Douglas Wilson did more than beat all the other runners to win The Great Wall Marathon on Saturday, he beat the odds too. The Australian’s first ever marathon was the same race 10 years ago, but over the last decade he has been fighting brain cancer and used running as part of his rehabilitation.

“I used it as a benchmark. Running a marathon was what I wanted to get back to and I used it as a goal to get myself back, and I did it to a level I could never have imagined,” he said.

He finished his first race in 2009 in four hours and 55 minutes. Yesterday, he won in 3:25.

The race follows steep sections of the wall, and by the final climb even the fastest runners are forced to resort to using their hands to crawl up the massive stair cases.

Watch: Taking on the Great Wall Marathon

“Without running it would have been easy to get into that dark spiral,” Wilson said. “I was very depressed when I was ill and was on a lot of medication. I think without that target to get back to run a marathon I could have stayed in that place.”

After the race in 2009, Wilson sat at the celebratory dinner with a man in his 70s who had just run a marathon on every continent over 15 years.

Wilson was inspired, and so repeated his dinner buddy’s feat. But then he was diagnosed with the disease.

“I was really sick and was in hospital, but I used running as the thing to get me back,” he said. “And then I got myself better, rehabilitated myself and went on to run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.”

His journey has been capped by the weekend’s victory.

“Running means a lot to me, and then to come back and do something like this 10 years later, see how far I’ve come and win a race like this pretty comfortably, it makes me pretty happy,” he said.

“I’ve used running as a benchmark to see how I’ve evolved as a person.”

Wilson is now focused on bringing his flat road marathon time down from 2:40 to 2:35.

Kali Cavey was the first woman over the line. The American has run 14 flat marathons, but this is only her second race with climbs and descends after a 23-kilometre trail race in San Francisco.

She hoped to finish in the top 50 this weekend.

“At the start of the wall I realised there was only one woman ahead of me and I thought ‘s***’,” she said. “I did not think that would happen, but once I took the lead I just tried to hang on.”

Her and the other leading woman made a pact to run together once they realised they were evenly matched.

“But if one of us was feeling good we’d split up. At about the halfway point, I drew away and I ran with couple of other runners,” she said. “I met a bunch of nice people on the way.”

Running means a lot to me, and then to come back and do something like this 10 years later, see how far I’ve come and win a race like this pretty comfortably, it makes me pretty happy
Douglas Wilson

Every volunteer or guard she passed would call to her, telling her she was in the lead.

“It was pretty cool having people tell you, you are the number one female on the course. It was good, it forced me to work harder than I would of,” Cavey said, adding she kept thinking of her parents and hoping they were proud as extra motivation.

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Cavey did not enjoy her only other steep race in San Francisco but is tempted to return after the positive experience on the Wall.

“I didn’t have to crawl in San Francisco,” she said, referring to the final climb. “Ask me in a few days.”