Richard sees running as a form of meditation that leaves one with no energy for negative thoughts [Layla Neal]
Al Jazeera Correspondent

Athletes at altitude

Richard Donovan, a multiple polar marathoner, on what motivates people to run long distances in extreme conditions.

Richard Donovan from Ireland, is known as a ‘multiple polar marathoner’. In 2009, he set a world record running seven marathons, in seven continents in just five days.

He is the organiser of the annual North Pole Marathon, and has participated in other extreme locations such as the Sahara and Atacama Deserts, the Andes and Himalayan mountains and the Amazon jungle. 

He also set up the Volcano Marathon at San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, where Al Jazeera’s Andy Richardson trained  at an altitude of almost 4,500ft, just a week before his Antarctic Ice Marathon.

Richard tells us what lead him to set up and compete in worldwide, often extreme, marathons. He also shares some techniques on how to cope with distance running.

I guess [the Volcano Marathon] came about in this location specifically, because I was looking for a good sister race for the North Pole Marathon, and the Antarctic Ice Marathon. It just occurred to me one day, the Volcano Marathon. I was in San Pedro de Atacama years ago, and thought this would be a perfect location for an event.

Like any marathon, you get a great mix of people and they come from a variety of different backgrounds and different talents. I think the common denominator in trips like this is people who want a sense of adventure. And very often, I find the marathon is only one small part of the trip, it’s the ancillary part of the trip. It’s the trip itself that counts more, it’s the epic location. And I think a lot of the times it’s the camaraderie.

I think I bring [an extreme setting] to the equation when I’m thinking of a race location. It’s kind of counter-intuitive in some ways really. Bring people up to altitude where they’re going to be gasping for oxygen you know almost 15,000ft … one of them is an active volcano. I just think that makes it attractive to people.

I think people like to go to different environments. I come across the same clients very often, they are testing themselves in snow conditions, and now they want to test themselves in heat and altitude.

The motivation [to run extreme marathons] comes from the logistics often. Running marathons around the continents in under five days is not a physical challenge, it’s a logistical challenge. I kind of looked at a map of the world and said how can I actually make this happen. And believe me that involved figuring our flight schedules more than anything else. And the last thing on my mind was actually the running. If I get seven hours in a location, the running will just happen by itself.

All motivation must come from yourself and where you find it is another question. Sometimes you don’t know until you’re in the middle of the event, it can be different from one [to the other], but to keep going you usually have an epiphany to keep you going.

The beauty of running is that you can actually make up your own challenges. So there is an infinite amount out there.  There’s nothing to running – you just have to get your pair of running shoes. Travelling can be expensive. But other than that, there is no expense involved.

In locations such as [the Atacama desert], you actually enjoy the run while you are suffering. I think I must have the most envious career in the world at the moment, which pretty much happened by default rather than design. I watch people suffering during an event and at the end of every one they thank me for it.

Why We Run – Extra

I’m organising new events. I have an experimental triathlon in the Antarctic next week, which is a winter triathlon where people are going to run, mountain bike and cross-country ski. I have plans for races in other locations around the world. I’m actually thinking of trying to organise a marathon on every continent. So each one of them will have their own kind of identity. I’m thinking of one in Africa that I’ve called the Equator Marathon – I think the name in itself will just attract people.

Besides the physical benefits of being healthier, you often find there is a running boom during the recession for example. I think the reason that happens is because people become more introspective, they look at themselves and their values a bit more. Running will answer a lot of questions for you.

My advice for marathon runners is to start off very slow by managing your resources. If you think you’re going slow, go slower still … and find your way during the event.

Running teaches you a process to problem solving. If you get negative thoughts during an event, people have little tricks to deal with that – one can be, to turn down the volume of those thoughts. Very often it just comes to an understanding that those thoughts are going to come into your head anyway and accept them, they will go away pretty quick at that point.

Running gives you the opportunity to be zen like, it’s a form of meditation because you can become physically tired that you don’t even have energy for thoughts. Everything empties out of your head accept for what matters, and that’s where you have your epiphany in a marathon – you figure out why you are running it yourself.

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