In April, Danielle Furey ’91 completed the grueling Marathon des Sables, widely considered the toughest footrace on Earth. Over the course of seven days, she covered 156 miles of rocky terrain in the Sahara Desert, all while carrying necessary supplies—from food to clothing to a snakebite kit. She spoke with Denison Magazine about her reason for running the race, the desert critters that gravitate toward warm sleeping bags at night, and the reason she would do it all again.
One of the catalysts for running the race was my recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis. When you get a diagnosis like that, all the worst things go through your mind. Am I going to end up in a wheelchair? Am I going to end up crippled? Signing up for the race erased all those fears for me.
The craziest thing in my pack was probably a snakebite kit. I never used it, but when I was running at night, I saw a lot of things scurrying on the ground. We were continually warned never to leave our sleeping bags open, because scorpions and snakes look for warmth at night. It’s not uncommon for runners to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and come back to find a scorpion in their sleeping bag.
On day two, we faced some very steep terrain. There were at least five miles of mountains with gradients of 25 percent or more—so there was no running about it, we were literally on hands and knees pulling ourselves up the mountain. There was a sheer rock face, and we had to get a foothold and pull ourselves up. I wasn’t really tall enough. So when this British guy came up behind me, I said, “I honestly don’t think I can do it.” He never even gave me a chance to say anything, he just put his hands on my butt and pushed me over—just threw me over this rock. There’s more camaraderie than competitiveness in this race.
On the third day, I could barely move. I walked most of the day. I think it was 22 miles. I ran a little bit, but basically it was like a death march. When I got back to the camp, I called my husband and said, “There is no way I can get up tomorrow and run 47 miles. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Take away the intense heat, take away the really rough terrain, take away the pack on my back—there’s no way. I think this is it for me.” I expected him to say, “It’s okay, honey, don’t worry, just drop out and get a plane back.” It shocked me to hear him say the opposite: “There is no way you are quitting. You will get up tomorrow, and you will run 50 miles. You’ve never not finished anything in your whole life.”
The next day, I ran 47 miles in 17 hours. Finishing that long trek was really better than crossing the finish line. If I did that—if I ran almost 50 miles on bloodied and blistered feet through extremely difficult terrain in 120-degree heat with 16 pounds on my back—there’s really nothing I can’t do. I used to say that a lot, but now I really believe it. And my kids say it all the time: “If mommy can run in the desert, you can do that.”
I’ve secured a spot in the 2014 Marathon des Sables. I just feel like I have unfinished business in that desert.
(For more on Furey’s experience, visit her blog at outruningms.com.)