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Jo'Burg Days: A Monumental Run

Barbara Durlacher tells the story of two men who ran along the Great Wall of China - all 4,500 miles of it!

About eighteen months ago, I heard a report on our local radio station of two South Africans, David Grier and Braam Malherbe, who were running the Great Wall of China, attempting to set a record – the first in the world – for the only continuous run of this amazing construction. They were running from its start somewhere in the Gobi-Ordos Desert to where it finishes on the East Coast of China at Liaoning.

Fascinated by the thought of two men attempting to cover the entire 4500 mile distance ‘non-stop’, I contacted David Grier in Cape Town and asked him if he would agree to give a talk about his achievement to members of the University of the Third Age in Johannesburg. With great charm and amiability, David agreed that in early March 2008 he would fly up from Cape Town and give his audio-visual presentation, despite the fact that only three weeks later he and his friend Braam Malherbe are scheduled to leave on yet another record breaking run around the southern tip of the African continent, starting in Namibia on the west coast, and ending in Mocambique on the east, and are extremely busy organising this next epic effort.

Well, the day arrived and the lecture was fantastic. David Grier is a tall, slim good looking 48-year old, with a thick thatch of grey hair which from a distance looks almost blonde, giving him an appearance of being younger than his years. He opened his talk by telling us that he and his friend had had this lifelong ambition to run the whole distance of the Great Wall of China, a feat which has never been achieved before. An Englishman tried a couple of years ago, but gave up, declaring it physically- and politically - impossible.

Well, David Grier and Braam Malherbe, both South African, have now achieved the impossible, and are registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the only men to have successfully completed running the entire length of the Great Wall of China. Another ‘first’ for South Africa.

It took them 98 days - over six months of elapsed time - and they worked with GPS positioning, and even if they had to break off [as in the case when they had to take Grier 60 kms back along distance they'd already covered to hospital when he injured his leg] they are formally recognised as having completed the entire distance from start to finish and their accomplishment is registered in the Guinness Book of Records.

After some deliberation, they started the ball rolling by canvassing likely sponsors to raise finance. Despite enormous efforts, including flying to Vienna to see the head of the Red Bull energy drink company - who was very receptive to the idea, but turned them down because this company only sponsors team efforts - they was almost on the point of giving up, when a client/friend of David's [he is a trained chef and has five restaurants in the Cape Town area] signed a promissory note and they were able to continue.

The next step was to start training, and they went to the Academy of Sports Science in Cape Town, a division of the University of CT, which is headed by Professor Tim Noakes, famous for his work in all aspects of sports medicine and the effect extreme sports have on the body. There they did rigorous training to strengthen and stretch the muscles preparatory to this enormous run of over 4500 kms. Due to difficulties in obtaining funding, they started their attempt two months late, and ran through the worst of the summer heat and encountered the first few months of early winter. They experienced the worst of the summer heat in temps of 100deg plus, to minus 22deg Celsius, running through knee-high snow.

The lecture was illustrated with excellent pictures, as they had a small back-up team with a doctor and presumably [although it was not mentioned] a professional photographer. It was fascinating to see the varied terrain of China and how, in one part due to bad farming practices, the land had been completely eroded into deep dongas and gullies until it looked like America’s Grand Canyon. That erosion was caused by the Colorado River denuding the land over centuries and this part of China is totally ruined and infertile now - it looked like a moonscape.

They started in the Gobi-Ordos desert, where, in parts there was no wall at all, just a deep trench in the ground which over time has become silted up. But a small depression remains and they ran along this. Then, in other parts, they came to areas where the wall disappears and there is a large break - sometimes for about half-a-mile. In many of the more remote areas, the local population have used the bricks and stones to resurface roads, build their houses, or surround their fields.

When the wall reaches a gorge, instead of spanning the depths, it breaks off and continues on the other side. So, they abseiled down the one side and up the other to return to the wall and keep on running. It also diverges in certain places - no GPS in those days, no radio communications between ‘Head Office’ and the ‘Project Managers’ to tell them they were losing the line, and no modern surveying techniques - so the locals more or less took the direction they "thought" it should go. The wall was built by local labour and took over 2000 years to complete, and sometimes the local community leader was not dynamic enough to force his labour to obey his instructions and instead of constructing the wall on the crest of a hill/mountain, it would be half-way down - much easier for everyone.

Where mud bricks have been used in construction, they were held together by a mortar made from pulverised rice mixed to a porridge with lime, and there is no doubt about it’s durability, as, were it not for man’s destruction and climatic changes, a much larger proportion of the wall would still be standing today.

The wall runs across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, many of the mountains are quite thickly carpeted in vegetation although it is difficult to judge the height – they could be tall trees, as there is nothing to give a sense of scale, except the watch towers on the top, but in the desert areas, it has completely disappeared, through erosion and the movement of the desert sands. The Manchus finally crossed the wall in 1644, but prior to that, for over two thousand years and through many dynasties, this remarkable construction was kept in sufficiently good repair to repel the Mogol hoards.

Food was very scarce and they had to eat what they could get - and as he says, the Chinese eat everything that moves - including snakes and scorpions, complete with sting [cooked of course.] So, they lived mostly on rice and noodles and very little protein, and as they were running 45kms a day - obviously less, when the going was impossible - their muscles were protein depleted and they were battling to keep going. They were burning up 7000 calories a day, and taking in between 3000-4000, and they lost 18 kgs in weight and 14% of their eyesight due to protein deficiency.

David had a bad fall and tore a major calf muscle, and had his leg strapped up for several weeks. He could hardly put his foot to the floor due to the pain but despite this he forced himself to continue and after three weeks of absolute agony while still attempting to cover several kilometres a day, his body restored itself and he was able to go on running.

They encountered an enormous sandstorm, which rolled up behind them like a vast cloud, you may have seen something similar on tv - and although they managed to shelter in a sort of alcove in the wall, it nearly killed them. The sand was so fine that it got into eyes, ears, nostrils and down their throats and when mixed with their saliva, formed a sort of porridge. They had to stick their fingers down their throats and force themselves to vomit to get it out. The storm lasted about 45 minutes and if it had been much longer they would have suffocated.

At the finish of his illustrated talk, he announced that they had raised a the sum of R600 000 for “Miles for Smiles” a charity which supports children with facial deformities, particularly cleft palates and malformed jaws. He showed pictures of the children the charity they had helped. It brought a lump to one's throat to see how badly deformed the kids were at birth and in their first years and the absolute despair in their eyes and then how, after the reconstructive surgery, their little faces were completely transformed. Their smiles of pure joy were wonderful to see - it was a marvellous experience.

He has produced a beautiful coffee table book entitled "Courage and Rice" which is available on direct order from his website. See and read more about David Grier and running the Great Wall of China, on www.davidgrier.co.za or order his book directly from the same site.

Here is David’s introduction to the book:

“Life is generally measured by achievements, accolades and awards, but the most important aspect of any achievement, is the journey along the way.
I believe the journey is too often overshadowed by the end result and that the achievement outshines the motivation and the obstacles overcome to reach the end goal. The most important part of life is what you learn along the way, how an idea can set in motion a chain of events that not only affect you but also those you come into contact with. This book is a record of my journey from the beginning to the end with all the highs and lows in between. From the physical to the emotional, the people I met and how their dedication and spirit influenced me, the places both extreme and hostile, and the emotional vicissitudes as my journey unfolded.

This is my story of how this journey changed my life.
I have created my story like a string of pearls. The common thread that holds it together is the record of our run along the Great Wall. Onto this, I have strung my pearls; photographs, blogs that were written en route (mostly at night in the quiet of my tent), the food I ate and the recipes I was gifted from villagers in China.

If I had to single out just one thing that had the most impact on me from this experience, it would be the lives that is has touched; the 54 children in KwaZulu Natal with brand new smiles, the members of my support team, my life and that of my children. It has been a humbling experience.”

“A little change goes a long way.”

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