You are using an outdated browser.
For a better experience, please upgrade your browser here.

“We are not defined by what happens to us, but by how we choose to respond.”

At age twenty-four, a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter an ultramarathon in the outback of Australia changed my life in every imaginable way.

That time in my life was idyllic. I was young, working my dream job as a mining engineer in a diamond mine, and living in a remote part of the Australian desert—an incredible place for an adventure-loving person like me. Weekends were spent rock climbing, fishing, and exploring the remote wilderness with my boyfriend, Michael.

I loved running and keeping fit and so, when the opportunity presented itself to compete in a hundred-kilometer ultramarathon, I jumped at the chance.

I was only a quarter of my way through the race, just past the first twenty-five-kilometer marker, when I entered a gorge and was faced by a wall of flames. Six of us had been trapped in the gorge by an out of control grass fire, with nowhere to run.

My memory of this moment, and the ones that followed, are hazy—confused by adrenaline, shock, and time—but there are a few moments of lucidity that I can recall.

I remember running, looking down at the ground, and being exhausted.

I remember hearing what I thought were trucks on the highway.

I remember looking up and being face-to-face with a wall of flames.

I remember the split-second decision I had to make. Do I run up the side of the gorge, knowing that fires go quicker uphill? Or do I stay on the valley floor, knowing that the shoulder-high dry grass would be perfect fuel for the flames?

When the fire finally caught me, I remember looking down at my arms and seeing them ablaze.

In the end I chose the hill and started running. When the fire finally caught me, I remember looking down at my arms and seeing them ablaze. I was screaming with terror, and I remember thinking, “I’m never going to see Michael again.”

After the fire had passed I was still screaming because it all felt so surreal—like I was watching a bad horror movie. Hours later, I was choppered out with burns to more than 65 percent of my body.

I was placed in an induced coma, and I didn’t wake up for another month. While I was sleeping, the medical team worked around the clock to save me.

When you’re burned, the first thing that surgeons will do is remove all of your damaged skin. Then they need something to cover you with; otherwise, you can easily pick up an infection. The best stuff to use is cadaver skin—skin from a deceased donor—because it has infection-fighting properties, plus it helps to regulate body temperature.

Unfortunately, there was no cadaver skin in Australia at the time of my accident.

Instead, my surgeons were forced to use a plastic skin substitute. When they covered me with the plastic skin, I went downhill fast—my liver started failing, my kidneys started failing, and once again I was in critical condition.

My surgeons frantically searched the world for some skin tissue and managed to find some in America.

Then came their next problem. In Australia, it is illegal to import any skin tissue—customs would not let the package of life-saving skin through.

In a race against time, my doctors put it plain and simple: “If you do not let this skin through, she will die.”

The skin was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors performed miracles: not only did they bring me back from death, but they also managed to keep me in stable condition.

Recovery was uncertain. I passed away three times on the operating table, lost seven of my fingers, and endured more than two hundred medical procedures.

My self-esteem was tied up with what my body could do, so that was pretty rough to deal with.

After the fire I had to learn how to do everything again—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.

When the doctor told me I would never run again, I remember thinking, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you—I’m going to do an Ironman one day!” At the time, I didn’t even really know what an Ironman was—I just knew it was an incredible physical and mental challenge, one I needed.

If I could achieve it, I would prove to everyone, especially myself, that I would not be defined by the fire. I wanted to prove that I could be fitter, faster, and stronger than before the fire. It was a goal that consumed me.

Every day my mum and my partner, Michael, would come to the hospital and get me out of bed, saying, “Come on, Turia, time for your Ironman training.” Even if it was a short walk down the corridor or taking on a few stairs, it was always a step closer to that big goal.

Throughout my recovery, I’ve stayed focused on that goal. Initially, of course, I had to get back to a base level of fitness—the list of milestones moved from climbing one flight of stairs, to walking laps of the hallways, and then slowly easing back into running.

In 2014, I decided it was time to start training specifically for an Ironman. The day I signed up, I couldn’t run more than five kilometers, but for the next eighteen months I put everything I had into my training.

In May 2016, my goal was realised when I crossed the finish line of my first Ironman competition. A 3.8-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer bike ride, and 42-kilometer run completed in just over thirteen hours. I was filled with absolute elation.

A few months later, I was invited to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii—it was a race that demanded more of me than I could have imagined. Crossing that finish line was like nothing else—it was a moment of pure clarity. If I could do this, I could do anything.

My journey has been one of intense lows and supreme highs, and through it all I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by some amazing people, especially my mum and my incredible partner, Michael, who never left my side.

As I write this recap of my journey, I am six months pregnant with our first child. It feels like life has come full circle.

Parenthood is the next challenge on my horizon, and I hope to pass on some of the big lessons from my life to our son. I want to teach him about resilience—about how the tough times make us stronger. I want him to know that we are not defined by what happens to us, but by how we choose to respond.

And I want him to know that he is capable of more than he ever thinks possible. I’m proud to be living proof of that.

By Turia Pitt

Health, Illness & Injury