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The Great Wall, one of the world’s most grueling marathons. Photo: Torbjørn Pedersen
The Great Wall, one of the world’s most grueling marathons. Photo: Torbjørn Pedersen

SAS Dreams – in it for the long run

We all have different dreams and ambitions. Running one of the world’s most spectacular but grueling marathons may not figure highly on too many people’s lists, but for a group of SAS Dreams travelers, a long distance run taking in the Great Wall of China presented a challenge impossible to resist.

When Odd Hilt, a 39-year-old project manager from Drammen just outside Oslo first heard about the Great Wall Marathon back in 2014, he made a mental note to add it to his bucket list. Little did the running enthusiast realize that three years later he would be on his way to Beijing preparing to take on the challenge as part of the SAS Dreams project.  

“I must admit though I was a bit nervous beforehand,” says Hilt. “I’d been running a lot before, but I was travelling on my own, and I was curious about what kind of people there would be on the trip.”Smiling through the strain, Odd Hilt. Photo: Torbjørn Pedersen

Fortunately, his fears were soon allayed. “I figured that we all would have running in common at least, but it turned out that the group was made up of people of all different ages, backgrounds and targets for the weekend, it was a fantastic mix.”

This has been a recurring theme of all of the SAS Dreams events so far, with a real eclectic blend of people enjoying a common interest together and has been a big part of the project’s success.

“It’s a great honor to work alongside travelers on their quest for both mental and physical conquests as they pursue their dreams,” says Tina Szczyrbak, Manager Brand Engagement, SAS Dreams.

The days leading up to the big event provided a chance not only to acclimatize to the conditions and finalize preparations for the run but also do some well-organized sightseeing trips – Hilt was one of many who had never been to Beijing. They also had an opportunity to walk along the section of the Great Wall where they would later be running, which would prove to be an invaluable insight.

“To be honest, it was a bit scary, as I hadn’t really worked out just how many steps there would be. Even though I knew it was daunting, seeing it live the first time I decided to adjust my ambitions for the race time, to six hours rather than five,” says Hilt.

Another concern was the heat. Usually at that time of year the temperature hovers between 16°C and 26° – when the SAS Dreams group were there, it was an almost constant 30-35°C however, and as a result the organizers of marathon adjusted the rules, so it was possible for those who wished to do a half marathon instead of going the full distance.

And the weather was no less forgiving on the actual day of the run.

“I was nervous on the morning of race, especially bearing in mind the heat, but once I got cracking I felt it went really well,” says Hilt. “We were also really lifted by the crowds of spectators, who lined the streets as we ran through the villages. Many of them had dressed up specially and the kids all give us high fives, it was really inspiring for all of us, to enjoy such a special atmosphere.”

Even the down stretch is daunting. Photo: Torbjørn Pedersen

Hilt went on to achieve a fine time of five hours and eight minutes, well within a target he had revised two days previously and he finished 53rd out of the 816 competitors. At the end, along with the others he waited to greet and congratulate each member of the SAS Dreams group as they crossed the finishing line, epitomizing the spirit and group dynamic that had been built over the week in what was an unforgettable experience for everyone involved.

“You cannot imagine the relief of crossing the finishing line in such an amazing atmosphere after four and a half months of intense preparation, especially to achieve such a good result too. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!”

Text: Geoff Mortimore