March 27, 2023

2 CRNAs Finish as Top Runners in the World Marathon Challenge

2 CRNAs Finish as Top Runners in the World Marathon Challenge

For many of us, running even one marathon would be a major accomplishment, but for participants in the World Marathon Challenge, one marathon is nothing. In fact, even two or three marathons is nothing, because runners in the challenge run an incredible seven marathons—and not only that, but they run them within seven days on seven different continents. 

Yup, you read that right. Seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents. One marathon a day, while traveling to a new continent every single day. Are you exhausted yet? The race is a real one and this year, advanced practice registered nurses came in strong to represent the myriad of skills that nurses can possess. In fact, not one, but two female CRNAs not only finished the World Marathon Challenge but came in as the top 7 finishers as well. 

Learn more about the World Marathon Challenge and one amazing CRNA who completed the challenge and came in as the top 6th women’s finisher of the entire race. 

Running for Greatness

Source: World Marathon Challenge 

There were actually two CRNAs in the top 7 finishers of the World Marathon Challenge: Jin Zhu and Danielle Witkowski and incredibly, the two nurses didn’t even know each other. ( did reach out to Zhu for this piece, but was unable to connect with her for an interview.)

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Image: Witkowski and Zhu

The sixth place finisher in the female category of the World Marathon Challenge, Danielle Witk owski, 47, is a native South African born and raised in Carletonville and CRNA for Envision Physicians Solutions at JFK Medical Center. Together with her “wonderful, supportive” husband, Brad, and an “adorable” 1-year-old ferret named Cody, Witkowski now lives in Boca Raton, FL. After working as a critical care pediatric/neonatal ICU nurse for 6 years, she became a CRNA, a position she has now held for 10 years. 

Witkowski tells that she “always knew” that she belonged in the medical field and after learning what a CRNA was and doing more research on the profession, she determined it was the perfect fit for her personality, passion and lifestyle. 

“[Being a CRNA] has great flexibility with work hours, 8-plus weeks vacation time, excellent job security, a career where I can truly make a difference and have a real impact on patients and their families,” she explains. “Being a CRNA also gives me professional pride and financial independence and afford a great life, work, family balance. It is a profession that keeps you on your toes, always something new to learn and rarely boring. I love what I do for a living.”

Witkowski’s other great love? Running. She started running back at only the tender age of 10 and continued racing through college, where she would compete in 10 kilometer races. After moving to the U.S. in 2000, she began training with world-renowned sport scientist and coach Dr. Nicholas Romanov, who encouraged her to run longer distances. “He felt it was more a suitable distance for my natural endurance ability,” Witkowski remembers.

Turns out, Dr. Romanov was right—Witkowski went on to run her first marathon in the Miami marathon in 2010, and didn’t stop from there. She’s run a total of 14 traditional marathons,  one ultra marathon (31 miles), three half Ironmans and one full ironman. And this January, she completed her biggest challenge yet, running her first World Marathon Challenge. 

Witkowski sees a huge connection between running and her work as a CRNA, noting: “I think working as a CRNA in a challenging ever changing stressful environment and working long hours really prepares me mentally and physically to run long distances. The focus and discipline I learned from running from a young age comes in handy in my everyday life as a CRNA. Both taught me to be patient and be comfortable in an ever-changing, unpredictable environment.”

An Epic Event

Witkowski tells that this was her first (but hopefully not last) time running the World Marathon Challenge and that she decided to run the race in honor of her father, who passed away in 2019. 

“My father sacrificed so much of his free time coaching me and made sure I had what I needed  to succeed, not just in sports but in life,” she says. So when her father passed away unexpectedly from heart disease in 2019, only one day after her birthday, she was determined to do “something amazing” to honor him. “This race was the epic event appropriate to honor him,” she adds.  Running was always my happiness, the one thing that helped me focus and get me through tough times. It was a big part of my childhood and reminded me of the quality time   I spent with my dad.”

“My dad’s last words to me were, ‘Don’t regret not doing something you dreamt of doing,” she added.

So that’s exactly what she did. Witkowski paid the entry fee of 40,000 euros (around $42K) and purchased all of the appropriate gear—such as what she needed in Antarctica—herself by working extra hours. Although she signed up in 2020, the race was canceled when the pandemic hit, so it finally happened a full three years after she signed up. 

To train for the epic event of running 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 different continents, Witkowski got up at 4:30 AM every day to run before her shifts, then would run again after working a 12-16 hour shift. “[It was] not easy but I knew it would help me deal with what was to come and build mental toughness,” she notes. 

She also prepared her body in different ways, such as forcing herself to take cold showers (“Which I hate,” she admits), run on tired legs, and balance listening to her body while still maintaining discipline. “I wanted to teach myself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Witkowski notes. “Embrace the suck.”

Fortunately, her workplace was incredibly supportive throughout the journey, even when Witkowski made the decision to go down to per diem as the race kept getting rescheduled. Her managers even helped rearrange her schedule and worked part of her shifts on the weekend so she could get her long runs in. 

What It’s Like Running 7 Marathons in 7 Days

After training for three years, it was time to run. All runners met in Cape Town, South Africa before being transported as a group by bus to and from the airport, where they took a private chartered plane to each location. All in all, the runners traveled about 52+ hours in the week-long event, with a schedule that looks something like this: land, drive to running location, run, eat, shower, repack and go. Any and all resting, hydrating, refueling, socializing, recovering and sleeping happened on the flight, yet stragenly enough, Witkowski reports never once feeling jet-lagged.

Still, she faced some pretty tough challenges right out of the gate, when she was hit with a stomach bug on day one in Antartatica. She says she and many other runners who got infected as well faced extreme nausea, vomiting, fevers and everything else that comes with a virus for almost the entire race. Being sick, combined with the weather conditions of a wind chll of -25F and 35 MPH winds, amounted to a very challenging race. 

“My knees, hips and back got beat up from running in a awkward position against the winds,” Witkowski admits. Still, she says she “loved” running in Antarctica for the experience (fun fact: it was the first time she had ever seen snow!) and accomplishments and would not change a thing—well, except for the stomach flu. “Overall I felt good for what I put my body and mind through,” she says. “My confidence was so high and I was on cloud 100. Recovery was quick and smooth. Every day I count my blessings and are grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of this and have my health.

Despite the incredible and rewarding physical challenges of the World Marathon, like the true team player she is as a CRNA, Witkowski counts the relationships and friendships she made along the way of her race as the true rewards of the competiotion. 

“We all got so close so fast and became like family,” Witkowski notes. “Countless selfless and caring strangers we encountered around the world.” 

For instance, the Guinness girls gang was born—made up of 5 female runners who met on day one and decided to drink a Guinness on each continent in honor of the race’s primarily Irish organizer and team. (“And also because we love Guinness,” she laughs.)

She recounts hearing the incredible stories of other participants and their reasons for running, such as Darren and William, who competed in the wheelchair marathon, and 80-year-old Dan Little who finished the entire race. “Waiting for him in Miami to cross the finish line was absolutely the highlight of the race,” says Witkowski. 

“Experiencing the toughness of such an amazing group of people, pushing past illness, injury and discomfort was incredible to witness. No one quit or gave up and no one allowed anyone to quit or give up. I could not have done this without the support of others,” she adds. “The most amazing moments where when people said my dad would have been so proud. I needed to hear that so much.” 

CRNAs and Running: Disciplines Built for the Long Haul

Johnny Garza, MSN, a CRNA from Norco, CA, did not join his fellow CRNAs in running the marathons, but nonetheless applauds them for their accomplishments, especially in light of firsthand knowledge of the hard work and dedication a CRNA career takes on its own. 

“The daily responsibilities for a CRNA can already be daunting, but to train for this challenge on top of a bad day would be overwhelming,” he tells”I don’t truly know either of their stories and motivational factors, but I will tell you that being a CRNA exposes you to situations where mental toughness and perseverance are required. These women have that factor and represent the ‘Woman in Nurse Anesthesiology’ very well.” 

He also points out that it may very well be that CRNAs and marathon runners have a few things in common because both disciplines require a lot of hard work, patience, and perseverance. “When I first saw the post [about the finishers] I thought to myself, ‘Who would endure such an outlandish challenge; sacrifice your body, mind and personal time, and on top of that who would pay for this brutality?’” he says. “Then it hit me—a CRNA would! We endured all that during our nurse anesthesia residency, so maybe to these women it’s a testament of their resilience and perseverance throughout their education and life.”

“A CRNA is a leader, a proven warrior that overcomes adversity and pushes themselves to be the best that can, so others can depend on them when seconds count,” he adds. “These women are a great example of determination and willpower. I am extremely proud of their accomplishments and grateful they’re in the CRNA profession.”

What’s Next After a World Marathon?

If you’re wondering what someone who has already run 7 marathons on 7 different continents could possibly hope to accomplish next, Witkowski has big plans: she hopes to find sponsors so she can run the race again when she turns 50, but this time, doing the ultra version of 31 miles. She’s also looking into running the world’s highest marathon, the Everest marathon next year and dreams of running a sub 3-hour marathon. 

And if being an incredibly accomplished runner isn’t enough, Witkowski has also fascinating hobbies as well. She and her husband are bee keepers and run a business called Bear it All Honey. When she’s not working, running, or managing their business, she’s painting, getting creative, or traveling on mission trips. 

She’s also taking time to acknowledge and appreciate all of the special people in her life, from her friends and family to the new people she met during the World Marathon Challenge, to her mother, who dutifully waited at the finish line for her daughter and kept Witkowski going even at 4:30 am, when she admits she was “tired, cranky, and, achy.” 

“This experience and the people I met will leave a lasting positive imprint on my life,” says Witkowski. “I realize this was going to be one of the toughest things I will ever take  on in my life. It tested my body and mind to its limits, but my upbringing and lived experiences prepared me to endure and succeed. Hopefully I have inspired others that the impossible is possible if you believe in yourself and your abilities.” 

All images provided by Danielle Witkowski 

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