Tracey Feillafe thought she had found the formula for a perfectly balanced life. She stayed in shape by eating right and commuting by bike to her job as a dental manager for the Australian Army. And, above it all, she was still an involved mother to her three young children as she made her way into her mid-40s.
That all changed on a rainy day in 2008, when she was riding home from work in Townsville, Australia, and a car clipped the back wheel of her bike. The force of the collision sent her flying over her handlebars into a gutter on the side of the street, hitting her head on the pavement so hard her helmet cracked.
And very quickly, the emotional trauma derailed all the progress she had made. “I felt like I stopped,” she recounts. “I didn’t feel good about myself.”
Before she knew it, she began to gain weight again. In 2014, she was at her heaviest: 209 pounds. That’s when Feillafe’s doctor sent her to a dietitian to make some changes. She remembers crying on her first visit.
“They did my measurements, and I was embarrassed about how I looked,” she says.
She was determined to get her healthy lifestyle back. With advice from her nutritionist, Feillafe went on a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet, tracking her intake on MyFitnessPal. The biggest change was making sure all her meals were correctly portioned.
“It was stuff I liked to eat, just in moderation,” she says of her meals, which included chicken breast, salmon, nuts, fruit and lots of vegetables. She also focused on limiting her carb intake.
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At first, it was difficult for her to stick with her diet — 1,200 calories a day didn’t feel like much, and her body had grown accustomed to the calorie-dense foods she’d been eating. “I would drink water to fill me up,” she explains. “I was eating a good-sized plate of food with vegetables, but my body was craving the high sugar and high fat.” But each time she saw her dietitian, her weight had dropped two or three pounds. Once she started to feel her progress, she just kept going.
Feillafe’s turning point was when she decided to use her commute as a way to get fit again — this time on foot. She’d been taking the train to work every day, so she started walking to the next train station and catching it there. Soon, she was walking to the third station, and eventually, she was running to her station instead of walking.
“I got to a point where I was running about 5 miles to the train station every morning,” she says. “Somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t you just run the rest of the way into work?’”
With that inspiration, Feillafe changed her route, and now she runs 6.5 miles to work every day. If she’s feeling good, she also runs home. She started using MapMyRun to track her workouts, and a friend invited her to join the You vs. the Year group on Facebook, which challenges users to run 1,017 kilometers in 2017. She’s already well exceeded that distance, having logged 2,000 km since January. “It motivates me to run even further and do more,” she says.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”HEX 0073bb” class=”” size=””]“As long as my body allows me to get out there and run, I’ll get out there and run.”[/perfectpullquote]
Not that her running schedule is lacking, by any means. She usually gets in at least two runs a day, adding up to 12 miles minimum. She also does 5K races with the run group parkrun Australia every Saturday, which has become one of her favorite parts of the week. While her schedule is demanding — she wakes up at 4:50 a.m. every day to get in her first run before work — she keeps it fun and knows what she’s doing it for.
“Staying healthy is what’s important to me,” she says. “I want to be alive as long as I can for my kids.”
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She’s down to 119 pounds and has gone from an Australian size 15–16 to a size 6 (a 2 in American sizing). She maintains her weight by sticking with her running routine and eating a balanced diet of 1,800 calories a day (and the occasional chocolate treat).
Feillafe’s transformation from overweight and unhealthy to full-fledged competitive runner is an impressive feat. In addition to the weekly parkrun 5Ks, Tracey has run 10 half-marathons and one full marathon. She set a goal of a sub 4-hour marathon and came in at 3 hours, 55 minutes in the Gold Coast Marathon this past month. “Two days after, I was back to running again,” she laughs.
But there was still one thing left to accomplish. This past January, Feillafe got back on her bike for the first time since the accident — and just kept going. She ended up riding more than 12 miles.
“I wanted to get back on the bike again, to get my fitness back up and to show people that age isn’t a barrier,” she says. “After I turned 50 last year, I’ve been just running and running and running.”
And she doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Since joining parkrun’s Saturday morning races in 2015, Feillafe is on track to complete her 100th event in September.
“I’m inspired by seeing other people out there,” she says. “All the different types of people, shapes, sizes and ages out there, doing parkrun.”
Friends she hasn’t seen in a while still stop her on the street, in awe of her transformation. Her secret to success, however, is simple: “As long as my body allows me to get out there and run,” she says, “I’ll get out there and run.”
Triathlons are Feillafe’s next challenge, and she hopes to continue to inspire people to be active and take risks, no matter what they love to do.
“Don’t be worried about what you look like at the start,” she says for anyone starting on their own journey. “You’re doing this because you want to feel and look better. You’re not doing it for anybody else. Even if you can’t run, walking is just as good. Whatever kind of exercise you can do. Stick at it and don’t give up.”
Whatever your challenge, Feillafe is proof it’s never too late to get back in the saddle.
Written by Emma Sklarin, a runner, triathlete and student at Dartmouth College, where she studies creative writing and races for the Dartmouth triathlon team. She is a San Francisco native, where the views and trails never get old.