Man of the year?

IT was one of those wintry days in the west, when the north Atlantic snaps the air in two, and underneath its one, big black woolly jumper, Galway is a mass of congregating goose pimples and shivering teeth. Mind you, Richard Donovan doesn’t find it that chilly.

He could move the tips of his toes, after all, his body wasn't shaking with hypothermia, there was no bout of snow blindness. While most people scrunched their face and moaned about the nip in the day, Richard Donovan cast his mind back to the start of the year and endeavouring to run at 50 below freezing point.

Donovan started the year by becoming the first man to run marathons at both Poles. To any normal human being, that would be achievement enough. Donovan was only warming up, so to speak. In an effort to honour his dead mother's memory and get himself in shape he decided to run seven ultra marathons on all seven continents. Last Saturday's leisurely 35-mile sprint in Galway completed the challenge.

Sharp intake of breath now as we review his year. Starting off in the Arctic Circle, he then journeyed to the North Pole, before going onto Australia, then the Andes before bee-lining up to Ohio, climbing the Himalayas (including Everest), tracking across the Sahara, before last weekend's run.

Just engaging him in conversation as he re-traces his adventure results in a savage case of fatigue.

It was 18 months ago when Donovan hatched the plan. Out of shape and spurned on by the memory of his mother, Donovan started training. His energy and this year's résumé suggests a disciplined and organised athlete, but this is far from the case. "I'm just an average runner. My brother Paul (a former professional distance runner) gave me some pointers as I began to train, and I generally ran 100 miles a week. But, I didn't develop any programme as such, I didn't go on any special diet or radically alter any aspects of my life."

When it was time to fly down to the tip of the world, Donovan was in fine fettle. He was racing against guys like Dean Kanzares and Brent Weigner, guys who run ultra marathons to earn their crust, but that didn't perturb him. He went down to the South Pole to win.

"Going there, I wanted to win it, but when I arrived and filled out the application form, my lack of experience really hit home. I only had one race to show for past experience. But, the South Pole taught me that climate is a great equaliser. Ultra running is largely a mental thing. I had prepared well physically and mentally. Even though I had never run in cold weather before, I was able to pull myself through."

For a gruelling eight hours and 52 minutes, Donovan fought wind, snow and altitude (the South Pole is at 10,000 feet).

Although, he went stray on the course a couple of times, and he contracted snow blindness from taking his googles off amid a mild blizzard, he still managed to beat Kanzares by a good mile and a half.

The conditions gave Donovan frost bite that took six weeks to clear, as well as a few days of shuddering hypothermia. However, the fun didn't end there. No sooner did Donovan think he had captured the $25,000 top prize than controversy erupted.

As a case against Adventure Network (the organisers of the race) is on going in Canada, it is not possible to say too much about it. But, after Donovan surprised Kanazares by beating him, the organisers tried to retrospectively categorise the race. Because, Kanzares is sponsored by the North Face clothing firm, who expected the South Pole marathon to be a marketing stunt.

As much as those circumstances (which got Donovan acquainted with the cynical side of sport very quickly) things got really bizarre when Kanzares gave an interview to Sports Illustrated, where he talked of Donovan threatening his family. He even reported him to the US State Department.

While Donovan managed to set things straight with the State Department, Kanzares was determined to usurp Donovan's achievement as the first winner of the South Pole marathon, by becoming the first man to run both Poles.

So, two months of planning and preparation began as Donovan and Kanzares sought to be the first men to run marathons at both poles. As, in the early days of the 20th century, when the likes of Scott and Shackleton tried to beat each other as the first explorers at both poles, it was a race against time and each other.

Donovan enlisted the help of ultra runner Brent Weigner, who put him in touch with a group of Russians. Sailing from the Norwegian island of Svalbard, Norway on March 28th before leaving by jet for the Russian North Pole Base Camp on April 2, he was finally transported by helicopter to the geographic pole on the day of the Run.

"In my mind, I wasn't in a rush to get up there, but I knew I had to do it. I should hold that record after winning in the South Pole. There is a station about 80 miles from the Pole and that's it. It was such a contrast from the South Pole, because the Americans had organised that marathon, there was a real atmosphere about the whole event. The Russians created no atmosphere, I had to do this run on my own, with little or no assistance and with a GPS device and a few independent witnesses.

"Basically, the North Pole was less demanding than the South, but physically more dangerous. The Pole is just ice off the Arctic Ocean. There is no land, you are running on floating ice and if the ice cracks, you are done for. There is no way you would survive if you fell into the Arctic. I ran that in 3' 48", the fact that there was no altitude makes a big difference."

Four months into the year, Donovan had created a record of being the first man to run marathons at the two Poles. However, he had still only run on one continent: Antarctica. He missed races in Australia and Africa because of his record attempt.

It only took a couple of months to get back on track. By June, Donovan was in Oz, competing in the Poor Man's Comrades run. Again, he crossed the line in first place alongside Australian ultra marathon runner Kieron Thompson, completing the 55 miles in eight hours and 48 minutes.

"That race it is all very low key, there are no fees, no awards, nothing to show you competed in the race. You just run from Sydney Opera House to Gosford. The idea of running a race where there was no indication of glory seemed to sum up Australia and its barrenness for me."

Now, his record attempt was gathering pace. By August, he could be found on the Inca Trail, doing that ultra marathon, which involved an exhausting climb of 14,000 feet, including an ascent of 6,000 feet in six minutes. Still, his unblemished record continued as he won that race.

By September, his entry problems into the States long since sorted out, Donovan took part in the 24 hour race in Toldeo, Ohio (where basically ultra runners continue to run until they can't any longer). He went to Ohio with hopes of breaking the Irish 100 mile record. However, searing heat and 95% humidity scuppered that plan, and Richard stopped running around the 70 mile mark.

"The hardest decision of the year was making myself stop. That was one of the hardest things to do, to tell myself to stop."

Three months left in the year, three more heights to scale. In October, came the highest of them all. The five day Himalayas marathon, included the Everest Challenge run. Donovan blitzed the competition again, despite the altitude of 12,000 feet.

"I seem to adapt very quickly to altitude. The first day, there was a cumulative ascent of 10,000 feet. The next day, it was 7,000 feet, but the worse thing about that course was the winding roads that turned sharply."

He was only back in Ireland 10 days, before he had to jet off to Tunisia to take part in the Trans333 in the Sahara. It would be the most gruelling race of his year. Friends and experts had advised him against going on the basis that his body hadn't fully recuperated from climbing the Himalayas.

The race itself was his most eventful of the year. At one time, he strayed off course and found himself near the Algerian border (he later discovered another competitor had been held at gunpoint in Algerian territory). He almost submitted to hypothermia, in the desert, during the night. But, the most traumatic experience was being encircled by a pack of 20 wild dogs at the 270km mark.

"You have visions of the vultures circling over your pain-racked and weakened body ready to peck the eyeballs out of your head. I never anticipated being almost encircled by a pack of over 20 wild dogs. I thought to myself that this would be an ironic way to go since I'm supporting the animal sanctuary in Galway. I kept them at bay and circled back in the hope of finding another competitor. Luckily, I found someone else and we progressed together to the next checkpoint."

Donovan reached the finish line in 12th place after three scorching days and freezing nights. The race was won by Claude Hardel, winner of Trans 333 2000. He finished the 333-kilometre course in an incredible 48 hours and 36 minutes, taking the non-stop aspect of the race literally by not sleeping a single minute while out on the course. So, by the time, he crossed the finish line in Galway last weekend, Richard had ran seven ultra marathons on seven continents. Not only that, but he had won four of them.

It doesn't require a protractor to figure out he has a future in the sport and given that he is only in his mid-30s distance runners of this variety don't peak until their early 40s he has a lot of time to build on the success of this year.

"It was a great way to see the world, but not the best way. I am going to continue, but not with the same intensity."

Still, this year was a year to remember.

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