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Turia Pitt Read by Brooklinn Khoury

Turia Pitt, an ambitious mining engineer, ultramarathon runner, model and motivational speaker, proves that anything is possible. After surviving a deathly brushfire, she has remade her life through grit, determination, and a fierce inner strength.

Get to Know Brooklinn Khoury

Meet skateboarder, surfer, and social media star, Brooklinn Khoury! Brooklinn openly shares her recovery process online after experiencing a terrible accident. She brings us the story of athlete, author, speaker, and burn survivor, Turia Pitt!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Brooklinn Khoury. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

 

Turia Pitt sprang from the starting line in Australia’s New South Wales. On one side of her, the teal-blue Pacific Ocean lapped at golden beaches. On the other, palm trees swayed in the breeze. Turia was competing in an Ironman race, which meant she’d already swam 3.86 kilometers, and ridden her bike 180 kilometers! Now, she had to run 42 kilo meters! 

It was an incredible feat for anyone to attempt. But especially for Turia, since just a few years before, she was told she might never walk again.

I’ m Brooklinn Khoury. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Turia Pitt, a mining engineer, ultramarathon runner, model, and motivational speaker, who’s defied all odds to cross one finish line after another.

Turia grew up in the stunningly beautiful coastal town of Ulladulla, Australia, which Turia calls the “sickest surfing spot” on the whole coast. When she was little, she loved surfing with her father, balancing on one of his homemade surfboards, in awe of the roaring ocean. At night, exhausted after a day riding the waves, she fell asleep to the clicke ty clack of her mother writing stories on her typewriter. Those stories were filled with mana, a Polynesian word Turia’s mom often used that meant love, and forgiveness, energy and courage all in one. 

Turia’s father had a way with water and her mother, a way with words. Turia inherited both.

On Friday nights, Turia’s mother took her and her brothers to the library to pick oubt books for the weekend. Turia was fascinated by the library — especially all the books on geology and the natural world. Learning about nature felt so full of magic and possibility. 

 Sometimes, though, the magic fell away, like when Turia’s parents fought. Listening in, she didn’t know what to do with the worry coursing through her body. She wanted to unleash it, but how? 

One day, during a big fight, Turia felt the walls closing in on her. She burst out the door and broke into a run. She had no plan; no idea where she was going. She just raced down the street, trying to leave all the anger and worry far behind. 

Soon she was panting; her legs aching. But, the more she ran, the calmer she felt. Her mind and heart focused on putting one foot in front of the other, feeling the fresh air on her skin. She felt the whole world expanding, giving her new space to move an d grow. From that day on, Turia turned to running to carve out new paths of peace wherever she could.

In 2011, those paths led Turia to the starting line of Australia’s 100-kilometer ultra marathon, surrounded by picturesque canyons, outback and wildlife.

It had taken a lot to get here. At this point, Turia was twenty four years old. She had a successful career as a mining engineer and was an accomplished long-distance runner. She was also in love with a man named Michael, and they were trying to save money to build a future together. While Turia really wanted to do this race, she knew the registration fees were too expensive. 

Then, just two weeks before the ultra marathon, the race organizers contacted Turia and offered to let her in for free — they wanted more local runners like her to take part. Turia was thrilled! And very nervous. After all, athletes usually train for months or years before an ultra marathon. But Turia refused to let fear cloud her focus. She spent those two weeks conditioning and preparing. 

After a whirlwind of training, she arrived in Australia’s rough, rugged, and remote Kimberely region, her whole body quivering with excitement. At the starting line, she slipped on her headphones and played her favorite music to channel all of her energy into moving forward. 

“Go girl!” she told herself. “You got this!” 

Soon, Turia was bounding across the dusty red earth, free and full of spirit. The landscape was incredible — with rust colored dirt and wide open spaces, it looked almost like Mars. The spindly grasses and craggy trees rose ahead of her like odd-shaped clouds. 

Turia knew this race could take many hours, so to entertain herself, she tapped into her childhood love of storytelling, imagining herself as the star of a thrilling adventure. Go! she told herself, pretending she was on a secret mission. You have an important message to deliver! Lost in the music she was listening to and the story she was inventing, she almost didn’t notice the low rumbling sound around her. But as it grew louder, she couldn’t ignore it. 

She slipped off her head phones. Oh, she thought. I’m about a quarter of the way through the race. That must be the sound of the highway approaching! 

With a burst of  new energy, she ran toward the sound, pushing herself onward. Until she looked up and saw —

Fire. 

The rumbling sound—it hadn’t been the highway. It was a raging fire heading straight toward her through the bush and tall grasses. Turia stopped, searching for an alternate route, but there was none. She saw fellow runners in the same predicament and together, they searched for a way to escape. The only thing they found was a steep, rocky embankment off to one side. As Turia scrambled up, she felt a wild panic bubbling up inside her, the fire so close now. She tried to imagine Michael’s warm smile at the top of the embankment, welcoming her home…

Turia still remembers the tch tch tch sound of the helicopter racing across the sky to rescue her and her fellow runners. As they were lifted out of the wilderness, it was clear they were all very badly hurt. Turia was burned over about 65% of her body. She had to have many operations and skin grafts. Still, she was grateful to be alive.
It was a very long and agonizing time in the hospital. Turia tried to approach recovery scientifically and logically, building from one small victory to the next. First one step. Then two. 

One day, Turia’s goal was to climb a stair. Her family looked on while, flanked by therapists, she used all her strength and focus to bend her leg and shift her weight forward. It was so brutal. As her body throbbed with pain, she heard Michael clapping and shouting, “Well done!” 

Turia felt a flash of anger. 

“What are you celebrating for?” she asked. She used to be an elite athlete. Now the bar was so low he was proud she climbed a single stair?

It’s not that Turia didn’t appreciate his support. She did. Her friends and family had been so comforting to her. But Turia realized she had to tap into what she described as “that little piece inside me…the fire didn’t get to.” 

And so, she found a special rehab center in France, and went there…on her own. As she regained some independence, she learned to celebrate each of her accomplishments. When she returned home, her perspective had shifted.

After two years of different therapies, treatments and surgeries, the doctors told Turia it was time to remove the mask she had covering much of her face. Oh, how Turia hated that mask! It was supposed to smooth out her new skin. But it was itchy and tight and made it so hard for her to express herself. 

And yet, Turia had grown used to the barrier it created between her and the world. She knew her face was jarringly different now. Her skin was pulled and stretched into thick scars. 

Would people be afraid of her? 

Turia met her own eyes in the mirror. They were the same deep brown as always and reminded her that, inside, she was the same person, too. She mustered her bravery—her mana—and began to lift the mask. 

She had learned to walk again, step by step. Maybe, she could try that with her mask, too. She could start by going maskless with Michael and her family. Then maybe with her closest friends. Yes. That was how she’d do it. One foot in front of the other. Inching toward her new self.

“One of the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to run again,” Turia remembers. “I thought, I’m gonna show you. I’m gonna do an Ironman one day.”

It seemed far-fetched. Maybe even impossible. But she needed to do it, not just to prove her physical strength, but because running was the one thing that truly made her feel whole. And so, five years after the fire, Turia made her dream of running the Ironman come true.

On a Sunday morning in May of 2016, she stretched at the starting line, gazing out at the gorgeous skyline. For the first part of the race, Turia dove into the Hastings River — elated, but also nervous. The swim was going to be the trickiest part. Because she’d lost so many fingers, she couldn’t scoop the water like most swimmers. She’d opted not to get prosthetics because they wouldn’t be functional. So, she developed a different method of swimming that helped propel her forward. 

Once in the water, Turia felt the cool rush urging her on. She got in the zone and made it through the swim without a hitch. Next, she hopped on her adaptive bike. Again, it would be a little different this time. As she zoomed alongside the glittering Pacific, she worried about a blowout. One thing her hands couldn’t do was change a tire. But her trusty bike and her resilient body carried her across those 180 kilometers without a problem. 

Then, it was time to run! Turia had to stop occasionally to splash herself with water—her body couldn’t cool itself down like it used to. But, this part of the race was clearly her favorite. She felt that familiar path of openness and expansion before her. Her mind was soaring, her footsteps almost effortless. After more than thirteen hours, Turia heard the exuberant sound of a legion of fans—and the proud voice inside her head, too—cheering her across the finish line. “You can do it!” they cried. And she did!

In the years since the fire, Turia has accomplished an astonishing array of feats, many of them, like the Ironman, raising funds for burn victims in developing nations. She has also hiked part of the Great Wall of China, learned to sail, and given birth to two energetic boys. 

Whenever Turia’s sons ask her why she looks different from other moms, she answers them honestly. “I was burnt,” she says. “And this is a scar.” Turia has grown confident enough to pose for many magazine covers, redefining people’s ideas of beauty. She’s also written books and is one of Australia’s most sought-after motivational speakers—doing for others what her inner voice did for her. And Turia has a program that helps women establish running practices, sharing that freedom and clarity that has truly been life-changing for her.

Turia truly believes that her life is bigger and better than it was before the fire. She has everything she ever wanted and more: her loving family with Michael and the boys, a wildly successful career helping others, and the ability to run again. She lives each day channeling and sharing mana — love, forgiveness, energy and courage. Wherever she runs next, mana will be her guide.