‘I Feel So Bloody Proud Of My­self’

Hor­rific in­juries in a bush fire have not dimmed Turia Pitt’s re­mark­able spirit

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The re­mark­able Aussie ul­tra run­ner Turia Pitt

ON SEPTEM­BER 2, 2011, Turia Pitt toed the line of a race that would change her life for­ever – a 100km ul­tra marathon in the Kim­ber­ley re­gion of Western Aus­tralia. About 30km into the race, Turia, along with a hand­ful of other com­peti­tors, be­came trapped by a 2km-wide bush fire. Un­able to out­run the fast-mov­ing blaze, she suf­fered se­vere burns to 65 per cent of her body. Doc­tors did not think she would sur­vive.

But last Oc­to­ber, Turia was on an­other start line – the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onships in Kona, Hawaii. An Iron­man triathlon is an enor­mous un­der­tak­ing: a 3.8km swim fol­lowed by a 180km bike ride and a full marathon. But imag­ine swim­ming that 3.8km with your fists closed, or rid­ing 180km when you can’t grip the han­dle­bars of your bike – that’s what Turia had to do, be­cause four of her fingers and one thumb had to be am­pu­tated as a re­sult of her in­juries. There was also the chal­lenge of reg­u­lat­ing her body tem­per­a­ture while she ran. Turia’s burns mean her skin can’t sweat, so run­ning 42km dur­ing the hottest part of the day in Hawaii re­quired reg­u­lar pit stops to pour wa­ter over her­self. It was, the 29-year-old ad­mits, bru­tal: ‘I’m to­tally ec­static to have fin­ished. I feel so bloody proud of my­self!’ Turia com­pleted the race in 14:37:30, and while she hasn’t hung up her rac­ing shoes, the event does mark a

kind of clo­sure. ‘Af­ter the fire I had to learn how to do ev­ery­thing again,’ says Turia, who lives with her fi­ancé, Michael Hoskin, in Ul­ladulla, a coastal town in New South Wales. ‘Ev­ery­thing from walk­ing and talk­ing to eat­ing and dress­ing. I’d al­ways been su­per-ac­tive and my self-es­teem was tied up with what my body could do, so that was pretty rough to deal with.’ All in all, she spent 864 days in hospi­tal and had 200 op­er­a­tions.

When she left hospi­tal, she was un­able to re­turn to her ca­reer in mining en­gi­neer­ing. ‘I was liv­ing with my in-laws; we were on Cen­tre­link [gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits]. I thought, “Who am I now? I don’t have a job, I can’t run.” I wanted to make some­thing mean­ing­ful out of it all.’

When doc­tors told the ath­lete she was un­likely to run again, it didn’t go down well. ‘I re­mem­ber think­ing, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you – I’m go­ing to do an Iron­man one day!” The funny thing was, I didn’t fully un­der­stand what an Iron­man en­tailed. All I knew was that it was an in­cred­i­ble phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenge, and if I could achieve it, I would prove to ev­ery­one – es­pe­cially my­self – that I was fit­ter, faster and stronger than be­fore the fire.’

Turia shared her jour­ney to Kona via her blog and so­cial me­dia ac­counts, in which she de­tailed her gru­elling, 20-hour-plus train­ing weeks. A midrun post to her 91,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers was re­fresh­ingly hon­est: ‘Re­ally did not want to train this morn­ing. Some­times the grind of goal-get­ting is mo­not­o­nous and bor­ing and just plain hard.’

Her coach, Bruce Thomas, says Turia’s men­tal tough­ness is her great­est as­set. ‘Once she de­cides to do some­thing, she just goes about ex­e­cut­ing it.’

Turia com­pleted her first Iron­man in May last year, in the New South Wales town of Port Mac­quarie. She felt she’d proved her point to the col­lec­tive ‘them’ who sug­gested she set more rea­son­able goals such as get­ting her driv­ing li­cence back and ‘maybe even’ get­ting mar­ried (Michael pro­posed to her in 2015).

Her mo­ti­va­tion for tak­ing on Kona was dif­fer­ent. The de­ci­sion to go was partly spurred by the death of Mar­tin Van der Merwe, a South African run­ner who was also in­jured in the Kim­ber­ley race fire. Mar­tin had been out train­ing for a race when he was killed in a col­li­sion with a truck. ‘I’d al­ways thought: “OK I’ve been burned, noth­ing else can hap­pen to me now”,’ says Turia. ‘I felt in­vin­ci­ble. But Mar­tin’s death re­in­forced that our time on this planet is so fleet­ing and frag­ile, we have to em­brace what­ever time we have. You can ei­ther live a half life and never take a risk, or you can say, “F*** it. I’m here and I’m go­ing to live as best I can. I’ll take a few risks and if things don’t work out, that’s OK”.’

Turia is a house­hold name in Aus­tralia and tours the world as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker. In 2014, she won the New South Wales Premier’s Woman of the Year Award; more re­cently, she was a state fi­nal­ist in the 2017 Aus­tralian of the Year Awards. ‘I think I’m in a good spot now,’ she says. ‘I can in­flu­ence peo­ples’ lives in a re­ally pos­i­tive

‘ I’m here and I’m go­ing to live as best I can. I’ll take a few risks and if things don’t work out, that’s OK’.

way and it’s in­cred­i­ble.’ Last year, more than 7,000 peo­ple signed up for one of her goal-set­ting pro­grammes. Par­tic­i­pants have re­ported leav­ing vi­o­lent re­la­tion­ships, chang­ing ca­reers, sign­ing up for marathons and find­ing the strength to re­cover from phys­i­cal and men­tal set­backs.

Turia do­nates 10 per cent of all her earn­ings to In­ter­plast, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that helps to pro­vide re­con­struc­tive surgery to peo­ple in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. She’s also raised AUS $1 mil­lion for the not-for-profit body. As she takes to the stage in Mel­bourne, the lat­est stop on a na­tional tour, her cropped red top shows off her scarred stom­ach. ‘You have to wear it like a boss,’ she says of her body. Gi­ant im­ages are pro­jected onto the screen be­hind her. There’s one of Turia and the other run­ners be­ing res­cued from the bush­fire. An­other of Turia in hospi­tal. And then a video of her mum and Michael cheer­ing as Turia, wear­ing a black com­pres­sion mask and moon boots, climbs her first flight of stairs since the fire.

It’s no won­der her fi­nal mes­sage of the night res­onates. ‘Do we curl up or do we step up?’ she asks. ‘What­ever your goal, chal­lenge your­self and see what it is that you’re made of. Be­cause I be­lieve all of us are ca­pa­ble of great­ness – you just have to go af­ter it.’

NEVER GIVE UP Aus­tralian ul­tra run­ner Turia Pitt sur­vived a bush­fire, tack­led Iron­man and now in­spires oth­ers to achieve

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