Making it Over the Wall

"Hitting the wall”. It’s an expression that Marathon and long-distance runners are familiar with: out of energy and overcome with exhaustion, it means the race is over for the day. No one wants to hit the wall when they’re running.

Every one of us knows that feeling of ‘hitting the wall’ at some point in our lives. It’s the place we come to on our life’s journey where we get stopped cold: decisions have to be made, a new plan put into action. There seems no way forward until we can somehow find the means and resources to get past our wall. And passing one guarantees we’ll meet another: Life is a series of ever-changing hurdles and barriers, a marathon course of desire, preparation, ingenuity and endurance. But amazingly, the process of overcoming these walls leads to the greatest depths of accomplishment, reward and self-satisfaction we can find.

Bev Newbould is a woman who looks forward to her walls: the one directly ahead of her and the next one after that. She seeks them out and calls them goals, and they have filled her life with passion and enthusiasm. With eleven Marathons to her credit, a solo cross-Canada bicycle trip under her belt, over five years of 24-hour fund-raising relay runs organized and completed, and so many kayaking programs and expeditions undertaken they’ve become too numerous to count, you’d think Bev would consider herself an accomplished person and just a dedicated athlete. Not exactly…

She does consider herself dedicated to living her life fully, in every minute of every step along the way to realizing her goals. The quest for the quality of the journey itself is her accomplishment. She’s learned about all kinds of personal obstacles and barriers in her life: mental, physical and emotional ones. How she conquers the barriers and overcomes the hurdles is her achievement, not the number of ‘walls’ she’s managed to surmount.

Bev has just recently returned from China where she completed her eleventh marathon, along what is arguably the hardest racecourse in the world: The Great Wall of China Marathon. A gruelling 42 kilometre race to begin with, it encompasses passages on the Wall itself where the path is so narrow it is impossible to run; where ropes are the only barrier to a breath-taking freefall down a perilously vertical descent, and the local name for the section is the Widow’s Tower. The course takes the runners over uneven sections of stones and bricks, hewn centuries ago when the Wall was built, and not once, but twice through a nearly impossible obstacle course of approximately 1800 stairs. The stairs range over a distance of 3.2 kilometres and force the runners to negotiate an ever-changing difference in the rise of the steps, from two inches to two feet, with sections so steep that the stairs above serve as vertical handholds. All this over a naturally mountainous course that climbs in steep and winding switchbacks through primitive villages; where the local people have hand-carried all the water for 28 water stops and 800 runners up this mountain, and where the average daily temperature is 35 degrees Celsius. A daunting prospect to contemplate and a monumental task to complete, Bev’s journey to the adventure and fulfillment of running on The Great Wall itself really began fifteen years ago.

In February 1990, Bev and a girlfriend were having breakfast at one of their favourite greasy spoon restaurants, eating eggs, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes before work. Somehow the non-runners found themselves discussing the prospect of running a marathon, and wouldn’t it be fun to go to, say, Scotland perhaps, to do it? Counting backward from the date in September for the Great Scottish Race in Glasgow, they found they’d need to start running on the 18th of February. Perfect. They had two weeks to quit smoking, buy a book to teach them how to train and begin running "with a comfortable three kilometre distance” under their belts.

Having learned that the race was actually only a 25 kilometre run, both women trained and prepared themselves for the distance, completing the event in Scotland as planned. It proved a somewhat hollow victory. With the physical goal accomplished, Bev began smoking again, and ever a social drinker, she celebrated her milestones and achievements at parties and with friends. The more significant the occasion, the bigger and longer the celebration. The run was an opportunity to reward herself with alcohol and cigarettes; proof that she felt she was completely in charge of her habits and her life.

Finished with one and wanting more, setting herself another goal proved easy for Bev: pick a dream, imagine the fact of its reality, and think backwards from that ending. Next? Finish a real marathon. A runner’s marathon: the Royal Victoria held in that city each year in October.

For five years she kept trying to run this race, and hit the wall with every attempt. Each friend she trained with quit before they reached the distance; each summer the heat proved too intense to work through; each training session required a cool beer or two afterwards. And so a marathon eluded her.

But there were numerous 24-hour fund-raising relays to be run, often sponsored by Labatt’s, Molson’s and other large corporations where a social party atmosphere prevailed. Running had a definite drinking culture to it for Bev. When she got involved with these events, she felt powerful: it gave her organization skills and comfort and impetus. She often volunteered to captain the organizing and initiation of the relays, successfully raising thousands of dollars for charity. She thrived by having the courage of drink and the conviction that her efforts were for the betterment of people, so what she did personally didn’t matter. The end justified the means; she met her goals. And besides, she was accumulating a string of achievements: things worthy of bragging to friends about.

"Amazing how you can baffle people,” she says, "including yourself”.

In 1995, she decided to run the Vancouver Marathon. Held in the spring, she trained alone for the first time, controlling every aspect of the process including forgoing her smoking and drinking for the duration, and managed to complete the run within 33 seconds of her estimated goal time. Bev expected to feel an overwhelming sense of "Oh Wow” at the end, but instead felt nothing, only a severe anti-climactic emptiness. The celebration of the event still took place, and she returned to her usual between-race patterns. So thinking that perhaps what she really needed was the Victoria Marathon after all, she resumed training, hoping to surpass her first marathon time; hoping to experience real happiness and achievement with this next accomplishment. Just another wall to scale.

What Bev didn’t know then, was that this was to be "The Wall” for her. The place and the point where everything in her life would change. Three weeks before the Victoria race, Bev checked herself into a treatment centre for drug and alcohol addictions. She had just run 24 miles and realized for the first time that she needed help. She was following two paths simultaneously: one of optimum health attainment and one of serious self-destruction, and both with the greatest of strength and determination.

Once checked into the centre, there was no going back. Bev had to face the reality and seriousness of her situation. She took a leave of absence from her job and for 47 days, she lived on the premises without leaving, without making phone calls and without running. She suffered through all of the withdrawals: chemical, physical, mental and emotional. On race day she followed along, imagining the run in her mind, but being unable to be there and complete this, her proclaimed "goal of goals”, nearly did her in.

Sustained by all her goal-oriented experience, she learned that to accomplish this rehabilitation and to really make it over the wall, she’d have to surrender herself to the process of fully experiencing each painful and revealing step along the way as the complete victory that it is; with the result of finding out who she really was inside.

When she was ready to leave, her world and her attitude to life had changed forever. She still wanted to run: to have goals to focus on and work towards, but even more importantly, she needed to have purpose to her days. A race ended in a few hours, Bev wanted to live more of her life around those times. She made a new plan for herself: make her work part of her life’s adventure and fill every day with experiences.

In 1996 she ran the Victoria marathon, clean and sober and believing in herself: she ran her best time yet. Over the next five years she raced in Canada and the U.S. and took herself travelling to Ireland, France, and Mexico. In 2002 she trained to become an ‘English as a Second Language’ teacher with an eye to living abroad. She also decided to take a buy-out package from her government job, to the astonishment of everyone she knew, and sell almost all of her worldly possessions in order to bicycle solo from Newfoundland back to B.C. It took her 86 days for the trip and she felt it gave her the gift of a lifetime: time to understand and pursue her own interests, opportunities to meet and discover different people, an appreciation for her whole health and well-being in each and every day. And it gave her time to plan.

Once home, she prepared to go to China to live and work. By the end of October 2002, Bev was on her way and soon working in a very small village there. It was a bout of pneumonia in December and the escalating SARS health scare that brought her back to Canada in May 2003. She had learned about the Great Wall Marathon while in China. It was only available to runners who registered from outside of the country and participated through an organized tour.

Yet again, Bev planned her life and work to take her to a goal: two years of developing, marketing and co-ordinating kayaking programs along with managing an outdoor-equipment supply store in Nanaimo, would take her back to China, its Panda bears and The Great Wall Marathon. She arrived two years to the very day that she had left.

Finishing that race has meant the satisfaction of knowing she’s met another wall and climbed over it in every way. She says after looking at the course for the first time, every cell in her body was filled with doubt and fear and she severely questioned her motivations. But she took one step at a time. She saw the smiles on the faces of the villagers who cheered her on, and returned them; she was grateful to an old man who couldn’t speak her language, but clapped out a rhythm for her to climb to as she ascended the gruelling staircase section for the second time; she marvelled at and appreciated each drop of water she was able to take at the water stations, while the villagers tirelessly collected each bottle for its recyclable income. She finished this race filled with emotion and elation and appreciation.

In this new stage of her life, Bev waits for the next event/adventure/challenge to appear before her, as she knows it will. She says that at one time in her past, she would have been happy to die; now, she knows if today was her last, she’d die happy because she’s dreamed of things and done them; they’ve become her reality. She understands and accepts that each part of the realization is the accomplishment; the journey itself is the satisfaction and getting through it all and over each and every wall is really living.

So in this great marathon of Life, a race we’ve all entered into, the ‘walls’ will continue to present themselves. Making it over each and every one, one step at a time, is surely worth the effort: it’s a course to keep on running.

Interview/story written by Janelle Hoddevik. Janelle is a freelance writer in Nanaimo. She can be reached via email: