Hitting the Wall

Member runs atop the Great Wall of China

8 August 2008
how01 Jack Howell just after running the 5-kilometer race on the Great Wall of China.

At a robust 72, John “Jack” Howell had been running seriously for only four years when he was given a shot at the race of a lifetime: a 5-kilometer run atop the Great Wall of China.

He ended up setting a record. He clocked in at 1:09:35, placing eighth out of 40 entrants in the 5K men's division and establishing a course record for older runners. The run attracted 1700 participants from 49 countries, ages 5 to 85, as well as hundreds of local spectators.

“Mine was the fastest time ever for age 60-plus,” says IEEE Member Howell, whose day job is executive director of the IEEE Communications Society in New York City. “Then again, this 5K race on the Great Wall has only been around since 2004, and only 27 of those 60 and over have finished it.”

His journey began when another IEEE member tipped him off to the 9th Annual Great Wall Marathon, a series of multilength races hosted by Adventure Marathon [http://www.adventure-marathon.com/]. It just so happened that Howell was going to be in the neighborhood—Beijing—for the annual IEEE International Conference on Communications, which kicked off Sunday, 18 May, the day after the race.

“It was totally coincidental,” he says. “I called my running coach, and she said, ‘Wow, go for it—just do it!’ ”

how02 A look at the Great Wall course with inclines as steep as 30 degrees, and 200-meter ascents and 300-meter descents.

LOTS OF UPS AND DOWNS Howell’s fastest 5K run was 24:03 on a flat surface. But the Great Wall course is punishing, with more than 3000 uneven steps and no rails to guard against 6-meter-plus drops, inclines as steep as 30 degrees, and an overall 200-meter ascent and 300-meter descent. Already logging a weekly 32 km, the slightly built 170-cm-tall Howell upped his daily 90-minute workouts by pitching his treadmill incline from 0.5 to 3 degrees and spending more time climbing the Stairmaster.

“The only way to prepare for the race was to train as hard as you could for the step-climbing parts,” he says.

During the race, the former U.S. Department of Defense aerospace engineer and Air Force vet could think of only one thing.

“‘Hang on and don’t stop, hang on and don’t stop,’ kept going through my mind,” he says. “I’d get to the top of an incline and think, ‘You’re almost there,’ and then see another stretch. The thing that saved me were the ‘no passing zone’ bottlenecks, where runners could only proceed single file, which gave me a couple of minutes to catch my breath.”

Howell kept track of his progress with a Garmin 205 Forerunner GPS wristwatch that tracked his step-by-step speed and location through satellite positioning. His stats are documented on a computer printout that he keeps as a permanent record of his achievement.

“This was the hardest I have ever run—climbed actually,” he adds. “I was all right Sunday morning, but that night, I crashed. Monday morning my legs wouldn’t move, and I was unable to use the stairs for a couple of days.”

Another highlight of the race for Howell was meeting Margaret Hagerty, the 85-year-old Guinness World Record–holder for the oldest person to run a marathon on all seven continents, who had entered the 10K race. The event raised US $4500 for the victims of the recent earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, while the IEEE conference contributed another $7000. But mainly Howell came away with the feeling of a job well done.

“In addition to the endorphins and ego satisfaction, everyone who finished got a medal,” he says. “This was a unique opportunity, but I think I’ll keep my running to flat surfaces from now on.”

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