Donna running split image

Between 15 December 2023 and 14 January 2024, Donna Urquhart completed a majestic feat. 

Running a total of 1,402.21 km (871.29 mi) across 28 running days in the snow, the athlete and pain scientist from Melbourne completed the longest polar ultramarathon on foot EVER achieved by a woman. 

The record-breaking athlete started seriously considering the idea of a polar expedition during the pandemic in 2021.  

Inspiration struck her during lockdown while she was listening to Eric Philips, an Australian polar explorer.

“I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up and something deep inside of me stirred. I wondered, 'Is it possible to run in Antarctica? And if so, how far? How far can we as humans run in a polar region?' That’s how it all started.” 

It wasn’t the first time Donna daydreamed about taking on a huge challenge, but the questions and uncertainties always stopped her from embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. 

However, her aim was ambitious - more ambitious than a simple run. With her team, she wanted to push boundaries and, most of all, for the record to resonate with other women who didn’t feel confident about sports.

“I have had a dream to go on a big adventure for a long time. To do something daring, audacious and breaking new ground. Something outside my comfort zone, and that explores my physical and mental limits.” 

I believe sport has such incredible power to make a difference – to change lives. I wanted to use the record attempt as a platform to raise awareness and support for young girls in sports and provide them with the opportunity to love sports and find out what’s possible for them. - Donna

Donna running with blue suit 

The preparation

With the help of her Run Antarctica team, Donna started training relentlessly, pushing her limits to face the coldest desert on the planet. 

“The conditions can be incredibly dangerous and I was going to be at real risk of hypothermia and frostbite,” she explains, talking us through her training regime to face such a life-changing feat. 

Initially, to complete the marathon on the Union Glacier, Antarctica, Donna and her team thought they should simply train to acclimatise to the cold. However, they soon discovered that they had to develop a special training regime to be prepared for every different challenging aspect of Antarctica: the cold, the wind, and the snowy ground.

To simulate the cold temperatures, Donna moved her training to a commercial wind tunnel and a giant "freezer": a cold-storage shipping container provided by Titan Containers. 

She ran on a treadmill at -10 degrees for three to four hours at a time, and on weekends went running on sand, which would mimic running on soft snow. 

“While I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the harsh environment of Antarctica, this preparation was invaluable and provided me with foundations to adapt to living and running in a polar region.” 

Donna running in the wind tunnel

Donna also worked to prepare mentally and emotionally for the challenge. 

“This involved a variety of strategies; from exploring what I valued and who I wanted to be while running, learning about my breathing, developing awareness of my emotions and methods to help deal with these,” she remembers. 

“Even doing mathematical problems and self-talk training while I was running with fatigue.” 

“I initially started working towards this record on my own,” Donna says, “But as I gradually started sharing it with others, I found people who shared my passion. It was incredible what happened next.”

This process formed an enthusiastic team of 15 experts who worked together to turn this now-collective adventure into a success. 

“Those people inspired me every day,” Donna says. 

With them, she remembers, there was no challenge and no difficulty that seemed insurmountable despite the huge pressure of her polar adventure. Teamwork does make the dream work!

Donna running with grey background

The polar challenges

“The hardest time was the first week I arrived,” Donna explains, with the third day being particularly nightmarish. 

With freezing temperatures and strong winds, running on thick snow that made her fall often, that day was a challenge for her physical and mental health. 

“I was trying to work out how to live in a camp in a polar region, how to run 50km per day every day, and how to process the goal I had set myself of running 1,300km in 30 days in Antarctica. I realized the enormity of what I had set myself. I felt overwhelmed.”

She remembers the difficulties she faced in the morning, too: getting started was a slow and laborious business, as it would take up to three hours to wear all the equipment and pack up for the day. 

I remember running out on the first loop and thinking, 'My fingers are hurting. What does this mean? Is this a problem? Is this the first sign of frostbite?' But little did I know that this was just the beginning.

Donna holding halo

Of that harrowing third day, specifically, Donna remembers feeling incredibly scared and vulnerable. Surrounded by nothing but snow and difficulties, in pain and frightened, she started wondering if she could complete the challenge. 

Despite her precautions, Donna also developed skin inflammation. 

Every day, she was waking up with a swollen face and a swollen body. 

It was the most challenging day of the adventure, she recalls, and the explorer remembers feeling “insignificant in the great expanse of Antarctica.” 

Although she would go on to face worse weather conditions during the following 25 days of her adventure, on that particular day she didn’t know how to cope with the brutal reality and the external difficulties presented by the Union Glacier, Antarctica.

“I cried in the middle of the loop. I cried as I felt unsafe.

“I cried because Rhys, my husband had slipped and fallen on his shoulder while crewing for me – the shoulder he had operated on a few years ago. I felt responsible. I cried again the next day as Maxi my son who was back in Melbourne asked me ‘Mummy when are you coming home?’” 

Although she wanted to stop, she persevered. Those first few days were crucial for her body and mind, because they allowed her to gradually adapt to the extreme conditions. She learned how to avoid the swelling, and talked to her son Maxi every night.

We adapted. We transformed. It was quite profound. I learnt how to dress for the cold and the wind and how to run on different surfaces.

She also allowed herself to be vulnerable, embracing her emotions and opening up to her Run Antarctica teammates about her feelings and fears. That, too, provided a huge emotional comfort that proved to be game-changing for the success of the record. 

“I cried and let the emotion out and felt much better for telling my crew how I felt. I leant on my brilliant crew of Rhys, Anthony and Tom – words can't explain the support they provided. I couldn’t have done it without them. Full stop. What we shared was incredibly special and I will cherish it forever.” 

Donna running in the sun

Running in Antarctica 

After those first few days, everything seemed easier. Although the road was still long and difficult, Donna had found the right mentality, and her body had started adapting to the hardships of Antarctica. 

“A moment I will never forget is when I was out running in Antarctica in week two,” she remembers. 

“I stopped running and stood still. I looked around me, scanning the horizon from left to right and then 360 degrees around me. The landscape was breathtaking. It was like being in a movie scene. It was so beautiful and untouched.

I felt so incredibly grateful to be standing there.

“I felt so inspired by everything around me. My senses were heightened. I could hear nothing. Silence. I could smell – nothing. Or maybe I could smell the cold in the air if that is possible.”

After a total of 28 gruesome days in the cold, surrounded by nothing but untouched snow and ice, Donna soared above all difficulties. She and her team crossed the finishing line on the Union Glacier, Antarctica. 

Donna was officially the first woman to ever attempt and complete such a feat.

Breaking the record

Now Donna is proud of being part of the Guinness World Records family, and of this life-changing experience.

“It’s a great honour to be in the Guinness World Records family,” she says about being awarded her certificate. “I read the book as a child and was intrigued and inspired by the athletes that had set records.” 

Other than being a long-standing fan of the brand, she also reads the Guinness World Records book to her 11-year-old son, Maxi: “I remember thinking how incredible it would be to break a record but I never imagined that would be me.

“The record is incredibly special to me as it is about people exploring their potential and finding out what we as a human race are capable of. That is inspiring.”

Donna running in the snow

This is just the beginning of Donna’s feats – and, possibly, of her record-breaking journey.

“I have experienced the difference that sport can make in people’s lives. It therefore alarms me that 50% of girls stop playing sports during adolescence (aged 15-19 years),” Donna says. 

Now back in her beloved Melbourne with a new record under her belt, Donna hopes that, with her example, she can help and inspire all those girls and women who struggle to enter the world of sports.

“Young girls face challenges every time they step on a court or a field or an oval - Challenges of life. Challenges of self-belief. Challenges of confidence.” 

“The message I would like to pass on is what I learnt through this expedition: you don’t need to know you can do it or to have the full belief you can reach your goal.

I realised you don’t need to know or believe you can do it: you just need to try - to give it a go.

However, Donna also stresses the importance of the right effort and preparation when it comes to sport while being aware of the support of the people around you. 

No matter how big or small the challenge is, a holistic, all-round focus on body and mind is always key: “But you don’t just blindly step out in the middle of the road, so you need to do it in a strategic way – and by that, I mean a holistic way. Plan and prepare your physical body, your mind, your emotions, your spirit and importantly do it with great people around you.”

Using Donna's record as a platform and example, the Run Antarctica team launched a campaign with the goal of raising awareness of the high dropout rate of teenage girls from sport. 

Donna’s run was aimed at inspiring others to push boundaries, explore what is possible for them with a focus on mental skills training.

With the Run Antarctica team, we have therefore established a not-for-profit organization, EmpowerHER Sport, to empower young girls and women to love and discover what’s possible for them in sport, and break down the barriers that prevent them from participating.

Donna running with halo

For now, though, Donna is enjoying her well-deserved rest and celebrating her record with her loved ones and her team.

She enjoys her time with her son and her husband, travelling around Melbourne and the three of them often go on day trips together. Her son Maxi is also her number one fan, and can’t wait for his mum to break new records. 

“He has also said to me that when he grows up he would like to try and beat my record!” Donna said. “I would love to support him to do that.”

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