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The Great Wall Marathon vs. The Great Wall of China Marathon

Much to the confusion of many runners, Beijing is the jump off point for two totally separate Great Wall races, with almost identical names. One is quite a small race, which covers the Jinshanling Great Wall, and later in the month is the larger race on the more distant Huangyaguan Great Wall. Both races are very enjoyable and have their own pros and cons.

The Great Wall Marathon (GWM) is the larger of the two, having started up in 2007, and growing in size each year. This year, over 400 runners are registered (which is actually overcapacity).

In comparison, the Great Wall of China Marathon (GWCM) had a smaller total of 170 runners this year, though it is the elder brother by five years. The smaller size makes for a more relaxed atmosphere, though it's clear that with the lower price point, less is offered.

The GWCM won't lighten your wallet as much as the GWM. But you definitely get less as well. If you have an interest to experience the Great Wall, however, this Jinshanling race and its grueling 3700 steps will demonstrate the wall's ancient history. The course amazingly has contestants running through the ruins of towers, and along breathtaking stretches of crumbling wall. The heights of the climbs and some shaky terrain definitely make this the more challenging of the two race courses.

The GWM at Huangyaguan is much farther removed from Beijing, thus requiring a somewhat insane 3:30am bus departure. But it does reward attendants with truly picturesque scenery and pristine air. The course has substantially less Great Wall in it, but it does take runners through some very interesting terrain through farmer fields and a small town. Local villagers come out to watch the flood of sweaty foreigners who stream past their abodes once a year.

On May 19th, the GWM at Huangyaguan affirms its existence with a big sound system and pumped up aerobics instructors to lead the warm up. The post-race lunch is pretty good, and has included beer in the past. If you want the "marathon experience" of big crowds and big hype, GWM is for you. Unfortunately, big crowds also lead to giant bottlenecks when the course narrows to a single file liner of runners. Runners are advised to stop checking their watches.

The May Day GWCM race at Jinshanling is more low-key and more budget. They certainly should at least give runners enough safety pins to fasten their race bibs to their shirts, and offer some sort of post-race lunch. Also, this year some organization problems resulted in a number of runners missing a leg of the course, throwing results askew.

Both marathons cost more than your average marathon. The GWCM costs 198 USD for residents of China. Visitors can purchase 3 night packages, which start at 575 USD.

For the GWM, the minimum price is 284 USD for residents of China (including the timing chip). Visitors can choose their appropriate travel packages which start at 1200 USD.

Despite the higher cost, the GWM is clearly the more popular run of the two, so popular that 350 people were on the waiting list this year. But if someone is focused on experiencing a run on the wall, the GWCM is a great second choice that shouldn't be discounted. Both runs will give you insight into Chinese history while getting your heart pumping at dangerously fast rates.