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Not your ordinary workout: Climbing the Great Wall of China

BEIJING, China -- As I took my first steps onto the Great Wall of China, recently, it was truly a moment I will cherish forever. To be standing on that massive, 5,500-mile-long structure, knowing the history that surrounds it, was truly breathtaking.

Literally. For I quickly discovered that the Great Wall offers more than just awe-filled travel moments and magnificent photo-ops. It can also provide a significant cardiovascular workout.

I hiked a section of the Great Wall known as Mutianyu. This area is less traveled, but steeper, than the commonly tourist-thronged Badaling. I wanted a little bit of a challenge and figured Mutianyu would be a perfect fit. But it wasn’t the comfortable shoe I was used to.

For some unknown personal reason, my two-hour trek turned into a race against no one except myself. I wanted to make it to the top. I needed to make it to the top. But I wasn’t completely ready for the Great Wall workout, and I wasn’t the best manager of time.

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​Instead of controlling my pace during the 1,000-plus-step climb to the top, I found myself moving fast. Too fast. I was skipping steps, losing my footing, and I almost took a header on a section that was easily close to an 80-degree slope. That definitely would have ruined my day—unconscious and bloody on the Great Wall. Well, it probably would have made for some amazing tourism photos. One step, two step, three step, floor.

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But it was a helluva workout. The Great Wall provided rounds of interval training—flat sections of the wall, combined with different degrees of incline and difficulty, thinner air from the altitude change, and a bit of the infamous Beijing smog. It’s interesting that the smog isn’t actually produced from industries in the city of Beijing—it’s a byproduct of industrial work done on the outskirts and tends to lie quasi-dormant due to a lack of wind, according to our great Great Wall tour guide, Leo.


Less than 100 yards from the farthest point tourists are allowed, I really started to experience the Great Wall’s wrath. My body was running in overdrive, struggling in conditions it doesn’t consider normal. I was drenched in sweat, starting to become lightheaded, and found it harder to breathe normally; I was working at about 90-percent of my maximum heart rate (220 minus my current age). Physically, I'm 35—but mentally, well, I'm still struggling to get out of my teens at times.

So, I put myself into cool-down mode, enjoyed the sights and allowed my body—especially my heart rate—to compose itself before moving forward.

The last steps were a challenge, as I was physically spent and my legs felt like they contained a family of flaming rockets on takeoff. But, a short time later, I made it to the Great Corner watchtower and that feeling can’t be compared to many others I’ve experienced. I quickly realized that even though there was some pain, the final gain was—and is—far superior.

Finally, it was time to return a mile to the bottom. But after the initial descent, the option of a solo toboggan ride the rest of the way was too cool to resist. Both my mind and body told me so.

Great times at the Great Wall.