full-body activation and a high level of focus. “I almost slipped a few times going down a set of narrow stairs trying to do several at a time,” Ritter says. Temperatures can reach as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be especially grueling since there’s hardly any shade on the course.

The preparation:

This race demands a unique training strategy. “I prepped for nine months, focusing on functional movements like weighted squats, lunges, box jumps, and bear crawls,” Ritter says, exercises he’d do about four times per week.

On Sunday mornings, he’d spend 45 minutes sprinting up and down bleachers. Half-hour sessions on the Stairmaster (plus upper-body work) helped him prepare for the 3,000 feet of elevation gain on the course. Ritter did all this plus five- to six-mile runs during the week and a long run each weekend, starting at 12 miles and building up to 20.

One month out from race day, he ran a half marathon. “It finished at a stadium and I spent the next half hour running up and down the steps.”

The performance:

“My strategy was to run up the mountain hard and get to the Wall before anyone else,” Ritter says. “The first time you get on it is almost surreal. You’re a thousand feet off the ground having this ethereal experience and your heart is racing.”

He got there first but dropped to 25th place by the time he got off a couple miles later. “I didn’t mind. I’m a good runner on the ground and I’m fast uphill, so I knew I could make it up.”

The rest of the race is mostly run on dirt and gravel roads and through nearby villages. “You feel so far removed from your day-to-day life,” he remembers. “I was astounded by the overall friendliness, the children high-fiving us, people driving by and waving.”

Hardly any part of the course is flat. At mile 21, runners get back on the Wall for about two miles starting with the Goat Track, a staircase so steep that many use their hands or a rope to pull themselves up. “A lot of people bonk at that point in marathons, and we were literally hitting a wall,” Ritter says. “That was the hardest part but it’s also when I knew I was strong enough to finish. That gave me the confidence to pass more runners.”

It was a tight race: Ritter and two others were tied for third place in the final miles. In the last stretch as he descended the mountain, he opened his stride and pulled ahead. “As exhausted as I was crossing the finish line, a piece of me didn’t want the race to end,” he says.

Keys to success:

Total-body training:

“I started doing this for the marathon because it makes for a more well-rounded athlete. Lifting weights and strengthening my upper-body with pull-ups helped me be able to climb. That gave me an extra advantage.”

A consistent diet:

“There are certain foods I like to eat before marathons: yams, fresh juice, cereal, lactose-free milk, and black coffee. I kept those at the hotel for breakfast since I know they work for me. I also brought my regular Fig Newtons, crackers, and energy gels to eat right before the race.”

Compartmentalization:

“You absolutely need mental focus to succeed in a race like this. Expect the unexpected and be prepared for anything. Whenever I’m on a start line, I always take a moment to think about the training I’ve done and use that as a confidence-booster. My coach also advised me to break the course up into sections rather than thinking of all 26.2 miles at once.”