Amidst her own lofty dreams for the future, Lydia O'Donnell is driving the community in Auckland
More than anything, Lydia O’Donnell is an athlete. A National Champion on the track in her native New Zealand, O’Donnell left her job in late 2017 to give herself a better chance of making it in the cut throat world of athletics.
While she pursues her dream of turning national success into an international career, O’Donnell has seemingly endless energy and passion for growing the running community in her home city of Auckland.
When she’s not training for a marathon, you might catch O’Donnell coaching girls programs at Diocesan School for Girls, running with her crew Cloud Runners Society, or leading One Step, the movement she co-founded to help people dealing with mental health issues.
“I started running seriously about 10 years ago on the track, 1500 and 3000m mostly. I won a couple of national titles in the 5k as a junior. Moving into senior running I started doing more 10k track events as training for half marathons. 10km on the track is not pretty, I don’t know why I did it for so long! I was able to win the national title 3 years in a row though”.
That continued success only fuelled O’Donnell’s desire for the next challenge.
“I won a ½ marathon down in Christchurch and then when I turned 25 I realised if I wanted to compete on a world stage I probably had to move up to marathons”.
Heading into her debut marathon in late 2015 in Melbourne, O’Donnell had no idea what to expect.
As it turns out, only one woman was able to beat her that day, Australian Olympian Jess Trengove.
“I got to about 25k in and felt so fresh and ready to push the pace. That’s when I knew this was the distance I wanted to race. It’s not just a tactical fast race, there’s enough time to actually enjoy running, and that’s why I run, because I love it”.
Fresh from the 2nd place in Melbourne, O’Donnell was eager to pick out her next race with the aim of bagging a qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics. With limited options on the calendar, she chose Nagoya, Japan in early March.
“Looking back now it was definitely too soon to compete in another marathon. There’s so many other factors that go along with the travel; different language, different food, all these adjustments that consume your energy before the race”.
O’Donnell then took six months away from running to train for a charity boxing match (she won, but more importantly raised a lot of money for charity).
Going into 2017 the goal was to qualify for the Commonwealth Games, as O’Donnell put everything into training for the Gold Coast Marathon mid-year. Three weeks out from the race, O’Donnell got appendicitis, derailing her plans to qualify for the Commonwealth Games.
O’Donnell is still planning her 2018 assault on the marathon, with the famously fast Berlin a likely contender.
For the last three years, O’Donnell has been coaching at Diocesan School for Girls, passing on the knowledge and experienced gained during the highs and lows of her career to date.
“The girls teach me just as much as I teach tem. Athletics has given me so much and helped create who I am, and I would love to give that back to the athletic community and the next generation of athletes. I just love teaching them and inspiring them to run”.
For O’Donnell, coaching her juniors to a national xc title in 2017 was a case of going full circle on her school career.
“When I was at school I had an amazing running coach, she was an Olympian actually. She coached us not to be amazing junior runners but to be the best team.
We won nationals every year that I was at high school and I give all my credit to her for why I’m here today doing what I’m doing because she taught me so much”.
“I would love for my girls to be in the same position and remember being part of such a great team”.
O’Donnell explains that it’s not as much about being great runners at high school as it is about learning good habits and understand the relationship between hard work and success. Knowing these young girls look up to her, O’Donnell is a willing role model.
“I try to be a very positive influence on the girls. When I’m around my girls I make an effort to show that it’s ok to eat whatever you want, you can eat burgers if that’s what you feel like”.
Being a role model is something that comes naturally to O’Donnell.
After a female jogger was killed while out for a mid-morning run in Auckland in 2015, many runners reached out to O’Donnell and said they no longer felt safe running in their city. O’Donnell, together with her friends, organised a run to reclaim the streets of Auckland.
“I felt like we had to do something to empower these women to go back on the streets. Running in the middle of the day in your city is a basic right that everyone should have. So we organised a run and we had nearly 300 women turn up! All the news channels came, it was a lot bigger than i thought it would be. It showed me how big this running community is in Auckland”.
This appetite for running in Auckland encouraged O’Donnell and some of her friends to start Cloud Runners Society.
“CRS evolved from Nike Training Club when that closed down in Auckland. We had built this amazing community and we didn’t want to lose that so we pulled the core girls together who led that and we launched Cloud Runners.
Originally it was just for girls, but we’ve now evolved it to include guys as well. We don’t just run, we incorporate some high intensity training as well, we get breakfast, it’s a really cool way to build a community. It’s not just training and exercise, it’s the friendships that you build at the same time”.
On top her coaching, her own career, and her involvement with CRS, Lydia O’Donnell also started One Step, a running community initiative aimed at helping people struggling with mental health issues.
“Mental health is such a big issue here, and i know how beneficial exercise can be for people who are struggling. So I started One Step with my friend Richie Hardcore. We meet every Monday morning and do laps of a local park. Some people run, some people walk, and some people just come to chat, and I love that. It’s great to get the exercise benefits and get the endorphins but it’s also great to bring them into a community they can be part of and feel like they can have a piece of it”.
O’Donnell recognises that everyone can make a difference in their community simply by using what they have available to them. For O’Donnell, that’s a passion for fitness and an understanding of the value of community.
“If you look at a lot of the issues with mental health it’s because people feel lonely and they feel like they have no one to talk to, and I think whether it’s a running club or a book club or whatever, being part of a community is so important for those people”
Simply put, Lydia O’Donnell is a remarkable woman. From her own career as a runner, to helping shape the next generation of New Zealand elites, to her tireless efforts in the community, she’s having a huge impact on the sport.