Of the 2,500 women traversing the barren lava fields of Hawaii this Saturday, Prue Young will be the one with the massive smile on her face, giving out high fives.
The Kiwi triathlete is overjoyed to be taking part in the Ironman world championships – an opportunity she never thought she’d have after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) two years ago.
The diagnosis completely changed Young’s approach to her sport. Previously, long-distance triathlons were about proving to herself she could do them. Now, she says, it’s a “different thought process”.
“Rather than being all about myself, I’m thankful for my body and I want to encourage others. I’m there for everybody else who has MS, and for anybody who doesn’t think they could do it,” she says.
Young has already smiled her way through Ironman New Zealand last December, where the 33-year-old unexpectedly qualified for the world championships in her age group. She crossed the finish line with her arms outspread, wearing a butterfly cape.
It was the third Ironman for the Nelson helicopter paramedic, but the first since her MS diagnosis.
“I knew it was going to be a long day so I changed my mindset to be thankful,” she says. “And I smiled at people and gave high fives. You could see people thinking, ‘Oh yes, this is hard but I can smile and enjoy it too’.”
As well as spurring on her fellow competitors, Young is on a mission to demonstrate anything is possible with MS, and hopes to inspire other sufferers to remain active.
“It doesn’t have to be something as huge as an Ironman,” she says. “Just getting out for a walk or doing aqua fitness classes is good for someone with MS.”
She’s well aware she’ll have to take extra precautions during the race on Saturday in the notoriously gruelling conditions in Kona. “Unfortunately, MS doesn’t do well in the heat,” Young says.
So she will be watching her fluid intake and wearing a cooling headband to ensure she doesn’t overheat, and lose her proprioception (sense of movement) in her right leg – making her risk of falling over on the marathon run high.
“I don’t want to fall over and injure myself. I’m going to make it to the finish line,” she says.
Despite her Ironman credentials, Young knows firsthand how easy it is to let health and fitness slide. Even though she grew up playing a wide variety of sports, and represented Otago in water polo, she ceased all physical activity when she left school.
“At university, instead of the ‘fresher five’, I packed on about 12 kilograms, and pretty much gave up on sport,” she says.
However in her 20s, a colleague encouraged her to do a beginner triathlon. A half-Ironman soon followed and then, having loved the experience, she was persuaded by the same colleague to tackle the iconic Ironman event – a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride and a 42km (full marathon) run.
“I went from having never been in a triathlon to completing a full Ironman within 12 months,” she says.
Young was hooked and continued to make Ironman training an important part of her life. Then when she subsequently discovered she had MS, exercise took on even greater importance as a crucial tool to manage symptoms. But Young wants people to know MS is no longer the disease it once was thanks to rapid treatment advances.
“The understanding of MS and the development of medications in the past five years has been so much more than the previous 40 years. People don’t even know I’ve got MS,” she says.
Working as a helicopter paramedic with a Master of Health Science (in aeromedical retrieval and transport) from the University of Otago, Young was able to draw on her medical knowledge when worrisome symptoms developed.
It was while preparing for an Ironman event in 2021 Young first experienced strange sensations in her leg and hip. Initially she assumed they were caused by her intensive training regime – “bent over on the bike for too long”. But when the numbness escalated and she lost hot and cold sensation, she knew it was time to seek urgent medical advice.
The ensuing investigations uncovered MS. One of the many emotions she felt at the time was relief when her neurologist said she could continue Ironman training. As well as helping her condition, Young says training helps her manage the challenge and trauma of being a first responder.
“Everybody has mental health – and we all have to look after ourselves,” she says. “Exercise is one of the things that helps me switch off from the high adrenaline work we do and some of the scenes we see. In a way, training is active meditation for me.”
Young sees parallels between her dual roles as a critical care paramedic and an Ironman athlete.
“I think they are just different forms of the same thing in a way,” she says. “ In the emergency services, we’re driven people and like the adrenaline. It’s the same type of personality when it comes to Ironman. Both also require change capability and situational awareness.”
Young plans to optimise her situational awareness when she lines up at the start of the world championships in Kona.
“Everybody who’s done it before says, ‘Take 30 seconds to look around and be in the moment’. The sun will rise about 15 minutes before I hit the water, so that should be beautiful. And being out on the course in the home of Ironman will be special.”
As will taking part in an event set to make history as the first all-women’s race since Ironman’s inception (the men’s Ironman world champs were held in Nice last month). Sixty Kiwi women will contest this year’s event and Young says they’re a tight-knit team.
“Everybody is so friendly with each other. We’re a little community of women supporting women,” she says.
Young’s biggest hurdle on Saturday will likely be the high temperatures and humidity that put extra stress on those with MS.
“I have done an acclimatisation block, including the sauna and indoor training on my bike wearing thermals,” she says. And her final weeks of preparation have been spent in Rarotonga and Hawaii.
Given the supreme challenge that lies ahead, has Young dared to dream of crossing the finish line on Hawaii’s Big Island, and beyond? The start line is what she’s focused on, she says. “Making it to the start will be the win.” But she does plan to share the finish line livestream details with the “truckload of people following from home”.
And after that, she isn’t exactly sure what will come next. Though after a brief pause, the can-do ultra-athlete rattles off the new challenges she’s contemplating – including walking the South Island leg of Te Araroa trail, and climbing Aoraki Mt Cook.
Somehow, it’s not hard to picture her at the summit – with a grateful smile on her face.