John McNamee talks to a brave Heather Hawkins….About her miracle recovery from a deadly illness….and her quest to boost her favourite charity
The temperature half-way through the race had plummeted to around minus 41 degrees Celsius and a snow blizzard was sweeping icily across the frozen wilderness.
“It was almost a total whiteout,” marathoner and cancer survivor Health Hawkins admitted.
“My water bottle and my glucose gels had frozen solid and I couldn’t even listen to my favourite songs on my phone as the battery had seized up….so the only tune I heard all race was John Farnhams’ That’s Freedom,” she laughs.
Heather, 50, a Sydney mother of two, was competing in the North Pole Arctic Marathon, 42 gruelling kilometers run across a remote ice floe, a short helicopter flight from the geographical North Pole.
The Arctic marathon had begun in “sunny and mild conditions” of about minus-27 degrees Celsius and no wind but then it turned nasty.
“Several people had been forced to drop out suffering from hypothermia, breathing problems, frostbite or just gear failures,” Heather said.
ECSTATIC: Heather Hawkins after her gruelling Arctic race showing off her surf life saving cap which she wore throughout the event. PICTURE CREDIT: MARK CONLON/NORTH POLE MARATHON
She was one of 44 competitors from across 22 countries, 10 of them women, taking part in the extreme running event. Heather was the only Australian woman to take part.
The course was set out over 12, 3.5kilometre legs across the floating ice mass, which houses a Russian scientific and military base.
“Before the race, when we got out of the plane which had transported us from our base camp at Svalbard in Norway, we couldn’t see a thing because of a snowstorm sweeping across this frozen wilderness.
“It was pretty scary particularly when you realized that the ice island is just frozen sea water.”
“I’d only seen snow once in my life beforehand and I’d never run or skied on it ever so I knew it was going to be a daunting experience,” she said.
“When the race started I had a race plan in which I would dedicate each lap to someone special in my life…for example the first laps I thought of my mum and dad who had died just a few years previously.
“Then subsequent laps I dedicated to my husband Doug and then the children, and then other ovarian cancer sufferers that I had met and of course all my fellow lifesavers and friends.”
Heather admitted that the conditions were so bad she had no idea how many people were in front of her or behind her as the race continued.
Luckily for her, her ski goggles didn’t ice up like many of the others had so she had some vision and she was able to breathe almost normally and stay relatively warm because of the thermal clothing and heavy-duty balaclava and neck garter she was wearing.
“On the down leg when we turned the marker we were running straight into a chilling Arctic wind and you could feel the ice blasts tearing at your skin and clothing.”
ULTRA EFFORT: Cancer survivor Heather Hawkins on Coogee beach with her ovarion cancer cap. New challenges await for her.
Only eight years previously, and never having run a marathon before, Heather had just been told the grim news that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Surgeons had found a deadly 20cm-tumour which had been growing aggressively and causing her severe pain.
“I was rushed into St Vincent’s Hospital for an emergency operation and luckily, they were able to remove all the cancer which had doubled in size in just a few weeks.
“ Normally after suffering a cancer like that I would have had to go for a long course of chemotherapy but I was able to avoid that by taking part in a new “surveillance” treatment regime where I only had to have regular blood tests and scans,” Heather said.
“It was a long, harrowing time for my family but after about a year I was given the all-clear, thankfully.”
It was during that worrying recovery process that Heather was talked into doing her bronze medallion by her husband Doug , 57, a veteran surf lifesaver at Coogee surf club in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“When I recovered quite miraculously from the cancer I just wanted to keep doing things and celebrating the fact that I was still alive and I wanted to give something back to the Australian Ovarian Cancer Foundation and the medical staff who helped me pull through that ordeal.”
Completing her surf lifesaving course led her to a love of competitive running and swimming and in 2012 she and her then teenage children, Callum and Rebekah, took part in the Mother’s Day 4km run around Sydney Harbour as part of her bid to boost involvement in women’s cancer charities.
That led to participation in the next City to Surf fun run, another half-marathon and then the gruelling Six Foot Track Marathon run in challenging conditions through the rugged Blue Mountains.
All the time that she was driving herself on to achieve even more with her life and when she heard from a friend about the Arctic marathon, she vowed to have a crack at it.
“Doug and I had shouted ourselves a trip to Paris to celebrate not only our 25 years of marriage but also my 50th birthday.
“It was while we were there that I found out more about the North Pole event and we flew up to the base in Norway,” Heather said.
That was the start of an amazing epic for Heather.
As the race reached its final stages and despite being buffeted and struggling against the adverse conditions, Heather realised that she was running second in the women’s division and with just two of the 3.5km legs to go, she decided to put on a spurt.
WELL DONE MUM: Heather Hawkins with husband Doug and 20-year-old son Callum back home on Sydney’s Coogee beach.
“I’d stopped off in the medic’s tent for a sustenance break and I could see some of the other competitors were doing it tougher than I was. I was still feeling remarkably well and full of running even after about six hours.
“So when we set off for the last leg I overtook the leader and when I rounded the last marker I could see all the nation’s flags fluttering, the officials putting the winning tape across and the presentation area.
“It was only when I grabbed the Aussie flag, crossed the line and had the medal put around my neck that the realization hit that I had won. It was a very emotional but proud moment for us and I’ll never forget it,” Heather said.
“That victory was dedicated to all the women who had suffered ovarian cancer, those who pulled through and the many who didn’t.”
Straight after the race, Heather , a former nurse, stayed in the medic tent and helped treat and comfort the other competitors who had been suffering terribly from the extreme conditions.
As well as being the first woman home, in a time of 6 hours and 57 minutes, Heather was eighth overall in the event. The men’s race was won by Czech Petr Vasbrousek in a time of 4hrs 22mins with young Aussie Douglas Wilson from Melbourne coming in second.
As proud husband Doug says of his wife’s extraordinary success: “It was touch and go there when she had the ovarian cancer but now, just these few years later, I fully believe there is nothing Heather won’t be able to achieve.”
*For more information visit Australian Ovarian Cancer Foundation at www.acrf.com.au/cancer foundation.
ICY WILDERNESS: Cancer survivor Heather Hawkins running the North Pole Marathon PICTURE CREDIT; MARK CONLON/NORTH POLE MARATHON
You can also pick up a the latest copy of the Go55s newspaper in one of the NSW Cancer Council Goodie Bags. To find out more about the expo click here