For many of you this wonderful woman will need no introduction but for others maybe just a little. I, personally, heard of Deanna Blegg soon after my introduction to Obstacle Racing. I then had the pleasure of meeting her after sneaking into the room I was sharing with Deanna another two of the female contingency of the Australian team that was set to compete at the Spartan World Championships in Vermont in October. Numerous conversations have followed about fitness, racing, business and mission in life and I really wanted to share more of this strong and inspirational woman with you. She is a mother, we celebrate mums, and she certainly ticks the Tough Mum box – which means to me physical and emotional strength and resilience.
Deanna is living with HIV – she is a mother of two and was diagnosed at the young age of 24 – she is also the stand out female in Australian Obstacle Racing. Deanna comes from an adventure racing background so obstacle racing was a natural transition. Having competed in and won over 30 adventure and obstacle racing events since 2010 and coming 3rd at Worlds Toughest Mudder (a 24hour, complete as many laps as you can obstacle race) in 2012, Deanna is a true inspiration to her team mates and the wider obstacle racing community.
My Q&A with Deanna
You’ve faced lots of adversity – What made you choose the path you took when you could have easily sat back and watched life go by?
You have probably heard it before, however, given a “health scare” in your life is like being given a “wake-up” call. Initially, prognosis and length of life was not long. I was living, yet I was living whilst waiting to die. Yes, I still took a look at my life and thought “what is important to me” and how can I achieve that in just a few years. But ultimately I felt I could not set any long term goals as my life didn’t seem long term. Also I was very weak and often sick. My body was not strong at all. Within two years of my HIV diagnosis I had a serious AIDS defining illness and certainly felt I was on my way out.
Well what changed that? HIV medication became available to us in late 1996. It was after starting the medication that I felt life reclaim me. My body got stronger as too my mind and my decision to not only live, but, to achieve what I wanted out of life. I decided I would not let HIV rule my life.
We hear stories about people who have faced serious illness or adversity, who are shown that life is not finite go on to achieve great things and have more of a fire burning in them. Do you think that this is true for you?
Certainly living with HIV has opened my eyes to so much more in life. I feel I am more open to everyone and certainly more accepting and less judgmental. I now recognize everyone first as a person. I know that probably sounds kind of weird. Often we look at a person and judge them first by the clothes they wear, the words they say, their education level, or how they present themselves. I guess what I have learnt on this journey that there is so much more. Each person has feelings, thoughts, opinions, all of which are valid. It is interesting to hear of peoples journeys. How they got to where they are now. If we stop and listen to the stories of the people we normally turn away you will hear stories of strength, courage, adversity, fear, confusion and so much more. It not only gives you a deeper understanding of their own individual journey, but also those around them.
I guess I have many fires burning in me. Some being my own personal goals, and more importantly I guess the biggest fire is the one I am most silent yet open about. I am one of the 34 million people living with HIV. I am happy and confident to stand tall and be proud of whom I am despite the stigma and prejudice in the community. I think showing the human face of the virus is very important. Through sport, achievements, and being visible in the community I am able to reach far and wide and change the mindsets of those I reach out to. This, I hope, makes the journey easier for others.
What keeps your mind and body motivated every single day?
Firstly I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am not motivated every single day. I accept that and respect that.
Luckily I love what I do physically so training for me is a passion. Some days I do have to find some motivation to get out there. I usually look ahead at my goal and thus to achieve my goal I need to do something….so I usually do. Not always though. I recognize that lack of motivation is also a way my body tells me I need rest. So I rest. You have to distinguish between being lazy and being unmotivated. For me there is a difference.
You seem to win everything you enter! How do you periodize your training? Do you pick one specific race each year and aim to peak for that?
My training is random. My races are not. I don’t plan too far ahead. By keeping my body at a certain level of fitness it only needs about 8 weeks to peak for an event. So that leaves me with lots of races to peak for throughout the year. Adventure racing is my main sport, well was. I guess obstacle racing is probably taking over a bit. I still mix up the year with a bit of both. They complement each other so it works well.
In regards to training I do not follow a program and not one week duplicates the other. I kind of go with the flow. Because I have so many disciplines to choose between I can keep a balance of being active yet not overworking. I have a choice of MTBing, paddling, swimming, running, yoga, crossfit and walking.
I do not train hard all the time. I do three track sessions a month. Every other run is cruisey. Same with bike and paddle. I don’t believe in making every session a “go hard or go home” session. If I did I would not enjoy it. Then I’d really need to find motivation to do it. Most of what I do is relaxed and carefree. It prevents injury, fatigue, and burn out. It allows me to have longevity in everything I do whilst keeping the love for it.
I save my race for when the gun goes off. – When it really matters.
Can you tell us about a race that didn’t go to plan? Where you didn’t get the result you were looking for, how did that feel and how did you learn from that?
Both Obstacle racing and Adventure racing are both what I call “unpredictable” racing. They are not like a triathlon or a 10km road run. Due to the terrain and conditions, potentially a lot more can affect your event.
To plan for a race you have to be kind of prepared for all potential elements that could affect how you race. WTM last year. I’d thought about and put in heaps of prior planning. I knew I could go for 24 hrs no problem. I knew I could get through the obstacles and the penalties no problem. I knew how to fuel myself for that event. My main obstacle was going to be the cold. That is where I spent the most effort in preparation.
I had overlooked a couple of things which affected my race:
#1- gastro problems- 24 hours in mud and slush can cause an upset bowel. I had nothing to combat that. Pulling a wetsuit down and up in freezing conditions is not fun and slows you down a lot.
#2 – Pain.- I’d done 24 hour events before yet not so extreme. The physical pain that came with this event I was unprepared for. Not in any one particular spot. It was all over.
Yes I have learnt and yes I will be prepared.
How do you juggle training, travel, children and work? Life in general!
I am now very good at juggling and finding a life balance. My Partner Peter is also a great help in the balance juggle. First I had to prioritise what was important in life and what was not so. Life family and living life is a high priority. For me assets, material items, new cars, clothes, new anything are not at all a priority. So easy solution. Work 2-3 days a week. Enough to get by!
My children share time between me and their father. It is a high priority to spend a lot of fun hands on time with them. I am a present and active mother. I train either before they wake, whilst they are at school, or when they are with their dad. Sometimes leading up to a big event I will train when they are around but I really try to minimise that.
Travel can make it pretty hard. My son does feel the effects of that. Each year I am away for about 9-10 weeks. Roughly about three lots of three weeks. Having a loving, supporting and understanding partner really helps.
I do have a bit of gypsy in me so the travel fills the gap there. It makes me appreciate home when I am there. Anyone having trouble with balance you first have to prioritise. I feel that that is the key.
How do your children feel about what you do?
I know my son is super proud. He is getting into the crossfit and obstacle scene too. I love obstacle racing for the fact it also has kids events. I think that is so important. It can be a family event. My Daughter, well, she is 15 and very involved in her sport “eventing”. I think she is proud.
How do you learn to listen to your body to know when to push through and when to back off?
You learn to listen to your body by listening to it, not ignoring it. Learning the signs and symptoms. It is always communicating. It is just most of us don’t want to hear! The more you listen, the more you learn, the more you understand, the more effective you will be at hearing it. When that is done you just know what to do.
I wear no watch or heart rate monitor. I don’t know the distance of my runs. I don’t know how fast I am running. What I do know is I am doing what I believe my body is capable of doing that day. I listen and respond. Freedom.
What happens mentally for you on race day?
Race day is a day I withdraw from those around me. I go quiet and find my own space. I don’t like noise, or talking about the event. I find myself, check –in with my body, see where it is at. I don’t like distractions. I become self-centered.
When the race starts I go into a “zone” which is not affected by those around me. I do my own thing, run my own race. I do not care who is in front of me or who is behind me. I don’t try to keep up with anyone. I just do what my body allows me to do. I run “my” race. Only right near the end will I shift on that. A time where I know if I go out of my “Zone” then it won’t be for long.
Do you ever have the ‘what the hell am I doing’ moment when you are pushing through an event?
Oh yeah- So many times. At the finish line the answer is clear though, and I keep going back.
To finish up what one piece of advice would you give to anyone wanting to push to their next level?
If you think “you can” you can. If you think “you can’t” you can’t.