Simon Donato’s scariest leap didn’t take place in any of the world’s toughest physical environments he has pitted himself against over the years. It was the day he jumped from his job with both feet.
“There are still mornings when I wake up and I wonder why I walked away from a stable, steady, high-paying job with good future prospects,” Donato, BA’99, MSc’03, said. “But for me, life is an adventure. It is amazing. That step has given me freedom in life.”
Born in Winnipeg, but raised in London, Donato, 36, entered Western without a true calling. Admittedly “naïve,” he didn’t know – nor seek out – the academic options available to him on a university campus.
He had always been fitness-focused, raised on mountain bikes and ski slopes his whole life. At Western, he would join ski and outdoors clubs. It made for a wonderful social atmosphere, but he never matched his passion to his academic pursuits until late in his undergraduate days when Earth Sciences professor Stephen Hicock would hook him on geology.
“I thought, ‘How did I miss this? This is incredible,’” Donato said.
He would go on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology in 1999, and then a master’s degree in Geology in 2003 under Earth Sciences professor Jisuo Jin. After earning a PhD at McMaster University, Donato would head West, working for Imperial Oil in Alberta.
But adventure never left his blood. In 2008, he launched a side project, Adventure Science, adventurescience.ca, in a space where he saw an emerging need.
“There are a lot of researchers out there who just aren’t in good shape. So, the only field work they are doing, the only work they can do, is if they are helicoptered in or drive in. So, their exploration is limited by fitness,” he said. “Also, there are a lot of fit people out there who don’t know a damn thing about science or exploration or observation. “If we could combine the two, we can push into new frontiers.”
Today, Adventure Science works with industry, governments, academics and activists to conduct discovery expeditions, map uncharted territory and contribute to search-and-rescue missions around the world. The company employs ultra runners and extreme athletes to explore these locales under their own power, getting into corners of the world few would see without them.
“I have a unique skill set to do this because of my time at Western – geology/ paleontology/anthropology/wildlife biology. I have the field exploration and observation I gained there. It set me up well,” he said. Fueling that effort is another passion – oatmeal.
Donato is the cofounder of Stoked Oats, stokedoats.com, a high-quality, protein rich, gluten-free oatmeal using premium ingredients such as chia and flax seeds, as well as Saskatchewan-grown oats. The product is available locally in Calgary, as well as around the world via online sales. “All my ideas seem to come out of my lifestyle,” he said with a laugh.
Hence, his latest project. Along with Western fraternity brothers, Donato created a documentary around the Canadian Death Race, a 125km ultra-marathon. Last spring, the film was picked up by the Travel + Escape network. That relationship with the network would continue onto another show, Boundless, which debuted on Travel + Escape in February 2013.
Billed as an “adrenaline-charged documentary series,” Boundless, travelandescape.ca/shows/boundless, follows Donato and Paul ‘Turbo’ Trebilcock as they compete in eight of the toughest endurance races in the world. The pair met at McMaster, where Trebilcock, a campus carpenter, and Donato, a PhD student, bonded over ultra-marathons.
The first two of 10 episodes, which debuted in February, dropped the pair into the Fire and Ice Ultra, a 250km, seven-day race through the volcanic ruggedness of the Icelandic Highlands. Other episodes included running 250 km across the Sahara Desert, kayaking in South Africa, racing paddle-boards in the open ocean off Hawaii and mountain biking in Utah. In total, the pair raced more than 1,000 km in 18 weeks.
“I still have so many great contacts, and still meet a lot of Western alumni,” Donato sad. “This show would have never happened had I not met Josh and Jordan, which means had I not gone to Western, had I not joined that organization. It always snowballs.
“Get involved. Meet people. And things happen."
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