ULTRAMARATHONER Jo Zakrzewski has become the fastest woman ever to win the Racing the Planet Namib/Sahara Desert Races - and credits CurraNZ for giving her a competitive edge.
In landing the coveted female champion title the ‘Race of Champions’, held earlier this month, the Scottish runner has dedicated her victory to Chris Stirling (pictured, left) who sadly passed away while she was racing in Namibia.
Chris, also a CurraNZ ambassador, was a good friend and fellow athlete who introduced her to our product in 2014. (See tribute, next page)
Jo overcame major challenges in the Namid Desert race. Crippling travel delays that led to lost baggage and equipment, plus a lack of fitness, sleep and zero acclimatisation would’ve presented race-ending setbacks to most athletes, but not Jo, who narrowly made the race start after 58 hours of travel nightmares from Scotland.
Then followed six days and 155 miles of racing across the Skeleton Coast in temperatures up to 38 degrees. Despite no creature comforts and lack of supplies/equipment, the 43-year-old was the first female over the line in 28hrs10 mins – and fifth overall - in one of the hottest fields assembled in a race of its kind.
As the 2010 victor of the Atacama Desert race (her first ultra-marathon), the doctor from Dumfries was invited to take part in a field of 110, including previous winners of the Race The Planet global series.
Jo says: “I never expected to win and hoped to place in the top five females, my absolute best result would have been to finish top three.
“I started conservatively, only moving into the lead three-quarters of the way through day one and then I extended my lead by more and more each day, until it stood at almost 2.5 hours at the end of the week. Once I took the lead, I felt good and wanted to stay at the front.
Making her success even more significant is this was Jo’s first proper international race since Oman in 2017 after an enforced layoff from training.
She says: “I was diagnosed with a leg stress fracture in 2017 which meant I had to take a total break from training for many months, as unfortunately the diagnosis had been delayed. Further investigations found I was also suffering from REDS (relative energy deficiency syndrome), which led to hormone imbalances and bone weakness and hence was the underlying cause of my stress fracture.
“Despite all of that, my stress fracture didn’t heal completely and the doctor told me I may as well start running again. As a result, I only started training again in October, and even then only cautiously.
“I have to eat significantly more than 3,000 calories a day to ensure I get the energy I need to overcome REDS and allow me to train and race.”
The six-stage race required participants to carry all their supplies needed for the week, including sleeping bags, food and water. The required backpack also led to complications controlling her body temperature and significant chaffing.
The loss of her luggage en route was a big blow, meaning she started without critical food supplies and equipment.
“My lost luggage meant I had to rebuy some of the compulsory kit, but some things couldn’t be bought in Namibia, eg a light sleeping mat, a folding cup and dehydrated meals. I slept on the sand / tent floor, which was uncomfortable, especially on my hips. I spent the evenings sitting by the fire in my sleeping bag as my Down jacket had also been my missing luggage.
“I wasn’t allowed to start without the compulsory kit or required 14,000 calories so in the absence of dehydrated food, I made up the calories with heavy sandwiches and cereal bars.
“The long day, 84km, was tough as I wasn’t acclimatised to the 38-degree heat and a lack of fitness also made this harder.
“I had to walk for a bit and had my backpack waist straps undone as I couldn’t get my body temperature down and didn’t want anything around my stomach, as the heat made me nauseated.
“The main worry for me was that I wasn’t eating enough calories and the REDS would recur, so I just had to do everything I could while racing.
“My feet are suffering the most as I have blisters in very awkward places and chaffing around my waist from my pack.”
“To be honest though, I was just so happy to be back out there racing and making new friends.”
*Footnote, Jo went on to travel to the US for a holiday and took part in the Martha's Vineyard Marathon just two weeks later - and won that too!