New Zealand’s Jo Johansen was the surprise women’s winner of the Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon. In this interview, Jo talks about her brief but successful history with competitive racing, what it was like to be the newbie running off the front of the women, and whether or not we might see her race overseas someday.
To read more about how the Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon unfolded, read our results article.
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Jo Johansen, 2014 Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Jo Johansen, winner of the 2014 Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon. Congratulations, Jo.
Jo Johansen: Thank you.
iRunFar: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no one picked you to win maybe except yourself. Did you…?
Johansen: I kind of visualized winning. I really wanted it. But you know, I was up against elite athletes, so I was like, Oh, maybe first Kiwi home is what I’ll go for. I kind of had set that but I’d been so obsessed with it that, yeah, all the training and all the pain and suffering kind of came to a good result.
iRunFar: Let’s rewind a little bit. Tell us your background with running. When did you start running even casually?
Johansen: Probably in my early twenties I’d just run for fitness, really. I’d just run to just get out to explore, just to go places, just for my own enjoyment really. It would have been in my thirties, really, when I started… well, last year I entered my first half off-road marathon and I came in third. Okay, that was alright.
iRunFar: That was your first serious race?
Johansen: Yeah, one of the local ones where I’m from. Okay, I might just kick up the training a bit more and see what happens. On the Internet I’m always looking at what people are doing and training tips and hooked up with a couple of the Cape Harriers and found new tracks, new places, found other events. I entered a couple and won them, mostly off-road. Okay, this is… Then I started to get into the long distances because a lot of these runners were doing long distance. There was one of Scott Jurek’s books that I got obsessed with as well and just got obsessed with the whole ultramarathon thing and just thought, This is what I want to do. But from the time I started winning something, I just set my mind that, This is going to be what I put everything into—it’s going to be my running and I’m going to see how far I can take it.
iRunFar: So when did you do your first ultra?
Johansen: January (2014).
iRunFar: How far was it?
iRunFar: What race?
Johansen: Hutt River Trail. It started in Featherston [New Zealand] and went through about four old train tunnels. So it had a bit of climbing and basically followed the river down to Petone—very easy compared to this one.
iRunFar: In terms of terrain and footing and all that?
Johansen: Yeah, yeah. Not much hills there. I love running on the hills. It just came very easy.
iRunFar: I’m going to guess you won that one.
Johansen: Yeah, I won that one. Ha, ha! I was third overall too, behind the boys, so it was keeping them in sight. Yeah, I don’t really fuel often. I only had two gels and some water.
iRunFar: This was yesterday?
Johansen: No, this was the 60k. Yesterday was the first… I usually go out and run with hardly any food. I like to train like that. But yesterday I must have gone for about 10 gels. I was hammering back the gels. I was hammering back the salt pills and the water. It just went very smoothly. It clicked.
iRunFar: How did you develop a plan for hydration and nutrition when you don’t take any…?
Johansen: I just wanted to make sure I was taking in something every half an hour and gels are the only thing I really like to take. I made sure I had them every half an hour and just kept on top of it. Sometimes I can forget and I won’t do it. I’ve been through some pretty weird dehydration in my training. I just kept on top of it. The timing was everything. I had no stomach problems; nothing was going wrong for me. I just felt like, I think this is my day today. After about 20k, I just felt confident.
iRunFar: So you’re up there in the lead, very early on, I saw you at 12k and you were in the lead then…
Johansen: I sat back in third on the loop. I sat behind Shona Stephenson for awhile because I thought, Is this the pace I’m supposed to be going because I feel I can go a lot harder than this? I think after about 12k I thought, I’ll just get this gel down and go and I’m going to try to hold it as far as I can.
iRunFar: So here you are, second ultramarathon, and you’re a fan of the sport—you know the people behind you. Are you running scared?
Johansen: I knew I was being hunted down, but I really opened up some places because I just loved running on some of those trails. I just opened up where I could. I walked quite a bit of the hills; I walked fast. I did quite a bit of that in my training learning how to walk on the hills. I’m a bit of a surge-er so I just put my foot down in parts and I just hoped I’d hold out, and I did.
iRunFar: Is the terrain similar to where you live?
Johansen: Yes, in parts. We train a lot on the hills—the Tararuas. Yeah, I like to train up on hills.
iRunFar: So was this a little flat for you?
Johansen: No, it was hard coming back because I was taking in… as you’re coming down from the [Okitaina] Lodge I was taking in the steepness of it and knowing I’d be coming back up it. Even just the second loop, really, was you just take a loop at the start where you go out climbing up and you had to do that twice. So I was getting a bit concerned about my legs but on the way back from the lodge I was just, I’m on my home run, now. By the time I came out to that 2k [out-and-back], I could see where the other girls were positioned, so I kind of knew because I was running scared a bit because I thought, How far behind are they? I knew after that 2k that they were between five and 10 minutes behind me, but I still had to keep moving.
iRunFar: Any rough patches yesterday?
Johansen: No, only probably about 3k from the end and I just wanted to get off the up. My legs were starting to go. I think there was a relay guy who runs for Wellington Scottish and he goes, ‘You’ve got 5k to go and they’re fading behind you.’ I had no idea what the distance where I was, so I was just like, Okay, 5k. The last two were just… but once I heard the noise [of the finish line] I was pretty amped.
iRunFar: Any highlights on the day?
Johansen: The highlights were just running on my own through… over the roots, on the little tracks, just being in the native bush was just… I actually said to one of the guys in front of me who was actually pacing me because I like to keep at a distance and he was with me for awhile, I said, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ I loved it.
iRunFar: Awesome. Do you have anything else on your calendar in terms of the ultra stuff?
Johansen: I’ve been asked that. I’m back to training tomorrow. I was out for a run this morning; we ran around the blue lake. I’m going to look at what’s on the calendar. There are definitely ones I want to keep doing.
iRunFar: Any desire to maybe skip out of New Zealand and maybe race overseas?
Johansen: Oh yeah. I’m constantly… I always look at Western States—all the American ones—I just watch it over and over. I’m obsessed with it. I would love to go there. I would love it.
iRunFar: Hopefully we’ll see you over at Western States.
Johansen: Yeah, thank you.
iRunFar: Bonus question for you: what’s the best part of being a Kiwi?
Johansen: Probably being in a laid back, cruise-y lifestyle. It’s just so chill. Easy come, easy go, really. It’s just so relaxing and it’s simple and it’s… yeah. Native and natural, really, I just love it.
iRunFar: Take it in stride?
Johansen: Yeah, take it in stride.
iRunFar: This is your first running interview that I’ve known and you’re just natural.
Johansen: I’m glad I got to meet you, because I wanted to speak to you.
iRunFar: It was a pleasure.
Johansen: I’m always a big fan.
iRunFar: Hopefully very soon—New Zealand or California—wherever it is, hope to see you again soon.
Johansen: Thank you.