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Article about Dr Jo from BMA Journal

30/09/2011

The following article was reproduced with permission from the BMA journal:

When Dumfries GP Joasia Zakrzewski discovered she had a talent for long-distance running, she entered herself for some gruelling international marathons that helped her handle the stress of general practice.

Jennifer Trueland reports: 

 

Medicine to marathons 

Joasia Zakrzewski is just back from a week’s holiday. At least, she says it was a holiday; most of us might dispute her use of the word.Rather than lounging on the beach, or taking in a few art galleries, her ‘break’ consisted of running a high altitude 79.1 km (49 mile) ultra marathon in the Swiss Alps. Known as the Swiss Alpine, the event started at an altitude of 1,560m in Davos, and the runners gained (and lost) around 2,400m throughout.

Tough though that sounds, for Dr Zakrzewski, a Dumfries GP, the Swiss adventure was something in the nature of a training run. For on September 10 in Winschoten in the Netherlands, she took part in the European and World 100km championships, one of just four women and four men chosen to represent Great Britain. She came away with world and European silver medals after setting a Scottish record of seven hours, 41 minutes and six seconds. 

It’s not a bad achievement for someone who only took up running with any seriousness three and a half years ago. She explains: ‘I was an expedition and race medic and thought that the people taking part were having more fun, so I took part in one race and did rather well. From then on, I suppose I just started to enjoy it – and to realise I was quite good at it, too’ 

BMA News first wrote about her last year when she was heading off to Chile to compete in the Atacama Crossing: a six-day, 250km race through what is billed as the highest and driest desert in the world. Despite having been running for just two years, she won the ladies’ race and came in sixth overall- all in borrowed gear and new shoes (of the wrong size), as her luggage didn’t arrive.

She quickly began to make a name for herself and became a familiar figure- usually a winning one- around the Scottish running circuit.

Despite this success, she hadn't really thought that representing Great Britain (or indeed, England or Scotland) was an achievable goal. But then came the New Orleans marathon in February, which she completed in an impresssive two hours and 47 minutes- her first time breaking the elusive three hour target. Even so, the phone call from UK Athletics asking her to compete in the 100km championships came as a surprise. She says: 'Ihave to say it was a bit of a shock. I thought they had the wrong person when they rang me, but it's quite flat so it should be OK.

Out of the running 

After New Orleans (what she modestly calls ‘a pretty quick marathon’) she unfortunately developed tendonitis so there was no running for six weeks. As any runner – or person who lives with a runner – knows, not being able to train can be as agonising as the injury itself. So was she hard to be with when she couldn’t run? ‘Maybe at first, but then I took up baking – and dropping little bags of cakes on people’s doorsteps’. Did she take it easy afterwards? No, not really. She says: ‘I managed to survive my comeback run on the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, then the Comrades Marathon (almost 90km) in South Africa at the end of May. That, together with winning the Devil o’ the Highlands (a 69km race from Tyndrum to Fort William, covering the latter part of the West Highland Way) meant that the Scottish and English Ultra teams suddenly noticed me. I found it hard to declare for either England or Scotland but the Great Britain selection means I don’t have to.’ 

Since her running exploits began to garner some publicity, she says patients often ask about how she is doing, and whether she has a race coming up. ‘My patients are quite supportive and, indeed, more come to see me with sports injuries or with running advice since I took it up.’ She says. ‘The difficulty is fitting training in around work, as I also work nights and weekends as a forensic doctor for the local police. It sometimes involves going out before work in the dark and the rain, and I often have some running kit in the back of the car so that if I go out on some rural visits, I can occasionally get a run in before returning for the afternoon surgery. ‘If I’m on call for the police, I have to take the phone while running and make sure I’m never too far from my car, although I always check in with them before I head out to train.’ 

Practical problems can emerge, she says: ‘Difficulties can arise when race selections are announced late, often in school holiday time, but so far we have managed to work around any issues of leave within the practice by being flexible with hours.’ Being a runner is good match with general practice, she believes. On the one hand, the so called loneliness of the long-distance runner is similar to a GP’s relative isolation in his or her consulting room. But on the other hand, a nice solitary run can be the perfect antidote and de-stressor after a full day of talking to patients and others. 

Taking it easy

Regardless of how busy she is, there is always time for a run. At the time of writing she is having what she calls an ‘easy’ training time. Easy, by the way, means 60km to 80km. On a normal week, she is more likely to do up to 130km (80 miles) although it is the intensity at which she does the runs that matters more than the distance, she says. So, back to Davos and the Swiss Alpine. Did she have fondue after the race? ‘No,’ she laughs, ‘I had chips and beer. I’m afraid I eat unhealthy food (such as) chocolate and biscuits. I do try to eat healthy things as well but that just means I eat twice as much.’ 

 

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