Lauren Mackessack-Leitch represented Great Britain in figure skating, left the sport with ongoing injuries and mental battles but is back on track in a new sport and going the distance.
Last year, Lauren Mackessack-Leitch was given an ultimatum by her partner.
He told Mackessack-Leitch, a physiotherapist who is competing in her first Ironman: “‘Do you want to finish the Ironman being taken away in an ambulance because you fractured something or you passed out because you can’t get through it?’,” she remembers.
“That was kind of the wake-up call I needed. It took a long time to get over. It’s probably only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been more happy with myself.”
Mackessack-Leitch was diagnosed with RED-S last year. It’s a condition where the body is not sufficiently fuelled for the amount of exercise being undertaken, which can lead to an array of health complications.
But it was just one more obstacle the pilates instructor had to overcome.
Once an international figure skater, Mackessack-Leitch stopped participating in the sport at 18 because of ongoing injuries and mental health battles. She’s come a long way from the comfort of her lounge suite 12 months ago, and that long-ago figure skating career for Great Britain. Both in fitness and in health.
Darker days saw her dealing with illnesses such as depression, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. It’s only recently Mackessack-Leitch has been able to reflect on past experiences and unlearn old thought patterns.
Originally from the Highlands in Scotland, she moved to Glasgow to study (for a bachelor of science physiotherapy) when a serious injury at 18 derailed her figure skating career.
“A lot of issues started there,” she says. “Eating disorders, anxiety, depression and a lot of stuff that I don’t think people realise athletes get after they either leave sport or get injured and are forced to leave.
“I kind of had all these effects and didn’t really have any support, didn’t really know where to look for support.”
Mackessack-Leitch says she was “a bit of a yo-yo dieter” but things escalated with the demands of university life.
The same habits and beliefs followed her to New Zealand when she moved to Auckland four years ago. And into her training when she picked up endurance sports last year after being inspired by a friend who previously completed the Nutri-Grain Ironman.
“I saw him cross the finish line and got told he was an Ironman and I was like ‘Yep this is what I need to do’,” recalls Mackessack-Leitch. “It just felt like that was the path I needed to go down. I always had the idea that I’d like to do something like this but I never thought I had it within myself.
“I hadn’t really cycled before and I wasn’t really a runner. I swam maybe when I was 11 or 12 and then stopped so this time last year I was probably running 5km and struggling to get off the couch.”
Initially, Mackessack-Leitch went back to what she knew from her early sporting days. “I thought to just cut calories,” she says. “I was still weighing myself every couple of days and I just saw it dropping and dropping and dropping and inside I was like ‘That’s great, I want to get as light as I can’.
“And then I had a lot of issues with RED-S which is a relative energy deficiency in sport, so really low energy syndrome. I was diagnosed with that last year.”
As a physiotherapist, Mackessack-Leitch is surrounded by people with expertise in different health fields and some were explaining RED-S could cause stress fractures – a concern her partner reinforced and supported her through.
Trying to change what you’ve been conditioned to think when growing up is an uphill battle. Mackessack-Leitch knows that. For her, it’s been a conscious nine -month effort of addressing her food practices and the mental side -effects, which she says most people cover up.
“It’s a really big problem in sport when it comes to your weight because it can become a game where you just want to lose more and more,” she says. “And you don’t realise your performances are not actually any better.
“Being a 15-year-old-girl, getting weighed everyday, being scrutinised in little dresses, being told this is the thing to wear and how you’re meant to act and look. It’s not positive for anyone.”
Mackessack-Leitch can’t imagine how hard it is these days for young girls and boys with social media and the likes of Instagram. “Seeing what is supposedly the ideal person, when actually there is no perfect,” she says.
Looking back at her younger self, Mackessack-Leitch would have liked to have heard more about the issues she’s experienced. It’s one of the main reasons she chose to do the Ironman. She wants to raise awareness for mental health and, in particular, for athletes.
“It’s pretty sad because in this world now, we have people who can’t talk about stuff or it’s considered taboo,” says Mackessack-Leitch. “I think talking about it is the biggest thing and so many people talk about that. It’s not even about raising money, I just want people to talk about it more.
“Talk and understand that people are all shapes and sizes. We all have different calories and means and we all do different things.
“That’s so important because you always think you’re this weird alien when you’re a kid, well I did anyway. You always feel like you’re different to everybody else, when actually we’re all the same.”
A positive for Mackessack-Leitch with endurance sports is the idea that you’re not competing with anyone else. “It’s a competition with yourself,” she says.
“I want to see what I’m capable of. I’ve been in a lot of dark places in my life and the training has been like this emotional journey. It’s been pretty remarkable seeing kind-of where you came from.”
Although training through Covid-19 has been hard, this time round she didn’t get a coach but instead had a good friend who has finished many Ironman and long distance races offering advice.
Mackessack-Leitch also wrote her own training programme and is trying to follow a good nutrition regime as she wants to set a good example for her patients when they visit her.
“I didn’t think it was a good look getting injured so I made sure I was on top of my game, which has been hard at times,” she says. “It’s been tricky but we’re very fortunate to be in New Zealand.”
To help prepare, Mackessack-Leitch has raced in two triathlons in Tauranga and Rotorua. At the Rotorua Suffer event, her first ever triathlon, late last year, she finished seventh in her age group and 31st overall for females with a time of six hours and 22 minutes. Beating her finishing time goal with eight minutes to spare.
In the Tauranga Half Enduro event in late January, Mackessack-Leitch improved, coming second in her age group. She also managed to push herself further with the longer distances of a 3km swim, 115km bike and a 25km run.
“I definitely enjoy the kind of grit you put yourself through,” she says. “And that massive rush at the end, of course, when you finish. I can see why people can get really addicted to these kinds of sports.”
As it’s her first Ironman, she doesn’t have a set goal in mind but would be happy with crossing the line around the 13 hour mark depending on weather and other factors, says Mackessack-Leitch. “My main goal is to finish it and see what my mental and physical self is capable of,” she says.
Out of the three disciplines, she prefers the bike as she spends the most time on it and is probably her strongest area.
If Mackessack-Leitch carries on in the sport she’ll look at getting a coach and focusing on nutrition more. “It’s really hard coming from a background in figure skating where your weight is really important and you really don’t eat that many calories,” she says.
“Then to go into Ironman training, where you’re eating 4000 calories a day. It was something I really struggled with mentally, to eat carbs when you’ve been told you shouldn’t eat carbs because they’re bad for you – when really you need to eat them. So it was definitely a hard battle to get through.”
In her line of work, Mackessack-Leitch’s interest in athletes and their injuries stems from her own experience. Her most significant injury was when she partially tore her achilles at 18.
“It took me about two years to get over it mentally,” says Mackessack-Leitch. “A lot of people kept telling me ‘Oh it’s fine, there’s no injury on it anymore’, ‘You can run, skate, there’s no problems. Just get over it.
“But I think until you’ve had those kinds of injuries, you don’t realise the impact it has on your mental health and just your general kind of view on life.”
Mackessack-Leitch says looking back feels like a chapter of her life is now closed. “Which is nice and sometimes a bit sad too. I feel like I’ve developed a lot as a person,” she says. “Training for the Ironman has given me a lot of strength, a lot of determination that I knew I already had.
“For a lot of people, you do something that you thought you couldn’t do. And when you do, you’re like ‘Wow, I can go into that new thing’, or I’ve got the courage to say something now or it gives you that extra fire.
“So it’s definitely made me the person that I always thought I could be which is really cool. And definitely someone who my younger self could be very happy to see.
“I sometimes think about that when I’m on my bike. It’s definitely an emotional thought. To say you’ve come through all the hard pain and you’re now the person that you are. And there’s so much more development there as well. It’s really cool.”
*Lauren Mackessack-Leitch finished her first Ironman – the 2021 Ironman New Zealand – in a time of 13h 14.45m, putting her 10th in her age division, and 63rd woman home.