In her late-40s at the time and looking for a way to relieve stress and find some solace, Donna Holas bought a pair of running shoes and started with a few steps here, and a few steps there.
She has hasn’t stopped running since.
Last month, in a journey that has taken five years and took her around the world, the 55-year-old resident of The Hammocks, just south of County Line Rd., ran the last leg of a personal challenge in which she completed seven half-marathons on seven different continents.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” Holas says, holding a flowery canvas bag filled with the medals she collected on her trips. “I’ve seen so many beautiful things.”
Holas completed her five-year, seven-continent journey on March 18, running in the Antarctica Half-Marathon on King George’s Island. It was a long way away, and under totally different conditions, when she took up running in the sweltering Florida heat almost a decade earlier, in 2012.
Looking back, she says it’s nothing she could have ever expected. While she was a high school basketball player in Olney, MD, for Sherwood High and enjoyed working out as an adult, running never really appealed to her.
“I always hated running,” she says. “Why get all tired and sweaty? I didn’t get it. But, I started with walking and running, just around the block, and eventually found myself running all the time.”
She joined a running organization, Black Girls RUN!, which has clubs all across the United States, including Tampa, and met other runners. Eventually, she started to experience the “runner’s high” and decided to sign up for a 5K race in 2012, even hiring a running coach to help hone her form and make sure she bought running shoes that fit correctly. She doesn’t remember her time that first race, but she says it wasn’t that great.
“But, I was so competitive, every race I ran after that I tried to make it better than the last one,” Holas says. “I just kind of took off from there.”
Holas also ran in several 5K and 10K races, not with the goal of winning but always trying to improve on her previous time. She worked her way up to running half-marathons, which are 13.1 miles and has even run two full marathons, which are 26.2 miles.
“Just to prove I could do it,” she says.
But she found the 13.1-mile distance of the half-marathon to be her sweet spot. She traveled for work as a healthcare consultant and would run in races wherever she happened to be. Often, she would travel to other states just for a weekend race.
Once she had logged races in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New York, North and South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, she thought she might try to run a half-marathon in all 50 states. However, since she had only started running in her late-40s, time wasn’t on her side for such a project.
Instead, she heard about a company, Marathon Tours & Travel (MTT), that arranges racing trips all over the world, and they were offering an opportunity to join more than 600 runners who had already joined the Seven Continents Club (SCC).
“I thought, I could do that,” Holas says.
She signed up in 2014 for the Rock n Roll Madrid half-marathon and remembers being struck by the beautiful Spanish architecture — “Out of this world,” she says — along the route, like the Royal Palace of Madrid. Because it was her first half-marathon of the seven, she says she was focused on the running and not enough on the scenery, she says, a lesson she learned when one of the runners excitedly asked if she had seen various landmarks at certain mile markers along the route and Holas had to admit that she hadn’t.
“Some people try to set personal records, some walk, but after that I began running and stopping to take pictures,” she says. “I didn’t want to miss anything. I needed to stop and pay attention.”
She ran the New York City half-marathon in 2015, and later that same year ran along the Great Wall of China for a half-marathon there.
In 2016, she says she was humbled by the experience of running in Kenya, Africa, in the Amazing Maasai race, as she was able to visit small villages with no electricity, eating meals cooked over a fire.
“So so beautiful,” she says. “Beautiful mountains, beautiful people.”
Holas says she was ready for any terrain she faced. She trained for many of her races in nearby San Antonio, FL, and at Saint Leo University in Dade City, taking advantage of the hills and sand to prepare.
“It helped,” she says, “but oh my gosh, some of the terrain we encountered (was difficult).”
In 2017 Holas traveled to South America to run in the Rapa Nui Island (better known as Easter Island) half-marathon. The medal from that race is modeled after famous moai (sculptures of oversized heads) that many people associate with Easter Island, which is 2,200 miles west of Chile, and Holas said if she ever needed to escape from the modern world, that is where she would return.
Holas ran amongst some of the most beautiful scenery she says she has encountered on her journey in the 2018 Air New Zealand Queenstown half marathon — she says that ziplining over some of it during an excursion was “breathtaking” — and concluded her seven-continent challenge last month in Antarctica, which was its own little 15-day journey.
She flew from Tampa to Atlanta to Argentina, spending three days in Buenos Aires. From there she flew to Ushuaia, a resort town at the southernmost tip of Argentina, where she and the other runners boarded an expedition ship— “definitely not a cruise ship,” she says, laughing — for the three-day trip to Antarctica.
Holas said the seas were choppy, but the really bad weather passed the day before the race, which she ran in mostly mud and snow and 30-degree weather.
She found time to take in the beautiful blue ice and snow-covered mountains as she galloped past signs alerting runners to possible penguin crossings. She also took the Polar Plunge — a quick dip into freezing waters — and came face-to-face with a whale on the ship ride over.
“It was all just so amazing,” Holas says. “Everywhere I went was different, and there were so many terrific things about each one.”
In her last run, Holas raised $350 for the Girls on the Run charity, a non-profit that encourages pre-teen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through interactive lessons and running games, culminating in a celebratory 5K run.
She is back to running around her New Tampa neighborhood and at Saint Leo a few times a week, but she is already looking for a new challenge. She will pick and choose her next running expeditions — she’s considering Dubai in December — and is contemplating trying a half-Ironman Triathlon, which would be a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and, fittingly, a half marathon run.
She says she is already working on her swimming, which is her weakest leg, and the one that concerns her the most. The challenge, though, makes her feel the same way she did when she first started running.
“As I’ve gotten older, I realize how fear has held me back,” she says. “Now I know if I can run a marathon, there’s nothing I can’t do. If I’m afraid or don’t want to do it, I do it. That’s how I continue to grow.”