Turia Pitt was only a quarter into the 100K Kimberley Ultramarathon in Australia in 2011 when disaster struck: She and three other runners were trapped by a bushfire in a narrow, rocky gorge.
Because flames surrounded them, it was difficult for emergency workers to get in to help. “It was so surreal, it felt like a nightmare, and we had to wait four hours for help to come,” says Pitt. Finally a helicopter was able to rescue the runners.
As a volunteer with the local paramedics team, Pitt recognized the emergency worker that came to help her, but the worker did not recognize Pitt, who had third-degree burns over 65% of her body.
Pitt’s next clear memory was about a month later, when she woke up in the burn unit of a Sydney hospital. She could not even see her body because most of it was wrapped in bandages.
Though she initially went home after six months, she would end up spending a total of 864 days in the hospital, undergoing more than 200 surgeries. In addition to skin grafts, she had most of her fingers amputated. Her nose was eventually reconstructed using skin from her forehead.
Just as devastating was the loss of the fit and healthy body she was used to. Weighing less than 100 pounds, Pitt couldn’t even sit up in bed on her own.
“Doctors told me I would never run again and that was a massive moment for me. You know, I was 24 years old, my whole life was ahead of me and I'd always prided myself and drawn a lot of my self-belief from my athletic ability,” says Pitt.
Yet she refused to let the doctors’ words or her new body's limitations define her. “I just thought, I’m going to show you. I’m going to do an Ironman one day,” Pitt remembers. Not only did she want to prove she could run again, she wanted to compete in the world’s toughest single day endurance event—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run.
Pitt’s training started from her hospital bed. In physical therapy, she began not with miles, but single steps—first 10 steps, then 15, and so on.
An Ironman is difficult for the best of athletes, but Pitt had a few more obstacles to face: She wasn’t a swimmer or a cyclist, and her missing fingers made swimming and operating a standard bicycle extra challenging. And she couldn’t regulate her body temperature because the burns destroyed a large portion of her sweat glands.
As if that was not enough to overcome, after getting released from the hospital, she was laid off from her job as a mining engineer because her company was downsizing.
“I felt like a real loser because my partner Michael and I were living at my in-laws’ place, I didn’t have a job, and we were on benefits. I felt like my life had gone from this massive high to this all-time low,” says Pitt.
When she left the hospital she could walk, but it was about a year before she could run again—only about half a football field at first, but she slowly built up her strength. “The more I gained my physical abilities, the more I felt like me,” says Pitt.
Starting in 2014, Pitt put an Ironman training schedule together and got specialized handlebars made for her bicycle so she would be able to brake and switch gears with the few fingers she had remaining. (“I must admit, I get a bit nervous going downhill,” she says.) In 2015 she finished a half marathon, running faster than she had before her accident. With that race under her belt, she began thinking an Ironman was within reach.
Along the way, she was named an official ambassador for Interplast, an organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to people in developing countries in the Asia Pacific region.
After a year and a half of training, in May 2016, Pitt finally competed in Ironman Australia. She crossed the finish line in 13 hours, 24 minutes, and 42 seconds, coming in 137th out of 263 women.
“When I came down the finishing chute—that is an experience that no amount of money can buy because it is a culmination of hours of training and all the sacrifices you’ve made,” says Pitt. “I think I’m addicted to that feeling.”
It is a feeling she hopes to experience all over again on October 8, when she competes in the 2016 Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“When I’m in pain or I want to quit I just remind myself of everything I’ve gone through,” says Pitt. “I really believe anyone can do anything if they just put their mind to it, and take one step at a time.”