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Running the Great Wall: AU Student Goes the Distance at Majestic Site

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Two women in running clothes, standing at the Great Wall of China.
Sarah Melton (right) with her sister at the Great Wall of China Marathon.

If you’re going to run a marathon, you might as well do it on an architectural marvel. For Sarah Melton, it wasn’t just pavement and gray American skies. She surpassed 26 miles on the Great Wall of China, running in a May 1 marathon while studying abroad.

As students return to AU for the fall semester, they’ll probably share anecdotes of how they spent the past few months. Melton’s experience was both fascinating and transformative: She not only ran the marathon, but spent an entire year in China, learning the language and living with a host family.

“My goal was mainly to improve my Chinese, but I felt like that wasn’t enough. So, I started Googling races, because a marathon was on my bucket list. And I thought, ‘Oh, if there’s one in China, why not run there?’ And then I found the Great Wall Marathon,” recalls Melton.


What Keeps You Running?


In China, there’s a cultural concept of mianzi, or “saving face.” Melton was thinking about this while planning her big run.

“I went about making it public, so there was no way for me to back out without losing face. That was my way of convincing myself to keep working towards it.”

She originally planned to run a half marathon, but she’d clicked the wrong button while signing up and she was registered for 26.2 miles. At the race, Melton confirmed with officials that she could run 13.1 miles. But, amazingly, she decided—in the spur of the moment—to go the distance.

“I’d been keeping pace with a couple of the people who were running the full. So I said to them, ‘If you guys keep going this pace, I think I can keep up. But are you going to finish?’ And they said, ‘Yeah! We’re going to finish,’” she recounts. “And I actually ended up running with them until the end of the race.”


Chatting and Laughing


This was a communal event, and Melton fondly remembers chatting with fellow runners during the race. Her sister, visiting from the US, ran that day, and Melton made some friends along the way.

“I think that’s mostly what made the experience. Just the people, not only the run,” she says. “You can run anywhere. But just to be there with all those people, climbing and running the Great Wall, was incredible.”

They ran through a village and locals handed out tuna sandwiches, Gatorades, and not-quite-right crunchy bananas. “One of the guys I ran with adamantly refused. He kept saying ‘I will not eat those crunchy bananas!’ You take every laughing point—any reason to laugh when you’re that exhausted.”

As you’d expect, it was a grueling nine-hour affair. And since the race took place outside Beijing’s urban center, she woke up at 3:00 a.m. and biked 45 minutes before it all started. While the initial two miles were flat, it got mountainous in parts. “There was a part of the Wall that you can’t really run up,” she says, “so we were essentially hiking it.”

Running is an obvious way to relieve stress, but this is amplified while living overseas. “It’s partly the foreign language. You’re always working to understand, even if you don’t realize it, and the little stress from that just built up and built up. And if you don’t have a way to relieve it, you’ll go crazy.”

The marathon represented just a tiny sliver of the Great Wall, which is an estimated 13,000 miles long. By the afternoon, the sun came out and she could view a vast, picturesque landscape.


Loving a Challenge


Melton just finished up her time at Peking University, and she’ll come back to AU for her senior year. An ROTC Air Force cadet, she’s earning her degree from the School of International Service.

Melton hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and apropos for the football-crazed area, her life was changed at a Super Bowl party. Her FBI agent-neighbor hosting the party talked about his job, and she was immediately intrigued. She later took a tour of an FBI field office in Pittsburgh, though she wasn’t inclined to be a traditional agent. But through her inquiries about intel work, a couple ideas materialized: She should major in international affairs and study a foreign language.

As a high school student, she also took an aviation class and began flying planes out of a Pittsburgh airport. “That’s where I met a whole lot of military people who encouraged me to go Air Force. It wasn’t until after I got to AU, and I realized how much I missed my airport, that I needed to come up with a solution. And that was, ‘OK, let’s join the Air Force,’” she says.

If there’s a pattern to all these decisions—marathon, ROTC, language immersion—it’s probably this: Melton loves a challenge. She even searched for the hardest languages to learn, coming up with Arabic and Chinese. Since Arabic had an alphabet, she went with Chinese.

“I tend to do things the hard way,” she says. “It’s a fatal flaw, I suppose.”