RUNNING through the streets of China at 5am. It was a far cry from the norm for Alan Wildsmith.
The 32-year old was used to walking around Hartlepool as part of his role as a local PCSO.
But four years ago, the 16-stone smoker and drinker wanted a change – and opted for a drastic one.
Despite having no experience of martial arts, other than a few taekwondo sessions, Alan decided to throw himself in at the deep end and moved across the world to join the Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy.
In the space of one long haul flight, Alan found himself in a different world in Siping City, around 12 hours away from Beijing.
He was training five times a day and being advised and led by experienced Chinese martial arts masters.
“I have always had an interest in Bruce Lee films and that sort of thing and I was just searching through the internet one day when I came across the academy,” explained Alan.
“I emailed them, they got back in touch and I went over from there.”
Alan admits he had no idea what to expect as he boarded his flight, but soon got to grips with what was required, quite simply because he had to.
The martial art he was studying was Sanda, which brings together five different disciplines.
“It was gruelling,” he added.
“There was no bedding-in period or anything like that.
“We were up at five in the morning and would do sprints and a mile run followed by squats and different obstacle courses.
“Then we would have two more sessions in the morning, one in the afternoon and one on the evening, I think I lost about three stone out there.
“I had shin splints for the first three months, there were times when I literally couldn’t walk.”
Alan, who lives in Stockton, said he met some “amazing” people during his time in China and the trip threw up a couple of situations he will never forget.
“I suppose it wasn’t as mystical as it is made out to be on the television,” he said.
“But some is still what you would expect.
“I got the chance to meet some fascinating people.
“One of the masters could make his left hand go bigger, I had no idea how he did it, but he did.”
Unfortunately the experience of a lifetime came to an abrupt end for Alan when he suffered a hernia after eight months in the country.
He decided to call it a day and came back for surgery at the University Hospital of Hartlepool.
And despite his “fantastic” time in China, Alan says he was about ready for home.
Sitting in the West View Police Station, where he is based, he added: “It is a fantastic experience to look back on and it’s brilliant to say I have been there and done it.
“I am extremely grateful to Cleveland Police for arranging the career break and making it possible for me.”
Instead of discussing martial arts with the Chinese, Americans, Koreans, Dutch and Slovakians who he spent time with, Alan is now well and truly back into his routine of dealing with anti-social behaviour and crime in Hartlepool.
And it’s a job he loves.
“That’s why I’m not really bothered that the trip came to an end a few months early or that I haven’t been back since,” says Alan.
“But it definitely changed my life.”
Alan no longer smokes 20 cigarettes a day and only drinks alcohol “every now and again”.
He also says he is a lot more active and continues with his martial arts,
He added: “The main thing it taught me was you can push yourself further than you think.
“I didn’t think I could run at all and there I was running just about every morning.
“I think it would be a good lesson for anyone, if you want to do something then do it and other things will fall into place around it.
“I learned that the art of fighting is not to fight, the bigger man walks away.
“I still try to get that message across to people today.”