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The Ironwoman who’s beating her heart

Laura Robertson once hated running, was overweight, then battled a heart condition. But nothing, it seems, will stop the athletic paramedic lining up in the punishing Ironman. 

Laura Robertson was a cross country cheat.

She hated the race and did anything and everything she could to shorten it.

She simply wasn’t a fan of exercise - to the point where she would encourage her mum to drop her as close to school as possible.

“I wasn’t sporty at school,” Robertson says, then acknowledges the huge role sport has played in her adult life.

When she crosses the finish line in the Ironman NZ race in Taupo on March 7, it will cap off an incredible nine years - that's seen her shed 35kgs, deal with a heart arrhythmia, and cope with the loneliness of training as a shift worker.

But first, back to school.

Robertson wasn’t a keen student at Wellington’s Tawa College and was told by her deans in her fifth form year (Year 11) that she should look at leaving and getting a job working in a supermarket.

It was the poke in the backside she needed. She stayed at school “just to annoy them”, finished Year 13 and went on to complete a degree in exercise physiology at Massey University.

She worked at a brain rehabilitation clinic before studying paramedicine, and has spent the last nine years with the Wellington Free Ambulance.

Robertson’s life took a turn for the fitter after she went swimming with dolphins in Akaroa when she was 20. Asked if she wanted a size 18 or 20 for her wetsuit, Robertson realised how she was seen by others and that she had to change.

“It’s crazy,” the 29-year-old says now, “what a person’s throw away comment can make you do.”

She bought a pair of running shoes and hasn’t looked back.

Three years ago, the paramedic attended a case where a triathlete had come off their bike, and it was while dealing with that person that the spark to compete in triathlons flared.

“I was doing a lot of running,” says the woman who remember, as a girl, hated running - “and it got me thinking about triathlons.”

So she gave it a crack, and loved the variety.

But it was while she was a volunteer at an aid station at last year’s Ironman in Taupo, that the seed to compete in the ultimate tri-endurance event was inadvertently sown.

“I remember watching people come over the finish line and the state they were in and thinking there was no way I would do that,” she says.

“But I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided if I was going to give it a crack, I would do it in the year I turned 30.”

Laura Robertson with her silver medal from the Mt Maunganui Enduro race. Photo: supplied. 

Robertson reckons she’s never been fitter and is a long way from the woman who once preached what she didn’t practice, when she worked soon after leaving school as a part-time personal trainer.

“I have no idea why people believed a word I said because nutrition was not a strong point,” she admits.

Sadly, losing weight and getting fit also uncovered a heart condition - a malfunction of the heart's electrical system - that threatened to put a stop to her endurance racing ambitions.

Robertson underwent an ablation procedure in 2014, but it failed to correct her heart rhythm problems.

Ignoring medical advice, she’s carried on and refuses to let her arrhythmia define and confine her.

“It’s there, I can’t change that, I just have to deal with it,” she says.

Training has been tough, especially when she worked shifts on the ambulances. Recently she moved into the office, working as a line manager, but she’s proud of what she’s achieved.

“I really like the mental challenge because you go to some pretty dark places in your mind and it’s about having the strength to get out of those places,” she says.

She knows that will be the case in Taupo but says she has “never been this fit or this mentally strong”. She completed the shorter Ironman 70.3 event in December, and the Mt Maunganui Enduro in January, where she finished second in her age group.  

She’s been coached by Ngarama Milner-Olsen, the former Central Pulse netballer turned Ironwoman, who is now a trainer, mentor and coach in her business Mobile Fitness Solutions.

Robertson received this year’s Tony Jackson Scholarship, set up to support athletes who may not have been able to compete in the Ironman NZ event without it.

It was created in memory of Tony Jackson, who raced every Ironman NZ event for 28 years – the last five of those with a brain tumour. The scholarship has given Robertson a tri suit, coaching support, $1500 towards training and gear, and entry to the race.

Having seen the pain others went through at last year’s event, Robertson has no grand plans for her first attempt at the mammoth distance, that includes a 3.8km swim and 180km bike ride, followed by a marathon - the latter of which many consider a worthy achievement in itself.

“That’s what everyone keeps saying to me,” she says of the final run leg.

So what is her goal in Taupo? It’s simple really.

“It will mean everything to me to finish," she says. "It consumes you, it takes over your life, and to finish I will be so proud of myself and my sacrifices.”

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