Running the Great Wall of China both ways got him more than he bargained for.
ADVENTURER DAVID GRIER RECENTLY BECAME THE ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD TO HAVE RUN THE ENTIRE DISTANCE OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA IN BOTH DIRECTIONS. BUT RETRACING HIS STEPS DID FAR MORE THAN PUSH HIS BODY – IT CHALLENGED HIM TO ADDRESS PAST REGRETS AND MISCONCEPTIONS.
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
IT’S IMPORTANT TO REGALE OTHERS WITH OUR STORIES; OTHERWISE, THEY DIE WITH US.
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.”
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.”
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.