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Life Unmasked: Turia Pitt

A near-deadly accident sparked survivor Turia Pitt's unwavering determination to return to endurance sports.

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A rampant blaze during an ultramarathon burned more than half of her body, but for survivor Turia Pitt, the near-deadly accident sparked an unwavering determination to return to endurance sports.

For four hours, Turia Pitt lay at the top of a gorge, waiting for paramedics to airlift her scorched body to safety. Around her was the aftermath of a rapid-moving bush fire that trapped her and three other runners in its flames during the middle of Australia’s Kimberley 100K Ultramarathon. Everything in sight was charred.

Unable to outrun the towering flames, Turia had covered her head with a jacket and screamed as the air temperature climbed and the fire moved closer. Only 30K into the race, and with nowhere to run, the athlete nearly lost her life in the wild fire.

Later, doctors would tell her that the accident had left 65 percent of her body covered in burns. This was after a month-long medically induced coma, amputation of several fingers and losing a pulse three times on the operating table.

“It’s kind of strange—I often wonder if it was my destiny or if I’m just really unlucky,” Turia says.

Born on the tropical island of Tahiti to an Australian surfer and a stunning Tahitian mother, Turia inherited good looks and a love for the ocean’s best waves. After falling in love as young teenagers, her parents had two children: Genji, her older brother, and Turia. The family returned to Australia when Turia was 2, settling in New South Wales. Although Turia bounced between different elementary and high schools, running became a constant in her life.

Turia racked up a few state championship finishes in high school cross country, thanks to her natural endurance talent and drive to succeed. She went on to earn a double degree with honors in mining engineering and science from University of New South Wales despite warnings from peers and professors that the heavy workload and intense science and engineering courses would be too difficult.

Her determination resulted in a position with Rio Tinto, a prestigious Argyle Diamond Mine, after graduation. This, along with her other accomplishments, earned her New South Wales Premier’s Woman of the Year, given to a female who excels in her area of expertise and makes a significant achievement in a male-dominated space—an honor awarded to only three women annually.

“If you want me to do something—all you have to do is tell me that it can’t be done!” Turia has said.

Modeling helped Turia pay her way through college and, in 2007, she was a contestant on Miss Earth Australia, one of the largest beauty pageants in the world. Then in 2009, Turia met Michael Hoskin. The pair fell in love and moved together to be close to Turia’s work at the mine.

Turia credits the ability to overcome obstacles with her survival following the fire, which nearly took her life. “I definitely would have died if I wasn’t living in such a first-world country,” she says.

In 2011, Turia had briefly considered entering the Kimberley 100K before balking at the $1,500 registration fee. However, due to low numbers, organizers offered her a free entry to get some extra runners for a film segment.

One-third of the way into the race, Turia was running through El Questro Wilderness Park when she and a few other runners saw the fire coming toward them. The blaze, which had been burning a few miles away in the days leading up to the event, suddenly burned closer due to an unexpected wind change.

In an interview with a local news station last year, Turia explained, “I was quite scared. We could stay on the valley floor, but there was a lot of vegetation, which we thought would be perfect fuel for the fire. Or we could go up the side of the gorge. I knew that fires went quicker uphill, but there was less vegetation, so…we all chose the hill.”

While all the runners survived, Turia and fellow competitor Kate Sanderson suffered near-deadly burns. After being airlifted to safety, Turia went into an induced coma while surgeons imported skin from California. She lost the fingers on her right hand, and the fire partially fused her left fingers together.

Over the last three years, she has endured hundreds of operations, accruing more than 800 hospital bills. As recently as last November, she underwent the second of three risky surgeries to reconstruct her nose.

Slow recovery aside, Turia says that one of the most difficult aspects of her rehabilitation was the inability to run, which she says had been her “form of stress relief.”

“It’s pretty frustrating for me, coming from being a really athletic person, to having to be content with learning the basic tasks again—learning how to stand, learning how to sit, learning how to raise my arms 90 degrees, learning how to feed myself, those kinds of things,” Turia explains of the rehab process. “So I guess—I was really happy that I could achieve all those milestones, but it was a bit demoralizing as well.”

Released from hospital care in March 2012, Turia returned home with Michael, who quit his job to provide full-time care, which at times included feeding and bathing her.

The young runner chronicled her story in Everything to Live For, an autobiography released in August 2013. On the cover, she wore a hoodie, body suit and compression mask over her entire face. In a way, at the time, the mask had become her identity. For the former model, her new face, one that brought her to tears the first time she saw it, was tough to grasp. Initially “inconsolable” after getting a first glance, today Turia has shed the mask and is on a mission to reclaim her life.

Looking back, Turia scoffs at her concern with her appearance. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to present the best version of yourself,” she says. “But you don’t want it to stop you living your life the way you want to.”

Now 27 years old and more than three years removed from the race that changed her life, Turia travels the world as a motivational speaker. Michael works as her public relations manager, allowing the duo to continue to inspire through Turia’s story of survival and the example of their unbreakable bond.

She is also an ambassador for active apparel brand Lorna Jane—and she’s returned to competition. Turia explains that her road to fitness was marked with small victories that bore out big success, like one-minute-long stationary bike rides that developed into a cycle event in March 2014, where Turia and Michael rode 4,000K from Sydney to Uluru, Australia, to raise funds for charity. This three-day affair was Turia’s first huge athletic achievement since the accident.

Three months after her cycling trip, Turia returned for the first time to the outback region where the ultramarathon had taken place. Together with three other burn survivors, she completed a 20K swim—six exhausting hours in the water—across Lake Argyle. While the others opted to return to the site of the tragedy following the swim, Turia chose to stay away. She says that while she may never get full closure, she’s accepted what happened.

“One of the blessing that has come from this is I’ve discovered just how strong I really am,” Turia said in an interview with “60 Minutes,” which documented the swim. “We all have that inner strength inside of us. We just never get tested; we never get a chance to see just how strong we really are.”

Later that same month, she and 22 other women braved the heat and walked the Great Wall of China to raise $200K for Interplast, a charity for which Turia is an advocate and ambassador.

“[Interplast] sends qualified plastic surgeons to developing countries, Laos, Nepal, Burma, and they just provide free reconstructive surgery,” she says of the nonprofit. “That’s what I like about it—you can see the tangible impact that it has, and it just improves the quality of the patient’s life straightaway.”

Together with Michael, Turia witnessed the impact firsthand during a trip to Laos last year, where she observed the actual struggles of young burn victims, an experience that she says was extra difficult to see after knowing the pain intimately. This year, Turia will raise even more dollars and awareness as she and the group of women plan to tackle Peru’s Inca Trail.

If you ask Turia how—and why—she executes so many demanding endurance feats, her answer is remarkably humble: “I definitely don’t do it all, but I certainly try,” she says with a laugh. Training is never a question and rarely regimented for Turia. Instead, it’s her why-not-go-for-it outlook that keeps her moving through her ongoing rehabilitation.

Although her return to running has been slow since the accident, Turia has every intention of completing an Ironman in 2016. For now, the runner is focusing on more 5Ks and yoga, a “new development” for her and her coach, Emily Bingham, a longtime grade-school friend.

“What stands out for me [about Turia] is her unstoppable nature and determination to complete whatever it is I set aside,” says Emily. “She does not say no; she very rarely discontinues the task we set out to achieve!”

Turia continues her mission to reclaim her identity—and life—against all odds, some predicting she wouldn’t survive, let alone continue competing in the endurance space. The runner is living proof of the power of casting off excuses and embracing free will.