New Zealand’s Jo Johansen is the defending Tarawera Ultramarathon champion, but since last year’s race was shortened due to a tropical cyclone, Jo has yet to race the 100k distance she’ll see in defending her title this weekend. In this interview, Jo talks about her races since her breakout win last year, her dangerous brush with rhabdomyolysis last spring, and her strategy for this weekend’s race.
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Jo Johansen Pre-2015 Tarawera Ultramarathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Jo Johansen, the defending champ of the Tarawera Ultramarathon. How are you, Jo?
Jo Johansen: I’m feeling good. How are you?
iRunFar: Alright. You had a pretty big breakthrough race last year at Tarawera, and then you went back and had a good run at The Hillary 80k not long after. How did Hillary go for you?
Johansen: It was tough, very different to the Tarawera anyway—a lot more hills, a lot more steeper.
iRunFar: Where is that located in New Zealand?
Johansen: The Waitakeres in West Aukland, so west coast.
iRunFar: West coast, hilly, mountainous.
Johansen: Mountainous. There were parts where you were going up rocks holding onto a chain. You’re up steep stuff and then you’re on sand dunes. It was very hot and you’re carrying all the gear as well.
iRunFar: So you ran 100k, actually it wasn’t 100k, but have you run 100k since?
iRunFar: So this will be your first 100k?
Johansen: First 100k. I’m pretty nervous.
iRunFar: So you had a good run at Tarawera and you had a good run at Hillary and then you ran into some speed bumps. What happened later in your season?
Johansen: I entered The North Face 100k – Australia. I entered and went over there. That race started and 5k into it I had all this tightening and my legs just locked up. I kept going and would stop and start. There was like this… I just thought it was some type of severe cramp. I couldn’t even walk. So I stopped on the side and eventually I could walk. I got to the first aid station in two-and-a-half hours which was about 10k. It was like I was obviously not going to do well, so I’d just try and finish anyway. I thought I’d just go into the toilet. I’d just been in the toilet just before and it was okay. I went into the loo and I was peeing blood or some type of protein. So I said, “Oh, I think this is a bad sign,” and so I pulled out. The medics took me down to the hospital and did a blood test and said, “You’ve got rhabdomyolysis.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh. What’s this?” They talked to me about my training and how I don’t rest. When I don’t rest they basically described it that I have little tears from running and they just got so big that they’d just had enough, and so they released toxins into my blood and into my kidneys.
iRunFar: Anything in particular trigger it because you were only 10k into the race?
Johansen: It could have been a massage. I had a massage about two days prior. I’d never had a massage in my life. When I look back on it I was feeling very unwell.
Johansen: Yeah, I thought it was just normal tiredness and fatigue and headaches and nausea and it was a normal part of training.
iRunFar: Maybe not.
iRunFar: Did you take some downtime after that?
Johansen: A little bit because my legs were off for a good couple of months. They still feel a bit weak. It was tough.
iRunFar: When did you get rolling again?
Johansen: I’ve only kind of felt good in running just before Kepler [Challenge]. I’ve felt kind of fit and a bit of speed and a bit of strength. I just couldn’t get up hills. I just felt like my legs have lost their strength, and I thought it was gone. Some people say you can get permanent damage or can’t come back from it. I think I’m good. I’m feeling good for this.
iRunFar: When was Kepler? Was that November?
Johansen: December, start of December.
iRunFar: Start of December—you’ve had a good training stretch since then?
Johansen: Yeah, really good. I don’t feel like I’ve kind of tapped into the feelings I was getting before pre-Australia. So I’ve kind of pushed the training. I kind of take rest days now.
iRunFar: Really? So you’re learning some things along the way?
Johansen: Yeah, I’ve learned quite a lot. I was on a vegan diet, and I’ve gone off that. I’m starting to put more meat in my diet now, a bit more animal protein. I’ve changed things around a wee bit.
iRunFar: And you’re feeling good?
Johansen: I feel good, yeah.
iRunFar: Are you excited to make a go at your first 100k?
Johansen: I’m pretty excited. I’m actually quite calm actually. Yeah. I’m super excited to run with such a stacked field as well.
iRunFar: No kidding.
Johansen: Yeah, that’s pretty exciting.
iRunFar: Any pressure on yourself for being the defending champ?
Johansen: I feel a little bit. I ran it last year, but I’d like to run the 100k of it. I’d like to see how it goes. I think 100k could be a distance I like. Yeah, I feel I will like it.
iRunFar: There are some really strong women in there—the Núria Picas types—the international level. Do you just try and run with them or run your own race?
Johansen: That’s what my plan is. I’ll just see how everyone takes off, and I’ll just hold on as much as I can I guess. Yeah, I’ll just see how it goes and hang on in there. She was at The North Face and my plan was to stick with her again. I was right behind her until I rode downhill—downhill to the hospital.
iRunFar: Give it another go?
Johansen: Yeah, give it another go.
iRunFar: It’s been a big year of change for you—winning a big race like Tarawera and getting some sponsors. Do you still enjoy it as much as you did a year ago?
Johansen: Yeah, I do. I probably enjoy it more now actually except the time coming out of Aussie I thought that, This is it. My running is over. I’ve pushed it too hard and wrecked myself. I’ve heard it happens to quite a few people. So, now I’m actually really enjoying it now.
iRunFar: Nice. Best of luck on Saturday and enjoy.
Johansen: Thank you.
iRunFar: A bonus question: We’re standing here on a rugby pitch and you played rugby?! This is touch; you played the real stuff.
Johansen: I played the tackle. Tackled the boys. I played with them from when I was six until 13. Then I played on a women’s team. Then I got smashed there, and then I pulled out.
iRunFar: If anybody tries some funny business on the trail, you’re just going to…
Johansen: I’ll take them out.
iRunFar: Alright. Be careful girls.