Before leaving to work in Belgium, where she is based at the moment, I caught up with Harriet to talk about the struggles and triumphs of living with endometriosis as an outdoors enthusiast.

Hazza’s Run 4 Endo has been directed and produced by Juan Noba and is dedicated to raise awareness about endometriosis.

Harriet, thank you for taking your time to talk to me today. I’m interested in the role your family might have had in introducing you to the outdoors? Was that something you’ve been doing since you were little?

Yes, we used to go tramping when I was young. I always battled a bit, because I’m the youngest, so I had the shortest legs and trying to keep up was really hard. I didn’t particularly enjoy it all or value the experiences I was fortunate to have or the places I was lucky to see. Eventually I figured out I just needed to work a little bit harder. If I worked harder, I didn’t feel quite so slow, and so I started to appreciate the experiences. I was lucky to have that upbringing, it’s just been there as a part of what we’ve done. Both of my parents have done a bit of adventure racing, my dad probably more recently. I was 16 when I did my first Coast to Coast, which was pretty cool, because I was quite young then. So, I’m lucky, the outdoors have always been a big part of my life!

When did you start exploring new pursuits and found that you enjoyed them?

When I was around fifteen, I started to enjoy the challenge of new pursuits. With sport, eventually I worked out that the harder things were the more I enjoyed it. Around then I started to find little things that challenged me that little bit more and I got excited about them and worked really hard towards getting it done. So, the Coast to Coast was first and I guess it just springboarded from there. There’s never really a pattern to what the next thing is, I just try something new or get a bit of inspiration from somewhere and get excited about it.

Harriet’s parents played a big part in exposing her and her brother to the great outdoors since early age. Photo: Juan Noba.

Great way to explore. How was it finding out about your endometriosis – considering you are and were such an active outdoors person?

The first symptoms of endometriosis came to the surface when I was training for that first Coast to Coast, but I had no idea what endometriosis was at that stage. I assumed that I’d be ok, it was just all part of being a woman. It started having more of an impact on my life about two years later, just before my first surgery. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed to go to uni classes, let alone go for a run. There were days when dad would say ‘Let’s go up the hill’ and uncharacteristically I would turn down his offer and stay curled up on the floor. That was the alarming part, when it got to the point I couldn’t do the things that I loved doing. And that’s when I knew I had to do something about it. I guess in a way I am lucky. I had all the outdoor sports that I wanted to do but couldn’t, to help me recognize that something wasn’t right.

It’s huge when it affects you in such a big way. You weren’t able to function and do normal things, like go to uni or go to work or go for a walk.

Yes, and that’s the scary thing. All very well if you can’t go for a run some days, but if you can’t do the normal things, it becomes a problem. There were days when I wouldn’t go to uni, I would watch classes online curled up with a hot water bottle in bed, or I wouldn’t go to dinner with my friends. We have grown up hearing that period pain is normal, but day-to-day things should still be possible. I was lucky to have people around me who heard what I was saying and supported me to realize that the pain I had wasn’t normal. Those people really helped me to get through it.

Tell me more about endometriosis in New Zealand. My understanding is that the only way to identify it is through a proper surgery.

Yes that’s right. Current statistics suggest that one in every ten women have endometriosis which is an astounding number really. The first step is seeing a specialist and if you tick all the boxes from there you get an ultrasound, but even after that there’s no conclusive evidence of endometriosis until you actually have that first surgery. That was pretty daunting for me. I remember being in the hospital and worrying, thinking if it isn’t this, what is it going to be. Obviously I didn’t want it to be endometriosis, but at least some answers to my pain would be helpful. So even that was a roller-coaster of emotions, just leading up to the diagnosis. For me, once they did the key hole surgery, they were able to diagnose it. I’m not lucky to have it, but I’m lucky to have a surgery that was able to diagnose it.

Harriet turned endometriosis into her strength with a help of her family and friends, who joined her on her fundraising mission along the West Coast. Photo: supplied.

Endometriosis is reoccurring and the only effective treatment is a surgery, so very invasive. Being so young, it must be worrying thinking how many surgeries you might have to go through?

Yeah, that’s right. It’s been four years since I was diagnosed and I’ve had two surgeries since then. There’s really no cure, but they can go in and clear it out. Things like hormonal IUD can slow the progression of it coming back. But it doesn’t mean you really get rid of it, it builds up again and then you have to have a surgery again. For someone active, it means having six weeks off, not doing anything and being off work for a couple of weeks. It’s quite confronting, especially when you’ve got it for life. It’s not a one off. I guess it’s often in the back of my mind, what it’ll mean in the years to come but I have to keep reminding myself that worrying doesn’t help.

You said in one of your interviews that you turned endo into your strength and that you hope other women can do that too. Can you tell me more about that? How did you make that happen?

It’s really cool hearing that. It’s a nice reminder every now and then to hear it for myself. It’s so hard to get up and get going when you’ve got endo. It’s hard to get out of bed, to show up for the day, to go for a run, but we all manage to put up with it. We end up getting up, we get out for a walk, we get through the day and we push through that pain. I guess I’ve learnt the mental strength that it takes to do that is immense. There’s a small percentage of the population who manages to do that, despite all the pain we are confronted with. If we can use that mind frame as fuel to push through the pain in the long run or a long bike ride or a sprint or whatever you’re doing, you’ve harnessed the knowledge that you’ve actually got this very special ability to push through and cope with that pain and achieve some cool stuff.

I’m interested in what the pain is like. Can you compare it to anything?

Pain that I feel is like someone’s got a knife and is just twisting it. It’s that sharp stabbing pain, which is pretty brutal. I actually had a bit of ITB niggle when I was training for the big run. My dad had previously had a similar injury and I remember him relating to the pain of it one day when I was really battling. He said it was one of the worst pains he had experienced, to which I agreed but said it was nothing compared to what ‘normal’ period pain was like. When I mentioned this to him, his jaw just about hit the floor. It’s just unlike any other pain I’ve experienced. It’s definitely the most pain I’ve ever been in.

Can you use any painkillers that are actually effective during that time?

Often I don’t. For me it’s usually a week leading up to my period and the week of my period that I have to work through this pain. I figured if I take painkillers to help, I’ll be on them for half a month. I’m not really a huge fan of the idea of that. I stay away from it and just use a hot water bottle… or a run, depending what mood I’m in. And just trust that I’ll get through it.

Every successful mission needs a tight team. Harriet with her parents and videographer Juan on departure day. Photo: supplied.

How did you come up with the idea to do the 650 km run and cycle over the eight days? Why West Coast?

A couple of years ago I did a 100K kayak, and for a similar purpose. It was a challenge that motivated me, and I raised a bit of awareness and money for EndoNZ back then too. So, that was really cool! At the start of 2022 I got into running a bit. I’d ticked the kayak box, and I could run, although my previous longest run was the 33 km of the Coast to Coast, and I wanted to see if I could run 100K in a day. I talked to dad about it and we figured running a 100 km on the road would be pretty brutal and not so good on the knees – I’d love to still be out adventuring for the years to come.

We looked at a couple of different tracks and the Old Ghost Road is probably where we started – 85 km. I was kind of fixed on the 100K idea so we looked at what else I could do around there. So we worked from the Old Ghost Road and pieced together a few bits and ended up with the four tracks to run: Puponga/Wharariki Hills track, the Heaphy, Old Ghost Road and the Paparoa. Later we added the West Coast Wilderness Trail, which I decided to mountain bike alongside the Cycle Journeys team. I decided running that last track would have been too brutal. We pieced those four key tracks together and decided on cycling between them, as some recovery sessions. They were quite brutal recovery sessions [laughter]. So it went from 100 km in one day, to 650 km in eight days… crazy!

Harriet already raised funds for Endometriosis NZ in 2021 by kayaking 100 km. Photo: supplied.

Nice, so you’ve been through national parks, conservation land and on the road.

It was pretty cool, I loved the variation. Each day I got to the end, thinking ‘I can’t wait to be back on my road bike tomorrow’ or ‘Thank goodness I get to put my trail shoes back on tomorrow.’ Strangely, at the end of each day I was smashed, but quietly looking forward to the next one. It was cool to break it up. I didn’t back to back run any day, except the first two days. It just spread the load, and made it sustainable. I think running that distance would have just broken down the young body, but this was challenging enough yet manageable. And I got to see some of the most magical parts of the country at the same time!

By switching between running and cycling, Harriet made the mission sustainable and traversed some magical parts of the country. Photo: Juan Noba.

What would you say were the highlights and the lows of this mission?

There’s a lot of them. One of the best things were the people I had around me for those eight days, and the days either side of it. I still just smile when I think about it. Some of my friends surprised me and came over to the coast to ride the last section with us, I had people reach out on Instagram and come over to join, and now are some of my closest friends. And my family as well, the connection that we formed through this event is just irreplaceable. It was one of the hardest, most brutal things I’ve ever been through, both the actual event and the months of training leading up to it, but they were always there for me and that was special. They saw me at my lowest low moments, but celebrated the highest of highs with me too. Also to have all that captured on film was pretty amazing, so I can look back and remember how hard it was and how much they rallied around me. That was definitely the highlight.

Another one was the impact that we as a team, and a mission had as well. Even the video being shown at the film festival – I think there were 280 people there that night. Just from sharing my story, the amount of people that said to me they have endo themselves or know someone who does, was huge, it seemed there were connections everywhere and just by talking about it, the mission was – and still is – having a really positive impact on people. Just finishing – [laughter] – that was a highlight. There had been eight months of build up, of physical training, and all the logistics admin – which ended up being a lot more than I thought it would be!

Before I started the mission, I naively thought – what’s there to organize? I just need to train and turn up! My poor parents went through a wringer a bit there, just trying to pull it all together at the last minute, they really helped focus my attention and get it all sorted. So it was pretty nice to see it all come together more or less as planned for everyone involved.

Harriet on Paparoa track with her friends, who came over to the Coast to support her. Photo: supplied.

There were a lot of lows as well. I cried everyday, because it was so hard both physically and emotionally. I got my period on my first day – [laughter] – it was pretty much a perfect storm. That just makes me more emotional. That was pretty tough. On top of the physical challenge of pushing my body through what I did, I also had to manage the pain of my period too. Getting through day two was the hardest, the heavy legs and trying to just keep myself going… But then again, there were people around me, to pick me up. Looking back now, it feels like it wasn’t too bad, but the days were so long and I had good moments and bad moments each day. I just had to trust the process, trust that I had done the training and trust that I’d come out of that rough patch and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Probably the hardest part for me was a couple of months before I even started. I was so overwhelmed with the planning and the training. There were a few other relationship things going on in my life as well. I ended up not really eating well, not sleeping, not training effectively, just couldn’t do anything really well. I was losing weight fast and I was just not in a good shape for anything, let alone a mission of this scale. I was in a hole for the best part of a month. Eventually I figured I wasn’t OK, but didn’t really know what to do about it.

I remember dad showed up at my work one day and said, ‘Right, we need to talk about this because the way you’re going, we can’t do the run, it’s just going to be way too much.’ That was a wake up call from dad. He is usually my biggest fan, creating crazy adventure ideas with me, and so it really hit home when he told me this. I ended up talking to the amazing Rosie Shakespeare who became my mental skills coach and she got me linked with a dietitian Cushla Holdaway, both of whom really changed my life. That was the lowest point of my life so far.

I couldn’t have done the mission, and even just getting through that rough patch without them wouldn’t have been easy if I didn’t have their help. That was probably the lowest part of the whole journey, which doesn’t really tell on those eight days, but I am grateful for the lessons I learnt through it, and the people who picked me up. It was that whole build up, that was the hardest part.

Months and months of preparation led up to the eight day mission. It would not be possible without a support of her family and professional coaches, Harriet says. Photo: Juan Noba.

That sounds like a really hard time. I can imagine. Sometimes things just pile up and it’s just a little bit too much. 

Yeah and then you get caught up in that cycle… because I wasn’t eating I wasn’t feeling like eating and I was just getting worse and worse. That’s the scary thing. This project was supposed to be for a good purpose, I was supposed to be really healthy and on the top of the world. But I was just in a hole. That’s why people around me played a big part as well, picking me up, when I really needed that. It makes me realize how lucky I am. It’s pretty scary how quickly it turned around.
Often I forget about this because it wasn’t part of those eight days. But it did influence what I did and how I tackled those eight days and I need to keep reminding myself to talk about it. Often it can seem that the eight days went quite well, but if this hadn’t happened, would the mission have happened at all? Or would it have all fallen over? So I need to keep on reminding myself how defining that part was.

It’s not just about being physically ready, it’s also about being mentally ready and having that mental strength to go through the whole project, not just those eight days.

That’s a thing that a lot of people probably don’t always realize as well – the build up. My friends and flatmates hardly saw me, because I was always doing something for the project and it just consumed me. It was kind of scary actually, I often wondered what I was going to do once it finished.

If we return back to the run. How long were you days?

Very long! The first day was probably a bit shorter, about seven hours, the second day on the Heaphy was about 12 hours. The biggest day was the Old Ghost Road, which was just over 16 hours. Part of that was on purpose. I went in every day with the mindset that I didn’t care how long it took me. All I had to do was get to the end of each day and know that I had the energy in the tank to go again the next day. So each day, I was planning for the next day.

Yeah, break it up in chunks, otherwise it can be too overwhelming.

Yeah that’s right. If I looked at the whole run at the start and thought ‘Oh My Goodness I’ve got 650 km to do’, that’s overwhelming. So I quickly learnt to focus on the section ahead of me. Often it ended up being sort of 20K sections, all I had to do was run 20K and then reset. That was probably the biggest learning that I took from the physical part of the event, the benefit of breaking things up. One step at the time. That’s how I got through the Old Ghost Road, from one hut to the next. All I had to do was another half marathon to get to the next hut, and then reset. Everything is much easier when you take it one step at a time! And using snacks to break up the day was great too. I focused on regular eating intervals which broke the day down into little chunks.

One step at the time was a strategy that Harriet adopted to tackle the Old Ghost Road. Photo: supplied.

Did you think of this strategy yourself or was it something you might have discussed with your family as a preparation for this?

I probably had elements of it through creating a race plan for my first Coast to Coast. Mum and dad talked me through that and then for sprint kayaking, the coaches worked on these with us a lot as well. But it didn’t really occur to me to have a break down plan for each day until after the Heaphy, after the second day. I just battled through and was so overwhelmed by the end of it. That day I did not break it up at all, I had 70-something km to run. I was counting them down and it was a long day. On Heaphy I remember thinking how on earth am I going to do the Old Ghost Road. It’s so much longer and I’d be on day four by then, so I’d be so much more tired. So I called up my coach, Karen Muller. She created my training plan for the eight months leading up to the event and she was the one who suggested to break the day down: have my snacks planned out, have mantras to go through my head during the tough parts… I adopted the mentality of fresh legs, after every section I would put the old legs behind and pick up new ones, which sounds really crazy, but it worked. So she was really influential getting that kick started from day three.

Wow, some really cool strategies. If we just go back to the highlights, you said one of the highlights were people who supported you and filming your mission. The support of your family really shines through and is obvious in the film. I’m also interested in where did the idea to make a film come from? Was it there from the beginning?

With the 100K kayak fundraiser I did a couple of years ago, it was all really cool at the time. Heaps of people were talking about it and got excited about it. But then once it finished, it finished. That was fine, it didn’t worry me too much. Then I started seeing a couple of films. I watched Mal Law’s documentary Fifty about his 50 peaks in 50 days. And it really stuck with me, I was inspired years after he did it, so his message was really living on.

Years later after the film was made, the message was still really relevant, it’s still important and it’s still impacting people, even though the event has well passed. I thought it would be so cool to have our message live on too. I had a chat to Mal about it and he said that was a cool part for him as well. But then I didn’t think too much more about it and I didn’t know any videographers. Just a couple of months before the actual event, we went down to Race Tekapo, helping with the race and one of the crew was Juan, the videographer. We were chatting to him about what we’re doing and he said he would love to be involved. His work was amazing and I think it became a bit of a passion project for him as well. It all just came together, it was that connection and Juan’s enthusiasm that got us underway, with his help, I knew we could get this on film.

That’s wonderful. What a great connection.
It just all fell into place. I was going to do the run regardless but it was just meant to be. And it just happened.

Having her mission captured on a film is a great way to inspire others and keep the message alive, says Harriet. Photo: Juan Noba.

And you raised the funds for Endometriosis New Zealand while running.

Yes we raised around $13,000 NZD for Endometriosis New Zealand. It links a bit to that kayak fundraiser. I raised money for the same charity then, but once it had happened, I didn’t really know what it achieved. People would ask me, what did Endometriosis NZ achieve with the funds raised? I really wanted to quantify it so I could tell people what we had managed to achieve. I decided that supporting Endometriosis NZ again was the right fit for the mission, but I wanted to have the money put to specific use. They offer a helpline, I think they offer two free calls for each person who calls, which is a $50 cost for them essentially. And this was a service that I personally benefited a lot from. So I said right, I’ll raise the money for that helpline that helped me and it also fit my criteria for a quantifiable amount. I created a phrase for the fundraising page – ‘Every $50 is a free call!’ That sort of seems doable and palpable to people. So it was a really good way of doing it and it gave me motivation as well. Every $50 is another free call for someone. Knowing that it was making an impact directly for people was really cool. I think the total number we came up with was just over 240 calls, which is pretty cool, when you think of all those people we have positively impacted in some way. Oh, it makes me so happy [laughter]!

FMC congratulates Harriet on her wonderful achievement and extends warm thanks for sharing her story in this interview. To many adventures of the wonder woman in the future!