Heather Hawkins: Real Adventurer and True Survivor
Heather Hawkins is a 51 year-old mother of two from Coogee, NSW. After surviving ovarian cancer in 2007, Heather was inspired to be stronger, fitter and to reconnect with her sense of adventure. The past five years have taken Heather on an incredible running and adventure journey.
It all started with training to be a Surf Life Saver in 2009, then completing a 4km fun run in 2012 that lead Heather to push herself and achieve more than she would have ever imagined.
Once she made the decision to take up running more seriously, Heather quickly progressed from running half marathons to completing full 42 km marathons. In April 2015, Heather won the women’s division of the North Pole Marathon and in January 2016, she completed the extreme World Marathon Challenge (running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents). Between February and July 2016, Heather trekked the entire 1700km Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal with World Expeditions.
Heather credits the latest cancer research treatment from ANZGOG for saving her life. In 2015 Heather became a Can Too Ambassador and in November 2016 Heather joined Can Too runners in the New York Marathon, raising $14,425 towards cancer research.
Heather's drive, determination to push herself outside her comfort-zone and test her limits is simply inspiring. We sat down with Heather to discover more about her amazing story and learn about how she motivates herself to achieve such extraordinary things.
1. In 2007 you discovered the shocking news that you had stage one ovarian cancer. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?
To hear that initial diagnosis, to feel the uncertainty - it’s bad news and it’s all about you! It’s a very surreal situation to be in… I liken it to facing an oncoming storm. You have to brace yourself and go into survival mode. I remember sitting very quietly. Listening. Attempting to process it as best as I could and come up with an action plan. I somehow had to survive this. It was clear that I was never going to be the same, but to what degree and how would this affect my family, my health and beyond? I’m incredibly grateful that my husband Doug was there on that day.
We held hands. I knew if we faced this situation together and with great medical care, we could find a way through. That night we shared with our kids, then our extended family and friends. We prayed together. To not be alone in this battle, brought an immense sense of reassurance and strength.
2. What was life like for you prior to 2007?
In February 2007 my life was humming along. I was a busy mum with two kids: an 11 year old son Callum, and a 14 year old daughter Rebekah. My husband Doug and I were running a film and video production company, it was really fulfilling, but demanding work. Like so many other Australian families out there, my life’s focus was on the day to day. It was a balancing act between school, work, homework, kids sports events, planning holidays, paying off the mortgage, spending time with friends and interstate relatives.
My values and approach to life have always been largely based upon those of my parents. They were my role models and without a doubt, the biggest influence in my life. Prior to cancer I was a very practical, positive person, a problem solver, a person of faith who was a quiet achiever who set the bar perhaps a little too high. I would always ensure I saw things through to the end and never give up. Ambitions and drive have always been there, but always tempered with gentleness and thought. I’m still all those things today, just a stronger, more resilient version… and a whole lot more grateful to be alive!
3. After all you’ve been through since 2007, how has your perspective on life shifted?
‘A shifting compass’ and ‘have courage’ are words that find their way into my conversation a lot more these days. I’ve become more keenly aware that we all need to make the most of life.
To change our attitudes and behaviour and focus on the big picture items and aim to be the best person we possibly can be, to be fit, healthy, embracing opportunities, to be caring and actively nurturing goals and creativity. I’m so much keener to experience adventure, to push the personal boundaries, no longer content to just hum along in life.
I’ve always had an adventurous spirit, but surviving ovarian cancer in 2007 has certainly taken it to a whole new level. It’s really sharpened my understanding of how wonderful loved ones are and reminded me that this world is perfectly made for us to just get out there and explore. You’ve got nothing to lose! Take the road less travelled… go climb those mountains and sit yourself at the top and gaze out at the view and feel the wind in your face… for I can honestly say that these days will be the days that stay with you forever…
4. Two years after your diagnosis, becoming a Surf Life Saver at Coogee Surf Club was a turning point for you. What was it about this point in your life that propelled you to challenge yourself and achieve so many great accomplishments?
Becoming a surf lifesaver in March 2009 really put me back in touch with my physical fitness. I honestly hadn’t done much exercise, since my early twenties, when aerobics in lairy lycra was still around. (Now, did I just admit to that?)
It was the fitness and the skill training involved in gaining my bronze medallion that taught me a number of incredibly valuable lessons - That it’s okay to be out there on the edge of my comfort zone, whether on a large rescue board in the waves, running in the ‘muscle burning’ soft sand or swimming 400 metres in under 9 minutes. That challenges can be turned into positive experiences, by facing our fears, not panicking and pushing through to the end. It’s given me the courage to sign up for events, that I would have thought impossible only a few years ago.
Eight years later I’m still an active member of the Coogee Surf Lifesaving Club. I love the camaraderie and the sense of giving back to the community, and it’s an absolute privilege to be part of such an iconic Aussie organisation.
5. Over the last 4 years you have developed a strong passion for running and it has almost become the centre of your life. What is it about running that you love so much?
I love the headspace. The freedom. The feeling of pulling on my runners and heading out the door into the fresh morning air. Whether it’s along the coastal path at Coogee to watch the sunrise or to do laps of Centennial Parklands to grab a coffee at the bike track! Running has given me some of the greatest experiences of my life, from my humble beginnings of taking on a 4km race, to winning the women’s division of the North Pole Marathon and completing the World Marathon Challenge. I’ve made so many new friends over these past 4 years. Plus it’s a great way to stay fit, an awesome activity to do with my family and a fun way to keep up with our dog Rusty and explore the neighbourhood!
6. What is it you find so rewarding about challenges and pushing yourself to achieve things you never thought possible?
My foray into marathon running and trekking has certainly demanded big slabs of time, discipline and a great deal of training. But I love it. With every race I learn something new, whether it’s finding new ways to cope with different conditions, how to deal with exhaustion and how to push through to the end. Mid way through my 100km ultra race a couple of years ago I hit the wall, I was overheating badly and was incredibly fatigued. I didn’t give up. But iced up, turned my music up, and kept going. I took out 3rd place female that day. I really want to encourage others to face challenges in life and experience the elation of getting to the end, whether it’s a project, a run, a trek, or achieving a personal dream. That’s a job well done. Keep repeating these words: Never give up.
7. How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally for upcoming challenges or running events?
I prepare myself for events primarily by writing up training plans in my diary and sticking with them. I love ticking milestones off and recording kilometres and making comments as I go. I give myself plenty of time to prepare and I love mixing things up by adding swimming and core strengthening exercises to my runs, and choosing new locations to train in. I also have a little personal tradition of dedicating races, and expeditions, to other people. This brings me a whole new purpose and carries me along as I prepare, and all the way along to the finish line…
8. Sometimes when things get tough it is easy to give up. Or even starting can seem like a very daunting process. How do you keep motivated when things are difficult?
When things get tough, either in training or during events, I’ve learned to take myself back to all the reasons why I do these things in the first place. It’s such a great motivator. I also think over my race dedications and turn up my music in my headphones to distract myself from any doubts or negative thoughts. When we were trekking the Great Himalaya Trail, we got alongside each other, chatted and gave each other encouragement, this is what made it so much easier to get through those 1,700 kilometres across Nepal!
9. In 2015 you became an ambassador for Can Too – a charity that is very close to your heart. Why is being a Can Too ambassador so important to you?
It’s an absolute privilege to be an ambassador for the Can Too Foundation. I love the idea of taking on physical challenges while raising funds for cancer research. This means, people can get fit, have an awesome experience achieving a new personal goal and help those facing the biggest battle of their lives. Cancer research is a cause very, very close to my heart, having experienced firsthand the benefits of treatment developed from research.
10. After completing the New York Marathon in November 2016, you raised an incredible $14,425 for Can Too Foundation. Do you have any fundraising tips for people who are also looking to fundraise for a good cause?
My advice would be to get your message out there on social media and among family, friends and work colleagues. Let them know what you’re doing and who you’re fundraising for and what motivates you to do this. Keep them updated regularly with lots of fun and interesting posts/conversations about how your training is going and what you hope your fundraising will achieve. People will want to help out when they see you’re putting yourself outside your comfort zone and doing it for others.
12. What do you love most about Nepal that keeps you coming back?
I really love the the warm, caring people of Nepal. On the Great Himalaya Trail we were given Nepalese names. I was called ‘Aama’ which means Mum, which was wonderful, because all of a sudden I was part of a very, very big family! The friendships that we made and the bonds that were forged will last us for a lifetime. I think too, Nepal is a place of such magestic, contrasting environments. It has the mighty snow capped peaks of the Makalu and Everest Regions, the lush, forested region of Annapurna and then the shaley, lunar like landscapes in the remote west. It will always keep drawing me back...
13. What advice can you give people who want to challenge themselves and take a leap outside their comfort zone and take on a daring adventure?
I’d say ‘do it!’ Go ahead and write down your dreams, make plans to achieve them, and put them into play. Prepare yourself, trust yourself, dare to be bold and push the boundaries. Life is so short and we need to colour it with as much adventure, joy and amazing experiences as we can. Get out there, and take your friends and family with you!