We present part two of our interview with cancer survivor and marathon runner, Heather Hawkins. Here she talks about the experience of running in inhospitable conditions at the North Pole and lessons she’s learnt along the way.
What inspired you to start running?
In 2012, on a whim, I entered the 4km Mother’s day classic run. It was a new challenge, a great fundraising idea and I signed up with my two teenage children. But at that time running 4km was a daunting prospect, I’d never run that far before! I remember training at Centennial Park. I had tired, stiff legs, I was constantly out of breath. I had to sit down on the grass. What was I doing? But I persevered. I never allowed myself to give up. On race day we ran the race together and I crossed the finish line with a smile. I was elated. It was my light bulb moment. That race sent me off on a trajectory that I could never have imagined.
What made you decide to take on the North Pole Marathon?
Late last year, I was keen to find a new challenge with my running. The idea simply came from a brief chat with a friend at the start line of the Melbourne marathon. He happened to mention a friend of his had trained in an industrial freezer for a marathon at the South Pole. It caught my imagination! I spent the entire marathon thinking about it! As soon as I got back to my hotel room I was on the internet and searching details. Unfortunately the South Pole marathon was full but there were still places available in the North Pole Marathon. Perfect! I signed up. It would be an adventure. It would be a challenge. Besides, what better way to celebrate the milestone of turning 50?!
What kind of thoughts did you have while you were running the marathon?
I remember so clearly standing at the start line, with every inch of skin covered, listening to my breathing in my balaclava, jogging on the spot to keep warm, hi-fiving those around me and thinking “Well, here goes! I’m running off into the unknown.” I wasn’t anxious, I was excited. It was 1.30pm in the afternoon. The weather conditions were perfect. Blue sky, mild winds, -28 degrees Celsius. The surface was soft snow with a crunchy crust, small icy sections and cracks and ridges in the ice. I settled into a good running rhythm. I felt so happy to finally be achieving this dream! Part of my race plan had been to listen to music, but my phone froze only two songs into the race – silence. No! But in hindsight that was the best thing that could have happened to me because without the distraction of music this became a much more personal, emotional race. I’d planned to dedicate each of the 12 laps to certain people in my life: my family, friends and other women with ovarian cancer. I was running this race for them. Halfway through the race the conditions changed. The wind picked up. The snow blew in. The temperature plummeted to -41 degrees celcius and the visibility to only a few metres ahead. Fortunately the course was marked with little black flags every 15 metres or so. Several competitors started to show signs of hypothermia. The medics retired them from the race. They treated others for frost nip. It was crucial to keep every piece of skin covered. My surf lifesaving cap was tied over the top of my beanie and kept my balaclava anchored perfectly. I kept going. Lap 5, 6. I stopped to put on dry socks. My trail runners were wet but luckily my toes were still warm. I ran on. I felt happy and in control. Then I moved up into 3rd place female… then 2nd place… and at the end of the 10th lap I overtook the leader to move into 1st place female. Then I ran like I’ve never run before and didn’t look back. Lap 11, then lap 12. I was still in the lead. I started to cry. I thought about all the people in my world. With 50 metres to go I was on the graded ice running towards the finish line. All the flags were flying. There was the Aussie flag on the left. I’d looked at it every lap. This time I grabbed it. The finish tape was up and I ran through it. I’d won. I’d done it. It had taken me 6 hours, 57 minutes! I was incredibly elated and emotional. I’d survived cancer, turned 50 and running had just given me one of the best days of my life.
What is your next challenge?
My next challenge is the World Marathon Challenge – 7 marathons, on 7 continents, in 7 days in January 2016.I’m so excited about this. It’s a big step up and I’ve got some serious training to do! So I’ll be focusing on strengthening my core, building stamina and practicing running on very tired legs. To do this I’ll be training on consecutive days and at all hours of the clock. I’ve worked out my race nutrition and I’ll spend some time researching the conditions at each location (Antarctica, Chile, Miami, Madrid, Morocco, Dubai & Sydney) How lucky am I that the final marathon is in my home town!
If you could say anything to young women about what you have learnt on your journey and throughout your life so far what would it be?
‘A shifting compass’ and ‘never give up’ are words that now find their way into my conversation. I’m more keenly aware that we all need to make the most of life. We need to change our attitudes to become more positive and focus more on the big picture items. To be the best person we can possibly be: fit, healthy, embracing opportunities, to be caring and actively nurturing our creativity and dreams. I’m so much keener now to experience adventure and push my personal boundaries. I’d really encourage young women to know their bodies and to be proud of them. Never be embarrassed of who you are or what you look like. Never be frightened to talk to someone if you have questions about your health. If you notice any symptoms or signs then seek medical attention straight away, because life is so incredibly precious.