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Alumnus to compete in ‘toughest footrace on earth’

October 6, 2011 | Alumni

Richard Davies ’80 has never run a marathon, and he does not go on camping trips.

So when he told family and friends his plans to participate in the Marathon des Sables – a six-day ultramarathon across 155 miles of the Sahara Desert in Morocco – their reaction was not entirely surprising.

“Are you crazy?” his two grown daughters asked.

Then, they added, “Thank you.”

The private practice attorney is going on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, in part, to raise awareness for Down syndrome. The genetic chromosomal disorder affects more than 400,000 people in the United States, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.

That number includes two of Davies’ grandchildren.

“They are both wonderful, loving children,” he said. “If doing this gets the word out about Down syndrome, then it’s worthwhile. People need to understand more about it.”

In April, Davies will leave behind the comforts of his home in Green, Ohio named “Llys-yr-Awel,” Welsh for “House on the Hill.” He will kiss his wife, Billie, goodbye. He will take a break from his practice, Richard Davies – Attorney at Law, where he represents companies and employers in workers’ compensation matters.

A few days later, he will be dropped in the middle of the desert, somewhere near the Algerian-Moroccan border. Then, he will embark on the grueling journey dubbed “the toughest footrace on earth.”

THE RACE

Marathon des Sables literally means “marathon of the sands.”

It began with the world’s most elite runners in 1986 – those who could endure trekking the equivalent of nearly six marathons in as many days in an environment known for its extremes. It has since drawn people with all degrees of athletic ability from around the world. Still, only about 11,000 people can say they finished the ultramarathon, Davies said.

For six days, they run, walk, and climb with most of their belongings on their backs. They traverse many miles of steep sand dunes and rocky plains, and the course typically includes at least one mountain.

Tents that sleep eight are set up for them each night, but it’s up to participants to carry their sleeping bags, mats, and antivenom kits if they hope to avoid an entanglement with scorpions, snakes, and poisonous creatures that inhabit one of the most desolate places in the world.

Daytime temperatures climb to 120 degrees. It’s the kind of heat that makes sweat evaporate and skin feel like it’s stretching over one’s skeletal structure. At night, the mercury drops dramatically to just above freezing. The desert’s heat can’t be trapped with a cloudless sky.

“I have been to Las Vegas a few times,” Davies said, “but I don’t think anything’s prepared me for this.”

A native of Wales, Davies and his parents moved to the United States in 1958. He returned to England in 1961 for boarding school, and it was through an alumni magazine from Repton School that he first read a two-page piece on an alumnus who had finished the Marathon des Sables.

“That sounds interesting,” he thought.

When someone points out the obvious understatement, Davies laughs. He acknowledges that he’s only had one unnerving thought along the way.

“I didn’t want to make a fool of myself,” he said. “But I know with the right physical preparation and mental attitude, I can do it.”

Participants must enter a lottery to secure a spot in the race. The entry fee alone is $4,000. Add to that the expense to travel to Morocco, food, and equipment, and the total rings up to about $8,000 – less than what it costs to visit Wales or Paris. But isn’t that what once-in-a-lifetime adventures are all about?

“Obviously, you sign a waiver saying that you understand the consequences and that you are fit,” Davies said. “If you’re going to do something like this, you’re going to take it seriously. You’re going to be ready for it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of several thousand dollars.”

His training consists of walking and running, and he will build up to about 30 miles in a session a couple of weeks before the race. He also will strap on a backpack and increase that weight over time, starting with five pounds and ending with 20.

One advantage he does have is five-plus years of experience orienteering with a club in northeastern Ohio. The sport challenges competitors to read a topographic map and get from one point to another in the fastest time. It requires participants to carefully consider the paths they take – a treacherous but more direct route through ravines, swamps and thorn bushes, or the longer, more leisurely and safer path?

“They don’t give you a race book (at the marathon) until you arrive. That way, people can’t store caches of water or food along the way,” he said. “Outside help is strictly forbidden.”

THE REASON

Yet, outside help is exactly what Davies hopes to give back.

At first, he wanted to compete in the Marathon des Sables simply to see if he could withstand the physical and mental challenge. After talking with his oldest daughter, Amy Troyer, Davies realized he could raise money for The Up Side of Downs.

The Cleveland-based nonprofit organization provides classes for families with a member who has Down syndrome, organizes outings for clients, and provides every imaginable resource and support for the people it serves. It was founded to provide support, education, and advocacy for people with Down syndrome, their families and communities throughout Northeast Ohio. It was there that Troyer found help and reassurance when her second child, Ryan, was diagnosed.

“The hospital in which Ryan was born gave her a book and video showing the absolute worst side of Downs,” Davies recalled. “Then, they pretty much left it up to her as to what to do next for him.”

People with Down syndrome have an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, which affects development. They have a higher risk for congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems, Alzheimer’s disease, childhood leukemia, and thyroid issues.

“Amy saw this child as a blessing, and we are blessed,” Davies said.

An AV canal defect was detected in Ryan’s heart when he was 8 days old, and surgery was performed at three months. But, since then, he has grown into a loveable, rambunctious 10-year-old boy. If there’s a puddle to jump in, he finds it.

“He’s a typical fourth-grade boy but full of love. Absolutely full of love,” Davies said.

Meredith Hines, the Davies’ younger daughter, also has a child with Down syndrome. Drusilla, age 4, has had some issues relating to the condition. Tubes were put in her ears three times due to a buildup of fluid. She also had her tonsils taken out at age 2 because of sleep apnea. Drusilla has benefited from early intervention through county-provided services beginning at one month. Already she has worked with speech and occupational therapists, just like her cousin Ryan. The preschooler began to read at age 3 due to a program called “Love and Learning,” which is designed for people with Down syndrome. Hines says, “Drusilla is a sweet, loving little girl who brightens people’s lives, and I am grateful that she is mine.”

“Pops, we’re so proud of you,” Hines said when Davies told her of his plans to raise money for The Up Side of Downs, which is hoping to expand outside of Cleveland into the Summit and Stark county areas due to high demand in Northeast Ohio.

“I want to see if I can do it myself,” he said. “But it’s also great if this can bring greater awareness.”

HOW TO HELP

To donate to The Up Side of Downs, visit its website and click on the “Please Donate!” button. Be sure to mention the Marathon des Sables in the “comments” box to keep track of donations made specifically for the race.

Or, those interested in contributing can send a check to The Up Side of Downs offices at One Independence Place, 4807 Rockside Road, Suite 200, Independence, OH, 44131. Just mention the Marathon des Sables in the memo line.

For sponsorship opportunities with Richard Davies, contact him directly at (330) 899-8846. Various levels with specific logo placements are available.

SEE ABC NEWS VIDEO OF RACE

Want to see what Richard Davies is in for in April? Check out this video.

This article was written by Monica DeMeglio.