Oct. 18, 2019

Runner’s high takes on whole new meaning for Donna Wood

University of Calgary in Qatar instructor finishes world’s highest-altitude ultra-marathon

Author

Ivan Giesbrecht, University of Calgary in Qatar

Donna Wood with medals

Runner Donna Wood shows off her finisher's hardware from the Khunjerab Pass Marathon.

Courtesy Donna Wood

Donna Wood, a nursing instructor at the University of Calgary in Qatar, likes to run. She runs a lot and she runs far. Donna has finished 29 marathons in six different countries. She has even completed four ultra-marathons (50-kilometre distance).

Last month, in a remote region of Pakistan, Wood tested her running ability at a higher level both figuratively and literally in an ultra-marathon unlike any other.

The Khunjerab Pass Marathon holds the unique distinction of being the world’s highest-altitude road race with a starting point located at 4,732 metres above sea level. Runners begin the race at a border gate shared by Pakistan and China and make their way down the fabled Karakorum Highway, one of the highest paved roads in the world. Due to its elevation and the difficult conditions under it was built, this highway is often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

“I tested my oxygen saturation at the start point and it was only 67 per cent,” says Wood. “As a nurse and as a runner, I can tell you that’s not a great way to start a race. But fortunately it was all downhill from there and the race organizers had oxygen stations set up every five kilometres.”

Seven hours, 51 minutes, and 50 kilometres later, she crossed the finish line in the city of Gilgit.

Hosted and fully funded by the Pakistan Air Force, runners must apply for and be accepted by the race organizers. Wood was one of only four Canadians in a field of 154 runners from 17 countries who competed in the event. She was also only one of four women who ran the 50-kilometre distance.

“The country of Pakistan was beyond what I ever expected. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” says Wood. “The Pakistan Air Force provided us with very comprehensive security arrangements and at no time did I ever feel unsafe. The people of Pakistan were very welcoming and kind, and a lot of great friendships were formed.

"I’ve done a lot of marathons before, but this was one of the hardest, and most inspirational, runs I’ve ever competed in.”

Originally from Lethbridge, Wood now lives in Doha and teaches nursing at the University of Calgary in Qatar. “If I was living in Canada, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to do this race,: she explains. “The logistics of getting to Pakistan would be too much. But from Doha, Pakistan is a very short flight. Being able to do unique adventures like this is definitely a huge benefit of working for the university here in Qatar.”