Donna breaks the ice on world record

A close-up photo of Donna Urquhart's face framed by the fur of her winter jacket.

Donna breaks the ice on world record

A close-up photo of Donna Urquhart's face framed by the fur of her winter jacket.

Staring into the white abyss of the coldest, windiest and driest desert on the planet, Donna Urquhart was hit with the enormity of her challenge—running a 1300-kilometre ultramarathon in Antarctica to beat the Guinness World Record. Geared up and standing on the snow, it was now or never.

During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne in 2021, Donna Urquhart APAM was listening to a podcast in which Australian polar explorer and guide Eric Philips talked about his experiences in Antarctica. 

Donna remembers that the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and a question formed in her mind: is it possible to run in Antarctica?

It was a defining moment for the physiotherapist, researcher and ultramarathon runner because the answer was ‘yes’. 

On that day she made the first steps towards exploring what is possible and testing the limits of human capability— all with an incredible cause in mind.

Having taken up marathon running seriously in her 30s, after the birth of her son Max, Donna discovered a passion for long-distance events. 

Her first foray was in the North Face (now known as Ultra-Trail Australia) 50-kilometre ultramarathon in the New South Wales Blue Mountains in May 2013, which she says gave her a sense of adventure and freedom she had never felt before.

‘I revelled in challenging myself and seeing what was possible. It was really hard,’ Donna says. 

‘There were so many steep hills and stairs—I got halfway up the stairs and my legs were burning; I was so out of breath that I had to stop and rest. 

'The next day I was very sore and it was difficult to move around, which is extra challenging when you have a 12-month-old. 

'But the overwhelming thoughts and feelings were that I loved the experience. 

'I knew at that time that it was the start of something new.’

The human body and its relationship to movement and exercise had long fascinated Donna. 

It’s partly what steered her towards physiotherapy as a career, along with wanting to help people. 

Donna graduated from La Trobe University, Melbourne, in 1996. 

Donna Urquhart.
Donna Urquhart.

Over the course of her degree, she was drawn to treating patients with spinal pain and sports-related injuries, so she joined a private practice in Melbourne as a new graduate.

‘During my time at the practice, I also began working with a clinic that specialised in rehabilitation of spinal pain. 

'I found it very rewarding to see patients with sports injuries and help them return to sport and as well as work with patients with chronic back pain through a comprehensive rehabilitation program,’ Donna says.

Donna’s clinical experience in the management of musculoskeletal conditions was to span another two decades, during which she started a family and became an ultramarathon runner. 

Along the way Donna developed a clinical interest in treating patients with low back pain but found there were gaps in the evidence and that, at times, she was unable to help those patients as a result. 

Wanting to learn more, she began postgraduate studies at the University of Melbourne. 

She graduated with a PhD in 2003, her thesis focusing on the structure and function of the abdominal muscles in relation to the movement and control of the lumbar spine and pelvis.

Not long after Donna completed her doctorate, a project management position opened up at Monash University and she applied. The job was to help establish the Victorian Orthopaedic Trauma Outcomes Registry

During her first year in that role, she applied for and was awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council Research Fellowship, which provided her with funding to develop and conduct an independent research program of work.

Donna is now an associate professor and senior researcher in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at
Monash and her research program focuses on investigating the pathogenesis and management of musculoskeletal pain.

The work has three key foci—identifying patient phenotypes and novel treatment targets, examining treatments targeting specific patient phenotypes and translating evidence-based research into clinical practice and policy. 

In relation to exercise, Donna’s work has included examining the effect of aerobic exercise in the management of pain sensitisation and understanding the role of psychological factors in pain tolerance, including in endurance athletes.

But back to Antarctica and to Donna standing at Union Glacier Camp, kitted out in layers of clothing and, including
goggles, a neck gaiter, a beanie, gloves, thermals, fleeces, soft shell jackets, shoes with or without spikes, a watch, a satellite communicator, sunscreen, anti-chafe cream and a running pack. 

The seemingly simple process of rising from bed and getting to the run start line took her a tedious three hours every morning.

Donna’s first steps on her polar marathon journey on 14 December 2023 were filled with excitement and some trepidation about the enormity of what lay ahead—28 consecutive days of running 50-kilometre loops in some of the harshest, most unforgiving conditions on Earth. 

With temperatures predicted to reach lows of –24 degrees Celsius and wind gusts of up to 100 kilometres per hour, Donna’s limits would be tested and her barriers pushed beyond measure.

Training program

Training for the polar marathon initially proved a challenge because Melbourne’s climate could not replicate the extremes that Donna would face in the Antarctic. 

So Donna and her team on Run Antarctica had to improvise, using a refrigerated shipping container and a wind tunnel with a treadmill inside. 

The dial was turned down to –10 degrees Celsius inside the container as she ran for three to four hours at a time and in the wind tunnel an industrial machine would blast Donna with winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour.

‘My training for Antarctica was different from any other training I had done before. 

'We had to take the preparation for Antarctica very seriously. 

'The conditions can be incredibly dangerous and I was going to be at real risk of hypothermia and frostbite,’ Donna says.

‘There was no training blueprint to work from with regards to how to train. 

'Initially we thought we might have to train to acclimatise to the cold but we found that this wasn’t possible. 

'So we basically had to be innovative and develop our own training regime to help prepare for the cold, the wind and the surface.

‘The training I did in the refrigerated container and wind tunnel was an important part of the reason I was able to achieve what I did. 

'While nothing can prepare you for the harsh environment of Antarctica, this preparation provided me with a foundation to help me adapt once I arrived for the first time in a polar region.’

It’s all about teamwork

Behind Donna every step of the way on her epic run was her husband Rhys and a devoted team of 15, a group that
organically came together in the 12 months leading up to Antarctica. 

The team included experienced physiotherapist Anthony Lance APAM, who also travelled to Antarctica.

Donna describes Anthony’s physiotherapy expertise as crucial to the success of her run. 

He designed a program to build lower limb strength and strength endurance in the preparation phase, managed lumbar and posterior thigh stiffness and pain during training and collaborated with other team members including her coach, sports dietitian and polar expert. 

Anthony also helped Donna with anterior knee pain in the first week of the run and with generalised foot pain, specifically right foot pain, in the last week of the run and he helped manage Donna’s recovery phase afterwards.

‘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. 

'Day 3 tested me like no other day. It was bitterly cold—minus 20 degrees—and the wind was strong at 60–80 kilometres per hour.

'I couldn’t see where I was running. The snow was thick and soft, which meant I was slipping and falling. I was scared. 

'I felt very vulnerable being out there on my own. I cried in the middle of the loop. 

'During that first week, my knees were hurting and I was taping them to minimise the discomfort. 

'But that was the least of my worries. I had developed a rash, which is the first sign of polar thigh, a condition that can lead to massive welts requiring surgery. 

'I was waking up with a swollen face. I looked as if I had had face surgery—my face was blown up like a balloon, my lips were enlarged and my eyes had almost disappeared into their sockets. At this point I just wanted it all to stop,’ Donna says.

‘But then gradually it happened. I adapted. 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. 

Donna runs into the snow under the halo of the sun. Photo: Rhys Newsome
Donna runs into the snow under the halo of the sun. Photo: Rhys Newsome

'My knees started to settle and only hurt at the start of the day. I cut back on the fluid I was drinking and the swelling reduced.

‘The first 10 days in Antarctica were incredibly challenging but the transformation was profound. 

'My body adapted to running each day and I learnt how to think and deal with my emotions and how to work with my support crew. 

'I learnt that you don’t need to know you can do it; you just need to try. 

'I put myself out there; I moved through the fear, the doubt, the pain and the resistance. 

'But it wasn’t about blindly trying in the face of all danger. 

'It was about taking a strategic, holistic approach and implementing strategies to work with and care for my body, mind, emotions, spirit and support crew—all the pieces of the puzzle,’ Donna says.

Speaking up

Aside from the personal challenge of wanting to beat the world record, previously held by Pat Farmer, Donna was driven to complete the run by a cause very close to her heart—inspiring other girls and women to engage with physical activity and sport and to push their own boundaries.

As a treating clinician, Donna became aware of the shocking statistics on the participation rate of girls and young women in sport, particularly the fact that 50 per cent of girls stop participating in sport during adolescence (aged 15–19 years). 

She was determined to speak up about the benefits of participation in sport for girls and women.

Through Run Antarctica, Donna created a platform to raise awareness about girls and women’s experience of sport and the need to provide education on a holistic approach to sport. 

To date, they have had worldwide media coverage, reaching 952 million people through more than 1000 media publications.

Coming back home

After achieving her incredible polar feat, which officially entered the Guinness World Records in February, Donna went home to continue her recovery phase. 

She arrived in Melbourne on 20 January after spending a few days recuperating in Chile. 

A Run Antarctica celebration event was then held less than a month later, after Donna had had time for the swelling in the soles of her feet to go down and for her to get back to the gym and to jogging and, eventually, running.

‘It’s been such a busy and exciting time since we got back. 

'We have been sharing our story through national and international media and podcasts and presenting at functions, schools and corporate organisations. 

'We have been completing a study involving brain MRIs and psychological questionnaires to examine the influence of extreme exercise on my brain and psychological health. 

'We are now looking to the future and are establishing a not-for-profit organisation, EmpowerHer Sport, with the aim of educating and empowering females in sport.’ Donna says.

‘While I may have crossed the finish line in Antarctica, this is just the start. 

'I have experienced the difference that sport can make in people’s lives. 

'And it is now my mission to change lives by keeping young girls and women in sport.’

You can get in touch with Donna Urquhart via her website here  or by emailing or following her on Facebook and Instagram at the handle runantarctica

Running rehab: running retraining, exercise and performance


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