Runner profile: Donna Urquhart

Who STARTS running ultramarathons just after giving birth to their first child?…because it’s easier to train for than their previous sport? Who dabbles with ultra running and immediately scores a series of wins and places? Who breaks their arm 6 weeks out from the Ironman World Champs in Hawaii and goes ahead with the race? Read on…

Appropriately, I met Donna Urquhart on a Sunday morning trail run. It was an interesting little arrangement: myself and He-Who-Shall-Be-Known-As-Ben were running outbound 20kms along the Oxfam Trailwalker route from the Thousand Steps, aforementioned Ben being in training for his second Oxfam.

By one of those quirky twists of trail-running organisation, we were then expecting to rendezvous with another friend plus ‘others’, either at or before Mt Evelyn, the exact point of intersection I suppose being determined by our relative pace – they were starting at Mt Evelyn at 7am and if we made it all the way there by then, we would have a longer round trip under our belts.

As it turned out, our outbound progress was fairly dismal, mainly thanks to the 5am rain causing temporary blindness and disorientation at the top of Lyrebird Track. In short: we got briefly lost on some of the best signposted most frequently visited tracks in Australia…where we run all the time! So we had only run about 20kms when we saw three runners approaching from the opposite direction.

After we turned around as a newly formed group, I began chatting with the only member unknown to me. This was Donna. I knew she was to be on Caroline Pivetta’s Oxfam Trailwalker team this year and I knew that she had won the Rollercoaster Run 43km the previous year. I was keen to tease out a little more of her story.

Friendly and keen to chat, what was striking about Donna, however, was her very under-stated manner and what I can only describe as extreme calmness (she may be my polar opposite). The group was moving along at an easy pace, picking no battles with any of the various hills the Dandenongs threw our way, but at all times I had this great sense of deep reserve on Donna’s part, as though she was a gear or two down from the rest of us – always deliberately drifting to the rear but, it seemed, barely breathing.

She explained to me how she got into running ultras after having her first baby, running the The North Face 50km when little Max was 11 months old. I expressed my surprise – the impact of babies on these things, especially for women, generally being in the opposite direction. She responded that it was the best way for her to keep exercising, which I didn’t fully understand at the time.

However, when I later pressed Donna with more questions for this article, she explained to me that before starting her parenthood journey, she had been quite competitive in adventure racing. When training involves the need to do quite a lot of running AND get the boat out on open sea AND get significant hours in the saddle of the mountain bike etc, referring to ultra running as “easy, time efficient and not much preparation is required” begins to make some sense!

Heading up the podium at the Rollercoaster Run 43km

Heading up the podium at the Rollercoaster 43km

That first TNF50 in the Blue Mountains was an eye opener for Donna, who reflects that she realised halfway through the event “perhaps I hadn’t done quite enough hill work and it might have been useful to try some stairs”. From this I assumed she went pretty badly: for a mid-packer like myself, it would translate to a tough day of hitting multiple walls and an epic survival mission with half a thought for cut-off. However, when I looked at her results, I found she had finished 7th. Not a bad debut, really, and hardly the easiest course to start on!

She won her next 50km a few months later at Marysville, a month before completing her first 100km – Duncan’s Run Hundred in the Tarra Bulga, where she placed 3rd. As mentioned above, the 1st place at Rollercoaster 43km followed, and 2014 also included another (joint) win at Canberra Bush Marathon 63km; a very impressive 4th place at Surf Coast Century 100km; and a 3rd in her return to Marysville. Donna kicked off 2015 with a 3rd place at Maroondah Dam and her Oxfam Trailwalker (Melbourne) team finished the 100km 6th overall.

So how does she do it? I’d say it’s more likely she was born with it than having anything to do with Maybelline. Obviously, a solid history in sports and running provides a rock-hard foundation. Despite not having competed in pure running events until 2013, running has always been important, and helped get Donna through her studies – banging out a quick 10km when she had mentally hit the wall would refresh her body and mind, enabling her to return to the desk and push on.

Triathlon was Donna’s original competitive arena. Her long course achievements included a number of half-Ironmans as well as five full Ironman events, including the world championships in Hawaii (at which she not only toed the start line after breaking her arm and not being allowed to use it for the preceding six weeks, she also finished!). From triathlons, Donna progressed to adventure racing, testing her endurance mettle across running, kayaking/skiing, mountain biking and rock-climbing.

Donna on the cover of a major AR mag

Donna on the cover of a major AR mag

You might be starting to build a mental picture of a rather tough cookie! Let me elaborate. I just came across another anecdote about Donna’s exploits. In massive swell, already fatigued during an adventure race, her repeated attempts to get back onto her surf ski in deep water were becoming harder with each try. The cold and fatigue were starting to take over, but the full realisation of her predicament only hit her when she caught sight of the rescue boat nearby, just as it was capsizing! (…I don’t know the rest of this story, but I imagine she rounded up the flailing crew from the rescue boat, swam them to safety, then resumed the race).

As suggested, Donna’s training requirements are not what they used to be, now she is focusing on just one sport (and the one with the least logistics). All the same, there is significant juggling around child care arrangements and her husband’s fluctuating work hours. She makes all this work with hubby’s relaxed and easy-going support, as well as excellent participation from her mum, who will generally take care of Max for one of her weekend runs, as well as often during the week. Donna counts herself extraordinarily lucky to have such support.

On a professional level, Donna graduated as a physio, worked for 5 years in private practice and then returned to do a PhD, which led to full-time work as a Research Fellow/Scientist at Monash University. Her area of focus seeks to better understand how we can prevent and treat lower back pain (an area close to my heart!).

To maintain a good family balance, Donna shifted from full-time to part-time work in order to spend enough time with with her son. The “Mummy and Max” days are sacrosanct amidst the busy schedule. This is where they make time to just hang out…going to indoor play centres and parks (fast slides are the go – a little bit of early thrill-seeking?), enjoying sushi together and visiting family and friends.

In the case of Donna, it seems, being a busy person with parenting responsibilities has impacted her running for the better. Indeed, it has turned her to running. One of her key motivations to keep going and finish an ultra is the thought of seeing little Max’s face cheering her on at the finish line.

As well as her family, Donna is motivated by the desire to inspire and empower women to achieve their goals. This is central to her next big running project, with Caroline Pivetta and two others. The Trail Beyond: 4 Women, 4 Ultramarathons, 4 Months is an exciting challenge aimed at ‘inspiring women to achieve more than they thought possible’. The ultras involved are not your run-of-the-mill jogs: Larapinta Trail – 132kms, 4 days; Ultra Trail Mt Fuji – 176kms non-stop, 8,634m climb; Manaslu Mountain Trail – 197kms, 7 days, ~13,000m climb; Ultra Thai Chang Mai – 150kms, 3 days, 8,800m climb. Back to back, one each month, that’s no small feat!

In each country, the Trail Beyond team will also be using the medium of their documentary to highlight an inspiring woman from each of the four countries they’re visiting, as well as showcasing a number of other films focused on female achievements in a world first women’s adventure film festival.

As a father of two daughters, I am always happy and excited to see initiatives like this. I believe they are highly necessary to counter the defeatist language and attitudes that are often so prevalent with girls from such a young age. I see this societal programming already creeping in with my own daughters, and I do what I can to counter it. Women like Donna and her team help demonstrate that these ingrained gender-based constraints are entirely mental and ultimately self-imposed, NOT a biological facet of gender.

Find out more about The Trail Beyond initiative:

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