How AIDS survivor Deanna Blegg became one of the World’s Toughest Mudders, and then had to fight her way back to peak fitness after a battle with breast cancer. By Paul Connolly.


Tough as… Deanna Blegg, 48, endurance athlete

I’ve always loved being active. As a kid my punishment for acting up was not being allowed to play sport. Even when I was really little Mum says that when she took me the one kilometre to kinder, I would get out of the pusher and shuffle beside it.

Because I had asthma I started swimming quite young. Then in primary school I started cross-country running and was a state champion. I’m naturally an endurance athlete. In my early teens I used to push myself so hard that when I crossed the line my eyes would roll back in my head and I’d collapse. They got to know me on the cross-country circuit so they’d have people at the finish line to catch me. 

Where does this desire come from? I’m not one of those people who ponder why. I just do. Winning is always my goal, but what motivates me is to do and be the best I can. The more I come up against, the more determined I am.

When I left school I worked as a garbo for years – back in the days when you ran behind the truck. It was great training. Then, at 23, I travelled for a couple of years. I went all over: Asia, Europe, Africa. I lived on a shoestring. I hitched everywhere, I’d sleep wherever: haystacks, on building sites, under a sheet of tin leaned up against someone’s house. It was crazy but I just wanted to travel as long as I could.

Towards the end of that trip I discovered I had HIV. This was in 1994 when those “grim reaper” ads were on TV. The diagnosis blew the life out of me. But I didn’t stop travelling. I thought, “I don’t have long to live and I love travelling so I’ll keep doing it.” I went back to Africa, spending three months in Ethiopia.

When I was there later in 1994 my cousin, Danielle, and I were taken hostage by bandits. She was shot and killed. That was the final straw. I came home. Soon
I was diagnosed with AIDS and given six months to live. By early 1996 I was really ill with an AIDS-defining illness. Thankfully by mid-’96 medication became available and I’m only alive now because of it. Prior to the medication I’d been living but waiting to die. But the drugs allowed my body to fight and heal and I vowed to get whatever I could out of life.

After going back to being a garbo I had a daughter in 1998 and a son in 2003. I also got postnatal depression. A counsellor recommended exercise. So I started training and became a personal trainer myself. In 2005 I saw an ad for an adventure race – involving swimming, paddling, bike riding and running – and I entered. I loved it.

I competed in more adventure races for five years before I heard of the World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM). This is an obstacle race in the USA where you complete as many five-mile [eight-kilometre] laps as you can in 24 hours. It takes a toll on your body. I walk through the transition zone after every lap to eat and refuel – I once consumed two litres of honey in a race – but I never stop to rest. That’s not me.

In 2012 I went in the event and completed about 85 miles [137 kilometres], finishing as the second female, and third overall. This was against a field of 1400. I was so pumped. It reinforced to me that I could still compete, that HIV/AIDS hadn’t taken it from me. I won the open women’s WTM the following year and went on a spree for years of having awesome race after awesome race, earning enough prizemoney to pay for my plane fares and costs.

In 2015 I came third in the WTM but it hurt every step. I just wasn’t right. In early 2016, on my birthday, I discovered a lump on my ribs, which turned out to be aggressive breast cancer. It was a case of here we go again. I had a lumpectomy, then chemo. Which I hope I’ll never have to do again. It sucked the life out of my body. I continued training through it but by my fourth round I could barely find energy for a walk. 

The cancer made me determined to come back better and fitter and stronger than I ever was. I don’t think I have to prove anything to myself or anyone else. I just don’t want cancer to be the reason to fall backwards.

After sitting out the 2016 WTM event I’m all set for the 2017 event [held this weekend in Nevada]. This year I have trained well and done lots of miles. I’m the most prepared I’ve ever been. In the lead-up I’ve averaged 80 to 120 kilometres a week running, and about five CrossFit sessions [of one hour]. I’m not one of those athletes who use GPS watches or strict schedules in training. I just get up and do whatever feels right on the day. 

This race is going to be the best yet. When you’ve won before, you have expectations on you. But this year, going back, people will know I’ve been on a journey, so I won’t have those expectations on me. I missed it last year. The WTM is a different animal. There’s nothing like it. The Americans are full-on, but there’s so much camaraderie. Everyone has everyone’s back. It’s going to be amazing.


This week’s highlights…

Horseracing: Stakes Day

Saturday, 1st race 12.15pm (AEDT), Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne

Rugby league: World Cup – Australia v Lebanon

Saturday, 8pm (AEDT), Sydney Football Stadium

Hockey: International Festival of Hockey – Australia v Japan

Women, Saturday, 5pm (AEDT); men, 6.30pm, State Netball Hockey Centre, Melbourne

• Rugby union: Wallabies v Wales

Sunday, 4.15am (AEDT), Principality Stadium, Cardiff

Soccer: World Cup qualifier playoff – Australia v Honduras

Wednesday, 8pm (AEDT), Stadium Australia, Sydney

Tennis: Fed Cup final – Belarus v United States

Saturday, 10.30pm (AEDT) and Sunday, 10pm, Chizhovka Arena, Minsk


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2017 as "Tough as…".

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Paul Connolly is a freelance journalist and the editor of the anthology Father Figures.

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