By Brett Farrell
There is a mysteriousness about Brian Donnelly to those who don’t know him well. You may hear that he is so competitive that it keeps him from racing or even running with others. People talk of him like a legendary figure often seen trotting along the Northwestern sections of the Wildwood Trail in Portland, Oregon among the fir trees, the moss and the rain.
He’s known for setting the fastest known time on the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 460-mile, seven-day push that would intimidate even the most intense distance runners. When you meet him you’ll find a tall man, soft-spoken, choosing his words carefully in order to express himself in a true manner, a sincerity. He carries a refreshing level of modesty, landing his accomplishments in a higher regard. You wonder what makes him tick, what’s inside that drives this runner, this husband, this father of two, to pursue his passion with such consistency, grit, and fight in him to run over 60 miles a day for a week straight on the PCT?
Is it his fierce competitiveness or something more?
GROWING UP OUTDOORS
Upon hearing about Donnelly’s childhood it is easy to think that his passion for the outdoors wasn’t developed over time but something more innate. His grandfather endearingly called him “Iroquois,” because he spent all of his time outside--sleeping in teepees, building forts, and, for three Halloweens in a row, he dressed up as a Native American. He would read books on how to make weapons and spent hours creating his own. He hunted, lived off the land for days at a time in the canyons outside of Forest Hill, California with his best friend in high school, and eventually fell in love with running. He later designed his life around outdoors and foot travel. He couldn’t be pried away from it.
Donnelly first became enamored with running when he joined the cross country team in high school after moving to live with his father and brother in Auburn, California. His brother was the stand-out runner at Placer High School, and, when he graduated, that role transitioned to Brian. Between his all-league and state meets, and success as a high school runner, he was searching for a deeper sense of home.
“I wanted to stay in the same place for high school,” Donnelly says. “My parents divorced when I was young and I moved back and forth between parents, never in the same school for much more than a year. When I was a sophomore my dad couldn’t make ends meet and had to leave the area.”
When his father decided to leave, Brian and his brother put their foot down. They were determined to stay. His brother moved in with his girlfriend’s family and Brian transitioned to living out of his car, to the bedrooms of girlfriends, and eventually the house of his best friend and teammate, Ron Turpin.
“It was a step forward in taking control of my situation. It was a big deal to say ‘I am not going with you. I am staying.’”
THE FIRST JOURNEY
It wasn’t the first time he took a stand to control his life.
When he was eleven, he spent the summer with his father who was busy working days and gone most nights. Brian wasn’t happy and wanted to move back with his mom. Here, he embarked on a daunting journey into the unknown.
He dreamt up the idea to take his dad’s bike and ride to Martinez, where his mother lived, 60 miles away. The thought of being able to travel that far by his own human power lit a fire under him. It was the spirit of real adventure filling a child’s mind and not some act of play--a chase to find where he wanted to live.
He planned it days in advance. He took his father’s bike and set out with no maps, only a general sense of the direction to go. With each passing mile, he ventured further away from what he was provided and closer to what he truly desired. He had been riding all day but his energy faded as the sky grew darker. He knew he wouldn’t make it before night, when the unknowns of the dark set in.
He unknowingly ended up in San Ramon near where his father worked, happened upon a police station and was later picked up by his father. He didn’t make it to his mother’s home, but this act of reaching for the places he felt he belonged wouldn’t fade.
THE WHY OF RUNNING
Running in high school opened Donnelly up to launch himself further into adventure and the outdoors.
“It’s a magical thing if you can gain fitness and feel that in your body. It’s a connection to a different way of being. I always felt close to it and it never has gone away.”
Donnelly remembers an art teacher, Mr Ferrante, embedding the idea. “He told me, ‘I can’t believe how far and fast you run. That’s going to be with you forever.’ If you have that ability it shapes your vision for what your body can do and helps you see further. I felt invincible- this power from running at that age. It opened up possibilities.”
Donnelly’s home track of Placer High School happens to be the finish line for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. He would watch the race happen throughout his years living there and would think those people were crazy for running 100 miles. The thought of doing that distance didn’t grab a hold of him until years later.
Racing was not a big part of his running after high school. Donnelly says that, while he does enjoy racing and the community of it, it changes something for him. It goes from the peaceful nature of his own rhythms and desires to something else. He has a harder time staying motivated when training for a race compared to committing to running and the outdoors because he knows that he simply needs it, the meditative benefits and the time to let the mind wander.
“Joy floods your body after a hard workout,” Donnelly says. “We’re not meant to live with such convenience. We’re meant to work hard. That’s why I think so many people get so much out of running. It’s part of our biology.”
He spent his post high school and college years creating his own adventures, running with his brother in the Grand Canyon and the Marin Headlands. Years later, he moved to Portland, Oregon, and started to hear about people running around volcanoes in the Cascades. He connected with this pure circuitous line of the route. It created more visions of what he could do with his power of running.
THE OREGON PCT
Donnelly met Yassine Diboun in Portland and as their friendship grew, so did their idea to run the length of the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail. He became fixated on the idea.
When Donnelly talks of his desire for doing the PCT, it sounds like the attraction was just how basic the idea was, its simplicity--a straight line from one point to another. He describes it as “a foot-and-a-half wide trail, like a ribbon, stretching the length of Oregon that you can just step on and follow.”
Brian studied maps and the terrain for over a year, planning out the detailed logistics of executing this 460-mile journey. “It was a whole year of asking, is it possible to run over 60 miles a day for over a week?” Donnelly says. “We had an idea but we didn’t understand. It was the unknown.” He hadn’t ever ran more than a 100k in a day at this point in his life.
After they set out on the PCT, the situation quickly became real. Yassine and Brian were separated on the second full day of their run and that night Donnelly saw a mountain lion not far away looking directly at him. “I felt so little and vulnerable,” he says. Yassine later dropped from the route and Brian didn’t see him again for the rest of the journey.
The day after he lost touch with Yassine, Donnelly ran nearly 70 miles trying to make up time. It was hot, water sources were scarce, he became dehydrated, and peed blood. That night, he questioned some things.
“I always felt like I never crossed the line of being stupid and careless, but I got close to it,” he says.
It became the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Each night he would try to sleep in his lightweight bivy, his body still buzzing from all the miles on his feet and he would question if he could even walk the next day. But each morning he would wake up surprised with his ability to keep running.
On the fifth day, Donnelly walked into the cafeteria at the Big Lakes Youth Camp. It was filled with families eating together. People living regular lives next to him, having everyday conversations and not having a clue of the miles this man had traveled on foot. He was overwhelmed with emotion and started to cry. It made him realize how deep in this survival place he was and still needed to be. “I felt like no one could understand me and I couldn’t possibly share it either.”
The experience was raw, survivalist raw.
“My conscious mind knew I could have walked away from it but I was steeped in the mindset of, I am fighting and thinking I have to get back home by my own power. My feet were hammered but there was no question in my mind of stopping. It was so clear to me that I wanted to run towards home and the people I loved, this natural pull.” For Donnelly it was perhaps a recurrence of themes from his younger life, embarking on a grand journey, a simple and powerful pull to get to where he felt he belonged.
It took Donnelly seven days, 22 hours and 37 minutes to reach the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington border. “It’s funny to think about; why would someone do that?” Donnelly says. “When you connect to possibility by being empowered by your fitness you think: why not? It’s about seeing what you can do.”
Donnelly remembers the sunrises standing out the most. “Sunrises were full of possibility and starting over after being alone in the woods at night, scared, feeling like a kid in the dark. Then the sun comes up in this quick transition and you feel so hopeful and invigorated. I also remember passing Jefferson Park. It was beautiful and fascinating to wake up looking at a huge peak right in front of me and by late afternoon looking south at that same peak far in the distance. Covering that kind of vast distance every day on foot made me so intimately involved with the landscape. It was wild.”
Donnelly had a three month long recovery after the PCT and then got back to his regular schedule of running and life at home. His house in Portland, in which he lives with his wife and daughters, sits on the edge of Forest Park, over 5,000 acres of dense urban forest. The 30-mile long Wildwood Trail is but a stone’s throw from his backyard, the perfect place for a young fort-builder, now grown up, to spend his lunch hour each day.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that I live where I live next to this park with a job where I work from home and can play on the trails each day,” Donnelly says. “It’s about making work fit into your life and passions.”
Each day on the trails, he is learning its curves, its smells and its features over and over, like the bodily contours of a lover. He knows the exact locations of which rock to leap off, to propel himself. With each tree a familiar face, he observes and documents the arrival of flowers each year and dives deeper into Earth’s rhythms and trips around the sun.
What drives this runner is the same thing that drove him during his childhood. It’s not to see how fast he can run or how he measures up against others, but more to experience the elemental basics of life. It’s his quest to live like so many human beings did before him, to coexist with the natural world. To follow his suite of senses to the awe of a sunrise, or a long meandering 460-mile trail through the Cascades, towards understanding the possibilities of the human body, towards a place called home. While staying true to his instincts, Donnelly remains the “Iroquois” that his grandfather clearly saw and lives now where he truly belongs--in the forest.
Donnelly works, lives, runs, and plays fiddle in a bluegrass band in Portland, Oregon. He hopes to one day return to his home track of Placer High School--this time at the end of a 100 mile race.