Bound for the desert

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Southland endurance runner Peter Hilling trains on the Oreti Beach sand dunes ahead of the Marathon des Sables, or Marathon of the Sands, in the Sahara Desert in April.

COMPETING in a gruelling ultra-marathon in arguably the world’s most inhospitable environment, battling scorching temperatures, sandstorms, possible heat stroke, dehydration and run-ins with snakes and scorpions is Southland endurance runner’s Peter Hilling’s 60th birthday present to himself.

“I have been promising myself for a few years I would do this for my 60th,” he said.

Mr Hilling is competing in the Marathon des Sables (MdS), or Marathon of the Sands, in the Sahara Desert in April.

The annual race starts and finishes in southern Morocco, with participants completing five and a half marathons, about 250km, over five days, with one rest day after the longest leg of more than 80km.

MdS started in 1986 with 186 competitors and now attracts more than 1000 runners and walkers from around the world every year.

MdS would not be Mr Hilling’s first ultra-marathon, but it would be his biggest challenge so far, he said.

Mr Hilling started to exercise more seriously and compete in endurance events after moving to Southland in 2001 to take up a position as a sales rep.

“I was going to die pretty quickly sitting in a vehicle all day [if I didn’t exercise].”

When he was 50 years old he thought when he got to 60 he did not want to look back and think he had wasted those 10 years, he said.

“It is a matter of not wasting your life. You only get one that I am aware of.”

Since then, he had taken part in numerous marathon and ultra-marathon events, including the Kepler Challenge four times, the Coast to Coast and the 85km Old Ghost Ultra on the West Coast.

He had also cycled in Vietnam, China and the Australia’s Snowy Mountains and climbed Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro.

When asked what motivated him to take part in such punishing events, Mr Hilling said: “Having an adventure. I have never really grown up.”

He did not anticipate the soaring temperatures of the desert would be his main challenge, as the heat did not bother him, but rather he was more concerned about a injury he was nursing and reducing the amount of weight he would have to carry, he said.

His training had been set back after suffering a torn ligament in his foot last year, and he had only resumed running in the past three to four months.

“I will be fit [to compete], but whether my heel will behave, I don’t know.”

Participants must carry a backpack containing their food, sleeping gear, first aid supplies and other equipment. Water rations and tents were provided.

Mr Hilling said he intended to carry as close to the minimum weight requirement of 6.5kg as possible, going as far as to cut the handle of his toothbrush.

“I am fanatical about weight whenever I run. I don’t like carrying anything more than I have to.

“I have thrown a hat away during a race only 2km from the finishing line because I couldn’t be bothered carrying it,” he said.

“It is a compromise between speed and comfort. I want to be more towards speed than comfort.”

His race goal was to get as high up the rankings in his age category as possible, he said.

“I want to do it as fast as I can, but I also want to enjoy it.”

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