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Polar Marathoner
Richard Donovan

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"We weren't running most of the time—we were shuffling fast."

The Iceman Runneth

In January, Irishman Richard Donovan won the inaugural South Pole Marathon. Then he did a 180, literally, completing the first marathon-length run in the North Pole ten weeks later.

Donovan's polar conquests were just a warm-up. Before the end of the year, the 36-year-old from county Galway plans to run ultramarathons on the remaining six continents he hasn't conquered.

He'll start with a 60-miler [97 kilometers] in Australia in June, whip through Vermont’s 100 Mile Endurance Run [161 kilometers] on July 20, then tick off the 27.5-mile [44-kilometer] Inca Trail Marathon in Peru less than a month later.

If all goes as planned, he'll hit the Himalayan 100-mile [161-kilometer] stage race in October, run 208 miles [335 kilometers] through the Sahara in November, and end the year with a 35-mile [56-kilometer] victory lap through the Irish countryside.

No one's ever run ultramarathons on every continent within the space of a year before. But that's just what Donovan, who is profiled in Adventure's August issue, likes about the idea.

Here, Donovan talks about his icy slogs over the ends of the Earth, and the thrill of chasing down one of marathon running's last firsts.

—Kalee Thompson

Why did you tackle the North Pole marathon on April 5, just ten weeks after the South Pole Marathon?

Global Expeditions [a North Pole adventure-travel company] had planned the marathon. I arrived on April 3 to the base camp. At that point, I was the only person entered in the race [it was scheduled for April 24 but never took place].

I wanted to arrive early because I had heard that the person who finished second in the South Pole marathon, Dean Karnazes, was planning on heading up earlier than April 24 to do a solo run to the North Pole as well. So I basically wanted to nip up there before him (laughs).

He never arrived in the end. I was going by hearsay that he was headed up, and I definitely wanted that opportunity to do it first. It was really a race to get to the North Pole first; the run was almost incidental.

You finished in less than four hours—a decent time, considering the location.

I suppose that's fast when you compare it to my South Pole run, which was horrendously slow—almost nine hours. It was colder at the North Pole because of the very strong winds that picked up. They were probably 60 kilometers an hour [37 miles an hour].

A Russian copter dropped me off, and I just repeated a circular route while trying to keep reasonably close to the chopper. We recorded the distance with GPS.

What did you wear to keep warm?

I was wearing surprisingly light clothing; ironically, in the cold, the enemy can be the heat. If you sweat too much, you can get into trouble.

I wore one pair of light thermals, wind pants, a thin, silk-like shirt, a lightweight fleece, and a wind jacket. On my head, I wore a balaclava and a face mask and a hat. I cut the toes off of a pair of neoprene socks and just covered my toes with them, layered on two more pairs of socks, and ran in my trail runners.

That seemed to work great, though I stumbled a lot. The underfoot conditions were very bumpy and it was extremely difficult to see what I was running on due to the fact that there were almost complete whiteout conditions.

How did the North Pole compare to the South Pole?

The landscape at the North Pole is quite different in that you have all these small little ice hills, while the South Pole has much more level terrain.

But in general, the run seemed quite easy compared to the South Pole marathon. It took me a while to recover from the frostbite and general weakness I experienced after the South Pole race.

Clearly, the big difference is altitude [the North Pole is essentially at sea level; the Antarctic Plateau is roughly 12,000 feet {3,658 meters}]. At the South Pole, just trying to move is awful. It's just not built for people to try to do distance runs.

Had you run many marathons before?

No, I'm a real novice. I had run one other race in my adult life, and that was three years ago when I ran in the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert.

Why did you want to run at the Poles?

I had set a big goal to run seven ultramarathons on seven continents in one year. As you know, the North Pole is not actually a continent, but the competition with Dean was a large part of my decision to run there. I also knew that this was an opportunity to be the first to run a marathon in the vicinity of both Poles.

I'm trying to raise money for two charities—one is for an animal sanctuary in the west of Ireland and the other benefits street children in Calcutta—and I knew that the firsts would really capture people's attention. But obviously there's a personal fulfillment dimension, too.

What made you decide to go to Antarctica first?

Basically I was browsing the Internet and discovered that there was going to be a South Pole marathon, sponsored by the company Adventure Network International. I knew that that would be the one that I would do.

You won the South Pole marathon this past January. Who were you competing against?

Dean Karnazes from San Francisco and Brent Weigner from Wyoming. Brent and I used snowshoes. I had actually hyperextended my knee ten days before the race and I was given a zero percent chance of finishing by a German orthopedic surgeon who happened, believe it or not, to be in the Adventure Network base camp in Patriot Hills.

Just by luck he was climbing Mount Vinson. My knee was like a balloon. I decided I would wear snowshoes so I wouldn't hit an unexpected drift or anything that would take me out of the race.

So what was the South Pole run like?

Dean led for six miles [ten kilometers] or so. I caught up to him with 20 miles [32 kilometers] to go. At that point, we hit seven miles [11 kilometers] of a hard ice section called sastrugi, which is a basically wavelike formation of ice.

I pulled away from him after that point and I eventually opened up a two-mile [3.2-kilometer] lead.

Mind you, we weren't running most of the time—we were shuffling fast. As fast as we could. Running would be a stretch of the imagination, I think. I won by a mile and half [2.4 kilometers].

Do you have any desire to go back to either of these places?

The North Pole, definitely. In fact, Global Expeditions asked that I be the race director there next year. They want to commercialize this thing. I can see why they would want to—the North Pole is so accessible, and you can also run a surprisingly quick time. I think it is going to be a great place to actually run a group marathon in the future.

But, you know, when you are running at the Poles you don't feel like you're sitting at the top of the world or anything; it's just a bunch of ice all around you and no real atmosphere. It's anticlimactic. You're all alone running around and you kind of ask yourself, What am I doing here?

And what's the answer that you give yourself?

I just kind of laugh at myself, to be honest. You really have to have a sense of humor.

Read more about Richard Donovan in the August 2002 issue of Adventure.

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Related Web Sites

Adventure Network International
Learn more about the only private company in the world currently offering airborne travel into Antarctica.

Richard Donovan's Web Page
Read about the latest adventures of Richard Donovan and his quest to run seven ultramarathons on seven continents in the same calendar year.

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