In February 2013, Turia Pitt of New South Wales filed a lawsuit against RacingThePlanet, the organizers of a September 2011 100-kilometer ultramarathon in Western Australia where Pitt and other participants were badly burned by a bushfire on the course. Last week, the Supreme Court case was settled confidentially out of court with Pitt, 26, accepting Racing the Planet's big payment, rumored to be up to $10 million.
Since the case did not go to court, the public does not know the full story about exactly what happened on that treacherous day. Most local media outlets are reporting that RacingThePlanet, a Hong Kong-based adventure racing company founded in February 2002, ignored warnings of the nearby bushfire that put competitors like Pitt, who suffered burns to more than 60 percent of her body including her face, in mortal danger. Pitt confirmed this claim on a local TV news show.
“The fact that they let us through that checkpoint, 20 to 25 kilometers in, is one of the more disappointing aspects of the race because they knew there was a fire approaching. They had been warned, they let us through. I still, to this day, don't understand why they did that...why they didn't pass [the information] to the competitors. They had a duty of care to warn us, if not stop us,” Pitt told a news reporter in 2013 (watch the video). Prior to racing, participants had been alerted about the risk of snake bites and crocodiles on the course but not wildfires.
RacingThePlanet organizes five annual seven-day, self-supported footraces that cover up to 250 kilometers (155 miles) in the Gobi Desert in China, the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, and Antarctica. The fifth event called the Roving Race relocates every year (the next one in August will take place in Madagascar). This 100-kilometer/62-mile ultramarathon (meaning the distance is longer than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon) that took place in Australia, however, was actually not a typical RacingThePlanet event.
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“We were encouraged by the Western Australian government to come and set up this race. We had no plans to manage that race long-term. We were going to hand it off to a local,” says Mary Gadams, the American founder of RacingThePlanet, who was also participating that day and endured second-degree burns. This was not RacingThePlanet's first event in the area. In April 2010, it staged a 250-kilometer, seven-day footrace, according to the Western Australian government. Gadams denies that the race organizers knew about the fire.
“I was about 50 meters from the girls [Pitt and Kate Sanderson] who got burned. I got burned too. I had second-degree burns to 10 percent of my body. That includes my hands and the back of my arms and legs. Do you really think that I would have continued on if we thought that there were a fire? It was really a freak, tragic incident,” she said in an interview with Shape. Gadams speculates her injuries were less severe because she stayed on the race course rather than run uphill like Pitt, who states in the aforementioned video that she and five others went up the side of a steep slope.
“We had one of two options, neither of which was very attractive. This was when we could see the fire coming. At this stage, I was quite scared. We could stay on the valley floor, but there was a lot 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,” Pitt told the reporter. Pitt did not respond to our request to comment.
Bushfire season in Kimberley, the region in Western Australia where the September event was held, runs from June through late October, according to Australia's Department of Fire and Emergency Services. These fires can be sparked various ways, including by humans and a lightning strike. With recent climate changes, such as high rainfall causing more growth of vegetation, bushfires are becoming more common. On the day of the ultramarathon race, Gadams swears, however, the risk was low.
“We actually haven't disclosed this information yet, but yes, we sent in a bushfire expert after the incident. He said that 99.75 percent of our course was below fire risk and 0.25 percent was at moderate risk. Even less than 0.25 percent was actually affected by the fire,” says Gadams, who says her team contacted all the proper authorities beforehand to notify them about the race. A post-race report from the Western Australia government says otherwise: “...RacingThePlanet, in its approach to planning for the 2011 Kimberley Ultramarathon, did not involve people with appropriate knowledge in identifying risk. The level of communication and consultation with relevant agencies and individuals regarding the event’s Management and Risk Assessment Plan was generally inadequate, both in terms of its timeliness and its approach.”
Though Australian news reports say Pitt will need more surgeries to continue to help her heal, she has since returned to fitness in full-force, especially this past year. In March, she took part in a leg of the 26-day, more than 2,300-mile Variety Cycle, a charity bike ride from Sydney to Uluru. And in May, she swam as part of a four-person team with three other survivors from the 2011 fire in a 20-kilometer race on Lake Argyle in Western Australia. It was the first time the four had returned to the Kimberley region to compete since that fateful day three years earlier.
“That's a positive that's come out of the fire, I guess. We're all really good friends and we get along really well. They're a good bunch,” Pitt told 60 Minutes (Australia edition) in a recent interview (watch the clip). It took the team almost seven hours to complete the 12.4-mile distance. Pitt is currently doing a charity walk along the Great Wall of China to help raise money for Interplast Australia, a nonprofit that provides free reconstructive surgeries to disadvantaged patients. In mid-September, Pitt plans to tackle another Interplast fundraising event: A 13-day trip to hike the Inca Trail in Peru. As she told 60 Minutes about the RacingThePlanet settlement, “it means I can move on” and she really has in an extraordinary way.
RacingThePlanet continues to organize their five staple footraces around the globe. Gadams says they have not made any changes to their policies.