UTA50 Race Report Winner - Zoe Johnson

17 Jul 2018

From Obese To Ultra-runner

Lao Tzu tells us “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step”. My journey of 50km began two years ago. After years of being overweight, at 23 years old stepped on the scales in my doctor’s office and as the needle settled on 130kg he told me I was pre-diabetic, I was going to die young and sick. After years of battling for my physical and mental health I tried to end my life. Thankfully I was unsuccessful, and it was at this point, I decided to fight for it instead.
Fast forward 2 years and I am standing on the start line for the UTA50km, some 60kg lighter and immeasurably fitter mentally and physically. I can’t even recall how I felt. I had some knowledge that this was going to be a long, hard day, but I was determined to just take it one step at a time and get it done. It felt surreal. To be about to attempt something not only crazy by normal standards, but seemingly impossible to the person you were only 2 short years ago. Suddenly Kerry was counting down and my legs were crossing the timing mat. Holy crap.

I felt calm and in control for the first 28km. I was running through Darug and Gundungurra country, my home town. I passed through waterfalls and gum trees as old as time. The cliff faces smiled at me was I cruised underneath them, ferns and soil soft under my feet. The names on our race bibs meant happy strangers called out our names as we passed and running with “Squadrun” meant no shortage of friendly faces and support on course.
From km 30-35 everything fell to pieces. I was strong on uphills and stairs, I had trained lots of them, what I had evidently NOT trained enough for was the punishment that was an extended descent. My quads literally felt like they were exploding and I found myself limping downhill. Other runners flew past me and my soul and confidence in finishing slowly shattered. I picked up two sticks to try and break some of the impact as I hobbled down. I cried and swore. I had never been in pain like this and all I was saying to myself was “just get to the 41km aid station, then you can withdraw and be driven out”.
I came down the hill after 5km that felt like eternity and saw the aid station. I ate some food and drank some water, and then I walked to the aid tent and said I needed a rest. I sat on a chair and the medic covered me in a blanket. I was cold and tired and sobbing. I called my dad. He calmed me and reminded me I could take my time. It was only 8km to go, I could take hours if I needed. I thanked him then called my mum. She told me she was proud of me, and then told me to suck it up.
Two friends passed through and saw me, yelled at me and took my blanket. They made me stand up and led me out of the aid station and up the next hill. There was no turning back now. The quickest way home was to finish the race.

My hands were sore from using my makeshift hiking poles (note to self – buy poles for next race) and I was over it all and cramping. I stepped to the side of the trail in the darkness and sat on a rock. A few people came past and asked if I was ok and I told them I was just having a break. Then I heard a voice behind me say “Zoe is that you?!” I turned and there was my friend Melissa, chipper as ever asking why the hell I wasn’t moving. I got up and we slowwwwly counted down the kms with each passing sign and were on the hunt for the “Furber Stairs”.

I could hear the sound of cowbells from Scenic World every time we topped a hill! The second we saw the sign I was off. I knew I was 951 stairs and 1km away from my finish line and warmth. I powered (well, relatively) up them and took far fewer breaks than I thought. I felt sick and sore, my nutrition and hydration had fallen to pieces over the past few hours as my brain checked out. I held back vomit. About 300m from the top of the stairs I was hiking up with a man and we heard the tiny voice of a child through the night … “Anyone down there? We have high fives up here … but you gotta come up the stairs to get them”. The man and I looked at each other and started crying. “We’re here! We’d love one! We’re coming” we yelled back and flew up the stairs, hauling ourselves up freezing railings with blistered hands.
At the top stood two small children with their parents and they high fived us. “200m to the finish guys” they told us. I ran. As I was running along the boardwalk the noise of the finish grew louder and I heard a familiar voice yell “Where are you, Zoe Johnson?”. It was my friends waiting for me at the line. “I’m right here Jane!!” I replied and the girls let out excited screams. I rounded the corner and saw all my girls in pink! I high fived them and the line of children and supporters towards my other coach Ali who I could see under the finish arch. I ran towards her with open arms and gave her the biggest hug and thanked her.
Then, after 11 hours 40 minutes of insanity, I crossed the finish line.
To sum up a long and amazing journey, I did it. I am so grateful to all of my friends, family, the volunteers and strangers for the encouragement and for freezing in the dark for me and caring for me and for believing in me when I didn’t.
I am both proud and humbled. I am an ultramarathon runner.