My first DNF- Jo Johansen

Jo Johansen, winner of this years Tarawera Ultra, talks about DNF’ing at TNF100 and what contributed to her ending up in Katoomba Hospital.


Those three letters sound haunting and look so disappointing.

Jo racing The Hillary 80km, just 2 weeks after winning the Tarwera Ultra.

Jo on her way to winning The Hillary 80km, just 2 weeks after winning the Tarwera Ultra. Photo: Kim Allen

I put big expectations on myself for this race. My training load was high, as it turned out, way too high. I had built my own homemade step that sat in the backyard and would use it daily. I would also run 194 steps on a bush track in my runs during the week. If you don’t know, TNF100 (The North Face 100km Australia) has steps throughout the course. I wanted to get sick of steps because I knew that’s what it would feel like on race day. I was hammering the training, twice a day seven days a week, with the vision of winning. I would tell myself “this is what I have to do to win; train the hardest and I will perform the best”.

Little did I know I was forgetting a major rule for peak performance: REST/RECOVERY/REPAIR.

I never gave myself a day off. I barely stretched and I was always limping, sore, tired, grumpy and stressed out about the smallest things. The expectation of the race blindsided me into ignoring symptoms of over training and ignoring my body screaming at me to rest. I ignored the advice from friends, family and other runners telling me to slow down, telling me that I was doing enough and that my body needed to rest and repair, otherwise training is wasted.

I wish now that I had listened, hindsight is a great thing!

In the days leading up to the race, I decided to get a deep tissue massage for the first time. I do wonder if this was a smart idea, releasing toxins after all the hard training then flying on a plane.

I was feeling exhausted and done with running. I gave myself three days to taper probably, not a smart idea again. I had no idea really to taper I just go with what has worked for me in the past. Going into the Tarawera I took two days off from running but my mileage was a little less. The day before the race I felt unwell and was experiencing back pain and headaches that won’t go away. Exhausted, fatigued and I was not happy or excited about the race.

Driving from Sydney to Katoomba, was amazing to watch the landscape change so quickly. From bustling city to, what looked like to me, a grand canyon of native Australian bush, tall gum trees, massive cliffs, and a beautiful sun setting clear night. You knew you were in a different country, it was unreal. Katoomba was thriving with people and traffic, and the accommodation was sold out. I thought the Tarawera registration expo was big but TNF was outstanding.

I attend the athletes Q&A forum, meeting the other runners and we were all buzzing. Roger Hanny took the forum, and he reminded me of Kerry Suter in the way he ran Q&A at Tarawera, very funny and energetic. I register for the race, got the mandatory gear checked off and headed off for an early night.

jo tnf pannel

Jo on stage at the TNF100 pre race panel.

Waking up race morning  I felt good and ready but as I walked up to the start line I got sharp pain in my lower back. It gets my attention but goes away eventually. I move to the front of the start line, my plan is to find Nuria Picas and stay with her. She looks psyched and confident and I’m excited to be in the same race as her.

The race starts and everyone takes off and I find a position to get comfortable in. I position myself right behind Nuria, focusing on her form and speed and feeling comfortable with it.

I’m thinking to myself that this is going to be a great race. I get 4.5km in, heading down from the outback onto furber steps. I feel tightening in my legs. It gets stronger and stronger and it stops me completely on the steps. I can’t move, my legs have totally seized, locked up and not bending at all. I have no idea what’s happening to me, it couldn’t be cramp, I never have cramp. I’ve just had a salt pill and it’s only the start of the race. I think to myself, what the hell is going on? I’m pretty upset and angry at this point. I accept I can’t be up the front anymore, but I want to finish this race.

The pain is excruciating and each step hurts, but I try to keep going. I can only manage a couple of steps before I need to stop. Tim Day passes me and reassures me that I will come right and I will try to walk whatever this is out. All I kept saying to myself was “keep walking, keep walking it will come right, it has to”.

Massaging and trying to stretch did nothing, my muscles wouldn’t give. I had so many runners stopping and trying to help me. Thanks to all those people who stopped out of their way to help me. I arrive at checkpoint one in two and half hours (10.5k). I go to the toilet to discover I’m peeing blood and I know my race is over.

If I hadn’t gone to the toilet, I would have continued the race as I was convinced I would improve if I kept moving.  I didn’t know what was going on with my body. All sorts of feelings entered my mind realising it was the end of the race for me. I felt ashamed, like a failure, and like I had let myself and others who have supported me to get to this race, down.

At the checkpoint I am seen by a medic and then transported to Katoomba Hospital. Once there, I am asked many questions by doctors who seem unsure about what could be going on.  Electrolyte imbalance, dehydration and some sort of extreme cramping.

It is my brother who informs them that I never rest and have been over training, and that I had been in A & E with dehydration back in December. I get hooked up to an IV drip and heart monitor and blood tests are taken. An hour later the results are in and the doctor tells me I am really sick. He diagnoses me with Rhabdomyolosis. A diagnosis of Rhabdo as they call it, is made when creatine phosphokinase (CPK) levels rise above 10,000 u/l, well above the upper limit of 200 u/l of normal range. CPK is an enzyme found inside muscle cells, so when muscles are damaged, this enzyme is released into the bloodstream. CPK is not harmful but used as a surrogate marker of myoglobin release. Myoglobin is a big red protein that can block or crystallize within the kidneys. This can lead to acute kidney injury and renal failure if severe. So the red I was seeing at checkpoint one wasn’t actually blood but myoglobin. Rhabdo literally means “dissolution of skeletal muscle” and is common and well-known consequence of strenuous physical activity. Ultra running and racing in particular requires heavy skeletal muscle recruitment and places huge demands on the body. These demands are well above and beyond what is typical of normal daily training. There are a number of factors that can increase your risk of getting Rhabdo: extremes of hydration, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and analgesic use, heat stress and recent viral/bacterial infection. Rhabdo is also found in crushing situations, when people get stuck of pinned under buildings or anything massive in weight. With me, the fact I was training seven days a week, twice a day for months and months with no rest or recovery and I was dehydrated, caused my muscles to breakdown.

Because I had won past events, training the way I always had, I thought I must be doing something right. So I just kept running with what I was doing with no down time. As it turns out my way was not the right way. You live and learn. So now I’m getting out of the mindset that more is better when actually less and rest is best.

It is easy to get lost in expectations and pressure, and I need to remember why I actually love to run.

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5 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Oh wow, all that way and then in hospital – I’m so glad you found out early and were able to get the treatment you needed. How are you recovering now? Are you ok?

  2. Thanks for sharing Jo: sorry it wasn’t the race you were after!

  3. Hi jo, thankyou so much for having the guts to write such a report your a better athlete and person for doing so! I too had a poor experience re health, not as drastic as yours but I also didn’t listen to my coach and went over in hours etc in training sessions, I also own and run a physio business, help hubby on the farm and have two litte kids under 4 so training for me was often at midnight to get the hours in before kids woke and I went to work and then often a lunch session. I too was dealing with a back injury that got treated the morning of the race and my coach wanted me to pull out, but I said I ran the 50 km last year breast feeding so I’m not pulling out! 13 km into the race back flared up, and I tripped and injured my groin and ankle, so I resorted to increasing my pain meds of mobic and panadeine to every time I took a gel! So I went thru a pkt of each! My physio friend would strap me at each check point and I managed to finish in a poor time and vomited for two days, and couldn’t return to work fr a while! But I loved every minute of the race and would o it again in a heartbeat but like you better and wiser training! I’d love to have your level of fitness and I commend you on your training, I hope when my kids get a bit older training can become more f a focus but in the meantime ill take what I can. I sincerely wish you a full recovery and hope to one day meet you at another trail run. Lisa watt

  4. Hi Jo ,
    Sorry to hear about the rhabdo. I was admitted to hospital with rhabdo 9 days after running the TNF 50. Mine was caused by an upper body session and I got it in my arms. This is the second time I have got it in a year. My ck levels were 117,000 the first time and 37,000 the second time. I would like to speak to you about your Trainning etc as I am trying to find a specialist who may be interested in studying this as not one person can tell me any real cause except you over did it. And also if your ck levels naturally elevate after exercise or how high and whether they stay raised for a period of time etc. I would love to chat if your interested plz e mail me thx Steve

  5. Hi Jo, just read your post!
    I can recommend some names to you and to whoever else reads this to help treat and educate you in how to prevent this happening.
    Trent Banks and Trevor Chetcuti. They are Chiropractors and Kinesiologist’s and i have recommended my clients who train and race at both Pro and Amateur levels to see these guys to get their bodies right.
    I believe the mind just needs to observe what the body is doing and not push it beyond what its capable of at the time.
    Also you might like to read some material from Phil Maffetone. Awesome material on how to train the best for your system.
    Pushing your body only leads to illness and injury, listening to your body leads to greatness!!!

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