March 29, 2013

Diagnosis won’t keep Weston woman from running an ultra marathon in the Sahara

Diagnosed with MS, a Weston woman is setting out to prove herself — and raise money for research — by taking part in the most grueling running race in the world.

Danielle Furey is determined to outrun her multiple sclerosis.

In April, she will be competing in the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 156-mile competition in the middle of the South Sahara Desert.

“I can do it, I know my body,” said Furey, of Weston.

The 44-year-old mother of four first began feeling the symptoms of MS, a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the nervous system, more than a decade ago. It started with a loss of feeling in her right leg. Within a few years, Furey was experiencing fatigue and inexplicable pain.

At first she felt sorry for herself. But soon, she decided she wasn’t going to let the disease determine the way she lives her life.

A runner since she was 12 and a veteran of numerous marathons, Furey signed up for the Marathon des Sables, one of the most grueling races in the world. Participants must carry their own food and equipment to survive — only a two-sided Berber tent and water are provided.

The race rules require each runner to carry at least 2,000 calories per day for six days. Furey’s carrying granola bars and Peanut M&Ms, her reward for finishing the race. In her backpack, she’ll also have blister pads, a headlamp, a signal mirror, a whistle, an anti-venom pump, a compass, baby wipes, SPF 50 sunscreen and toothpaste.

At various checkpoints along the route, the runners are given liters of water.

“One of the most difficult things about preparing for the Marathon des Sables,” Furey said, “is that I do not have a desert, sand dunes nor intense dry heat to train in.”

To make up for that, for the last nine months, Furey has been training 50 to 70 hours a week, running in deep sand and on trails to imitate the varied terrain of the desert, which can include rocky moon-like flats and steep sand dunes.

She uses a treadmill at a steep incline to mimic hills and does Pilates to strengthen her core so her muscles will be able to tolerate running with a heavy pack.

“I run midday in the Florida heat with a long-sleeve shirt and running pants in the hopes that the dry heat of the desert will actually be easier for me to tolerate than the sweaty humidity of the tropics,” Furey said.

At 5-foot, 4-inches and weighing 117 pounds, Furey is slender, but with an athletic body.

“She is ready mentally and she is very capable physically,” said Elizabeth Ruiz, her coach of six years. “She has done everything she can in her power through diet and research on the disease. She has a really good intuitive ability to know what’s going on with her physically.”

The only two things that worry Ruiz are the heat of the desert — current temperatures hover at 100 degrees Fahrenheit — and Furey’s ability to navigate with a compass, without getting lost.

“But she is extremely driven,” Ruiz said, who is positive the training they have done in the last couple of months is exactly what Furey needed for the marathon. “She is ready.”

Furey has refused to take the medications her doctor recommended for MS, and instead has chosen to follow a strict vegan and fish diet.

While Dr. Kottil W. Rammohan, University of Miami professor of Clinical Neurology and director of the MS Center of Excellence, who is not Furey’s physician, said he doesn’t condone not taking medications, running and exercise are good for MS patients.

“If she feels good then there is no problem whatsoever,” Rammohan said. “Her body will tell her.”

When Furey enrolled in the Marathon des Sables, she decided to make it a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She is covering the cost of enrollment and training. In exchange, she is hoping people will donate to the society in her name.

So far, she has surpassed her $10,000 fundraising goal by more than $1,300.

“What makes Danielle particularly unique is she is the first one of our fundraisers who has chosen to raise $10,000 by competing in the grueling Marathon de Sables,” said Karen Dresbach, president of the National MS Society South Florida Chapter. “Quite an extraordinary undertaking for anyone — especially someone with multiple sclerosis.”

Furey is leaving Tuesday for Morocco. Two days before the race begins, runners are taken south to the town of Ouarzazote, where they’ll undergo medical checks and be told the route and miles per each stage. The race begins April 7.

Typically, each stage is about 25 miles, but the fourth stage is usually around 50 miles, which takes runners 32 to 35 hours to complete.

In addition to the fundraising, Furey has created a blog,, where she tells readers the stories of her daily life, her struggles and her preparation for the race.

“It’s hard knowing this will be with me forever,” said Furey, who hopes one day there will be a cure for MS.

But in the meantime, she said, she hopes she can inspire other people in similar situations to conquer their adversities in their own ways.

Dresbach, the president of the local MS chapter, said Furey is doing exactly that:

“What Danielle is doing in spite of her MS is an inspiration to everyone not to give up hope and to keep living every day.”

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