An Interview with Richard Donovan about the World Marathon Challenge.
Richard, you are the first man to do seven marathons, on seven continents in seven days. Now you are organizing the World Marathon Challenge. What is more exhausting?
Yes, I was the first person to run seven marathons on seven continents in under seven days. Back in 2009, I completed it in 5 days, 10 hours and 8 minutes. I managed to better my record in 2012 with a time of 4 Days, 22 Hours 3 Minutes. I don’t mind telling you, it was difficult for me as I travelled alone, flying economy with very little support. However, the task of organising the World Marathon Challenge event for others was even more challenging.
I set a personal goal of less than seven days – with very little margin for error – because it was just that, personal. The weight of potential failure would only impact on me. It empowered me to take risks. However, there’s added responsibility when overseeing an event for others. Expectations regarding risk and failure have to be reassessed. I had to plan for every scenario imaginable and have contingencies in place for every eventuality.
How many hours could you sleep during those seven days?
Whether running or organising, I slept very little during the seven days. In fact, I probably slept less when I was organising than when I was a participant. I was on the courses until the last person finished. And there were so many logistical matters to be dealt with. I had to ensure everything was in order: from organising transport to and from airports; compiling results; Facebook updates; liaising with local organisers, photographers and TV; hotel stays and looking ahead to the next leg.
That sounds really tough. What was your highlight of the World Marathon Challenge 2015?
Perhaps my favourite moment was having the Olympic Champion, Haile Gebrselassie, meet the competitors at the start line of the penultimate marathon in Dubai. It was a beautiful location and an incredibly sunny day, but this was a fantastic boost for the runners. Needless to say, watching each and every runner cross the finish line in Sydney was a fantastic moment for me.
Did every starter finish the seven marathons?
Everybody completed the seven marathons on seven continents in seven days successfully. Ten competitors had elected to take on the 42.2km standard marathon challenge, while two competitors took on a half marathon challenge.
Of the 10 marathoners, Finland’s Marianna Zaikova became the first woman in history to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days when she finished in 6 Days 21 Hours 21 Minutes. It was a fantastic achievement.
What were the biggest problems for the runners?
The biggest problems were a combination of issues: travel fatigue, dealing with temperature variations, lack of sleep and of course the impact of running marathon after marathon after marathon on consecutive days.
The competitors generally ate at airports, slept on planes and there was no opportunity to wash clothes. There were some opportunities to stay at hotels en route, but the number of hours of sleep that could be grabbed was minimal due to the compressed time frame.
The (inevitable) result can be sore legs, injuries and feelings of sickness: all of which are instantly forgotten about upon crossing the finish line!
Which was the most challenging marathon?
The Marrakech Marathon was easily the most challenging for every single competitor involved. We recorded the slowest times right across the board. Taking place during the night, the Marrakech Marathon was fifth in the series of seven, and it was the third continent competitors stepped on within a 24-hour period. It was also the second marathon run in the same day having just completed one in Madrid. Not only that, it rained and it was cold.
Luckily, we had Mohamad Ahansal, five-time Marathon des Sables champion and UVU Ambassador, taking care of the local organisation and spurring everyone on to the finish.
What kinds of people take on the World Marathon Challenge?
They are athletes of various levels of ability and age. However, they all share a common trait in being independently driven with a sense of adventure and a will to succeed. One competitor, Ted Jackson, raised the equivalent of over $250,000 US dollars for the charity Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis through his participation in the event. It’s a charity close to his heart as his wife Sophie suffers from MS.
The Word Marathon Challenge isn’t cheap. How do the participants finance their trip? Do they have sponsors?
Some of the participants had sponsors, some used all of their savings, some borrowed, and others could finance themselves. It's a trip of a lifetime. It's one of those things that if you really want to make it happen you will somehow find a way of overcoming financial obstacles to do so. The price of € 32.000 includes a multiple day trip into Antarctica, which would often cost more than that as a standalone trip.
How many participants will compete in 2016?
The race field is limited to 12 - 15 people in 2016. As an organiser, I have to anticipate worst-case scenarios and plan for them. What happens if the plane leaves Antarctica very late? Can I guarantee changing all subsequent international flights for everybody at short notice? This is the type of question that must be answered in the affirmative. By allowing an unlimited number of people, for example, I wouldn't.
Did you have a U vs. U moment at the world marathon challenge?
I didn't have a U versus U moment as I was organising, but I'm sure many of the competitors did. A U vs U moment occurs when the physical body is begging you to stop but the mental side manages to carry you through. It's a moment of clarity, when everything makes sense, when putting one foot in front of the other is all that matters. Everybody had that moment - that epiphany - at some point during the week.