'Seeing this photo of myself on Facebook changed the course of my life.'

At the beginning of 2013, I weighed around 130kg.

I couldn’t walk upstairs without losing my breath. I couldn’t sleep lying flat because of intense heartburn. My feet, ankles and hands swelled every day. I was constantly worried if I would fit in chairs that had arms at the sides. That said, I worked incredibly hard in my job as a teacher. I was actively involved in my son’s schooling and sporting pursuits – always offering to coach, manage, score at rugby, cricket and soccer games. I didn’t smoke or really drink that much at all. I just consumed more calories than I used. I put on weight consistently in my 20s and 30s and even though I had tried a myriad of diets, the weight always crept back on.

It was after seeing a particular photo of myself on Facebook – where I looked so different to what I thought I looked like – that I knew I had to take action.

leah belson 2012

The photo that surprised Leah, Christmas 2012.

I signed up for a 12-week body challenge that included fitness tests, recipes and calorie counting. It was hard going. The first three weeks in particular I was so hungry but I learnt to make sure that what I was eating was going to fill me up and fuel me for the day. The fitness test included a one km time trial run. My first go at this I clocked in at over 10 minutes! What was I doing? Running on my hands??!! Fast forward 12 weeks and I had lost 15kg. My heartburn had disappeared and my ankles weren’t swelling quite so severely.

By the end of the first year I had shed 30kg. My marriage had also ended and as a result I developed extreme anxiety. I was thankful that I was already fully entrenched in the habit of moving and eating well. I never had thoughts of turning back. I resolved to continue getting fit and healthy for me and my son.


Near the end of the second year a friend suggested I take up running with Intraining – a local non-profit running club. I thought he was crazy! I wasn’t a runner! But the thought stuck and I signed up. The coach was amazing and incredibly patient. It took a few months but I managed to run three km without stopping before signing up for a half marathon. With the support of the club, I completed the 21.1km distance in July 2015 and signed up for the full marathon the following year. All in all, I had lost between 50 and 60kg.

leah belson intraining-member

Leah as an Intraining member.

I stopped weighing myself because my focus shifted from wanting to be slim to wanting to be fit.

While training for the full marathon I was introduced to triathlon by very patient friends. I was gifted a mountain bike (to actually learn how to ride from scratch) and in my first triathlon at Bribie Island, my friend, Tanya swam beside me the whole 300m of the swim, rode next to me for the 10km cycle and finished with a three km run. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but… I was hooked!

Listen: Jessie is tired of getting body shamed by the gym. These are her thoughts. (Post continues after audio...)

During my marathon training I signed up with an endurance coach through T:Zero because I had set my sights on IRONMAN. I got a professional dynamic bike-fit through my physiotherapist and set about getting my body ready for one of the hardest events out there. My mindset had shifted once again. This time from wanting to be fit to wanting to be strong. I wanted to be a strong, confident and capable woman. I completed the Gold Coast Marathon and was greeted by none other than former world champion marathon runner, Robert De Castella, at the finish line. He told me that I was now a marathoner for life. I was so emotional that I think I blurted out a marriage proposal to him!


Getting up every morning and pushing my body more than it ever had been pushed was no easy feat. I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do this. That just because I’d been overweight and unfit for years didn’t mean it was too late for me. Some weeks were easy. I’d check my plan, chat to my coach, coordinate sessions with my friends and off I’d go. Other weeks were much tougher. I would get disheartened easily when I wasn’t improving as fast I thought I would, when the abuse from people in cars while I was riding really hit a nerve (usually when they yelled things out like being fat) and just sometimes, I was really tired.

Cairns IRONMAN came around all too soon. I was filled with self-doubt. My whole support network felt differently. I was constantly buoyed by their enthusiasm and confidence in me. Unfortunately, successfully completing an IRONMAN wasn’t to be – this time. I got sick a few days before the event and had advice that maybe I should give it a miss. I considered it…. but come race day I actually felt OK. In hindsight, I know that was just the medication and adrenalin doing their thing. It couldn’t last.

finishing-half-ironman leah belson

Finishing the half IRONMAN.

Long story short I missed the swim/bike cut off by four minutes. I was told by the race director that I was now a DNF (did not finish) and that even if I ran the marathon my race was over. I decided to run anyway. DNF be damned. My friends ran with me part of the way. These friends had completed their own half ironman that day and here they were, running beside me for kilometre and kilometre – willing me to finish. Eight kilometres from the end I was told again by the race director that I wouldn’t make the final cut off and it was best I stop. My friends were all there and could see how ill I was and supported me in stopping my race.


I was devastated.

Reflecting on this race I know now that I do have the ability to finish an IRONMAN. I was just sick and filled with self-doubt. I know what I have to do to make it happen and I am in training for IRONMAN Australia taking place in Port Macquarie in May 2018. I entered the half IRONMAN on the Sunshine Coast as a way of rebuilding my confidence and worked so hard to finish under the cut off time. Amazing feeling!

leah belson half ironman

At the finish line of the Sunshine Coast half IRONMAN.

I still get anxious when I think about what needs to be done and I know that I need to be patient with my body and build it slowly and treat it well. I will get there. I firmly believe that by not finishing Cairns IM gave me the lesson I needed in what mental strength is all about and the importance of confidence. I think I will always struggle with self-belief but I’m getting better.

The 130kg Leah is still there in my mind – she turns up in the mirror occasionally. She’s there to remind me that I have what it takes to complete an IM because of how far I’ve come… and she’s proud of me.

Leah is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which asks 'What drives people to push their bodies to the limit?'