To recognize his five-year mark of being cancer free, we sponsored our Neighborhood Builder, Joe, to run in the Great Wall Marathon. We are passionate about celebrating all milestones for both our company as a whole, and our employees. We sat down with Joe to get the full scoop on everything that happened on his journey to run the Great Wall Marathon.
What inspired you to begin running?
My son Adam ultimately inspired me to do something about my health. When he was in high school he discovered his passion for running. At the time, I was out of shape and overweight. He encouraged me to get active, and I decided to lose at least my age in weight when I was 43 through diet and exercise.
I started my running journey solely to lose weight. Initially, I could hardly put anything close to a mile together, but I committed to running or walking at least three miles a day as Adam encouraged me to at least do a 5K for him. Training for a 5K was relatively easy to do as Adam was counting on me and I’m naturally pretty competitive, although it was through that 5K that I found out what a positive environment the running community is. Everyone is always so encouraging, and it just kept me going. I did end up losing my age in weight and have kept it off since.
How did you make the transition from 5K's to marathons?
I continued to run and stay healthy with the support of my family and close friends and I ended up finding a cancerous lump in my neck at one point. I was lucky enough to catch it early but I really credit Adam, running, and being in shape as being the only reason I found the lump so early. I began chemo, and my doctor challenged me to run a 5K within a year of finishing chemo. I decided a marathon would be better, so I committed to a training regimen and ran my first marathon four years ago in the fall of 2013 at my one-year mark of being diagnosed with cancer. Through it all, I realized that you don’t get to fight cancer. you just get to stand there and get kicked by chemo. When you fight cancer you don’t have any control, but when you train for a marathon, it's all up to you which is very freeing.
Why did you choose to run the Great Wall Marathon?
At my five year mark of being cancer free, I knew I wanted to do something very physically challenging. I heard the Great Wall Marathon was one of the five most challenging marathons in the world and it really seemed to fit the bill. Adam decided to run it with me. It was his first marathon for him which was great. I had so much support surrounding me between my family, friends and coworkers. Creative Homes sponsored me to go as well. It was surreal.
How did you train for this stair-filled marathon?
Ultimately, I ended up following a general marathon training schedule for the running portion and added in plenty of stairs. The marathon was in May so much of my training through the cold, winter months was brutal. I continued to run outside, but because of the nature of the marathon, I spent quite a bit of time on the stair climber as well. At one point, I spent four hours on a stair climber without a break
What was it like once you finally arrived in China?
After a lengthy flight, we arrived at our hotel in Beijing. Once we got checked in, we found out that there were 27 other guests at our hotel running in the marathon from all over the world – Germany, Denmark, South Africa, Australia, and London to name a few. We spent the entire week and a half together and have kept in touch since. The marathon really brought us all together.
The day before the marathon itself, we were allowed to inspect and walk a portion of the wall. Looking back, I think we definitely needed that in order to get mentally prepared for the race. We walked through miles 22-24 of the wall which ended up being the most difficult part of the marathon. None of the steps on the wall were consistent in height. Some were incredibly tall and others were pretty short but it was helpful to at least have an idea of what we were facing before running the next day.
Take us through the race. What was that like?
There is indefinitely a reason this is one of the five most difficult marathons in the world. The race routed us on and off of the wall. We would run on the wall and then leave the wall to run through remote villages and then return to the wall. I really enjoyed going through those villages. The little kids would run up to us and try and run with us or give us little field flowers. They never see tourist’s, so we were like celebrities running through there.
I think the hardest part of the race was between Miles 21 and 22. Within that span, we had 950 vertical feet of elevation change. Honestly, going down the stairs was actually worse than going up. People were stopping on the stairs and you could just see the defeat on their faces. It was incredible. The volunteers had to carry up all of the water by hand just so we could have something when we were up there and although it wasn’t the hottest year they had ran in, there were so many people passing out. Because the race is so remote, the medics just had to wait until the individual would wake up and then walk down and off the wall with them; there aren't any roads to get someone off the wall that easily.
I finished the Great Wall Marathon in 5 hours and 56 minutes along with 750 other people. Going into the race, they told us to multiply our usual marathon time by 150% to estimate our final time which was very accurate. My usual marathon time is 3 hours and 50 minutes which was just about at that.
What did you do in the days following the race?
We saved all of our tourism for the end of the trip. We went to Tiananmen Square, stood outside of the Forbidden City and experienced Chinese culture as much as we could. I ate things I have never eaten before. In fact, I’m really not quite sure of everything that I did specifically eat, but regardless, it was incredible to experience Chinese cuisine. I never go back to the same place twice, so it was really important for me to take everything in since I knew I will not go back. Ultimately, I went into the trip with significantly high expectations and it indefinitely exceeded every one of them.
Advice for those who are thinking about running a marathon?
Anyone thinking about running a marathon should just commit to it. Once you are committed, you are forced to get into a training program and do it. If I had to describe a marathon, I’d say it is probably the toughest, most empowering, and humbling thing you will ever do. When you are running a marathon, you can feel on top of the world when you are passing someone and the next minute feel awful just trying to keep up with someone else.
Well, I’m not signed up for any events at the moment. I’d like to possibly do the Twin Cities Marathon this year, but that’s only one so far. I think next on my bucket list is the Big Five Marathon in South Africa where you run in the wild and there are sharpshooters stationed around the route in case of wild animals attacks. I think that would be pretty cool.