On September 2nd 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 bushfire. 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 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.’
Find your greatness
To know your potential, know yourself, says Turia. She advises asking the questions below (shown with her answers).
1/ What is one thing you love about yourself? My sense of humour.
2/ What is a moment of success you’ve made happen? Finishing Ironman.
3/ Describe a time you felt happy about what was happening. When I found out the people around me were coming to Hawaii.
4/ Think of a challenge you overcame. How did it feel to triumph over adversity? Do I really have to answer that one?
Additional reporting by Sam Murphy