Runner conquers desert dash

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Southland endurance runner Peter Hilling with Jo Sims (left) and Tracy Hickman, of Auckland, at the finish line of the Marathon des Sables 2018 final day in the Sahara Desert last month. Photo: Supplied

AGE proved no barrier to Southland marathon runner Peter Hilling successfully conquering arguably one of the most gruelling races in the world last month.

Not only did the 60-year-old finish the Marathon des Sables (MdS), or Marathon of the Sands, a five-day, 250km ultra-marathon race through the Sahara Desert, in one piece, but he also placed seventh in his age category.

He was one of about 950 athletes from around the world who took part in the annual race.

Hilling was surprisingly modest and low-key about his impressive achievement.

“Nice to have the medal around my neck,” he said.

He was happy about where he placed, as he had been conscious of not pushing too hard and aggravating a heel injury, he said.

In the lead up to the event, Hilling’s training had been set back by a torn ligament in his foot, but the injury had not hampered his performance.

Blisters, which had plagued other athletes, had also not been an issue for Hilling, which he attributed to training in bare feet before the race.

His only ailment during the race, which he said was only a “slight issue”, was an aching shoulder from carrying his pack.

What he did struggle with was the constant sand and sandstorms.

“[Sandstorms were] one thing no one mentioned beforehand, but it hardly ever stopped blowing.

“To be honest, the running is tough, but it’s nothing compared to camp life. Constantly dirty, with sand everywhere from head to foot.”

Day four of the race, the 86.2km long stage, was the day he hit the wall, he said.

By checkpoint six, it was getting really cold and he did not have any extra clothes, he said.

“Fortunately I had made my survival blanket into a poncho, which without it I would probably have died of hypothermia.”

About 15km from the finish line, another male participant approached him and asked if he could help change the batteries on his head torch. After they could not get the torch to work, Hilling suggested they stick together and share his light, which they did to the finish.

“It was good as he had a bit more left in the tank than I did, but I didn’t want to hold him up, so it kept me going.”

He crossed the finish line at 3am. The final runner to finish that stage arrived at 7.30pm, which was the rest day.

Before competing in the race, Hilling said he thought MdS’ reputation for being the toughest race in the world was just marketing hype, but after experiencing it, he admitted he may have been “a tiny bit wrong”.

So, would he do it again?

“Hell no,” he said, “but then I always said it was a one off. Too many other events to do and not enough time to do them all.”

His next challenge? The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), he said.

The UTMB is a 170km single-stage mountain ultra-marathon across France, Italy and Switzerland, which attracts about 8000 elite trail runners from around the world each year.

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