Greenville woman takes on great race on the Great Wall

By Stacie Smith • Last Updated 10:49 pm on Friday, July 27, 2012

Greenville’s Sandi Hebert displays her hard-earned medal after conquering 13.1 miles at the Great Wall Marathon in China. — Courtesy photo

The Great Wall of China, the world’s longest human-made structure stretching as much as 6,700 miles (including natural barriers), was first built as a wall of defense between warring tribes. The first unified section was completed during the Han dynasty in 221-206 B.C. The highest point of elevation measures approximately 1,968.5 feet.

Since 2001, a group from Denmark has been organizing a marathon on the Great Wall. Sandi Hebert, 45, of Greenville got the once-in-a-lifetime chance of participating in the marathon May 19.

The Great Wall Marathon offers participants the chance for an extraordinary experience of running through one of the world’s most magnificent structures. Imagine climbing and descending more than 5,000 steps. That is a physical feat in itself, but 5,000 steps taken over one of the most amazing engineering marvels is quite another.

A conversation on running

Hebert has always been active but didn’t pick up the sport of running until seven years ago, when Dave Harris with The Club Fitness in Greenville approached her and suggested the sport. She started incorporating running into her fitness regimen and participating in local races.

“When Sandi started out, it was hard for her to push herself and now it seems like there isn’t anything she can’t do” Harris said. “When she first started out she would run a couple miles and now she can run anything: 5ks, 10Ks, half marathons and someday she’ll do a full marathon, I’m sure.”

“She hardly gets injured anymore, she’s much tougher.”

Hebert’s marathon travels started with a half marathon in Detroit. Since the Detroit race route included nearby Windsor, Ont., runners were required to have enhanced licenses or passports.

“I had to get a passport to do Detroit and I had to get a stamp for my passport,” said Hebert.

Hebert’s husband had been planning a trip with friends to Europe, so she started to consider running in either Australia or China. Taking into consideration her fear of flying and the long flight to Australia and learning that China is one of the safest countries to travel alone, she started to look into running the Great Wall Marathon. Seasoned runner Caroline Cook suggested Marathon Tours to Hebert to book her trip.

Great Wall Marathon race participants ascend the many steps of the Great Wall. — Courtesy photo

Great Wall is great challenge

Studying the race course, planning for elevation changes and learning the terrain really didn’t come into play until a month before Hebert’s departure. The Great Wall Marathon offers a marathon, half marathon, 10k and 5k. Hebert decided on the half marathon.

She learned through the tour company that she should expect to take twice as long to complete the same 13.1 miles she had run in Detroit the previous fall. The race course includes cobblestone streets, packed dirt and stone steps — lots of stone steps. There were also points that were so narrow, racers had to run in a single file line.

At times, the course bottle-necked as Hebert’s group was just one of several tour groups participating in the landmark race.

 Bucket list feat was enlightening

Hebert recalled seeing at least 20 tour buses at the start with participants hailing from all over the globe and all walks of life.

“There was a big mix of runners,” Hebert said about the level of athleticism. “Running the Great Wall is more about the experience than breaking or setting a personal record.”

There were two moments in the race that were particularly meaningful to Hebert. One occurred when she realized that she was standing atop the one man-made structure that can be seen from space, but the more profound of the two moments was being cheered on by the local villagers as the racers weaved their way through the narrow streets.

“There were little kids lined up on both sides of the street who would high-five us and all say ‘hello’ in English,” Hebert said.

The people of China, she said, were friendly and she always felt safe during her travels.

It’s almost ironic that Hebert took on such a bucket list race. She expressed her fear of flying as well as heights, yet she faced both fears by making the 14-hour flight and making the ascent of the Great Wall.

She also did something that was never really part of her life plan.

“It was something I did for myself,” she said. “I’m 45 and I always said I never wanted to travel.”

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