Dianna Heath will turn 50 on April 23. This is her birthday present to herself: A six-day, 151-mile race across the Sahara desert in Morocco. She’ll run in 120-degree heat during the day and shiver through 40-degree nights.
She’ll likely lose her toenails. The coarse sand will collect inside her shoes and rip the skin off her feet. She’ll encounter sandstorms and snakes, and if she fails to finish ahead of the camels in any stage, she’ll be disqualified.
“I would think the worst thing for me would be death,” Heath said. The best thing? She’ll have quite a story to tell at her party.
The name of the event, to be held the last week of March, is the Marathon des Sables. It’s billed on its Web site as the “toughest footrace on earth,” and welcomes the “world of lunatics and masochists.”
Heath, who lives in a small Tempe duplex with her five dogs, laughs at the greeting. Plenty of her friends have told her she’s crazy. They can’t figure out why a 49-year-old woman wants to fly halfway across the world to torture her body and test her courage.
Perhaps if they knew the young girl in Wyoming who defied convention or the young woman who challenged the Navy, they’d understand. Heath refuses to tiptoe through life, accepting the limitations of others. She’d rather stand on a high wire, swaying from side to side, than plod along on solid ground.
“I always think there’s really nothing you can’t do as long as you keep taking one more step,” she said. “This is another step.”
Heath took her first step long ago, in Sheridan, Wyo.
Located 430 miles north of Denver on the Wyoming-Montana border, Sheridan is a small town (population 16,333) with small-town sensibilities. The men work and the women take care of the family.
“There was nothing to look forward to except getting married and having kids,” Heath said. “I never wanted to do that.”
She wanted to see the world. Her first thought was to join the Marine Corps, but when the armed services recruiters showed up at Sheridan High School in 1974, the Marine Corps. representative wasn’t there. So Heath turned to the Navy instead.
She spent a year at a Naval medical clinic in New Orleans before leaving for Guam, where she underwent a yearlong training program to become the first female member of a search and rescue team.
Upon completion of her training, however, the Naval Bureau in Washington, D.C. denied her request. The explanation, according to Heath?
“Because you’re a woman you can’t do that.”
That didn’t deter Heath. She had a photographer document her performing rescues for sixth months. When the visual evidence was presented to the Navy, it relented.
Heath spent the next 21 years advancing her military career. She executed hundreds of search-and-rescue missions, jumping out of helicopters into often frozen waters. She signed up for a Naval program that enables an officer to be the sole medical and dental provider on ships or remote islands. She traveled the world in that role, from Puerto Rico to Greece to Korea.
Heath retired in 1995 and moved back to Wyoming to take care of her mother, Edith, who suffered from emphysema and congestive heart failure and was given two months to live by doctors.
Edith, who was on 18 medications, made a couple of what seemed like odd requests to her daughter. She asked Dianna to buy a juicer and said she no longer wanted to eat meat.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is Wyoming, it’s beef country,’ ” Heath said.
But Heath complied with her mother’s wishes, and Edith lived another five years.
The experience peaked Heath’s interest in alternative medicine and led her, in 2004, to the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, where she’s currently a student.
It was in Wyoming that Heath turned on the Discovery Channel one night and saw a documentary about The Marathon des Sables. She no longer was a teenager, but age hadn’t diminished her sense of adventure. She decided right then and there she’d compete in the race.
“In the beginning my whole point was to involve women, to get them to look at me and say, ‘She’s not thin. She’s going to be old. Maybe I can get off the couch and do something,’ ” Heath said. “I wanted to spark people. So far, though, the only thing I’ve sparked is people saying, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
The marathon isn’t for the faint of heart or the feeble of feet.
It’s broken down into six daily stages:
Stage 1: 15.6 miles
Stage 2: 21.2 miles
Stage 3: 23.7 miles
Stage 4: 51.2 miles
Stage 5: 26.2 miles
Stage 6: 13.7 miles
There’s a day of rest to recuperate from the Stage 4, 51-mile hike, but many of the 700-plus competitors need part of that day to complete the stage.
Most racers average 2.5 to 4.5 miles per hour, which sounds like a nice neighborhood jaunt — until you factor in the sand dunes, the sand storms, the rocky desert and, of course, the heat.
Runners are required to carry everything they need in a backpack, including their food supply for the week.
Heath’s backpack will include her dehydrated meals — racers are not allowed to build a fire, so they have to heat their food in the sun — a flare, a snakebite kit, a flashlight, a compass, a knife, a long pair of pants to change into if sandstorms whip up and start “beating her legs to pieces,” a long-sleeve shirt for the 40-degree nights, a tropical disinfectant, an anti-venom pump, a whistle and a signalling mirror.
She has to haul around her sleeping bag, too.
Heath’s training has included 55 to 65 miles of roadwork every week, riding a bike and hikes up Camelback Mountain, South Mountain and Papago Butte. She’s purchased gaiters that will fasten over her ankles to help keep sand and dirt out. She’s reading a book about foot care and receiving medical treatment from Innovative Primary Care in Gilbert.
Heath has done everything she can to prepare herself. But the streets of Tempe aren’t the desert of Morocco.
“With the heat, I’ve had a better training ground than most people, but I won’t be ready,” Heath said. “The biggest thing for me is going to be my feet. My whole adult life I’ve been picking up pieces and parts of bodies after aircraft accidents and stuff, so I’ve seen some serious, horrible things.
“But in looking at some of the feet of people who have run this race, it’s almost sickening. Oh my gosh. Sand just removes all of the skin layer right off so all you have is raw meat. The toenails are coming off, there’s blood blisters underneath, they just look bad.”
Medical assistance is available at checkpoints along the race, Heath said, but from what she’s heard, the treatment can be as painful as the affliction.
“They don’t believe in pain medicine,” Heath said. “They’ll take off your toenails or a huge blister, and they have a serious reputation of doing the job. All you hear are screams coming from the tent.”
Race organizers go to great lengths to keep the competitors safe. Runners have to undergo an EKG within 30 days prior to the race. They must show proof they’ve consumed at least 2,000 calories per day during the competition. They have to drink at least nine liters of water daily. Medical personnel can remove any runner from the race they deem physically unfit.
Still, runners succumb to the conditions and their physical frailties.
One year a contestant was airlifted from the race because of gangrene. Runners have had heart attacks and lapsed into comas.
A couple of years ago, Heath said, an Italian racer failed to heed instructions and stay where he was when a sandstorm struck. He went the wrong way and eventually wound up in a nomad’s shelter.
“They found him two weeks later. He was alive but on death’s door with multiple organ failures,” Heath said. “He ate bats for food and drank his own urine.”
The Italian, Heath said, came back for the following year’s race but quit on the first day when he injured his toe.
Heath doesn’t expect to win the race. But she does expect to finish.
She wouldn’t let Sheridan, Wyo., hold her in or the Navy hold her out. The Moroccan desert is just another obstacle.
“I don’t know if what I’m doing is smart or not,” Heath said. “Maybe I am crazy. But at least I’m out there doing something.”