Day dawned on our final full day in Beijing and the adrenaline ran like a deluge through the veins of the boys. For two long years, the Chinese language students had lived in the shadow of one Benjamin Joseph Topham. This fabled figure of STCC folk lore had achieved the near impossible, managing to traverse twenty-four towers along the length of the Great Wall.
In the years since Ben’s heroic acts, the saga, nay epic, of Ben’s victorious journey had only grown more magnificent. Some former students swore that Ben managed to scale all one million steps of the Great Wall without so much as any lactic burn. Other witnesses testified that Ben’s face was illuminated gold upon the completion of his last tower. Even Chinese witnesses were astounded by Ben’s heroics, and his legend is known among the Wall community as the ballad of the Dà Bái Hè (Great White Crane).
Thus, upon our arrival at the Badaling National Park, seventeen young and expectant men were primed and ready. On this day, either history would be made, or glorious death would be achieved in the pursuit of immortality. Starting at the base tower, the group immediately split into two, one half opting to challenge the southern part of the wall first, while the other group challenged the northern side. The southern crew, consisting of Fraser Buckley, Josh Dent, William Topham, Jakob Hoogenboezem, Josh Doocey, Jack Pugh, Ethan McLintock, Josh Grosvenor and Will McCorkindale broke early with the solitary goal of destroying Ben’s record. Arriving at the highest point of the southern route, the super team’s spirits were high and focused on victory.
Gazing into the distance remaining of the southern route, these hardy lads were not intimidated by the near vertical steps where any slip was surely death. Making use of the centre rails, these intrepid men slid their way down the wall and neared the end point of the southern route, the fabled twelfth tower. For the rowers among the team, Josh D and Will T, it was also a time to ensure that their hard made training gains were not lost. On one climb, the team challenged itself to complete a push-up on each step while on another ascent, sprints and lunges were incorporated.
As the team arrived at the twelfth tower, the trailblazers paused and waited for everyone to catch up. In this team, no man stood alone, and the entire group touched the tower at the same time to commemorate the collaborative work that was essential to conquering Ben’s legacy.
From tower twelve, the team turned around and began the long trek back to summit the northern wall. Drenched in sweat with legs and calves burning, they encountered the dreaded enchantress Circe – aka Mrs Kennedy – who told the brave members of Team Awesome that they only had half an hour to complete the entire northern traverse, and suggested they relax and dine on sleep inducing ice-cream. As bold St Thomas’ men, Mrs Kennedy’s challenge only bolstered their resolve, and with Ben’s battle cry of, “I’m not going to let my brother win!” uplifted the team and carried them onwards. In this last passage, where every step was painful and where every at second landing they were accosted by trinket sellers, the rallying cry of, “What’s gonna work? TEAM WORK!” kept the group pressing onwards.
Suddenly, tower seven of the northern climb loomed large. Yet the group, as it rounded the notorious precipice of tower five, had lost two of its original number to the dreaded German backpacking sirens. This loss affected the group greatly, and it was only after the appropriate prayers were said, and incense was lit, that the mission could continue.
Summiting the last stretch of wall as a combined unit, the group touched the goal at the same time. Suddenly, the realisation of what had been achieved flooded over the group. Ben had managed 24 towers in total, but Team Awesome had managed 19 single towers which when crossed twice (forward then back), equaled 34 towers in total.
The boys had not only beaten the Great White Crane’s record, they had absolutely pulverised it. William, giving in to the emotional revelry of the situation, celebrated the defeat of his older brother with a shirtless dance on one of the ancient wonders of the world.
With new found energy, the greatest team ever jogged back to the base tower to recount their glorious deeds to the enraptured audience of their peers, including those who were unable to topple the oldest Topham. Here amidst photographs and congratulatory pats on the back, the lone strands of a new ballad could be heard from the lone Chinese musician on the ramparts whose song, The Unrelenting Nine who broke the Dragon’s back, debuted at number one on the Chinese Music Charts that night.
Following the unprecedented defeat of Ben Topham’s record, the group had another massive lunch and then visited the site of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, viewing the spectacular Bird’s Nest stadium as well as the Water Cube. Both buildings and the square that they sit in are impressive feats of modern engineering and design. The Bird’s Nest and the Cube straddle the Dragon Line, the emperor’s pathway that cuts directly through Beijing and into the Forbidden City.
After another action packed and exhausting day, the hotel and bed proved to be a reward of the highest calibre. Rest was essential as the following day was another early rise and a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai.