She did it for more than a banana.

Google half marathons and the results are plentiful – Elkmont, Jasper, Eufaula, Dothan, Gadsden, Birmingham, Huntsville, Orange Beach – and that’s just to name a few in the state of Alabama in 2019. But for Cherie Hildreth’s latest athletic accomplishment, the challenge and the reward had to be more than just 13.1 miles and a banana at the finish line – she wanted to conquer the Great Wall of China.

“There’s nothing else like this,” said Hildreth, 40, an Army veteran who works on Redstone with the Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosives Analytical and Remediation Activity. “It could be one of the harder things I ever do.”

Hildreth finished the Conquer the Wall Marathon in China May 11 in 6:02:32, firmly planted in the upper half of the pack – 41st out of the 102 who ran the half marathon. Her fellow runners who raced their way up and down the Great Wall of China hailed from places like Denmark, France, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Ireland and Australia.

While Hildreth has completed half marathons before, she’s never done one quite this arduous. Race coordinators don’t hide it – “This is going to hurt” they boast on the adventure marathon’s website. Unlike a typical marathon, a majority of the course is stairs, and not your average set of stairs, but rather, ones that were constructed hundreds of years ago.

“It was very much a love-hate relationship – at the beginning it was love, and then at the end it was, ‘I’m just going to need this to stop,’” Hildreth said with a laugh. “It’s the amount of steps and the endurance of it. They said it was the equivalent of 350 floors and 40,000 steps. Half marathons usually are run in 21,000 to 23,000 steps, if you’re a real runner 20,000. But with this one pretty much everybody had the same steps because you’re walking the same stairs, not striding. You’re worried about your depth perception by mile 7.”

To prepare for the half marathon, Hildreth spent a lot of time in the weeks leading up to it trail racing, trying to accustom herself to uneven terrain. Typically she put in 15 miles a week, averaging one long 8 to 10 mile run. Race coordinators advise participants train on steps, arrive mentally prepared and use Google Earth to get an idea of just what they’re in for.

“You could get bits from YouTube, but you’re not picturing running up those stairs for six hours,” Hildreth said. “That was the hardest; it was continual. But coming up those stairs and seeing it – it’s positively incredible. The first thing I said, was, ‘How can you tell me God does not exist?’ Who on earth could create such a panorama?”

What can possibly come next after racing the Great Wall of China? Instead of just doing races, Hildreth wants to continue to focus on progressing in her running career, adding more trail races, with the goal of completing a marathon in a foreign country.

“I liked running before, but I don’t think people realize how much fun it is to be part of a race, to be a part of something,” she said. “If it’s something you’re interested in, go for it. You can’t predict the feeling you’ll have after, but I can guarantee it will be an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.”

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