Saint Anselm grad completes goal of running marathon on every continent

  • Saint Anselm College graduate Bobby O’Donnell smiles during his trek through Antarctica for the White Continent Marathon in January 2016. O’Donnell, 23, reached his goal of running a marathon on each continent this past November. Courtesy

  • Bobby O’Donnell at the Everest Marathon finish line, completing his goal of seven marathons on seven continents. Courtesy

  • Bobby O’Donnell grabs hold of a rock for balance as he makes his way through the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia in September. The Saint Anselm College graduate said this was the toughest marathon along his journey with over 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/24/2018 12:19:39 AM

Bobby O’Donnell was half a mile away from the finish line when the bombs went off.

Like many New Englanders, the 23-year-old Massachusetts native had always envisioned what it would be like to complete the Boston Marathon. But on April 15, 2013, when bombs were detonated near the finish line on Boylston Street, O’Donnell’s lifelong dream quickly spiraled out of control.

“I really found my kind of peace in running and after the marathon bombing, it kind of ruined it for me,” said O’Donnell, a Saint Anselm College graduate and now a paramedic at Speare Memorial Hospital in Plymouth. “My parents and my whole family were at the finish line waiting for me … and it was hours before I knew anything. I thought they were dead for three or four hours when they had to shut down all the cell service.”

O’Donnell’s family was unharmed and he was able to reunite with parents, Lin and Bob, near Fenway Park after a few tense hours. But the horrific events that played out that day had a profound impact on O’Donnell.

“It was really just the worst day of my life and that kind of shaped running for me after that,” O’Donnell said. “I went back to school the next year. I stopped running cross country and I didn’t have my kind of sense of freedom with running anymore.”

Former Saint Anselm College cross country coach Paul Finn, who grew close with O’Donnell during his time with the Hawks, said he wasn’t surprised to see O’Donnell react that way.

“I know it was hard on him, not so much because he witnessed it, but because of the possibility that a family member could have been injured,” Finn said. “At that point in the marathon, you’re exhausted and your goal was to get (to the finish line) and celebrate your accomplishment, which immediately shifts toward a goal to get there and assure that family members are okay.

“Pulling away from it for a bit gave him an opportunity to miss it and re-energize, which I’m sure became part of his personal healing.”

O’Donnell returned to run the Boston Marathon again in 2014, hoping it would “kind of set things straight again.” When it didn’t, O’Donnell was left to reflect on why.

“I thought really hard about what I needed to do to get running back for myself,” he said. “And I came up with this idea that I needed to run just for the sport of running itself.”

That idea planted the eventual seed for the mission of a lifetime: Running a marathon on each of the seven continents.

O’Donnell had always wanted to visit Australia, and with his new-found drive, he decided to sign up for what he called a “weird and remote race,” in 2015. That race was actually an ultramarathon – a 50 kilometer run in Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales.

“It was like a switch flipped,” O’Donnell said. “I was just in the middle of nowhere and it was just you and the woods and the beautiful scenery of the mountains. I enjoyed running for the first in almost two years.”

Little did he know at the time, Australia was just the jumping off point.

“Between my junior and senior year of college, I got this kind of stupid idea in my head that I was going to run a marathon on every continent and I devoted everything I really had to that.”

O’Donnell was still in college at the time and without a full-time job, so he had the flexibility to organize several trips around the world. He worked a few per diem jobs to earn enough money for the next trip and then took off traveling for months.

With North America and Australia already checked off, O’Donnell turned his attention toward Antarctica for the White Continent Marathon in January of 2016, running through snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures before putting his body to another test the following year.

In February 2017, O’Donnell made the trek to South Devon, England for the Endurance Challenge – a 28-mile run through mountainous terrain on the coast of Southern England. That same month, he participated in the Kilimanjaro Marathon in Africa before climbing 19,341 feet to the summit the next day.

Later that year in September, O’Donnell visited South America for the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia, a race he said was the most challenging during his journey.

“It was just long, man,” O’Donnell said. “It was my first time at that distance and it was 50 miles and you’re just climbing mountains in the middle of it. … Just running for 12 hours and I finished in 12 hours, 27 minutes.”

Two months later, O’Donnell had reached his final stop, and one he had been planning for quite some time.

The Everest Marathon in Asia requires participants to apply a full year in advance, so O’Donnell knew the whole time that his journey would end at the highest point in the world. What he couldn’t plan for was getting sick 14 miles in.

“You dip down into this valley and then you drop 800 feet and come back up 700 feet. I got to the bottom of the valley and puked,” O’Donnell said. “I kept puking and then realized I had gotten this virus that everyone (at the camp) had the night before.

“It became a huge issue because at that altitude, you’re burning through everything so much faster. You’re burning through fluids quicker, your metabolism is burning through all your calories much faster, and with 12 miles left in the race I couldn’t intake any food or water.”

It got so bad that at one point O’Donnell began to hallucinate and lose vision in his right eye. Fortunately, a few friends O’Donnell met on the trip ran by, helping him finish a race that meant so much.

“I think it’s a great parallel,” O’Donnell said. “For the longest time I envisioned how I was going to finish the Boston Marathon and it ended up being nothing like that. … I knew I had to apply a year in advance for the Everest Marathon and I had visualized what it would be like to cross that finish line and obviously it wasn’t at all what I envisioned.”

O’Donnell’s done a lot at 23, but finishing this goal born out of tragedy was right at the top.

“It’s kind of a surreal feeling now that all the continents are done,” O’Donnell said. “And it’s funny because you go to make that Facebook post you’ve been thinking about for so long and all the comments are ‘what’s next?’

“Like I need a minute to process the last three years of my life.”

(Jay McAree can be reached at 369-3371, or on Twitter @JayMcAree.)

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