On Jan. 31, 2023, I embarked on the World Marathon Challenge, completing seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. It was a race that tested my body and mind to their limits. While it was one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever tackled, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in such an incredible experience, the friends made, the lessons learned and the support received from so many people.

My Path to Medicine and Running

I’m from a small town in South Africa, and at age 10, I discovered my passion for running. My dad coached me, and I competed as a national-level middle-distance track runner for most of my school years. In 2000, I immigrated to the U.S. and earned my bachelor’s in nursing and master’s in nurse anesthesia. For the past 10 years, I have worked as a CRNA for Envision at JFK Medical Center.

I always knew I belonged in the medical field. I can truly make a difference and have an impact on patients and their families. Being a CRNA gives me professional pride and a great work-life balance. Working in a challenging, ever-changing and stressful environment has prepared me well for endurance races. Likewise, the focus and discipline I learned from running at a young age are applicable to my everyday life as a CRNA. I have learned over the years to be patient and comfortable in unpredictable environments and to adapt quickly.

I started distance running when I lived in Miami and was fortunate to train with a world-renowned sports scientist and coach. In 2010, I ran my first marathon in Miami. I have since completed 14 full marathons, one ultra-marathon (31 miles), three half Ironmans and one full Ironman.

I signed up for the World Marathon Challenge in 2020 after my dad passed away unexpectedly from heart disease in 2019. The race eventually took place in January 2023 after being rescheduled three times. I knew I had to do something epic to honor him. He sacrificed most of his free time coaching me and made sure I succeeded not just in sports but in life as well.

In the next year, I also lost three of my beloved pets while navigating the unknowns of COVID-19 as a healthcare professional. All this gave me an added purpose to run around the world.

Preparing for the World Marathon Challenge and the Future

Logistics for this race were challenging: more than 50 competitors flew across the world in seven days. At the beginning of the trip, we met in Cape Town, South Africa, where we were briefed. Even though we flew on a private plane, we had to go through security, customs and baggage claim. We totaled more than 52 hours of flight time on our journey.

Things did not always go according to plan, but the event organizers helped make everything run smoothly. Once we landed in a city, we would drive to our running location, run, eat, shower, repack and go, go, go. Rest, hydration, recovery and socialization all took place on the plane. At most locations, we had access to hot showers, restrooms and different kinds of food.

Long before the race began, I started training rigorously. Discipline, routine and consistency became a part of my everyday success in completing the marathon. Getting up at 4 a.m. and training after a full day of work was challenging, but it helped build my mental fortitude.

I was going to have to run 185 miles in one week, so I slowly built my mileage every week to give my body a chance to adapt, peaking at 90 miles a week, which adequately prepared me. The weekend was for back-to-back runs so I could get used to running on tired legs. I worked on strength training and stretching during the week. I also took cold showers to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Every time the race was rescheduled, adjusting the plan was mentally and physically difficult.

What comes next now that I’ve completed it? I would love to run the ultra-marathon version of this race in a few years. I’ve already scheduled my first 100-mile race for July and would love to participate in the Badwater 135-mile ultra-marathon. Next year, I want to hike to the Mt. Everest base camp and complete the world’s highest ultra-marathon. I am also hoping to run a personal best marathon and one day a sub-3-hour marathon. That’s it for now, but I never know what crazy adventure will cross my path in the future.

So Where Did We Run, and What Was it Like?

Envision CRNA Danielle Witkowski in Antarctica

We flew to Antarctica 10 hours early due to an incoming storm. The more than 5-hour flight was on the Ilyushin, a Russian cargo aircraft, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Antarctica was breathtaking, but the conditions deteriorated quickly, making the run very challenging. We experienced poor visibility and low temperatures with 35 mph winds, resulting in a -25° F windchill. This was all new to me, as I had never experienced or seen snow. Feelings of nervousness, insecurity and excitement dominated my thoughts. The course was changed at the last minute due to the wind. It was a 1.2-mile out-and-back run on the runway, which included an icy surface with patches of snow varying in thickness. The run was marked with two big sleds and a bamboo stick planted in the ice.

My body felt beat up from running awkwardly and changing my gait to brace myself against the strong winds. Halfway through, I started feeling the effects of a stomach virus a few of us caught. It was the toughest marathon I’ve ever competed in, and I must admit, the thought of quitting entered my mind a few times, but I fought through those mental rough patches to finish. I loved running in Antarctica for the experience and accomplishment.

We had a full night’s sleep after returning from Antarctica. The race started at 10 a.m. on Feb. 1. Our course was a 6-loop run on the promenade at Sea Point Cape Town, navigating pedestrians and bicycles. It was absolutely breathtaking.

After three rounds in extreme wind and 95° F heat, nausea and vomiting became a constant battle. I paired up with a competitor, and we helped each other to the finish line. My internal dialogue was, “You have to do this for your dad and keep on moving.” I changed to a run-walk strategy and was constantly sipping on ice-cold Powerade, water and Coke to prevent dehydration. My lungs and legs felt great, but my energy was depleted, and I felt awful throughout the run. Thoughts of quitting briefly entered my mind again, but competitors’ support kept me going. Cape Town was special for me since it’s my hometown and I have so many childhood memories. After the race, we had an unexpected delay and stayed in South Africa for an additional 22 hours.

The flight to Perth was more than 10 hours. Sleeping on the plane was tough in the beginning but became easier because we were more exhausted and figured out a routine and comfy sleeping position. We started our 8-loop run by a park near the beautiful Swan River.

The support we received was fantastic. Participants’ families brought us hot food and hugs during the race. The stunning sunsets and peaceful atmosphere made that leg of the challenge one of my favorites. It also helped that I felt healthy for the first time in three days. I absolutely loved the looped runs since we could run by and cheer on each other. We had some time to shower and get some hot food before leaving for Dubai. From this point on, we had to change into our running gear on the plane and be ready to run once we landed at our next sites. The pace picked up to make up for the lost time.

After a 12-hour flight, we made our way to the Jumeirah Beach, where we started a late-afternoon run to beat some of the heat. It was a 10-loop course on a beachside pedestrian walkway.

I felt tired and was struggling with inflammation in my knees that was worsening as we ran. I figured out that running on cement was easier than running on the rubbery, bouncy surface. The pain was unbearable, and I resorted to mild painkillers and ice to help me get through. The support and encouragement from my friends also helped, as did knowing we were more than halfway through the race. We barely had time to shower, grab a slice of pizza, repack and rush to the airport. We jokingly started referring to the rush through the airport as our airport marathons.

We arrived in Madrid after an 8-hour flight. The temperature was cool for a change. Our running venue changed at the last minute, and we were greeted warmly by the locals in the town center of Torrelaguna (a very small town). Our spirits were high, we were energized and ready to start marathon five. It was a 33-loop, hilly course through the town, which was not ideal terrain for my inflamed knees, so I decided to go slow, especially on the downhills. The beauty of the snowcapped mountains kept me distracted.

This course took a toll on many, and I noticed people breaking down. It was my turn to comfort a few of my friends and be there for them like they had been there for me. Once we finished, we were instructed to repack because we would not see our bags until we arrived in Miami, which was stressful since we had one stop before Miami.

After another 8-hour flight, we arrived in Brazil. The energy here was infectious. We met at Fortaleza, a beach town, and started our 10-loop run in the morning. This was my favorite run. My knees finally felt great, and I had comfort and familiarity running in the heat and humidity. We had to weave and dodge pedestrian traffic and cyclists. The leg massage I received after the run was a welcome bonus.

Without showering, we then rushed to the airport. Excitement was high again. We realized that a lot of us were continent club members since we’ve run past marathons in North America.

We arrived in Miami around midnight. I was exhausted and emotional as we briefly reunited with loved ones. It was just what we needed for that last push. With the Miami nightlife in the background and a cool breeze in the air, we started our last marathon — a 5-loop course on the paved boardwalk. As 4 a.m. neared, the city fell quiet and dark. My mother and husband stayed up until 4:30 a.m. to support me as I crossed the finish line. I started hyperventilating and crying from the excitement of completing the World Marathon Challenge. It was an incredible feeling, and I was on cloud 100.

Some of us hung around until 7 a.m. to welcome our fellow runner, an 80-year-old man, across the finish line. Overall, I felt good for what I had put my body and mind through. My recovery was quick and smooth.

Incredible friendships were formed. Hearing the other participants’ stories was inspiring. Experiencing the toughness of such an amazing group of people, pushing past illness, injury and discomfort was wonderful to witness. Experiencing all the different places, people, cultures, food and the support from everyone was spectacular. I am grateful for all the selfless and caring strangers around the world who helped us. This experience will leave a lasting positive impact on my life.

The impossible is possible if you believe in yourself and your abilities. I could not have done this without the support of everyone, including my Envision team.

Top photo provided by World Marathon Challenge.