Do you develop Ironman resilience or does resilience come from training for an Ironman? An Ironman, which consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run, is hard. Qualifying for and competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawai’i is even harder.
Preserving the Human Spirit Through Sport in War-Torn Ukraine
Now, imagine doing both of those things while your country and hometown are ravaged by an active war. Suddenly, an Ironman doesn’t seem like the hard part. It also brings up the question: will you be enjoying the journey to the finish line?
Keeping Dreams Alive in a Time of Unrest
For Juliya Azzopardi Mazur, all of this was her reality for 2023. The mom of two and business owner not only raced in three Ironman events including the World Championship in the female 35-39 category, one of the most competitive, she trained for all three while living in war-torn Ukraine.
Ukraine has been at war with Russia since February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, unspeakable tragedies have occurred in Ukraine, from bombings to families being separated. Despite no end in sight, Juliya did not let this stop her from achieving her athletic dreams.
“At the beginning of the war, life froze for me,” Juliya says. “I couldn’t plan for tomorrow because I didn’t know if tomorrow would be my last day alive – but then, after months of war and it not stopping, I decided to not put my life on hold and wait for the war to stop to pursue my dreams.”
For Juliya, those dreams included keeping her family safe, running her online automotive parts business with her husband, and training for and competing in Ironman Austria in June 2023, qualifying for and competing at the Ironman World Championships, and racing Ironman California a week after racing in Hawai’i.
Getting the “Tri Virus”
As ingrained as she is now in triathlon, Juliya was not always an athlete. In fact, Juliya took up running in her late 20s as a way to stay fit while living in Malta, a small European island between Sicily and the northern coast of Africa.
Juliya’s running coach was a triathlete and encouraged her to add swimming and biking to her regimen when a running injury sidelined her.
“After my first sprint triathlon, I had caught the ‘triathlon virus,’”Juliya says with a laugh. “It took me over a year to train for my first sprint triathlon, but once I completed it, I knew I wanted to go longer – and I have loved every second of doing triathlon since then.”
Juliya raced her first Ironman 2019 and has never looked back – she even started coaching other triathletes and runners two years ago.
Earlier this year, Juliya qualified for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Austria. Despite the training and travel to Hawai’i being fraught with logistical challenges, she was committed to going to the World Championship.
Building Ironman Resilience out of Necessity
Training for the Ironman World Championship with imminent threats of missiles and reminders of war everywhere meant that Juliya built a reservoir of resilience and bravery out of necessity.
Having electricity, clean water, and the promise of a good night’s sleep are things many of us take for granted. In Ukraine, none of these are guaranteed due to the war.
“We went through some times that were really bad – no electricity, no clean running water, and air raid sirens all through the night,” Juliya says. “All of these, of course, impacted my physical ability to train, and mentally of course I was worried about keeping my family safe.”
Even still, on the days when she was able to, Juliya ran in her neighborhood. She also did as many of her long rides outside, if possible. Juliya would often create run and ride routes that looped near her home multiple times so she never strayed too far from safety.
When the pool was open, Juliya would swim. Unfortunately, more than one of her swims was interrupted by air raid sirens. These alerts can sometimes last hours, ruining the “flow” of a good swim session.
Nonetheless, Juliya made the best of her situation and completed multiple long runs and rides. Many of which were moved to the trainer or treadmill for her own security and peace of mind.
Four Days for 140.6 Miles
Traveling from Ukraine to Hawai’i in a normal situation would already be an exhausting journey. The conflict in Ukraine complicated citizens’ options to leave the country. It took Juliya and her husband four days to travel from Eastern Europe to Kona, Hawaii.
“We first had to travel to the Polish border – we could only fly out of Warsaw,” Juliya says. “Due to nationwide curfews in Ukraine, we could only drive during the day, so it took us a whole day to drive from our home in Ukraine to the Polish border, and then six more hours to cross the border. We left our kids with family for this trip – we knew it would be too harrowing to bring them along.”
Juliya and her husband flew from Warsaw, Poland to Los Angeles. If that wasn’t long enough, they had to wait another day to get a connecting flight from California to Hawaii. In total, the pair traveled four full days before arriving on the Big Island.
“Once we arrived in Hawai’i, I had to adjust to the 12-hour time difference,” Juliya says. “We got to Hawai’i a week before the race just so I could get comfortable with the time difference and the heat and humidity of the Big Island.”
After training in an active war zone and making the stressful four-day trip to Hawaii, Juliya’s impending Ironman almost seemed like the easy part. We will delve into in our next edition of Juliya’s Ironman resilience and World Championship journey.