Look­ing Back

Run­ning the Great Wall of China both ways got him more than he bar­gained for.



David Grier and fel­low ad­ven­turer An­drew Stu­art ran along a knife-edge ridge in the Gobi Desert, on ei­ther side of which was a 200m drop that plunged into noth­ing­ness. Crows cir­cled around them, and it felt as though they too were fly­ing.

They ar­rived at a de­serted vil­lage in the moun­tains above the fortress of Jaiyuguan, which is also the end of the Great Wall of China. There were caves in the vil­lage, in which grain may have been stored hun­dreds of years ago. The pair car­ried fire­wood up to the caves, and set up a makeshift camp.

From their van­tage point, be­neath a star-span­gled sky, they had a bird’seye view of the Wall, snaking back into the Gobi Desert.

“There was no noise; no in­sect, bird, an­i­mal or fel­low hu­man be­ing,” Grier re­calls. “In ev­ery di­rec­tion we looked, a sheen of heat blan­keted a vast waste­land.”

Grier was just seven kilo­me­tres away from fin­ish­ing a 4 031km run – from Shan­haiguan, where the Wall starts, to Jaiyuguan. So far, he had been run­ning for 78 days.


Grier’s fam­ily owns Vil­liera Wines, and the 58-year-old from Stellenbosch is a chef by trade. His love of cook­ing meant he spent the best part of 35 years of his life in the kitchen. As a re­sult, he put on weight, and spent less time with his fam­ily than he should have.

“All my chil­dren wanted on their school sports day was to look up and see me, just once,” he says. “But I was never there, be­cause some­thing would al­ways come up at work.”

By his own ad­mis­sion, Grier was use­less at sport when he was grow­ing up. He would fin­ish last in cross­coun­try races, clutch­ing an asthma pump in his hand and feel­ing tears


roll down his cheeks.

Thirty-odd years later, the portly chef had taken up run­ning, in a bid to trans­form his life­style. Even more sur­pris­ing was the re­al­i­sa­tion he was ac­tu­ally good at it. He was by no means fast, but he could run for­ever. Soon, nor­mal long-dis­tance races weren’t enough.

Grier’s first en­durance run was an ad­ven­ture along the Wall in 2006, from Jaigyuguan to Shan­haiguan. It took him 98 days to com­plete.

Then, he ran from Kash­mir to the bot­tom of Afghanistan, and from there to the bot­tom of In­dia. Back then, Stu­art was one of the crew mem­bers who ac­com­pa­nied Grier on his ad­ven­ture. He of­fered to run the last 2 000km with him.

Grier met Stu­art 20 years ago, when he was look­ing for some­one to man­age one of his restau­rants. The pair shared an hon­est friend­ship. They would en­gage in ro­bust con­fronta­tion in the kitchen; but once out­side the work­place, they would laugh it off.

Stu­art has since ac­com­pa­nied Grier on all of his ad­ven­tures: from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and along Hadrian’s Wall, in the UK; from Mizen Head to Malin Head in Ire­land; across sun-scorched sa­van­nah grass­lands in Cuba; and from Namibia to Cape Town, rac­ing against three horses.

“There’s noth­ing bet­ter than shar­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “It’s im­por­tant to rem­i­nisce and to regale oth­ers with our sto­ries; oth­er­wise, they will die with us.”

Grier and Stu­art’s prepa­ra­tion for the Wall in­cluded train­ing runs from Yz­er­fontein back to Melk­bosstrand, the coastal sub­urb Grier now calls home, and on the roads and beaches that link Hout Bay and Misty Cliffs.

The pair have de­vel­oped a sys­tem that they al­ways use. It’s not about how fast they go; rather, it’s about how long they can man­age their bod­ies to run at the op­ti­mum level in or­der to cover as much mileage as pos­si­ble.

Stu­art runs be­hind Grier, tim­ing pat­terns of 20 min­utes of run­ning, fol­lowed by five min­utes of walk­ing.

“What hap­pens when you run ac­cord­ing to a sys­tem like this is that you give your body time to cool down,” Grier ex­plains. “You also re­hy­drate your mus­cles, which means they be­come spongy and elas­tic again. This way, they’re less likely to tighten up and tear.”

The Wall

Their ad­ven­ture took them over steep moun­tains, some 3 000m above sea level, where the tem­per­a­ture dropped to around mi­nus-17 and there was sleet, rain, ice and snow. They ran over rolling hills in Shanxi Prov­ince, and on the gravel plains of the Gobi Desert.

Grier de­scribes his first-hand views of these ma­jes­tic land­scapes as “the kind you only see on tele­vi­sion and in books”.

“The clouds would break, and the snow-cov­ered wall would ex­plode out from be­neath us, un­rav­el­ling into the hori­zon like a rib­bon,” he says. “Then it would dis­ap­pear again.”

The first time Grier ran along the Wall, he de­vel­oped cer­tain per­cep­tions about China based on the things he saw. Only when he re­turned to re­trace his steps did he find out how wrong he’d been.

“When I saw a river that had been ex­ca­vated, and power sta­tions that bil­lowed out smoke, I as­sumed na­ture was be­ing de­stroyed. This time, I saw it had been a mas­ter plan to re­ha­bil­i­tate that place. Where there had once been a ru­ral sprawl that messed up the en­vi­ron­ment, the lo­cals were now grouped to­gether, and lived in beau­ti­ful cities and on thriv­ing farm­lands. The power sta­tions that had been used to build the cities had since been de­mol­ished.

“In 2017 alone, China rolled out more so­lar farms than the US has

done in their en­tire ‘green rev­o­lu­tion’ of the last 15 years!”


Grier and Stu­art each lost 12kg in body weight on this run. Go­ing as far as to run for 42 con­sec­u­tive days with­out tak­ing a rest, their long­est dis­tance cov­ered in one week was 420km, and the duo had to use a new pair of run­ning shoes after ev­ery 1 300km they cov­ered.

Stu­art de­vel­oped bad ten­dini­tis, and was taken to a hos­pi­tal by their sup­port crew. Doc­tors ad­vised him to rest for six weeks, and gave him a moon boot and a pair of crutches. Ig­nor­ing their ad­vice, Stu­art took off the boot and ditched the crutches.

There was no way he wasn’t go­ing to fin­ish, be­cause he didn’t want to let any­one down.

Then, some­where be­tween 800km and 900km, Stu­art bashed his toe, and the nail came loose from in­fec­tion. Even­tu­ally, Grier cut away the front of Stu­art’s run­ning shoe to give his toe some space.

“We reached a vil­lage, where ser­vice­men drove small, three­wheeled trucks,” Grier re­calls. “I spot­ted a pair of pli­ers in one of the trucks and asked the ser­vice­man if we could bor­row it.

“Stu­art took off his shoe. I wasn’t wear­ing my glasses. When I pulled at his nail, I also man­aged to tear out its roots! There was a lot of blood. We taped up Stu­art’s toe as best we could, but he had to run on it for an­other three weeks.”

An­other chal­lenge for the pair was mon­i­tor­ing their food in­take to min­imise risk. It was a case of what they could get, when they could get it, and how much of it they could get. They sur­vived on fil­ter cof­fee, yo­ghurt and lit­tle bis­cuits. They car­ried vac­uum-packed food, too: chicken legs, and eggs the Chi­nese call ‘cen­tury eggs’.

In the evenings, their sup­port crew would give each of them a ‘pin’ for a restau­rant, which was usu­ally lo­cated in the near­est small vil­lage. There would be a wide va­ri­ety of dishes to choose from: veg­eta­bles, tofu, meat and chicken. Then they would eat!

“Be­cause the weather was cold, we didn’t take in enough fluid or pass enough urine,” Grier says. “We drank low-al­co­hol beers, which acted as a di­uretic.”

The end

Day 79. It’s not un­com­mon for en­durance ath­letes to use their ad­ven­tures as a plat­form to raise funds or aware­ness for a wor­thy cause. Obe­sity and over­weight is a lead­ing cause of kid­ney dis­ease, which af­fects 132 mil­lion peo­ple in China. Grier’s ad­ven­ture in­spired lo­cal peo­ple to adopt a healthy life­style.

Kid­ney-dis­ease pa­tients who had been fol­low­ing Grier and Stu­art’s run were wait­ing at the fortress of Jaiyuguan as the weary ath­letes came to the end of their jour­ney. They were joined by friends and ev­ery­day Chi­nese cit­i­zens, who had all used a mini-app on WeChat to count their steps while the duo ran the length of the Wall. This meant that thou­sands of Chi­nese peo­ple had col­lec­tively run 2.3 mil­lion kilo­me­tres.

In ad­di­tion, Grier and Stu­art raised R350 000 for Op­er­a­tion Smile, which will be used to fund 63 cor­rec­tive surg­eries.

On a more per­sonal level, Grier’s ad­ven­ture re­quired him to wipe his iden­tity clean and then build it back up again, from scratch: his lan­guage, cul­ture, likes and dis­likes. Not only did run­ning the Wall in the op­po­site di­rec­tion change his per­spec­tive of China; it also helped him to deal with the things he re­grets.

“It was a hell of a process, and there were tears,” Grier ad­mits. “But strip away your lay­ers, and all you’re left with is you – and that makes it eas­ier to find out what re­ally mat­ters to you.”

For Grier? That’s sim­ply ap­pre­ci­at­ing those he’s clos­est to.

be­low (clock­wise): The start at Shan­haiguan, where the Wall meets the ocean; the col­umn says ‘God cre­ated heaven and earth, the ocean and the moun­tains’; vil­lage in the val­ley – a refuge from the freez­ing, rainy weather.

left: David Grier leaves the treach­er­ous moun­tains north of Bei­jing be­hind.

above (clock­wise): The duo climbed over 50km of stairs per day; a crew mem­ber (af­fec­tion­ately known as ‘Jimmy the Noo’) con­ducts a route brief­ing; An­drew Stu­art picks up the pace at the half­way mark.

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