By Cynthia Wang
Updated May 05, 2005 04:30 PM
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Teaming up with fellow married couple Uchenna and Joyce Agu had been working well for retirees Meredith Smith, 69, and his wife Gretchen, 66 – the oldest players to make it to the top four in The Amazing Race’s history. But the strategy finally backfired when they followed Uchenna and Joyce’s lead in booking a flight from Istanbul to London, getting them to England two hours behind their rivals. And things only got worse in London, where a pair of grueling challenges – moving 160-lb. boats at Battersea Park and Meredith having to drive a double-decker bus – cemented their last-place finish. The couple from Easton, Md., talked to PEOPLE about seeing each other’s strengths, making lifelong friends and getting up close with a herd of elephants.

You’ve been married for five years. Did you learn anything new about each other during the Race?
Gretchen: I’ve always felt Meredith is a very strong, optimistic and patient man. But I learned a lot about my own physical strength doing some of these tasks.
Meredith: I knew Gretchen would be strong. What I loved was her way of saying the wrong thing at the right time in such a guileless way that she endeared herself to everybody.
Gretchen: Tell her about the mortality.
Meredith: Oh, the other thing was, I got a better sense of mortality. These days, I take a lot more pleasure in each passing moment.

How hard was it to maintain your health on the Race?
Gretchen: It’s beyond me how we were able to do it, really. We would have an occasional 36-hour rest, but during the other parts of the Race we just kept going, not eating all day and not even noticing that we were hungry.

How long did it take you to recover when you got home?
Gretchen: We got back the week before Christmas, and although I’d tried to do my cards and presents before I left, we swung right into preparations for the holidays. I don’t think we’ve caught up yet!
Meredith: Gretchen has a fantastic capacity to bounce back. She was a flight attendant and a nurse and she did both at the same time. On the other hand, I can’t go from Washington to Los Angeles – where my children are – without experiencing jet lag.

Were you able to enjoy much of the scenery while racing or pick up souvenirs?
Gretchen: I have a scar on my head. That’s about the only souvenir!
Meredith: Our trip across the Andes was breathtaking. And as tough as things were in Botswana, when we were driving that 4×4 and did the same challenge twice, we stopped at one time and said, ‘Race or no race, we have to take this in.’ We were within feet of elephants and herds of giraffes.

Have you enjoyed what you’ve seen of yourselves on TV?
Meredith: It’s like watching yourself in a full-blown movie. It’s beautiful.
Gretchen: Our family has been super-supportive They think we are super people now, more than just a mom and pop. Our fans – it’s amazing. They tell us how much it meant for them to watch us and how they were rooting for us.

Which other teams did you become friends with?
Meredith: We have a lifelong bond with Joyce and Uchenna because when we lost all our possessions and we were in that hotel room in Soweto and Gretchen had nothing to sleep in, Uchenna and Kelly brought us clothes. In the last episode, Kelly came up asking for money and I gave her a pretty good sum. I don’t forget my friends.