Ron Hill didn't start running to compete in marathons. He began running so he could race motorcycles. Little did he know that decades later, he would win his age group many times at the XTERRA National and World Championships.
“This was the late 1970’s,” he said. “I was racing two-wheeled machines over rough terrain across the California desert. It was such a physically demanding sport, that if you weren’t in shape, you could die. In one race, I was exhausted after 15 miles because the heat got to me. And I was stranded in the middle of nowhere.”
Determined to not let that happen again, Hill began running one mile, three times a week. “It made such a fantastic difference,” he said, “So I started running a mile a day.”
By the following year, Hill had his mileage up to 30 miles a week. “Our offices would shut down at lunch because everyone was out running a 10K. It was contagious.”
By 1978, Hill was running marathons at six-minute mile pace. “Running kept me fit enough to stand up on the pegs of my bike and really put the hammer down.”
Hill swam in high school, he learned to run in the 1970’s, but he still didn’t know anything about riding a bicycle until 1993, after his family moved to Idaho.
“My sons came home from college and said, ‘Dad, you have to get a mountain bike. You have to do this thing called downhill racing.’ Well, I was a little apprehensive, but I tried it. And lo and behold, I won the race. It turned out, I was pretty good at that.”
For the next decade, Hill competed in downhill and cross-country races on his mountain bike until both local race promoters closed their businesses.
“In 2005, I saw there was an XTERRA off-road triathlon in McCall, Idaho (now XTERRA Wild Ride). I realized I could ride a bike now, so I entered. It was so much fun I decided to train harder and do it again the following year.”
In 2006, Hill competed in XTERRA Wild Ride again, XTERRA La Grande, and the XTERRA National Championship, where he won his age group. “They invited me to the XTERRA World Championship in Maui, and I said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
By the time he won his age group the following year, his son insisted he go to the World Championship race in Maui.
Hill was 70 at the time. Next month, he'll turn 80. In the past ten years, Hill has enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Costa Rican athlete Nathaniel Grew, encouraged members of his hometown cycling team to train for and qualify for the XTERRA World Championship, and watched his own sons compete in XTERRA events.
He has had hard times as well. Last year, Bobbi, his wife of 53 years, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm while they were traveling in Texas.
“I haven’t been the same since,” Hill said. “She came to all the races and we went everywhere together.” Bobbi was beloved by everyone at XTERRA and was the most cherished person at the finish line, where she often volunteered.
In 2012, Hill had a horrible crash on his bike that resulted in a crushed pelvis.
“In XTERRA Worlds in 2012, I was having a terrific race. Nathaniel usually caught me on the bike, but that year he didn’t. I kept thinking he would get me, but with less than a mile from the finish I clipped a tree with my shoulder.”
Hill landed so hard on his right side that his femur bone went right into his pelvic socket and shattered his pelvis.
“The pain was so bad I told God he had to turn it down a notch or knock me out. I thought I had broken my back so I pulled myself uphill by my elbows to relieve the pressure.”
Hill was taken by medevac flight from Maui to Honolulu where he had surgery immediately.
“I spent two and a half weeks in Honolulu doing rehab just so I could get on an airplane to go home.”
Hill worked diligently at physical therapy and was able to walk and swim again after four months. A month later, he was back on his bike.
“My focus has always been to heal quick and get back out. I never thought I should quit. The only question was, how long was it going to take to get back?”
When asked if he was afraid to get back on a bike again, Hill replied, “Afraid of what? I figured even if the bike leaned towards my weak leg, it was strong enough by then to hold it up.”
That September, Hill competed in the XTERRA National Championship and won his age group. And in October, he returned to Maui and not only raced on the course that caused him so much pain just 12 months earlier, but won his age group again.
At the Night of Champions Awards Dinner, XTERRA President, Janet Clark called the 18 athletes to the stage who were 65 and older.
“Janet gave a great speech about honoring the “kapunas,” or elders of XTERRA. As we started to walk off, she said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. The XTERRA Warrior this year is one of the kapunas.’ I wondered who among us could have done anything to earn that award. I just started looking at everyone and realized I didn't know what any of these guys have done. Then, as soon as that thought left my head, I saw all of these photos of me pop up on the screen.”
Telling the story, Hill becomes choked up, as he was that night.
“When I saw the doctor for my follow-up appointment, he couldn’t believe my progress. I carried the ribbons from all of my races and from the XTERRA Warrior award and he was just dumbfounded. He expected me to come in on crutches or with a cane. He kept telling me I lived in rarified air. And it’s true. I have God in my corner. No question about it.”