Spaniard breaks Great Wall Marathon record

Updated: May 19, 2007, 3:06 PM ET
Associated Press

KUAIHUOLIN, China -- Running the Great Wall Marathon wasn't so tough after all.

At least not for Salvador Calvo, who trains relentlessly over the mountains near his home in northern Spain.

"For me, the hardest part was running the flat ground here, running on asphalt," said Calvo, who set a course record Saturday of 3 hours, 23 minutes, 10 seconds. "The wall was easy for me because it's the kind of training I do at home."

Calvo's time was sensational, coming in one of the world's most difficult and unusual marathons.

Factoring in the 3,800 steps of the Great Wall that runners hike, climb and crawl up Salvo's time is probably equivalent to 2:20 on flat land. Maybe faster. Some compare the difficulty of the race to running at altitude.

"I'd rate it as maybe my best performance," said the 44-year-old Spaniard, whose best city marathon time was 2:32 -- but that was 15 years ago.

A computer programmer from Leon, Spain, Calvo signed up for the 26.2-mile race just three days before the deadline -- by accident while surfing the Internet.

"I was looking for something different, and this looked different. I didn't come looking for a record, but I thought the course might suit me," Calvo said.

Calvo was two minutes faster than the old mark, and 15 minutes ahead of Frederick Zalokar of the United States, who finished second in 3:38:14. The first woman was Sara Winter of New Zealand -- an amazing fifth overall in another course record of 3:50:21.

The old record was 4:12:42.

Two-time world marathon champion Abel Anton had a grueling experience as he crossed the line in Ying-Yang Square, overlooked by a traditional curved-roof tower painted red, blue and gold and adorned with dragon and sea horse sculptures. Anton finished 18th overall in 4:26:07.

"I don't think I will be back again, I think once is enough," Anton said, doubling over briefly to catch his breath at the finish. "It's very hard, maybe the hardest I have done."

Anton, who retired five years ago, experienced just what most normal runners do on the Great Wall -- he was forced to stop, fearing he might faint.

About 1,200 runners ran Saturday -- 450 in the marathon and the rest in the half marathon and 5- and 10-kilometer courses.

Runners completing the marathon have to negotiate the Great Wall twice -- a total of 4 miles -- and Anton was felled just after 21 miles, where runners encounter the Great Wall for the second time.

"I was dizzy and had to stop about 15 minutes," he said. "I think I was a bit dehydrated, it was tougher than I expected."

The 3,800 jagged steps are battering. Some are flat and slick, many are giant-size, and others are little more than pulverized rock made dangerous by a lack of walls on parts of the course.

Add to this 91-degree heat Saturday that baked this portion of China's most famous symbol, a stretch called the Huang Ya Guan pass, about 80 miles from Beijing.

Henrik Brandt of Denmark completed his eighth Great Wall Marathon, the only runner to complete every one since the first event in 1999. The 2003 race was canceled because of the SARS outbreak.

Brandt finished in 7:30, just 30 minutes under the limit of eight hours to run the course.

The shirts worn by many runners needed no explaining: "Tried it all? Run the Wall!!

"For me, it's the hardest one (marathon) I have done," said Winter, the 29-year-old female winner, who ran a personal-best of 2:46 just four weeks ago in Padova, Italy.

"I'm not sure I will do it again. Each time you come off the wall your legs are jelly."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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