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Trail running along the Great Wall of China

In 2019, Swiss photographer Martin Bissig had the opportunity to shoot the Columbia SANFO Ultra 168 trail challenge, on the site of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics

Photo by: Martin Bissig

In the middle of a roundabout was a gigantic sign reading “Beijing 2022.” From the back seat of the car I was in, I saw “Beijing 2022” everywhere as we approached the Chinese city of Chongli: on flags, on banners lining the streets, on huge billboards plastered onto the facades of buildings. Even though we’d driven for more than three hours and China’s capital was well behind us, it still felt as though we were in a suburb of the metropolis of 22 million people. If I’d driven for three hours starting from my homeland of Switzerland, I’d have reached either Italy, France, Germany or Austria.

Photo: Martin Bissig

If it hadn’t been for the five-ringed Olympic symbol under the letters, I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of what was going on in 2022 in Beijing. Thanks to my Swiss preconceived notions due in no small part to my frequent trips to the Middle Kingdom, as China traditionally refers to itself China had not figured strongly in my mind as a location for winter sports. Or for trail running. That’s why I was even more thrilled when I received a request to photograph the 2019 Columbia SANFO Ultra 168 trail challenge

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Photo: Martin Bissig

10K or 168K    what will it be?

More than 4,000 athletes had registered. The first round of runners, which totalled just under 600, had to conquer 168K with a total elevation gain of 8,000m. The remaining participants were signed up for the 130K, 100K, 70K, 50K and 30K loops, or the 10K “Joy Run.” The races were spread out over the three race days, and they all went through varied terrain, through ancient villages, along ski lift lines, over mountain ridges and even along (or on) the Great Wall of China. 

Photo: Martin Bissig

Out of the planned city and into the wild

With the future Olympic Athletes’ Village up and ready to go and a number of hotels, everything in Chongli appeared to be running on schedule for the 2022 Games. An expansive and green mountainous landscape graces the city outskirts. Swaths of ski runs cut through the densely forested mountains, which are dotted with wind turbines. The landscape looks more like something I’m used to seeing in Europe. 

Photo: Martin Bissig

On an e-bike provided by race organizers, I accompanied the first group of racers to the hilly backcountry. A few hours later, it started to rain. The mood was amazing, the participants were still fired up and they all gave me a friendly wave. Of course, the biggest part of the race still lay ahead. In no way did they resemble the exhausted and dazed-looking runners I would be seeing three days later.

Race Day 2: so that’s the Great Wall of China?

Well before sunrise, my guide, Patrick, and I prepared to ride our bikes up to the Thaiwoo Ski Resort’s mountain station.

Photo: Martin Bissig

The first runners of the pack had already made it past the mountain station in the dark and were more than halfway to the finish line. At this point, the athletes for all the different races had come together and were running the same stretch.

Once we’d reached the top, we carried our bikes over a huge pile of rocks. “You just climbed over the Great Wall of China,” Patrick called out. I remember thinking that I’d imagined this wall to be somewhat different. I launched my drone, at which point I was able to see the actual scope of the “rock pile.” What had looked like a four-metre-wide pile of rocks from close up displayed its true dimensions when seen from above. The Wall was easily recognizable as such and extended for kilometres along the mountain range.

Photo: Martin Bissig

A refreshment stop had been set up at the ski resort’s mountain station. Some of the athletes used the restaurant as a place to sleep after having run through the night. Others fortified themselves with some noodle soup. The glowing faces from the day before were already showing signs of the overnight exertion. We rode our bikes down the single tracks and reached a traditional village. The route went right through the farm village, and I snapped a few great shots of the inhabitants, their houses and their surroundings. 

Photo: Martin Bissig

Race Day 3: the final slog

I returned to the last stretch I’d covered the day before. Gone were the friendly waves and happy, smiling faces filled with anticipation. Those who were on Day 3 and still had to conquer the last 10K of the race, after having run through two nights, were focused only on finishing. The champions had long since reached the finish line, but the stragglers were still struggling through their final kilometres. This was where the real drama was taking place within sight of the finish line, not at the head of the race. Looking weakened and dazed, they dragged their tired bodies into the meal tent. Some of them practically fell asleep while eating. Swollen, cracked feet were tended to, a last snack or cigarette was consumed and off they headed toward the finish.

Photo: Martin Bissig

A powerful experience

The last athletes reached the finish, most of them walking. This adventure was finally over. It had been an unforgettable one, and not just for the participants. I’m already looking forward to attending the next event.