Print Page   |   Your Cart   |   Sign In   |   Register
Community Search
Graduate News: News

Hitting the Wall - Alumnus Kieran Phipps recounts his experience running the Great Wall Marathon

Friday 23 March 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lisa McCarthy
Share |

In 2011, I was in my final semester at UL studying for my BA (Education) in Languages. In January of that year, I decided I would sign up for my first 10k along with several other fourth years. They trained religiously every week while I continued to indulge in the Holy Trinity of student life in Limerick - The Stables, The Lodge and Icon. April crept up and the Plassey 10k was about to get under way. My FYP was due on the Monday – grand I thought! I remember a classmate remarking to others, ‘Does he actually think he can do it?’

The race started and even though I took my time… I struggled. What did I expect when I ran twice as preparation? I passed a few out and of course plenty passed me too, but I finished it in 48 minutes That’s better than anyone who was all talk and, if I’m honest, I was pretty content with my time as well.
‘Imagine how you’d do if you trained properly!’ a friend commented. 

Six years later… May 2017, the digital clock at the top of the bus hits 5am and there is a mixture of foreign and Chinese runners on board. By now I have completed the Plassey 10k three times, along with one half marathon, seven full marathons and I am about to attempt my eighth. After all this time I have actually learned my lesson to plan and prepare for such a big race. I followed my marathon plan religiously with a mixture of short and long runs, intervals, you name it. However, the major error before starting or even signing up for this race was not looking into what it actually entailed.

‘It’s on the Great Wall and I think it’s going to be pretty hard,’ I had told my friends in the weeks beforehand, its unique selling point was that 36 of the 42km are on the wall itself. There was little to no information on the site which had somehow managed to defy the powers of technology and vomit overlapping text onto the homepage making it even more difficult to decipher. The payment section was perfect, of course. Now, I understand why

– if people knew what the course was like and how long it would take, a lot less than 200 people would be signing up.

The runners get into position, very few daring to gaze up at the height above as the gun goes off and we begin our race. Thinking I had found my pace in the first kilometer, I am suddenly met with my first encounter of the wall. Traffic loads of participants are eagerly boosting themselves up, step by step, already feeling the effects. ‘There’s no rush,’ I keep telling myself. Usually I would run between 3:40 and 3:50 in a marathon but it became very clear to me that finishing this race would be an accomplishment in itself. I don’t know if I could really refer to it as ‘running’ if I’m honest. Imagine doing non-stop lunges whilst pulling your body up every step in 30 degree heat - that would be a more apt description. I get closer and closer to the sound of a very loud, very opinionated, neon clad, fratbro-meets-meathead guy from the States talking to (at) a few others around him about how he could buy out the organiser and set up the race himself.

‘Not fast enough,’ I think.

  After each tower, if you are lucky, there is a flat path for a few metres where you can run and stretch your legs. Believe me, it feels good after lifting yourself off each step and onto the next. I remember the only bit of advice I had been given was to enjoy the race. The wall itself is an incredible piece of history with scenic views surrounding it. Being a resident of Beijing, the fresh air was a bonus.

The pack from the start has dispersed at this point. I think I’m in a rhythm and there are a few other runners around me who are becoming more familiar to me.Going up was tough but going down proved to be just as tricky. It’s steep. The sun is really starting to blast and although some runners seem to breeze downward past me effortlessly, I’m far more cautious. Some steps are missing bricks and the slope lacks grip in parts.

‘I’m not going to be breaking any world records, it’s not worth it,’ I tell myself.

It’s a few hours in, I’m bored, I’m hot, and I’m feeling the strain. The same black t-shirt had been in front of me for a bit now and we run together. We talk about the race so far and I learn that his name is Jebbe and he studies Medicine in Denmark. A girl called Kaz who is an Australian expat working in Shanghai catches up with us and tells me that my bag has been her pacemaker for the last two hours. She also mentions that she had to turn off the high octane dance music she would normally blare into her ears because she found it irritating rather than motivating when she is trying to move quickly. At the towers there are water stops and every 7km there is food in the form of bananas and sandwiches. The bananas are tasteless and I empty reach before spitting it out. The sandwiches which repulsed the others tasted good in my opinion, despite the burning sensation on my palette.

We’re halfway through the course and Jebbe and I continue to run together. Kaz has run ahead and we have caught up with her a few times, getting ahead of her on occasion. Progress looks different on everyone; but at this point you can see the struggle on everybody’s face in one way or another. Suddenly I get all philosophical telling the others that if you were swimming from a sinking ship and knew that you were halfway there, you wouldn’t swim back and you would keep going. They all agreed, they nodded and smiled.

‘F**k this is tough,’ I mentally conclude.

It’s mid afternoon. The clouds are nowhere to be seen and less and less people are visible on the wall. Many resigned themselves to finishing the half; others accepted that they weren’t going to complete the course within the time limit. Today is testing but we are in this together. Conversations about anything are a nice distraction from sizzling limbs. Nobody is out of breath, but everybody is sore. Then a voice starts to become louder again, I know exactly who it is. The neon speeds past and throws a banana skin across the path.

‘Just Mario racing you, if you get the reference,’ he casually says as he runs downwards.

Jebbe questions me, ‘Do you think that guy’s a-‘

‘Yeah, totally,’ I interrupt. ‘We’ll pass him again later anyway’.

Even though everyone is clearly fixated on the endless amount of steps, none of us can imagine how tough it must have been for all of those people building it long ago. Pulling your body up and down the wall is one thing but lifting blocks on it is another. Thankfully nobody we have seen is visibly injured. What seriously motivates me is reminding myself that an 80 year old woman and a number of blind participants are doing the full marathon, too.

It’s the last 7km. Kaz is nearing the top of one of the towers and we are at the bottom. The quickest way back at this point is the finish line and the worst part (the highest point) for one last time is yet to come. ‘One last time’ (not the Ariana Grande song) becomes my mantra at this point. Jebbe has varied going up the steps in every way imaginable at this point. My repertoire is far more monotonous but personally effective. One foot in front of the other, don’t look at the highest point too often and if possible, at all. Admire the side view and get the bloody thing finished. Knowing that we are nearing the end and that everything is the last time we have to do it is satisfying.




Our clad neon comrade is struggling. ‘C’mon hurry up,’ jokes Jebbe.

‘I’M TRYING!!’ bellows the bro. Part of me feels sorry for him, but realistically I can imagine him doing the same. Surprisingly, we are at the top faster than I thought. Then again, I have been trying my best not to think about time. Kaz is actually really close now too but as soon as we hit the highest peak she glides downwards at a steady speed. Now I can’t help but laugh a little, the temperature has cooled down; our surroundings have never looked so beautiful. We still have a bit of distance left but we know that we are so close to the end nonetheless. The biggest challenge now is holding up wobbly legs and keeping balance.

We’re off the wall. There is only 1km left and our jog is slow but nicely paced. There is no point in doing anything dramatic now but getting past the line. The sun is starting to set and we can hear the small crowd further down the path. I thank Jebbe for keeping me in check for the last few hours and he reciprocates. This is interrupted by the rapid stomping from behind from Usain Bro who lets out one last animalistic roar demonstrating his masculinity for all to witness as he crashes towards the tape for a grand finale. Jebbe speeds up,

‘Let him off, he’d only love us to chase after him!’ I say.


Moments later we cross the line and the crowd all around us are clapping and cheering. I never thought I would appreciate the moment I got to stop so much. I can feel the smiling and laughter across my face and this erodes the feeling of my calves pinching away at me as I start to warm down and remember that there’s a nice can of coke waiting for me in my bag. 9hours and 52 minutes later and in 17thplace, I can finally say I completed the Great Wall Marathon and no matter what happens, nobody can take that away from me. Completion is a personal victory to me. In the days after, standing up were challenging and the stairs up and down the subway stations were my Everest. This was a goal of mine for a while, but once was definitely enough!


Well done to Kieran for completing the Great Wall of China Marathon (and a few more marathons since), in case anybody thinks he might have been exaggerating - check out the video below, it looks seriously tough and we think Kieran is a bit of a legend ! 


We love to hear about the accomplishments of our alumni. If you have any stories or experiences you would like to share, please get in touch by emailing


more Calendar

The upcoming calendar is currently empty.

Click here to view past events and photos »

Online Surveys
Membership Management Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal