5 January 2007
South African endurance athletes David Grier and Braam Malherbe arrived home in time for Christmas having spent four months covering around 5 000 kilometres and some of the harshest terrain on the planet to become the first people in recorded history to run the Great Wall of China from start to finish, in one go, on foot.
By taking a direct route along the massively undulating “spine of the dragon,” Grier and Malherbe also became the first people to personally measure the length of the Wall, popularly thought to be 5 000 kilometres long. Their findings, currently being verified, will be presented at a gala dinner in Cape Town in February.
Miles for Smiles
At the same time, the two middle-aged fathers raised money, and created invaluable publicity, for Operation Smile, a non-profit volunteer medical organisation that provides free reconstructive surgery to children and young adults suffering from facial deformities such as cleft lips and palates.
Their epic endurance test, sponsored by pharmaceutical company Cipla Medpro, formed part of the Miles for Smiles Challenge, an annual event in which extreme sportsmen and women help raise money for needy youngsters.
Grier and Malherbe crossed the officially recognised end point of the Wall, at Shanhaiguan, on 15 December after four months of running, climbing – and sometimes crawling – for around six hours a day across relentlessly treacherous and weather-pounded terrain.
“Excluding rest days and a few days of minor injury, we ran, walked and climbed for a total of 94 days,” Malherbe said on the Miles for Smiles website.
Their mission, he said, was not only to inspire South Africans to “give the gift of a smile to children born without one”. It was also to to show South African children, including their own – Malherbe’s teenage son Ben joined him on the last leg of their trek – that “everyone can do anything if they put their mind to it.”
Largest man-made structure
The Great Wall runs across nine Chinese provinces, starting in Jiayuguan in the Gobi desert and ending at Shanhaiguan, where its ramparts are washed by the waves of the Yellow Sea.
The size of the world’s largest man-made structure provides for some remarkable statistics. For example: if the bricks used during construction in the Ming period alone were arranged into a wall five feet high and three feet wide, it is estimated that they would completely encircle the earth.
Grier, a restaurateur, and Malherbe, an ecologist and youth counsellor, focused on strength training in preparation for their gruelling run, concentrating especially on the ankle, knee and hip joints.
Their specialist support team included Prof Wayne Derman of the Sports Science Institute of SA, exercise physiologist Dr Andrew Bosh, orthopaedic surgeon Dr Willem van der Merwe, Sean Surmon and Cathy Chambers of Health Junction, biokineticist Erin Rae, personal trainer Allan Beacham and nutritionist Shelly Meltzer.
Speaking before the athletes left for China last year, Prof Tim Noakes of the Sports Science Institute warned that the challenge could take a serious toll on the two athletes. “It is not how long their bodies will take to recover,” he said, “it is more a question of whether they will recover at all.”
The first question, however, was whether they would survive the run itself. They nearly didn’t.
Gobi Desert sandstorm
On 24 September, running in the Gobi Desert, Grier and Malherbe hit a sandstorm that brought with it thunder and lightning, winds in excess of 50km/h, and four tornado-like funnels each about a kilometre wide and a kilometre high.
Describing the experience on the Miles for Smiles website, Malherbe wrote: “The sheer speed of this creation was frightening. I told David we needed to find shelter immediately.
“There was a power line running across the desert close to us. I ran to the top of the decaying wall and saw a mud herder’s hut about two kilometres away. Too far, the dust was already obscuring the view. In minutes, all visuals would be reduced to metres at best. If we did not find shelter in minutes, we could die of suffocation.
“The wall provided our only hope,” Malherbe wrote. “I shouted to David to hug the edge of the wall, which [at that point] wasn’t wall at all, but a long line of mud rubble.
“After covering our faces with balaclavas, we stayed close and very fortunately found an old herder’s hole in the side of the embankment. It was big enough to shelter both of us. Talk about timing! We hadn’t seen a herder’s shelter for many kilometres.
“The fine powder was all around, swirling in howling gusts. We were being covered in fine powder, but were out of the main impact. After 20 minutes of incredible power, the rain came. It sounded and felt good. We were alive and very grateful and very small!”
In 2005, a similar sandstorm claimed the lives of 16 people on a scientific expedition.
Taking a fall
Just days after the sandstorm, Grier suffered a serious fall while the two men were climbing cliffs of crumbling granite, shale and loose gravel.
With just two hours of daylight left, the pair had taken a route that came to a stop at a huge rock face. Turning back was not an option because of the fading light, so there was only one thing to do – go over the top.
Battling eroding hand grips as the soft rock gave way, the adventurers took on the climb. As they progressed, the gradient became steeper and, at the same time, the rock became softer and less supportive.
Trying to find a better line of ascent, Grier started moving towards what looked like a decent platform to his right. However, as he stretched his right leg out, the rock under his left foot began to give way.
‘My life flashed past me’
Writing about it, Grier said: “My life suddenly flashed past me. I felt nauseous and began to sweat. I could hear Braam shouting. Nothing made sense.
“I spread my body flat against the rock and shale, trying to claw in with my fingers. Nothing helped. It was all in slow motion.
“My rucksack buckle had now been ripped open, and the weight of it was over-balancing me and pulling my shoulder away from the rock. I released my right hand to free myself from it. As I did this everything seemed to break.
“I was enveloped in dust and rock gravel, not knowing how far I was going to slide,” Grier wrote. “I have no recollection of what went on. I think I just shut down. The next thing I heard was Braam’s shouting echoing around me. I had come to rest on a ledge eight metres below, my left shin wedged in a gully below me.”
Malherbe made his way to Grier and, after assessing the situation, they continued on upwards, taking another four hours to reach the top and safety at nine o’clock in the evening.
They had yet to pass the first 1 000-kilometre mark on their journey.
Sharing the adventure
“After over four months in China, we arrive home on Wednesday the 20th,” Malherbe wrote on the website on 19 December, four days after he and Grier had completed their run.
“I’m missing home so much and am excited beyond words about reuniting with all I love in South Africa. I’m equally excited about sharing my adventure and exploring my growth practically at home.
“It hasn’t really hit me as to what’s happened yet,” Malherbe continued. “I will be going to my cabin in the mountains for some time to be at peace and let all this digest and piece itself together.
“Many questions have been asked: a book? Definitely. A documentary? Definitely. Motivational talks and further awareness and fund-raising will be on-going.
“But the big question is, ‘what next?’ Lots! Watch this space!”