Deanna Blegg: En­durance ath­lete.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents|The Week - Paul Con­nolly

Deanna Blegg, 48, en­durance ath­lete

Women’s win­ner 2013 World’s Tough­est Mud­der

I’ve al­ways loved be­ing ac­tive. As a kid my pun­ish­ment for act­ing up was not be­ing al­lowed to play sport. Even when I was re­ally lit­tle Mum says that when she took me the one kilo­me­tre to kin­der, I would get out of the pusher and shuf­fle be­side it.

Be­cause I had asthma I started swim­ming quite young. Then in pri­mary school I started cross-coun­try run­ning and was a state cham­pion. I’m nat­u­rally an en­durance ath­lete. In my early teens I used to push my­self so hard that when I crossed the line my eyes would roll back in my head and I’d col­lapse. They got to know me on the cross-coun­try cir­cuit so they’d have peo­ple at the fin­ish line to catch me.

Where does this de­sire come from? I’m not one of those peo­ple who pon­der why. I just do. Win­ning is al­ways my goal, but what mo­ti­vates me is to do and be the best I can. The more I come up against, the more de­ter­mined I am.

When I left school I worked as a garbo for years – back in the days when you ran be­hind the truck. It was great train­ing. Then, at 23, I trav­elled for a cou­ple of years. I went all over: Asia, Europe, Africa. I lived on a shoe­string. I hitched ev­ery­where, I’d sleep wher­ever: haystacks, on build­ing sites, un­der a sheet of tin leaned up against some­one’s house. It was crazy but I just wanted to travel as long as I could.

To­wards the end of that trip I dis­cov­ered I had HIV. This was in 1994 when those “grim reaper” ads were on TV. The di­ag­no­sis blew the life out of me. But I didn’t stop trav­el­ling. I thought, “I don’t have long to live and I love trav­el­ling so I’ll keep do­ing it.” I went back to Africa, spend­ing three months in Ethiopia.

When I was there later in 1994 my cousin, Danielle, and I were taken hostage by ban­dits. She was shot and killed. That was the fi­nal straw. I came home. Soon I was di­ag­nosed with AIDS and given six months to live. By early 1996 I was re­ally ill with an AIDS-defin­ing ill­ness. Thank­fully by mid-’96 med­i­ca­tion be­came avail­able and I’m only alive now be­cause of it. Prior to the med­i­ca­tion I’d been liv­ing but wait­ing to die. But the drugs al­lowed my body to fight and heal and I vowed to get what­ever I could out of life.

Af­ter go­ing back to be­ing a garbo I had a daugh­ter in 1998 and a son in 2003. I also got post­na­tal de­pres­sion. A coun­sel­lor rec­om­mended ex­er­cise. So I started train­ing and be­came a per­sonal trainer my­self. In 2005 I saw an ad for an ad­ven­ture race – in­volv­ing swim­ming, pad­dling, bike rid­ing and run­ning – and I en­tered. I loved it.

I com­peted in more ad­ven­ture races for five years be­fore I heard of the World’s Tough­est Mud­der (WTM). This is an ob­sta­cle race in the USA where you com­plete as many five-mile [eight-kilo­me­tre] laps as you can in 24 hours. It takes a toll on your body. I walk through the tran­si­tion zone af­ter ev­ery lap to eat and re­fuel – I once con­sumed two litres of honey in a race – but I never stop to rest. That’s not me.

In 2012 I went in the event and com­pleted about 85 miles [137 kilo­me­tres], fin­ish­ing as the sec­ond fe­male, and third over­all. This was against a field of 1400. I was so pumped. It re­in­forced to me that I could still com­pete, that HIV/AIDS hadn’t taken it from me. I won the open women’s WTM the fol­low­ing year and went on a spree for years of hav­ing awe­some race af­ter awe­some race, earn­ing enough prize­money to pay for my plane fares and costs.

In 2015 I came third in the WTM but it hurt ev­ery step. I just wasn’t right. In early 2016, on my birth­day, I dis­cov­ered a lump on my ribs, which turned out to be ag­gres­sive breast can­cer. It was a case of here we go again. I had a lumpec­tomy, then chemo. Which I hope I’ll never have to do again. It sucked the life out of my body. I con­tin­ued train­ing through it but by my fourth round I could barely find en­ergy for a walk.

The can­cer made me de­ter­mined to come back bet­ter and fit­ter and stronger than I ever was. I don’t think I have to prove any­thing to my­self or any­one else. I just don’t want can­cer to be the rea­son to fall back­wards.

Af­ter sit­ting out the 2016 WTM event I’m all set for the 2017 event [held this week­end in Ne­vada]. This year I have trained well and done lots of miles. I’m the most pre­pared I’ve ever been. In the lead-up I’ve av­er­aged 80 to 120 kilo­me­tres a week run­ning, and about five CrossFit ses­sions [of one hour]. I’m not one of those ath­letes who use GPS watches or strict sched­ules in train­ing. I just get up and do what­ever feels right on the day.

This race is go­ing to be the best yet. When you’ve won be­fore, you have ex­pec­ta­tions on you. But this year, go­ing back, peo­ple will know I’ve been on a jour­ney, so I won’t have those ex­pec­ta­tions on me. I missed it last year. The WTM is a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal. There’s noth­ing like it. The Amer­i­cans are full-on, but there’s so much ca­ma­raderie.

• Ev­ery­one has ev­ery­one’s back. It’s go­ing to be amaz­ing.

PAUL CON­NOLLY is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and the ed­i­tor of the an­thol­ogy Fa­ther Fig­ures.

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