Back in April, we published an interview Cathal Dennehy did with Galway man Richard Donovan, who was running across America carrying a pendant containing the ashes of a late friend, Alvin Matthews, which he was to deliver to Matthews’ mother in California.
On Sunday, he completed his journey when arriving at Santa Monica pier. Here we republish that interview from April, in which Richard discusses what drove him to do it and his life up to now.
Let’s start with the why, because before we get to the what, when or how of running across America, you need to know what compels a man to do this.
Then come back and do it again.
Forty miles a day, every day, for three straight months. Five thousand kilometres of left-right, left-right monotony, through blisters and burnt landscapes, stunning mountain passes and sketchy inner-city ghettos, past pointed guns and venomous snakes, the kindness of strangers and the cruelty of life – all of it swallowed whole in a mind-altering cocktail of exhaustion, euphoria and life-affirming epiphanies.
Why does Richard Donovan choose this life? Why the hell wouldn’t he?
“There’s an addiction to this,” he says. “You have these zen-like moments that only occur when you put yourself under that physical pressure for a prolonged period. The most significant thoughts come when you’re most insignificant.”
Donovan, 55, has been one of Ireland’s top ultra-runners and adventure racers for the past 20 years – a lateral-thinking, counter-cultural, dream-it-up visionary whose story exemplifies the road less travelled, hacking a path out into the unknown and leaving behind a trail.
The Galway native has run across the United States, Europe and South America. He’s run through the Sahara and Atacama deserts, along with the Andes and Himalayas. He’s been to the North Pole or Antarctica 40 times, bringing 1500 like-minded folk over the years to take part in races he organises.
He’s a successful businessman, a generous philanthropist, but most of all a free-spirited adventurer.
On April 18, Donovan will run the Boston Marathon and the following day, he’ll set off on a 3,270-mile run to California, which will take him across 14 states. It’s a route that would take three days in a car. On foot, it’ll take Donovan three months. He expects – yet again – to be a different person at the end.
“Running across a vast country like America, you have to become humble and simple,” he says. “You don’t conquer it, as people like to say. You’re just lucky enough to get across.” Somewhere out on those roads are lessons, both small and highly significant ones, which he’ll carry forward in everyday life.
“You learn you can’t control everything, you don’tto control everything,” he says. “They’re very liberating thoughts, and that’s why there’s an addiction. You get immense clarity when you reach a trough and keep moving, and then you can have an epiphany. You get clarity about what matters.”
He’ll carry a pendant containing the ashes of a late friend, Alvin Matthews, which he’ll deliver to Matthews’ mother in California. Before a workplace accident left Matthews paralysed many years ago, he’d been a regular participant in Donovan’s races and while that wasn’t the sole reason Donovan ran across the US in 2015, raising money for his friend’s medical bills was a big part of it.
Last April, Donovan was in San Francisco for a knee operation and visited Matthews, who he was assisting by helping finance the development of an exoskeleton. Before he left the US, he told Matthews of his plan to run across the country again, hoping his friend would be a part of it.
But two days later, Matthews passed away in his sleep.
This time around, Matthews’ mother has chosen the charity that Donovan will raise funds for, the Triumph Foundation, which helps those with spinal cord injuries.
And that, in essence, is theof this run. As for Donovan got to this point? Well, that’s a very different story.
The birth of this way of life – that of the endurance adventurer, hopelessly infatuated with the call of the wild – occurred in a graveyard.
It was June, 2000, and Donovan was at Bohermore Cemetery in Galway – an austere setting with its stone walls and heavy iron gates – to bury his parents. His father, Paul, had died two years earlier, and donated his body for medical research prior to passing away. By pure coincidence, his body was released for burial the very same day Donovan’s mother, Mary, passed away.
At the time, Donovan was 34, a successful economist who specialised in competition law, but the death of his parents, and that same-day burial, forced him to reflect on what he was doing with the time he had left.
“I realised: Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” he says. “I was looking at guys in suits and saying: ‘That’s not me. What the hell am I doing?’”
He’d been a decent runner in his youth, one who’d won the odd Connacht title and was in the medal hunt at All-Irelands, but he didn’t have the exceptional gifts of his older brother, Paul, who won 3000m silver at the World Indoor Championships in 1987.
After finishing school Donovan went to college in Galway, “messed around, drinking, partying,” and drifted away from the sport, studying classics and economics before completing a master’s in economics. After that he set off for the States, working as an abstract writer in Boston before he grew tired of the cold weather there. He applied for a PhD at the University of Arizona, one of the few things he started but didn’t finish – his mother’s ill-health leading him back to Galway to take care of her during her final few years.
The loss of his parents left a gaping void, but as time went on, Donovan realised more and more how their attitudes lived on within him.
“My father cared less about what we achieved, and more about what it meant to us,” he says. “That was his major question. For him, choosing something to do in life was only half the story; the other half was the reason why.” Before his mother died, Donovan promised her he’d do something in her memory. He just wasn’t sure what.
As he began to turn his back on economics, he started running more, and the idea came to him to complete an ultra-marathon on every continent. Donovan did exactly that in 2002, winning several of them, including the first ever South Pole Marathon.
“That’s where the addiction started to come,” he says.
After hearing one of his rivals, Dean Karnazes, was planning to run a marathon in the North Pole, which had never been done before, Donovan decided to beat him to the punch. There was no template for such things, so he negotiated with various groups to figure out logistics.
Russia was operating a floating ice camp at the North Pole, so he travelled with a group of Russians to Svalbard in Norway before being transported to the North Pole in one of their Mi-8 helicopters. With a GPS to log distance, the temperature -60C accounting for windchill, Donovan completed the first recorded marathon at the North Pole, clocking 3:48:12.
“I did it on the fly,” he says. “It was a modern-day adventure of just figuring it out, not knowing what I was doing, but getting away with it.” After returning home, he decided others needed to experience the same thing, so Donovan set up the North Pole Marathon, and he later founded the World Marathon Challenge – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, which he set the world record for in 2009: four days, 23 hours and three minutes.
He looks back now at that moment in the graveyard, hard as it was, and sees how it shaped him, steered him.
“This all came about through the death of my parents,” he says. “I discovered a calling, (looking for) an element of risk – going to places that you shouldn’t.”
There was a moment, towards the end of his first run across the US, that illustrates why he does this, and what it taught him about the universal kindness of strangers.
Donovan was in Akron, Ohio, his route on Google maps leading him down the wrong side of the tracks – into an area a whippet-thin Irishman would rather not find himself. He was stopped by a group of men who were openly dealing drugs.
“Brother, what are you doing? Where are you running to?”
“New York,” he said.
“Where are you running from?”
The men made some calls, and others soon emerged from their homes, chatting with Donovan and taking pictures, his initial fear dissipating as he told his wide-eyed audience about his trip.
“There was no social barrier, no hint of confrontation or hint that you’re a problem,” he says. “It’s more they think you’re a bit crazy.”
Of course, it wasn’t all rosy.
In Kansas, one driver tried to run him off the road. In Missouri, a group of locals confronted him about why he was running down ‘their’ road, the rifle in their back seat telling him to tread with caution. In California, a man pointed a gun at him in for taking a picture of his house. Donovan also had to jump many a roadside snake along the way, and keep his eyes peeled for bears and mountain lions, though his biggest fear was always encountering a herd of cattle.
But all of that is a tiny snippet of an experience that, by and large, showed him the best of humanity. Donovan remembers the ice cream shop in Illinois where they wouldn’t let him pay for his order, and the many strangers who offered help and donations along the way. He remembers the woman in the Rockies who came out to him in her buggy, and how they shared the most insightful conversation about the realities of rural life.
“Real salt-of-the-earth people,” he says. “They’re the reason people wanted to emigrate to the States in the ’70s and ’80s. They had this willingness to accept a complete stranger and do something for them.”
Traversing the US, from blue states to red, he was shown something that applied in every other country he’d visited, a truth that runs deeper that any superficial generalisation.
“There are good people everywhere,” he says. “When you’re out there on the road, vulnerable, people are very kind and in America, they are some of the nicest in the world.”
As he neared major cities on the East Coast, he did notice one curious difference: people ventured out less to ask what he was doing and more often called the police, reporting his roadside support vehicle.
But as the run evolved, so did he, with Donovan discarding the pepper spray he’d brought to fend off dogs.
“All those fears disappear when you become in tune with the run,” he says. “The animals sense it too. You run out of energy for fear or negativity; it’s only things that matter you have time for.
“I find it with people I bring to events. They’re doing something that doesn’t make sense, and it’s a dividing line in their lives. They tend to view things differently because they were in this very unusual position where they lost control and had to face a lot of fears. Everything changes.”
That clarity of thought, the crystallised sense of purpose, is what keeps Donovan coming back for more.
Beyond this run, he’s thinking bigger, and more imaginatively, than ever. Donovan recently founded the Space Athletics Federation with Raphael Roettgen, a German space expert who he befriended at one his races. They plan to stage the first running event in space within the next four years, and Donovan will also run educational programmes as part of it to inspire the next generation.
In recent weeks, he gave a talk at his old primary school in Mervue, Galway, telling kids there about his adventures around the world, hoping to ignite a spark of where sport can take them.
Every year he funds two young Irish sprinters to travel to New York for the Millrose Games along with their parents, as part of Dermot McDermott’s Believe & Achieve initiative, while Donovan also sponsors elite athletes like Paul Robinson, Sean Tobin and Andrew Coscoran – guys whose all-in attitudes strike a chord with him.
His rejection of the mundane, and the regimented safety of so many adult lives, is what first drove him down this path. Donovan has no plans to turn back.
“When we’re four or five, and a parent asks what we want to be, we say without hesitation: ‘I want to be an explorer or an astronaut,’” he says. “A child’s focus is on the vision and not the reasons they shouldn’t pursue it. Obstacles are invisible to them, and there’s power in that way of thinking. But as life goes on we strip these visions away from us and have a thought process based on fear. We have to have a response prepared for every eventuality before we undertake anything.”
When it comes to race organising, Donovan is finicky with fine details. He has to be. But when it comes to his own adventures, he just rolls with it.
Donovan doesn’t know where he’ll sleep each night of this trip. He doesn’t know yet who’ll drive his support car for most of the way. He doesn’t know how his knees will hold up. But he doesn’tto know.
“A lot of people create obstacles, they ask questions about precise details, but you don’t need an answer for everything,” he says. “I have the vision that I want to run across America and there are no obstacles there unless you create them.”
If he makes it across, the next item on his bucket list is to become the first person to run across Antarctica – a 1,000-mile slog from the Ronne Ice Shelf to the Ross Ice Shelf. He first planned to do it in 2017, but after his knee buckled on a training run in Galway, Donovan spent years chasing a cure, with specialists in Ireland telling him in definite terms that he couldn’t keep doing what he is – not at his age.
Donovan shrugged them off, travelling the world in search of a cure, from Dr Hans-Wilhlem Müller-Wohlfahrt in Germany to Dr Kevin Stone in San Francisco. The latter carried out robotic surgeries on his knees in 2019 and 2021, recoating the medial part of his knee and putting an “effectively plastic meniscus” in the middle.
“A year ago, I couldn’t walk a half mile without a significant limp and huge swelling around my knee, but he has totally transformed it,” he says. “There’s a perception: Just see out your days. But it shouldn’t be like that.”
And so he’ll soon say goodbye to his wife Caroline and his daughter Jaimie for a few months, setting off for Boston on a journey that will take him far beyond. He’s healthy, happy, and ready to hit the open road – venturing deep into the beauty of the unknown.
Not looking for answers, as such, but knowing plenty will find him along the way.