Back in 2003, Dawn Barnes set out on a goal for herself. She wanted to complete seven marathons on all seven continents, and she planned to do it in seven years.
Barnes recently achieved her goal — and did it with two months to spare.
“It took me six years and 10 months,” said Barnes, who during her quest experienced freezing temperatures in Antarctica, heat exhaustion along the Nile River and an overdose of motorcycle exhaust fumes in South America.
“After I did my first Governors Cup marathon, my original intent was to participate in all 50 states,” Barnes, 56, said. “But I’m not really an athlete, and I knew I couldn’t take that kind of pounding.
“So I adjusted my goal to the seven continents. I knew my body could stand that, and I love to travel.”
Barnes completed her “7-7-7” this January in Thailand, on her father’s birthday.
“This last one was the best organized marathon I’ve ever participated in,” she said, describing the Khon Kaen Marathon, which attracted 619 entrants. “I had three massages before the race, and several more during the race. You could get a massage every two kilometers, and there were free massages afterwards.
“I set a personal record of 5 hours, 22 minutes, and could’ve gone faster, but I just couldn’t turn down those massages,” she laughed.
Barnes placed fifth speed walking in her age group and received $140 for her efforts, although she’s never entered for the money.
“There were several runners from Kenya there, who took the top places,” she said. “They travel around the world winning money to support their families and villages, and some have literally died during the runs.”
Barnes’ background did not include playing many sports. But growing up on a ranch near Pierre, S.D., she worked strenuously during her daily chores, including the backbreaking task of bucking bales.
It was this early work ethic under the harsh weather conditions of the northern Great Plains that helped her endure adversities she would later encounter in global marathons.
She also came from an athletic family. Her brothers were all wrestlers, and in 1973 she became one of the first female wrestling referees in the region. One of her brothers coached South Dakota State University wrestling, so in addition to high school, she also officiated college matches.
In 1974, Barnes worked the clocks at the NCAA national mat championships in Brookings, S.D.
She quit officiating wrestling to attend Creighton University. While earning a degree at Omaha, she started refereeing soccer, making it all the way to the NASL.
It was during her time at Creighton that Barnes took up running.
“I started out running 10Ks and 20Ks in the mid-70s, and placed in a few races,” she recalled. “But it wasn’t until I moved to Montana in 1982 that I found what I really loved best — hiking, biking, kayaking, ice skating and skiing.”
On the slopes, she served a stint with the Big Sky Ski Patrol.
After moving to the Capital City, she became involved in early morning daily hikes with several friends. The predawn group of Barnes, Paula Blessinger, Barb Kain, Char Maharg, Grace Gilmore and Peggy Strainer, hiked the trails of the South Hills or Mount Helena.
Her interest in marathons was sparked when Barnes agreed to help a couple of the ladies train for the Governor’s Cup.
After power-walking the 26.2 mile course in 2000, she completed marathons in Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and California, before striking out for The Last Marathon in Antarctica in 2003.
Barnes said that all of her races were a combination of running and walking, and that her training for each consisted of hiking, biking and swimming.
Her first international event was held on Antarctica’s King George Island. She went there by herself, on the 10th anniversary of her dad’s death. Later that year, Barnes reunited in Choteau with 12 folks from Antarctica, to participate in the Grizzly Marathon.
“I met the most amazing people there. Some of them had the same goal as I did, and we still get together once or twice a year, for some type of adventure,” Barnes said.
In 2004, she traveled to New Zealand, with her friend Jan Delaney. The marathon was held at Fieldig, on the North Island.
Next came the inaugural Einstein Marathon in 2005, which took place in Ume, Germany.
“I stayed with the family of a friend from the Antarctic marathon, and they treated me like a queen,” Barnes noted.
In 2007, she went to Argentina, where she competed in the Three Cities Marathon, beginning in Patagonia. It was here that she earned the nickname “La Ultima,” which translates to “The last one.”
“About halfway through, everyone behind me dropped out, so I was the only walker, and all the runners were ahead of me,” she related. “I brought up the rear, and was escorted by officials on six motorcycles, two four-wheel ATVs, an ambulance, Chevy van, Datsun pickup and a multicolored Nissan.”
Barnes related how two motorcycle people would stop traffic for her at the intersections.
“I almost choked on the exhaust from those two-stroke motors,” she said.
At one point on the course there had been a recent riot, and she passed a group of men wielding Billy clubs and machine guns.
About four miles from the finish, Barnes passed several runners who had slowed down. By relinquishing her caboose status, she was finally “able to breathe again.”
She finished second in her age group, and was awarded a 4-foot-high trophy.
Last year, Barnes’ sixth continent was Africa. She completed the 2009 Great Gorilla Marathon, which was held at the source of the Nile River, in Jinja, Uganda. The race was a fund-raising event for saving the gorillas.
Running on a muddy trail in the rain, Barnes experienced heat exhaustion by mile three in the muggy weather.
“I couldn’t get my body temperature cool enough,” she explained.
But with the moral support of her niece, Niki — who went the first half of the race — and through pure determination, she pushed herself to finish the course.
“There were a bunch of children who came along on the trailside. They couldn’t speak English, but they would imitate my speed walk and yell for me to ‘Run!’ ” she smiled.
Only five of the 40 who started completed the race. Barnes, with an extra three inches of red gumbo on the bottom of her shoes, was the second woman to cross the finish line.
“I was there for three weeks, and went white-water rafting and volunteered with an orphanage,” she said. “The father of the family I stayed with later visited Helena.”
With the completion of seven continents, Barnes is unsure of her next challenge. But instead of slowing down, she’s actually increased her activities, including half-marathons and triathlons, while amplifying the intensity of her workouts.
Last September, Dawn became involved with the Boot Camp workouts at Crossroads Fitness, and it’s this extra training that allowed her to set a PR in Thailand.
Still, she goes on her daily predawn hikes, with Blessinger, Marla Maharg and Earlene Thares.
“My original goal (with the 7-7-7) was to stay in shape, see the world and achieve something I otherwise would never do,” Barnes said. “But it ended up giving back far more than I ever expected.
“I grew emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. I have friends all over the world now, people who have made me a richer person for having met them.”
Barnes said her experiences forced her out of her comfort zone, by helping those of other nations who are less fortunate, and by working with different religions than she’s used to, including a Catholic parish in Africa, and a Buddhist in Thailand.
“A lot of marathoners sometimes question their sanity when they hit the wall. ‘Why am I doing this?’ they wonder,” Barnes concluded. “I just hope that I’ll be able to inspire another non-athlete like myself … that anybody can do a marathon.”
Curt Synness: 449-2150 or firstname.lastname@example.org