Jeff Meltzer, Karen Mason and Rachel Mason of Meltzer Mason Heath entered the Half Marathon event of this annual race. Billed as an adventure Marathon, where the course is at least 25% harder than any other Marathon, times don’t matter and it’s all about the experience. It is a “tough, beautiful and definitely extraordinary experience. The 5164 steps of the Great Wall Marathon will put your physique to the test, and the breathtaking surroundings of Tianjin Province will compete with your tired muscles for attention. The Great Wall Marathon is the ideal way to combine an unusual running event with exploring one of the world’s most astonishing sights.”

It seemed like a good idea last November when we first had the notion that this would be a fun thing to do- climbing up a 5km mountain road, 2,582 steps up and down a 5km section of the Wall, gambolling through villages, soaking up the scenery and the atmosphere, not to mention the culture and the history. The reality, however, was completely different. In fact, it was so much better than we had anticipated.

Our journey began nearly six months ago, with some serious training. But had it prepared us for the big day? Endless runs up and down hills, numerous sessions on carpark staircases, and hours of pounding the pavements all in the wee hours of the morning. Would it all paid off?

May 15, 2010 dawns cold. It is 3.30am and we are heading out to Jixian, to “our part” of the Great Wall of China and the challenge we have taken on. The streets of Beijing are busy even at this time of the day and we watch the sun rise up from behind the mountains. It glows red, and two thoughts occur simultaneously: “where else can you look directly at the sun and not go blind?” and “what on earth have we got ourselves into?”. Two and a half hours later, the bus pulled into the carpark, and along with nearly 1800 other participants from 52 countries, we spilled from our bus, hopping up and down, almost bursting with nerves and excitement. We were greeted at the entrance to the race start area by a group of local villagers, decked out in traditional dress, dancing and playing music, and generally revving us up. We spent the next hour or so preparing ourselves for the start.

Finally, we assemble at the start line, and off we go. There was little of the usual pushing and shoving, and from the start we knew this was going to be something different. The first 5km was a hard slog up the mountain road, steep and hard going. This set the pace for the first half of the race, and we made it in reasonable time. Coming upon the entrance to the Wall we knew this was it – the main event, six months in the training, we were about to conquer or be conquered.

A difficult leg of the race, it was also the most thrilling and awe-inspiring. The fact that we were running along a structure built thousands of years ago, and was for the main part still wonderfully intact, was a very humbling experience. The view across the valley was stunning.

The morning mist had faded, there was no smog, just beautiful mountains (where you just knew that dragons lived). Still, the Wall tried its best to beat us. Two and a half thousand steps up and down. Not just normal steps. We’re talking steps with 30cm rises and 15cm widths, or vice versa. Goat trails, broken steps, sheer sided drops. This was no walk in the park, and it really was apparent why this is an adventure race, one where one’s personal bests don’t matter, and where a running time that is half as much again is considered normal.

Up steps, down steps, short flat-ish runs, through towers and down dirt goat trails, all too soon we had reached the end of the Wall section. We crossed through Yin Yang Square (the start/finish and half way area) and were cheered on by the watching crowd. Out of the Wall and onward to the villages. We had expected lush rice paddies, quaint houses, and perhaps the odd farm animal to be roaming around. Our romantic illusions were fairly quickly removed. For the main part, we ran along bumpy dirt tracks, with bare land either side. We had forgotten that China was just out of winter! We reached the village itself, and ran through the streets. With closely built mud houses, and drainage down the middle of the lanes, it was certainly a vastly different experience. The villagers lined the streets, and all wished us “Ni Hao”. Little children waved and were excited to run alongside for a bit. The people were so friendly, it made this tough leg a bit easier. It certainly lifted our hearts! Time was getting on, we were exhausted, dehydrated in the nearly 30 degree heat, but we were happy. We’d nearly made it, and look how far we’d come and what we had seen!

As we neared the finish line, we could hear the crowds, and we knew that this was it. Somehow, from somewhere, that last burst of adrenalin kicked in, and we found the reserves to finish strongly. In full on racing mode, we entered Yin Yang Square, heard our names over the PA, and burst across the finish line. Triumphant, exhausted, and thrilled. What an achievement, what an experience. And we got a medal.

As an adventure, running in the Great Wall Marathon was wonderful. It has become a part of our soul, and an experience we’ll never forget. After all the training, the gruelling day, would we do it again? In a heartbeat. Watch this space for next year’s bit of “adventure before dementia”!