For the fourth in our international runner series, we venture into ultrarunning territory.
In April 2015, British runner Dave Heeley became the first blind athlete to complete the 250 km (156 mile) Marathon des Sables – a course across the Sahara desert known as the “toughest footrace on earth”, equivalent to running six regular full marathons back-to-back. The then 57-year old father of three, known in running circles as “Blind Dave“, completed the six-day challenge running through sand dunes, rocks and dried rivers, contending with temperatures rising up to 50°C during the day and below freezing at night, with all his provisions on his back.
“Blindness has encouraged me to see another way.”
Dave was running to raise funds for the Albion Foundation, which uses sport to strengthen the local community, helping children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties to both excel in sport and transit from education to work . He had two guides on the route – Rosemary Rhodes and Tony Ellis. In an interview with British Blind Sport, Heeley was quoted as saying, “Running makes you a bigger part of the community. You never know what it might bring and where it might take you.”
Dave Heeley was born on 24th November 1957. At age ten, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic, degenerative eye condition that causes breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. Beginning with decreased vision at night and in low light, loss of peripheral/tunnel vision, and progressing to total blindness, Heeley lost his vision completely in his twenties. His dream of joining the army shattered, young Dave knew he was going blind, and that his options were to stay negative or positive. He opted for the latter. “Am I going to sit here for the next fifty years waiting for that tree to disappear? No!” He spent years developing skills in Braille, computers, carpentry, and even now loves designing things and building furniture. He used a walking stick initially, until his first guide dog Peter changed his life. The four-legged friend gave him confidence, mobility and adventure.
The monumental feat at Marathon des Sables wasn’t Heeley’s first dip into the record books. In 2008, Dave became the first blind man to complete the Seven Magnificent Marathons challenge – running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. His route took him from Port Stanley in the Falkland Isands (Antarctica) to Santiago, Chile (South America), Los Angeles, USA (North America), Sydney (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Nairobi, Kenya (Africa), and ultimately finishing with the London Marathon (Europe). He was 50 at the time. 777 was undertaken to raise awareness for guide dogs for the blind. As Dave described the feat later, ” 7 days and 168 hours, of which 20 hours I slept and approximately 35 hours I ran; the rest was spent travelling. Travelling over 35,000 miles in the air, passing through some 34 different time zones, running for 183.4 miles in temperatures ranging from -2 to 39°C“. His guide runner Mac was the third sighted person along side Mike Stroud and Sir Ranulph Fiennes to have achieved this superhuman challenge.
“Life is not about what you can’t do, but what you can do.”
In 2011, Dave Heeley ran ten marathons in ten days, travelling from John O’Groats to Land’s End, cycling between each stage. Called “Top2Toe“, the challenge aided the Macmillan Cancer Support in their centenary year.
In 2016, he learnt swimming because he wanted to undertake “Escape from Alcatraz” – considered the toughest triathlon in the world. At 7.30 am on the morning of the 12th June, Dave along with his guide Tony leapt off the San Francisco Belle moored briefly alongside Alcatraz prison, into the cold, rough shark infested waters of San Francisco Bay, 58 minutes later hitting the beach, transferred onto the tandem and the San Fran hills taking 1 hour 18 minutes, finally donning the trainers hitting the cliffs and sand, taking 1 hour 24 minutes, crossing the finish line. Finally escaping from Alcatraz in 4 hours 14 minutes and 11 seconds, with smiles of relief!
His sporting endeavors are sponsored by Pertemps, UK, who also donate to his charity which works in partnership with the West Bromwich Albion Football Club, and £1000 are donated for every Great Run he completes. In 2017, since it was his 60th year, he took on the Great Run Series‘ entire world events calendar – starting in Edinburgh and finishing in Ethiopia, all in aid of the Albion Foundation. The series included two full marathons, six half marathons, two 10 mile events, ten 10 ks, one 5 mile race, and four 5 ks. In October the same year, he ran two races on the same day – the Birmingham International Marathon and the Great Birminghim Run. In May 2019, Dave took part in the Velo Birmingham & Midlands 100 mile bike ride, and also the 100 km Wheels For Change cycling event – to help raise funds for UNICEF along with his tandem cycling partner Steve Dugmore. In June this year he ran the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa.
“I sat down the other day and calculated that, including training, I’ve run about 58,000 miles in my lifetime.”
Dave is always up for challenges. He has gone skiing, water skiing, horse riding, motorcycling, abseiling, but he enjoys nothing more than running! His book “From Light to Dark” was published in February 2016. Veteran record-breaking English explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has foreworded the inspirational tale of triumph over adversity.
~In The Running – Phil Hewitt