Richard Donovan: Zen and the art of running across America ... again

Ultra-marathon runner to set off on a 5,260-odd kilometre trek across country

Starting today at 10am local time Richard Donovan will set off on foot alongside 30,000 others in the 126th running of the Boston Marathon, making his way across the 26-odd miles (42km) directly northeast from Hopkinton towards the finish at the corner of Boylston Street and Copley Square, within sniffing distance of Massachusetts Bay.

Like most of them he’ll be running entirely at his own pace, with one significant difference. Donovan won’t be finishing his run sometime on Monday afternoon: he’ll return to Copley Square on Tuesday morning, and from there set off on the 5,260-odd kilometre run alone across America, covering 14 states, east to west, until he reaches San Francisco Bay, ideally about three months later.

Nowhere to go but everywhere, as Jack Kerouac would say.

Fear not the obvious. Donovan knows exactly what lies ahead, or behind him rather, given he’s already completed this ultra-epic marathon distance before, running west to east, San Francisco to New York, back in 2015. No one said that would be easy and it certainly wasn’t, still it didn’t put him off this return leg, as crazy as it sounds.


There's never the right time, there's only the now. I'm not going back to experience it again, it's about experience something completely different

Donovan has spoken before about the supernatural zen of that experience, a continuous epiphany of sorts, and the expectation might be that running back across the other way will provide something similar. It may well do, only how many epiphanies can one man have before he reaches the sky?

“Well, no two runs are the same,” Donovan tells me, a few days out from his latest adventure. “For me, I’m seven years older now, it’s unknown territory, because I’ve run so little over the last few years, since 2017. I had an instinct before, a confidence in muscle memory, all that.

“There’s never the right time, there’s only the now. I could argue against this all day, but I’m not going back to experience it again, it’s about experience something completely different. I’ve haven’t done long distance, day after day after day, with these knees before, so it’s already going to be different, in many ways.”

Indeed, with these “knees”, it will be. One of the last times we spoke Donovan was planning on becoming the first person to run across Antarctica, the fifth largest continent, towards the end of 2017. After completing his first run across America, in 2015, he then ran across Europe, from Istanbul to the coast near Rotterdam, in 2016, and followed that with a run across South America, in early 2017.

“The short route, really,” he says, “from Argentina to Chile, over the Andes. I didn’t fancy running across the middle of that continent.

“Then it was all set to run across Antarctica, the logistics of that took a while, but it was ready to happen later in 2017. A few weeks out I was on a routine run in Galway, and my left knee just buckled. All runners know that happens sometimes, and you’re fine. In this case I knew straight away this was something much bigger, I just about hobbled home.”

So began a near four-year search for any running solution, eventually taking Donovan from his home in Mervue in Galway to the clinic of Dr Robert Stone in San Francisco, only that was no straightforward journey either.

Donovan is already well-known for taking the long way round. Back in 1999, a year after his father died, he ran the fabled Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert, along his brother Gerard and Paul, the silver medal winner over 3,000m at the 1987 World Indoors. That small tribute sparked something far bigger, and by 2002 Donovan was going full-time into the ultra-marathon business, giving up his day job as an economist, finding something far more meaningful and important in the great wide open.

North Pole Marathon

Since then he’s run the first North Pole Marathon (among other such extremes as the Volcano Marathon, the Everest Challenge Marathon, etc), was the first man to run seven marathons on seven continents in less than seven days, which he now organises as the World Marathon Challenge. Only now here he was unable to walk without limping.

Initial MRI scans on both knees showed extensive damage, mostly wear and tear: “I knew from running across American in 2015 I had problems with both knees, but it always manageable. Now I had torn medial meniscus on both knees, two badly torn patella tendons, in danger of snapping, bone bruising, micro-fractures, ligament damage.

“Originally I tried stem cell injections, all over both knees, because I’m interested in stem cell research anyway. That helped the tendons, didn’t fix the bone. I tried some convention surgery, then showed up at the Dr Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt clinic in Munich, eventually got him to see me, only that was temporary too.

A year ago, I couldn't walk half a mile without limping. In my livelihood it's important I can walk around without limping

“After that I was told I was looking at knee replacement, simple as. Through my own research I found Dr Stone. When he asked me what I wanted out of this, I told him to run across America again, he said ‘I’ll get you back’. So here I am, two knees freshly repaired, about to be thrashed again.”

First his left knee was repaired by Dr Stone’s robotic surgery technique, Covid-19 delaying the repair of his right knee: this time last year Donovan travelled via Belfast, London and Mexico to get it done, well aware of the price and value of the operation.

“I do know what I spent, it’s not as much as you might think. I thought it would be way out there, hundreds of thousands, it was nothing like that, as reasonable as conventional surgery, beyond all the travel. A year ago, I couldn’t walk half a mile without limping. In my livelihood it’s important I can walk around without limping.”

Now aged 56, Donovan knows his body and mind have moved on from 2015 in other ways too, as has part of his inspiration: seven years ago, he set out with his friend Alvin Matthews in mind, the American who had taken part in several of his extreme marathons, only to sustain paralysing injuries in a work accident.

“My last run was about raising some money for Alvin, but more about involving him. When something like that happens, you can lose some friends. I wanted to bring him back into another run, was telling him about running across America again, when out with Dr Stone last April, to see can I still do this stuff. Two days later he died suddenly, in his sleep.

“This run is more about his memory, I’ll be running be with some of his ashes, in a pendant, and his mother has a charity, the Triumph Foundation, which helps people with spinal injuries, I’ll be linking into that too, closer to the west coast. The more I get into the run the more I can push that, I need to get few miles done first.”

Beginning with those first 26-odd miles where’ll he effectively be running back on himself: “Boston is just a friendly warm-up, a chance to catch up with some friends,” Donovan says, laughing at himself as he occasionally does when recognising such gentle absurdities. “So I only really begin in earnest on Tuesday morning. It’s the chance to introduce the body to what lies ahead for the next three months or so.

Different route

“It’s also a different route, certainly not linear. I pick places I like. The plan this time is to head north towards Buffalo, Lake Erie, then down through some of the same states, Indiana, Illinois, bits of Missouri and Kansas, towards Monument Valley, Utah and Arizona. I missed that the last time, imagine that would be a great place to run through, classic American landscape. The plan is to head north through Yosemite and towards San Francisco, hoping Dr Stone will be there to be greet me.”

There is no strict schedule or deadline, except the 90-day stay on his US Esta Visa, which means if he doesn’t reach San Francisco by the middle of July he’ll have to leave the country and come back again. Donovan doesn’t even know where he’s sleeping on Tuesday night.

“Nah, you’re figure that out on the run. Most people who run across America have the camper van, a crew, maybe a masseuse, specific distances per day. I prefer to go spartan. I think you experience the country a lot more that way, being alone like that.

“I do have driver, agreed that last week, but it’s just a jeep, a cooler in the back and some food, and depending on the day I might meet him every 10 miles. In my mind I have a target of 40 miles a day. It may be a bit more. You do need some target like that. The dot doesn’t move along the map for a good while, which can become very disheartening.

“It’s one great lottery. I’ve seen people make the grandest plans, these can be out the door very quickly if you get injured. In 2015, I got an ulcerated blister, early on, cut into the bone, that very nearly took me out. I had to sit out six full days to let it heal. Sometimes being optimally fit before something like this is not a great idea, you don’t want to peak too soon, and it’s not elite running by any stretch.”

Part of his run will no doubt be spent thinking of his next adventure. Last year, Donovan set up the Space Athletics Federation, with a view to staging the first sporting event in space by early 2026: “Maybe a marathon, maybe a mile, it’s all up to your imagination.”

Beyond leaving his wife and daughter behind for three months, Donovan sounds short of any worry or concern. He experienced all sides of America in 2015, from being almost shot and runover to the warmest of rural and city welcomes.

“Cattle were the only that really bothered me the last time, big herds of roaming cattle, that’s more a slight phobia, I think. If I saw a sign saying beware of bears that wouldn’t bother me as much as seeing a herd of cattle.

“But there’s no specific fear, beyond the enormity. You just have to break it down. There is also a profound aloneness, not loneliness, but aloneness definitely. You need to be comfortable with that. The act of running, being on the road, it’s only you can keep you going, you’re self-reliant like that.

“You will question yourself, feel a lot of despair at times, especially when looking at the map. Having done these things before, you try not to get too high or too low, that’s the key. Never celebrate a good day too much.

“I’m not out to conquer America again, nothing like that, it’s all about the experience. I’m going back to something I miss, and after all that effort of fixing my knees, you value even more being able to jog or even walk without limping. I’m just bringing it back to its natural conclusion, by running back the other direction.

“But you don’t have to have a purpose, that will come to you. It’s about instinct, that it’s the right thing to do right now. I’ve compared it to a captivity of sorts, like being a prisoner, if you imagine it like that. You fight it, everything about it hurts, then you just accept it, and everything changes.”