While many people dread the end of a decade, Cedaredge resident Barbara (Barb) Churchley has a different way of looking at and celebrating birthdays that end in "zero." Barb sees each decade as an opportunity to learn something new or to be challenged by a new adventure.
An award winning en-plen-aire artist (a style of painting produced out of doors in natural light). Barb and husband Dick moved to Cedaredge in 2004. Her passion for the outdoors and her artistic talents have taken her to all seven continents to explore the landscape "up close and personal" via multiple marathons, hikes, mountaineering and backpack trips.
Barb said that as a teenager, she was inspired by an unknown runner, whom she watched run for more than two hours. "I didn't know people could run that long," she laughed. She ran her first marathon to celebrate her 30th birthday.
For her 40th, she learned to scuba dive. At 50, she wanted to see how her body would respond to high altitude, so she climbed 19,341-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. In August 2009 Barb "bagged" the last of Colorado's fourteeners (58 in all). She was 58 at the time. (See the Back Page in the Nov. 18, 2009 issue of the Delta County Independent).
At that time Barb was asked what she was going to do next. As one option, Barb said she was toying with running a marathon on every continent. Barb first visited China some 27 years ago, where she became interested in the culture and history of China. So, it came as no surprise that she chose to run in China's Great Wall Marathon on May 21 to celebrate her 60th birthday. When asked why the Great Wall Marathon (GWM), Barb said she just wanted to see the Great Wall of China.
First run in 1999, the GWM is ranked as one of the hardest marathons in the world, and the only one that requires the runners to attend a pre-inspection day of walking the portion of the wall that they plan to run.
Originally built to protect the northern borders of China, construction of the Wall began more than 2,000 years ago (221 BC). The longest man-made structure ever built, the Wall stretches more than 4,000 miles in length. Archaeologists today are discovering that the Wall is even longer. Some now believe it is more than 5,500 miles long. At 26 miles, the GWM is significantly shorter in length, of course.
Barb said that while the brochure warns runners that the marathon has 5,164 steps, it failed to mention that there are parts of the marathon that don't have any steps, but have steep ascents and descents on slabs of rock or on a dirt trail instead. Barb noted that on the day of the race, with no railings and some hefty drop-offs to the side, there were traffic jams (runners) along the steep and narrow sections of wall, resulting in complete stops at some points. An experienced mountaineer, Barb said she just went to the scary side, trusted her feet, and passed whenever she could.
Barb said the first kilometer of the race is flat. But then, the runners had to ascend 1,200 feet over the next six kilometers (a km is 0.6 miles) from the square where they began the race to the highest point on the wall. The first section, which covers approximately nine kilometers, takes the runners up to, across and down the Wall. That part of the course is marked by steep ascents and descents with grades of up to 10 percent and consisting of thousands of steps. Barb said for that reason, the runners really looked forward to running the mid-section of the race in the villages below the wall.
The valley below the Wall has experienced flooding since the race was instituted (by the Dutch) 12 years ago. Kathy Loper, Barb's tour organizer, had not run the new course and simply told her group there were two hills. The two "hills" turned out to be "steep and relentless ascents," one of two km and another of one km.
"More like mountains at this point," said Barb. "Great fun under a hot sun and clear blue sky; all helped along by incredibly strong, dusty winds with some interesting gusts."
There was also pressure to complete the race. Runners had to be back in the square (where they started) within six hours to be allowed to go back up the four km of wall and down the five km that was the starting route of the race, explained Barb. "If you make that cutoff, then you must complete the race within eight hours to count as an official finisher."
After running 21 miles, Barb said the runners had to re-ascend the wall (in reverse order), and that all the elevation gain was pretty much straight up and the steps were not spaced evenly nor even the same size or depth. "The race is pretty grueling on the way back," she said, "It was hot on race day – in the 70s. I passed another runner from our group going up the final ascent only to learn later that she fainted not long after I passed her." Barb noted that the lady did finish the race in under eight hours.
Barb ran the first half of the marathon (13.1 miles), including the first time over the wall in just over 3 hours, before losing a lot of time to the heat and "hills." Still, she passed into the square where the race started in about 5 hours and 15 minutes. She decided, at that point, to really enjoy the rest of the race. She had plenty of time to finish.
So she took her time, stopping at the highest point of the wall to enjoy the view and give thanks for completing the race to this point. She stopped at the base of the wall and sat on the bottom step to enjoy the fact that it was, indeed, the last step. Then, feeling really strong, she ran the last three miles, finishing in 7 hours and 30 seconds. But there was a price to pay for her enjoyment. Barb came in 3rd in her division and missed first place by 1 minute and 40 seconds.
The Chinese people were, for Barb, the highlight of the race. "Saying 'ni hao' [hello] to a stone-faced elder who, upon hearing your greeting and seeing your smile, lights up like a candle."
Also noting that she must have "high-fived" every child that lived in the villages below the wall, Barb said she learned a lot about this ancient and most fascinating of cultures, and the energetic and vibrant China of today. "Those human connections keep you going," she said.
Barb, noting this was her 10th marathon, said it was not the hardest thing she has ever done, but it was "the hardest marathon I have ever run." Still, she plans to run some others. "They will seem like a Sunday stroll after this one," she said. "It was quite the adventure."
Who knows what she will think up for her 70th birthday.
Barb is a Signature Member of International Plein Air Painters and Plein Air Artists of Colorado, and an Associate Member of Oil Painters of America, American Impressionist Society, and Women Artists of the West. Her works are on display at Munsons Main Street Gallery (Cedaredge), The Blue Pig Gallery (Palisade);, Around the Corner Art Gallery (Montrose), Ago Gallery (Ouray) and at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts (Grand Junction).
To get a feel of the challenge of the Great Wall Marathon, visit www.great-wall-marathon.com. The site features a video of the race, including dramatic scenes of the steep climbs up sections of the Wall, as well as heart-warming moments between runners and local residents.blog comments powered by Disqus