‘The heat is burning’: Harry Hunter, 76, becomes oldest Briton to complete Marathon des Sables

<span>Harry Hunter said that when alone in the desert, it was so silent ‘you could hear a pin drop’. </span><span>Photograph: X.Baron</span>
Harry Hunter said that when alone in the desert, it was so silent ‘you could hear a pin drop’. Photograph: X.Baron

On the morning of his 76th birthday earlier this month, Harry Hunter emerged from a bivouac in southern Morocco to line up with more than 800 other runners in the Sahara.

Bar the chorus of Happy Birthday they greeted him with, there was little other celebration of this milestone, which saw Hunter subsequently become the oldest Briton to complete the epic Marathon des Sables, a 250-km (155-mile), seven-day race through rolling sand dunes and rocky mountains.

“I ran just over 40km in the heat of the desert sun, and when I got back I had a freeze-dried meal. That was my birthday,” said Hunter, a former Household Cavalry officer from Windsor.

Hunter said he decided to take part in the event specifically to break the age record, which was previously held by David Exell, who was 75 when he completed the race in 2017, and the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes in 2015, aged 71 (the oldest ever competitor was 83). He has also raised more than £2,700 for the Alexander Devine Children’s Hospice Service in Berkshire.

The septuagenarian has run the London Marathon 16 times, the 250-km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in southern Africa five times, and completed ultramarathons in Iceland and Turkey.

But he said the Marathon des Sables, called the toughest footrace on Earth with temperatures hitting more than 50C, was his biggest challenge yet. Runners cover the distance of a marathon a day – and a double marathon on one day, which Hunter said was the make or break stage of the race for some participants.

“That third day was 85km,” he said. “It was probably the toughest long day I’ve done. We started at six in the morning and I must’ve got to camp about 8.45am [the next morning].

“The total ascent was 1,154 metres and it was tough climbing. We went for miles and miles up this rocky valley. Then eventually we got up to this ridge, which in some parts was very narrow with about a 500-ft (150-metre) drop either side. By the time we got back down to the desert floor it was about midday and the heat had gone up tremendously. In the dunes, it was registering in the 50s [C] and 60s. The heat is burning.”

Participants must carry all their food and supplies, including a compulsory anti-venom pump in case of snake bite. But Hunter said that unlike in the Kalahari, where giraffes ran alongside the route, there were few signs of wildlife in the Sahara.

“The only things that seemed to live there were little beetles,” he said. “Across the whole race, I think I saw three or four wild camels, and what I thought might be goats in the distance. There’s no noise. If you’re on your own, and you’ve got people behind you but they’re far away, you could hear a pin drop.”

The other most challenging experience for Hunter came when a sandstorm hit the runners’ camp at 1.30am one morning, flattening his bivouac.

“It fell on us while we were asleep,” he said. “It was the only one that came down. We had to just get under this thing, lying flat on the ground, and just tuck ourselves away and try and get some sleep.”

Now back in the UK, Hunter was looking forward to a proper birthday dinner with his family. He said he was fortunate that his wife, Margaret, is a long-distance walker. “She’s not somebody that sits at home,” he said. “She’s out there herself doing stuff.”

Hunter, who works as a personal trainer and ran a bootcamp the morning we spoke, is now considering his next challenge. Two of his tent-mates in the Marathon des Sables have invited him to take part in a charity race in Nicaragua they are planning to hold next June.

“If it comes off, we’ll ascend the seven tallest active volcanoes in seven days,” he said. “They call it the Line of Fire. I’ll be 77.”