News & Updates

26 September 2023 • Road

Snake phobia helped elevate Donald to World Road Running team

Debbie Donald secures the 2023 New Zealand Marathon title in Christchurch.

It might be a little simplistic to say a fear of snakes played a significant role in the selection of Debbie Donald for the World Road Running Championships in Riga, Latvia but it definitely played its part.

A late starter to the sport, the mum-of-three from the Wairarapa had carved a reputation as a promising trail runner in New Zealand – banking top podium finishes in the Tarawera Ultra and The Goat – when two years ago she relocated with her family to Perth in Western Australia.

Uncomfortable with the thought of hitting the trails for the fear of encountering snakes, Debbie opted instead to train on the roads and since focusing on half-marathons and marathons the journey could not have gone any smoother.

In April she secured the New Zealand Marathon title in Christchurch and has subsequently earned selection for Riga in the half marathon where she is set to make her debut in a Kiwi singlet.

It has been a meteoric and inspiring journey and one which fills the Australia-based Kiwi with pride.

“It’s a real honour to be representing my country,” she says. “It shows that at the age of 30 you can try something you have never done before and still be successful. It shows my kids that if you work hard anything is possible.”

Raised on a beef and sheep farm close to the tiny Wairarapa settlement of Tora – where her father worked as a shepherd – she grew up modestly living off the land and sea with fish, crayfish and mutton the norm.

“We hated it at the time but now it is seen as a luxury,” she says with a smile.

Running barefoot on gravel roads on the farm, Debbie recalls an ability to run from a young age. A regular winner of regional races from 200m to 3000m at school, however, her running journey was relatively brief until re-engaging with the sport five years ago.

Aged 31 at the time and with the youngest, Benji, then aged nine months she needed some time for herself. Recalling how she enjoyed running as a child she went out for a 3km jog and was quickly hooked.

“I said to my husband that night how I’d been a good runner as a teenager and how I wanted to do something for me,” says Debbie, 36. “This was the moment when I started back running again and from there it escalated.”

Debbie enjoyed a meteoric rise. Attracted to trail running within her first year in the sport she earned a podium spot in The Goat Adventure Run. In 2020 she impressed to place second in the women’s race over 50km at the Tarawera Ultra but after relocating with her family to Perth, where her husband took up a mining job, her fear of snakes forced her on to the roads.

In September 2021 she made her marathon debut, clocking 2:54:20 to win the Busselton Marathon before just three weeks later bettering this mark to post 2:52:55 for third in the Perth Marathon.

With no idea that running two marathons in such close proximity was probably not the best idea she sought a coach and struck gold when four-time Australia Olympic marathoner Lisa Weightman agreed to the role.

Weightman, a two-time Commonwealth Games marathon medallist, is based in Melbourne and the pair correspond remotely with the coach sending Debbie handwritten training schedules via post.

The approach may be old school, but Debbie admits the coaching of Lisa has played a massive role in her athlete development.

“Lisa has really tidied up my training,” explains Debbie. “She has got me to reach a different zone of energy requirements to execute good racing. I still feel like I don’t execute the racing as well as my training (shows me) but I’m learning and I’m still so new to the sport.”

Training includes two longer runs per week and has been previously as high as between 130-140km a week. However, given her demands as a busy mum-of-three, Lisa is more than happy for Debbie to adopt a flexible approach.

“If I’m feeling tired or fatigued, Lisa is happy for me to take a rest day or an easy run,” says Debbie mum to Maru, 10, Quentin, 8, and Benji, 6. If my husband is away on a weekend, I just shuffle my long run around as I see fit.”

Yet Lisa has not only contributed to Debbie’s physical improvements, she has also played a part in improving her mindset by advising the Kiwi athlete to write down affirmations every night to say I am worthy of the goals that I set. Affirmations Debbie is happy to draw upon in the middle of the race to help instil belief.

The progress has been significant. In February 2022 she finished second in the Busselton Half Marathon in a PB of 1:19:27 before returning to the event 12 months later and running exactly two-and-a-half minutes faster in 1:16:57 for a stunning new lifetime best.

Yet eager to chance her arm in another marathon and motivated by the prospect of securing a maiden New Zealand title, Debbie headed to Christchurch in April to compete in her third race over the 42.2km distance.

Running an impressive new PB of 2:44:21 to secure that crown represented “my greatest achievement” in the sport but she admits there is room for improvement.

“I went there to win it, but I think I could have performed a lot better,” she says. “I got cramp at 27km and had to slow up a little. I’d like to go back (to New Zealand) and win the title again.”

Putting her hat in the ring for a spot on the New Zealand team for the half marathon at the World Road Running Championships she did not expect to be selected, so when it was announced she had secured her spot on the team she was staggered.

Coming off the back of the marathon training block earlier this year and running an average of around 110km per week for Riga she believes her body is “feeling good” going into the greatest running examination of her career in the Latvian capital.

So, what would the proud mum like to achieve when competing in the half marathon?

“I’d like to run to the best of my ability and get a PB,” she says. “To run for my country comes with pressure and expectation but first and foremost I just want it to be a great experience. To rub shoulders with athletes such as Faith Kipyegon (World and Olympic 1500m champion who competes in the road mile in Riga) and just to watch them run and just to see how the elite prepare for a big race will be special. I’m excited to run at a World Championships and I trust myself I can put a good time on the board.”

For Debbie, however, she hopes her running journey can help inspire mums everywhere.

“When I started running as a mum-of-three I didn’t know what the future would hold,” she adds. “I’m just an everyday Kiwi getting out there and doing something good for myself. I feel every mum needs that, but the way it has unfolded and escalated, wow, it has been amazing.”