‘Some people think ultra marathons are for extreme athletes but they are for everybody’

Galway man Richard Donovan is something of a superstar in the gruelling sport of ultra running. He has made truly epic runs across many of the world’s most extreme climates including the Sahara Desert, Mount Everest, the Inca Trail, and the Amazon jungle. In 2002 he became the first runner in the world to run a marathon at both the North and South poles and in 2009 he was the first athlete to run seven consecutive marathons on seven continents in less than seven days.

Donovan is chairman of UltraRunning Ireland. He is also the founder and organiser of the Antarctic Ice Marathon and the 100k, the southernmost marathon and ultramarathon in the world, respectively – but also of the World Marathon Challenge (WMC ) – where competitors aim to complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days and the North Pole Marathon (NPM ).

He met me for an afternoon chat over a coffee to discuss his remarkable achievements. I began by asking whether sport and running was something that was part of his family background – bearing in mind that his elder brother Paul was an Olympian athlete.

“We grew up in Glenina Heights in Mervue, there were eight of us in the family,” he begins. “The boys all did different things – my brother Denis was an international card player, he was second in Europe at bridge at one point. Gerard was an Irish bronze medallist at judo and is now a well known writer and classical guitarist. My older brother Paul of course was an Olympian runner. We both played rugby with the Jes. Paul went on to be an elite runner. I ran track and cross country as a kid for Pearse Athletic Club. I had modest success, nothing like Paul enjoyed; people sometimes wonder if I followed in his footsteps but I was much slower if I did.”

“I drifted away from running then in my twenties but came back into the sport in my thirties,” Richard continues. “I worked as an economist before I began organizing races. I taught at a college in America and then worked as a consultant economist here. Then after my parents died I had an epiphany and realised that what you are good at isn’t necessarily what’s good for you. I always had a longing to do something different and that sparked me off to have a look at my life and I figured I would change it. I got fascinated by ultra marathon running, that idea of running really, really, long distances.

Richard identifies the death of his parents as providing the impetus for his rediscovery of a passion for running; “My father died in 1998 and I decided to do something in his memory. Myself, Paul, and Gerard decided we’d run the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert and we did that in 1999. I thought it was an amazing experience and I was hooked from then on. I had never run a marathon before that event so we went straight into the deep end and I found I perversely liked it.”

He outlines the differences between ultra running and standard marathon events;

“Ultra running, which is running distances longer than a marathon, is a different sport than marathon running. It’s definitely more of a mental sport; it doesn’t rely on physical talent. Older guys can compete with younger guys, women often beat men. The longer the distance it turns things on their head in terms of 40-year-olds can often be better than 20-year-olds. Especially when it comes to running hundreds of miles. It’s an endurance sport and not a power sport so things like muscle mass don’t matter. Anything over a hundred miles, you no longer are relying solely on physical talent. If you are running for days and days, physical talent gets you so far then there is also perseverance, the ability to manage your physical and mental resources, to pace yourself, to not get too high or too low. The older you get the better you get at all that.”

Donovan notes that ultra running is burgeoning in popularity over recent decades;

“It was actually a very popular sport in the 1800s and then it lost its way and has come back in popularity now since the 1980s and 1990s. Particularly now where there is a group of adventure races which have captured people’s imagination. There is the elite end of the sport where people run for 24 hours and the person who runs the farthest wins. Then there are 100km races. The good thing about ultra running is everything can be up to your imagination; you can invent races in extreme locations and combine them with extreme distances. You get all kinds of people who will try that, it’s like modern day adventure.”

I ask about the physical and mental endurance needed to tackle the daunting World Marathon Challenge. Would a person not be physically exhausted from completing a single marathon never mind the mad-sounding task of doing seven back to back? “The World Marathon Challenge is a huge logistical challenge more than anything else,” Richard replies. “You’re doing seven marathons in seven days on seven continents so you have temperature fluctuations, travel fatigue, and other things you wouldn’t get just by running. It’s a unique challenge. You can run yourself into fitness. You can resign yourself to your fate is the best way I can put it, and you just get on with it. When you are starting off something in the Antarctic everything changes. You see this amazing environment around you and you feel compelled to finish. Some people think ultra marathons are for extreme athletes but they are for everybody. You can do them at your own pace and people tend to find resources within themselves they didn’t know they had.”

I wonder if Richard ever has time to enjoy the scenery of the many spectacular landscapes he has run through or is he just ‘in the zone’ all the time? “You do get in the zone at times because sometimes you are so physically exhausted you don’t have room to think,” he admits. “I have also had zen like moments while running where everything empties out of your mind and it can be like a meditation. You can also appreciate things around you. In 2015 I ran across America, from San Fransisco to New York. Seeing such a vast country unfold on foot is very different to seeing it while driving across or travelling by train or plane. You notice everything, the way people change, the way the physical geography changes.”

Donovan is married to Caroline and they have a teenage daughter, Jamie. “Jamie is now 13 and has grown up with me doing this and travelling all over the world,” he tells me. “I brought her to the North Pole when she was eight. So it’s not unusual for her to be telling people ‘oh my dad’s at the North Pole’ or wherever and I think she has a different view of the world as a result of that.”

Now in his fiftieth year Donovan has no intention of hanging up his running shoes and is looking forward to his next two major challenges; “I’m so busy organising events that I don’t have much time to train so right now I’m not even fit,” he quips. “But next month I am going to run across South America from near Buenos Aires and crossing over the Andes into Chile, about 1,800 kilometres and that should get me back into some kind of shape. Then my plan is to run across the Antarctic later this year. No-one has ever done that. That’s about 1,600 kilometres. I’ve had that challenge on my radar for about 10 years and I think this is the year for it to happen.”

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