A mistake or cheating? Joasia Zakrzewski disqualified from GB Ultra M2L Ultra Race

A mistake or cheating? Joasia Zakrzewski was disqualified from GB Ultra M2L Ultra Race, held over the Easter weekend.

Where is the line between the search for answers and a witch hunt?

It’s not often ultra running hits the mainstream media but this week it has and it has not reflected well on our sport.

So what happened?

On Friday 7th April GB Ultras hosted the Manchester to Liverpool Ultra. A 50 mile race following the Trans Pennine Trail, the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey, this popular race has been going for 8 years.

It turns out that the previous 48hr ladies record holder Joasia Zakrzewski claimed third place, when she should have dnf’d at the last checkpoint. Evidence from Strava showed she travelled in a car for a couple of miles. News of this first hit social media when Mel Sykes, the lady who subsequently took 3rd place after Dr Zakrzewski was disqualified, shared her triumph and sadness at the situation on Twitter.

The alarm was raised by runners who contacted the race director, Wayne Drinkwater, with their concerns. Mainly this seemed to be backed up by Dr Zakrzewski’s own data on her Strava feed. This was later confirmed by the tracking company GB Tracking.

Looking for answers

On hearing the news, I emailed Wayne, Dr Zakrzewski and GB Tracking to ask for their comments. Wayne replied with a Press Release:

Following the conclusion of the 2023 GB Ultras Manchester to Liverpool Ultra 50 mile ultramarathon, we received information that a runner had gained a unsporting, competitive advantage during a section of the event which would have affected the standing and integrity of the results.

The issue has been investigated and, having reviewed the data from our race tracking system, gpx data, statements provided from our event team, other competitors and from the participant herself, we can confirm that a runner has now been disqualified from the event having taken vehicle transport during part of the route.

As well as having updated our finisher results, the details and Race Director’s investigation and report of the disqualification have been submitted to the Trail Running Association who provide the licence for this event and are an associate member of the UKA.  The matter is now with the TRA and, in turn, UK Athletics (UKA) as the regulatory bodies. 

No further details can be given at this time. 

Neither Dr Zakrzewski nor GB Tracking has replied to me.

While the investigation with the Trail Running Association and English Athletics is under way, nobody seems to be talking. Dr Zakrzewski issued a statement this morning via the BBC with the following comments explaining her actions: 

Comments from Dr Zakrzewski

“When I got to the checkpoint I told them I was pulling out and that I had been in the car, and they said ‘you will hate yourself if you stop’,” Dr Zakrzewski said.

“I agreed to carry on in a non-competitive way.

“I made sure I didn’t overtake the runner in front when I saw her as I didn’t want to interfere with her race.”

“I was tired and jetlagged and felt sick.

“I hold my hands up, I should have handed them back and not had pictures done but I was feeling unwell and spaced out and not thinking clearly.”

What happened has raised many questions in the ultra running world. “Why” is always the main question when somebody cheats. But particularly so in this scenario. Joasia Zakrzewski is an elite athlete, competing in a race that offered nothing beyond training miles and UTMB index points. She has gained huge respect in the sport for her achievements and still has much to offer the Great Britain team. 

Running for GB

Women in sport have come so far to equalise their achievements and this casts a pall over that too. I’m told Dr Zakrzewski is to be part of the GB team at the next 24 hour championship, but surely this must set back the announcement. 

It is easy to draw conclusions from sparse information. Snippets of gossip on social media, screenshots of data, the Daily Mail was even more shocking than usual in its assertions and inaccuracies. So how do we reach the truth without creating a witch hunt in the process? 

It is hard to imagine how an experienced elite runner can say “I hold my hands up, I should have handed them back and not had pictures done but I was feeling unwell and spaced out and not thinking clearly.” . When you cross the finish line in a podium position, you are not immediately given a trophy. There’s some time to gather the 1st and 2nd place participants, to create some sort of ceremony for those successful. There is time to consider what has transpired. Time to say no when the trophy is then passed over.

How did this happen?

She stated “I was tired and jetlagged and felt sick.” So why continue then? Why bother getting out of the car? Why not drive directly to the finish to report her DNF? 

“When I got to the checkpoint I told them I was pulling out and that I had been in the car, and they said ‘you will hate yourself if you stop'”.

This is difficult to believe. No checkpoint staff would persuade a runner to continue if they knew she had been in a car. And for an elite runner to suggest she was somehow persuaded to finish by the volunteers is also disingenuous. She’s no amateur; she will know and be able to read her body as an elite athlete. And she wouldn’t need the encourage of checkpoint staff to finish a race she didn’t need to finish.

The main cause of a witch hunt is when information is supplied only from one side. Social media can go into a frenzy of speculation. In this instance, Dr Zakrzewski only released a statement a few hours ago. Her explanations are insufficient to explain exactly what happened. 

Conclusion

I spoke to Mel Sykes, who was awarded 3rd place in Dr Zakrzewski’s place. She told me:

“This wasn’t about a trophy, a medal or a podium place. I race because I love it. This is about integrity, fairness and doing the right thing. Whatever the reason for taking the car, it’s the action afterwards that matters. This means owning up to your mistake, taking it on the chin and telling the truth. It’s just such a shame for running”

It does seem particularly puzzling that this elite runner would risk so much for cheating on so little. Which suggests there must be a reasonable explanation. Yet the dots don’t line up and until they do, even if she genuinely made errors of judgement, she will be viewed with suspicion until those questions are answered.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like this article about Mark Robson and this one about Kelly Aggnew

Header image: istock

Update: 15th November 2023

The BBC announced today that Dr Zakrezewski has been banned for 12 months by UK Athletics for using a car in a race.

Read the article here

"It’s not often ultra running hits the mainstream media but this week it has and it has not reflected well on our sport."

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