“We may have some cellulite on our thighs – but our bodies are not clothes hangers. They are powerful machines.”Wild Woman
It is 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning on the outskirts of Beijing, China. A small parking lot by the banks of the Wenyu River serves as meeting point for a group of women who are about to walk (or cycle) a marathon together. They have agreed in advance to all wear the same pink t-shirt. It reads “Wild Women on the Wall 2020.”
Although a marathon is quite an undertaking, the group had originally trained for something much more challenging; namely a three-day, 90-kilometre hike on the Great Wall of China. COVID-19 forced them to change plans, scale down and postpone the event. But never were they to give up or forget why they are here.
The woman behind Wild Women on the Wall is South African native Lucille van der Merwe. She moved to Beijing in 2017, together with her husband and two children, with a dream of continuing in China what she started in South Africa.
So, let’s go back to the beginning. Van der Merwe was not always athletic. But when a severe asthma attack had her hospitalized back in 2010, it was touch and go – and, during the recovery, her good friend, extreme athlete Kim Van Kets told her she had to start running. Six months later, van der Merwe ran her first half marathon and stated dreaming big. “I had heard about the Wildrun, a three-day run along South Africa’s Wild Coast – but apart from the cost, I was intimidated by the lycra-clad gorgeous looking women that were likely to take part,” she says.
Together with Van Kets, van der Merwe started planning something else instead. A run with friends along the Wild Coast of South Africa. “What I was after, was a fun, non-competitive and nurturing environment for women to go out and have a cool, multi-day adventure in a place of astounding natural beauty,” she says.
The first edition of Wild Women on the Run kicked off in 2012. Having decided to raise money for charity during the months leading up to the event, they chose to support community projects helping women and children in the Eastern Cape area of South Africa. To date, Wild Women on the Run has raised the equivalent of 50,000 USD.
Van der Merwe and her fellow Wild Women on the Run all knew South Africa and most were familiar with the Wild Coast. The same could not be said for the trails on and around the Great Wall of China. So she knew that she had to team up with locals in order to pull off Wild Women on the Wall. When she first approached professional guide and experienced hiker, Jun Deng, Deng thought it was a crazy project. “Yet, I was on board without hesitation,” she smiles.
Together with Beijing-based athlete friends Lundy Clark and Deborah Mahon, the pair spent almost a year panning the first edition of Wild Women on the Wall. “Together with Jun, we examined photos and maps – followed by several weekends of hiking, measuring and testing before we determined a final route,” says Van der Merwe. Among many other discoveries and challenges, they realised how easily one can get lost in the mountains and villages around the Great Wall. “There is no ocean on our left-hand side to guide us like on the Wild Coast in South Africa,” says van der Merwe.
After months of preparation, the first edition of Wild Women on the Wall kicked off in April 2019. Twenty-five women of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds took part. They had committed to months of intensive training and to raising money for charity by organising different events such as a “spinathon” (a full-day spinning event), a fun run for families and participation at various fairs. They agree that both the physical preparation as a group as well as the fundraising events brought them close together.
One of the women who took part in the inaugural Wild Women on the Wall is Desirée De Wit. She recalls a particular collective energy among the group. “As we got up at the crack of dawn, running around the local guesthouses, packing our packs, the air would be buzzing with excitement,” she says.
After three days of hiking with up to 1600 metres elevation per day, the group crossed the symbolic finish line by the Jingshanling section of the Great Wall on 17 April 2019. They crossed as a group for in true Wild Women spirit, no one is left behind.
“Wild Women is not a race. It is a journey. One where women come together and celebrate what they are capable of,” says Van der Merwe.
Wild Women on the Wall 2020 has, for the time being, been postponed until China opens its borders and authorities in local villages can grant the necessary travel permits. In the meantime, the Wild Women, who are now spread over 4 continents, continue to train, encourage each other and – of course – post pictures of their sporty endeavors on the dedicated WeChat group.