Joasia Zakrzewski: Tales of an International Ultrarunner

joasia aakrzewski

Joasia running for Scotland in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games marathon.

Ultrarunner Joasia Zakrzewski shares her wisdom on racing, training and not limiting yourself. (Oh… and cake!)

Joasia recently came 5th in the 100K World Championships. She is part of the GB team and also runs a mean marathon (2:39:15), as well as a variety of other distances. She balances her training against her busy job as a GP, and is currently using her recovery time to enjoy running and racing over shorter distances. Recently she was awarded Masters Athlete of the Year at the Scottish Athletics Annual Awards. We catch up with Joasia to find out more…

When did you first get into running? What prompted you to take it up?

As a child I was always told by my teachers that I was “no good at sport”. I think school-based sports tend to be very sprint-orientated, which didn’t play to my strengths.

Then a few years back I started working as a race doctor on a variety of different events, one of which was the multi-day Guadarun (based on several different Guadaloupean islands). There was usually not much to do while the competitors were actually out running, so on the last day I asked if I could take part, as it looked like all the runners were having a great time, and I was starting to go stir-crazy. I loved it, and basically it went from there.

As a new runner, the first time I did a specific distance (e.g. half marathon, marathon, and multi-day ultra) I raised money for a different charity close to my heart, to give me the motivation to keep going, but now I do it for the love of running!

You are an ultra-runner, something that many recreational runners can’t imagine. How does it feel to run a 100k race? What made you become an ultra-runner?

joasia zakrzewski

Joasia running the 2014 100k world championships in Doha.

I had done some shorter distance events, up to a marathon in distance, before I entered my first ultra. I had kept in touch with some runners from when I was a medic on the Jungle Marathon (a multi-day race in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil) and met up with one of them for dinner. He mentioned that he was going to enter the Atacama Crossing (in Chile) and, after a bottle of wine, I agreed to do it too. I absolutely loved it.

I initially went there just to “complete”, but I found myself leading the ladies’ race and so I ended up being there to “compete”. I’ve never looked back. How can you not love a week when you just get up, eat, chat, run, eat some more, chat and run more, then eat and sleep… and repeat it the next day… while adding in some beautiful scenery?

You run other distances too. What is your favourite distance and why?

I wouldn’t say that I have a favourite distance. I like to run a variety of distances, speeds and terrains as they all have something special to offer and all challenge you in different ways, be it mentally or physically.

What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about running an ultra distance race?

My advice would differ depending on whether they were looking to complete an ultra or whether they were looking to be competitive. What has always limited me is my head rather than my body, and so if anyone is really thinking of doing an ultra distance race, then they should just go for it. If they want to do it, then they WILL do it!

I know that some people only go out and do long slow runs, but I believe this teaches you to be a “long slow runner”. So to be a good distance runner, you still have to put the effort in and challenge your physiology with some regular speedwork. Admittedly you do need to get a few long runs in, but as long as you’ve done enough it’s much better to be standing on that start line fresh and slightly under-trained, than tired and over-trained.

How do you fit your training in around your busy life as a doctor? Does your medical knowledge help you with training or race strategy?

I find running is quite a good stress reliever from my busy job. I sometimes start an easy run thinking about work but it soon slips away from me and if I’m on my limit running at pace, then my head tends to be rather empty of other thoughts!

They say that doctors make the worst patients so I try not to self-diagnose, but I think that some medical knowledge helps me know when to pull back and rest up, and when to seek specialist advice for a niggle or developing injury.

You once completed a marathon with a broken nose and rib. Was that the toughest race you ever ran? How did you manage to keep going to the end?

It’s very hard to define what was the “toughest race” for me. The race you mention sounds like a nightmare! I was knocked down and trampled at the start by the fast men, so I completed the marathon with a broken nose and rib, and skinned knees, elbows and face. At the time, I’m not sure I thought too much about it (after the few seconds thinking that I was going to die as runners piled on top of me!). But the adrenaline kicked in, and I just got up and ran.

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Joasia running a mountain marathon in the Lake District.

I find short races very tough as there’s no let-up from the effort or the pain. Having said that, I ran the Dragon’s Back this summer which was a multi-day adventure down the mountainous spine of Wales, and that was rather tough as I was so far out of my comfort zone. Some races are tough physically, such as the high altitude Pike’s Peak race in Colorado, whereas some others are tough mentally, such as when you are running for your country and you know people are watching you live, watching you on TV, or tracking you online, and you don’t want to let anyone down. However, if it’s easy, then maybe you’re not pushing yourself enough.

You are still improving as a masters age competitor, evidenced by your World 100k 5th place and PB. What would you say to someone trying to improve their performance in a similar age category or beyond?

joasia zakrzewski

Joasia was awarded the Scottish Athletics Masters Athlete of the Year for 2015.

I don’t think you should set yourself limits such as your age. I didn’t start running until I was in my 30s and have managed to knock almost 10 minutes off my 100k PB this year when approaching 40, as well as running my second fastest marathon.

I really need to practice what I preach, as I’d also like to keep improving for a few years yet, and I think that a lot of that depends on the right attitude (oh yes… and cake).

For women there are certainly some great role models out there such as Jo Pavey, Deena Kastor, and many more. But I can’t generalise for either sex, as I think masters runners in general are improving year on year.

One way of improving your running and keeping things fresh (at any age) is to challenge yourself often. I’m not too good on trail and have always been afraid of the thought of running at night, so on Friday 23rd October I did a night-time trail race in France. It was 18k in the dark and I nearly jumped off the bus on the way to the start, but feel stronger mentally for having done it (and a cheeky 5 minute win helped!).

Thanks so much for talking with us, Joasia, and good luck in all your upcoming training and racing.

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