NOT even a stress fracture stopped our ambassador Jo Zakrzewski from racing the 165km Desert Marathon in Oman last month and finishing second in a strong field of women.
One of Britain’s leading ultra-runners, Jo toughed out the grueling six-day self-supported race with help from CurraNZ, coming home 13th overall from a field of 110 international competitors.
The GP from Scotland accepted a late invitation to the race, meaning she had no opportunity to acclimatise to the conditions and arrived the day before the race commenced.
Jo says: “I went out there to enjoy myself, have a laugh and put no pressure on myself or worry about pacing. On the first day I overtook the Moroccan girl, Al Rajai Aziza, who won the race the year before, and then did so again the second day, so at that stage I realized I could probably finish second.”
However, with the desert serving up extreme challenges, Jo almost reached the point of giving up on the final day, with the end in sight. “It was horrendous, I couldn’t get a grip in the sand which made it hard to run and I was crawling up dunes, feeling sick wanting to stop. I had infected blisters on my feet, with sand absolutely everywhere. The sun was reflecting off the dunes, making it boiling hot, with no wind. Plus, water checkpoints weren’t where you’d been told so you often had to go without water for longer than you’d planned during the race.
“Then when I was considering giving up, the Moroccan overtook me. I knew I had an overall lead on her after the previous five days, so wasn’t going to give up that advantage and kept going.”
It was a gutsy performance against some fierce competitors who have featured highly in some of the world’s most extreme ultra-marathons. The winner, Russian Sedykh Natalia, had previously won the Marathon Des Sables, while Al Rajai Aziza, who finished behind Jo in this desert marathon, had previously been second in the Sahara event too.
Against the backdrop of the daily challenges of racing, competitors had no creature comforts of showers, comfy beds or cooking facilities during the six days. They carried all their provisions and slept on cardboard boxes in large tents with 11 others. With nighttime temperatures plummeting to freezing, Jo slept in every item of clothing in her bag with a survival blanket in an attempt to stay warm – in stark contrast against the hot desert daytime temperatures.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience, I loved it and got on really well with those in tent. The desert puts everybody on an even footing, nullifies background and everyone is going through the same struggle and hardships, sweating during the day and shivering at night.”
Then, upon her return to the UK, Jo discovered the results of an x-ray showed a lump on her shin was in fact, a stress fracture. She says: “I’ve had it maybe six months, and raced in the 100km race in China on tarmac, which wouldn’t have helped it. I knew there was something wrong, so I’ll have to rest it and get back ready to race in Australia and New Zealand in January and February.”