From the October 2012 issue of Runner’s World
A Melbourne Spartan makes a gutsy return to the road
By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson
The prestigious title of Melbourne Marathon Spartan isn’t bestowed upon just anyone – it’s earned through blood, sweat and tears. Runners have to complete the marathon 10 times before they’re presented with a green Spartan singlet and a permanent race number that indicates they’ve joined the ranks of a very exclusive club.
For every five subsequent marathons they complete, Spartans receive a singlet of a different colour – blue for 15 races, red for 20, black for 25 and maroon for 30. The select few who have completed every Melbourne Marathon since the inaugural race in 1978 get a black singlet inscribed with the words “I’ve Done the Lot”. Spartans wear their colours with pride as they symbolise their fierce dedication to the sport and the Melbourne course.
Geoff Donovan is a Spartan. The 57-year-old lawyer from Donvale has completed the Melbourne Marathon 12 times, including 10 consecutive marathons from 1998 to 2008. His marathon PB is an impressive 3:16. He wasn’t planning on breaking his streak either – until one day during his training for the 2009 race, he started to feel unwell.
“I had blurred vision, numbness and speech difficulties,” says Donovan. “It turns out I had a mini-stroke while I was training. The scans subsequently confirmed that I’d had three previous mini-strokes which I didn’t know about. They’d probably occurred while I was asleep, and because I was so fit they corrected themselves.”
Medical specialists ran a series of tests in an attempt to determine what could be causing these strokes in a seemingly very healthy man. They soon discovered that Donovan had a congenital hole in his heart. “It was letting blood clots through from one side of my heart to the other,” he explains. “The last stroke seems to have caused a lack of oxygen to the brain and the symptoms to appear.”
While Donovan wanted to get straight back into running, his neurosurgeon and heart surgeon wouldn’t hear of it. “And neither would my wife,” he laughs. First he had to have an operation to plug the hole in his heart. While his convalescence was aided by the fact that he was in such great shape, it was to be a long road before he could get back to distance running. Begrudgingly, he skipped the 2010 marathon as he recovered from heart surgery.
But nothing was going to keep Donovan away from the race the following year. Although he wasn’t yet able to run, he cheered his fellow Spartans on from the sidelines. “I was a volunteer for the marathon last year  – I was manning a drink station. Being on a drink station all day is harder than running it, I reckon. However, I felt like I was a part of it and I was able to talk to a lot of people, so that was good.”
Of course, it wasn’t the same as participating in his cherished run, so he soon began to plot and scheme. “I said I wanted to go back and run the full marathon,” says Donovan. “The doctors weren’t happy and neither was my wife, so I said, ‘Okay, I won’t do the marathon.’ But I knew that if I could negotiate halfway, I’d be able to do the half-marathon. That was the strategy.”
After receiving full medical clearance to run the half-marathon at the 2012 Melbourne Marathon Festival, Donovan started training with his old running group. He’s feeling good despite some niggling knee injuries – he’s had to have two knee surgeries in the past two years on top of it all – and he’s even training other runners for the marathon.
So is his heart condition completely cured? “If the strokes were caused by the hole in my heart, then it’s been cured because the hole has been plugged,” he explains. “But if the strokes were caused by something else, which we don’t know for sure, then no. The fact that I haven’t had any strokes since would seem to indicate that the problem was fixed.”
There’s no doubt that Donovan would love to run the full Melbourne Marathon again in the future – but not at the expense of his health. “I have to be sensible and listen to what the doctors and my wife say,” he says.
Despite his ironclad will and determination to keep pounding the pavement after everything he’s been through, Donovan doesn’t see himself as a hero. “In my running group, there are lots and lots of interesting runners, one of whom is visually impaired. He’s almost legally blind and he runs in the marathon as well – we run shoulder to shoulder. He doesn’t run as a disabled runner, though, because he doesn’t see his visual impairment as a disability. That’s very inspiring – more inspiring than me.”
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