Here, Susan O-Brien, 33, tells the story in her own words.
I knelt down beside the buggy.
‘I’ll see you at the finish line!’ I cooed to my nine-month-old daughter, Meisha.
Then I hugged my husband Daniel, 35, and our son Jayden, three.
It was a freezing May morning at the Remutaka Forest Park, where I was about to embark on a 20-kilometre run.
‘We’ll be waiting for you!’ Daniel smiled.
I bounced up and down to keep warm as the organiser warned us about the challenging trail.
‘If you get lost, stay put!’ he said.
When the starting gun sounded, I was off like a bullet. The trail soon became steep and the ground muddy.
Slowing to a jog as I navigated the branches and jagged rocks, I looked out for the blue flags that were to guide us.
Wanting to finish in two hours, I pressed on without looking back.
After a while, I had a break to catch my breath. Looking behind me, I was startled to find I was alone. Where is everyone? I wondered.
Surely I couldn’t be that far ahead. As I kept running, I waited for another person to overtake me. But no-one came and a mild panic set in.
Wandering around aimlessly, I looked for a blue flag or a familiar tree.
Feeling confused, I headed off in another direction, until I stopped again in frustration.
Worried I was well and truly lost, the organiser’s warning echoed in my mind.
Stay put. I didn’t have my phone with me, but my GPS watch told me it’d already been over two hours.
Daniel, Jayden and Meisha would be waiting anxiously for me at the finish line.
After another hour of trying to find the trail again, terror dawned on me.
‘Help!’ I shouted wildly. ‘Someone please help!’
My voice grew hoarse as I screamed into the empty forest. By now, I’d drunk every last drop of water and eaten my energy gel packs. I couldn’t ‘stay put’ any longer. I wasn’t exactly Bear Grylls, but I knew I needed to get to shelter and water.
Shivering, I trudged towards a riverbed. Stumbling and slipping, my frustration mounted when it started to rain.
Spotting a big tree in the distance, opposite the creek, I decided to cross the water. But I skidded on a rock and tumbled into the freezing currents.
By the time I made it over, my muddied clothes were sodden and darkness had fallen. Looking up at the night sky, I prayed desperately for help. What if no-one finds me? I thought. I can’t die. Jayden and Meisha can’t grow up without a mum.
I dug a small hole to curl up in, and covered myself with soil to keep warm.
After a while, I used my hands to gratefully scoop gulps of water from the stream and fill my water bottle, before resting again. But my teeth chattered so violently, I couldn’t sleep more than a few minutes at a time.
Worse still, my breasts were sore and swollen.
I was still breast-feeding Meisha every few hours and they were hard as rocks from not being expressed for so long.
After what felt like an eternity, it was daybreak. I hadn’t eaten in 20 hours and I’d done all that exercise. My stomach was growling and I felt cold and delirious.
Rummaging through my backpack, I found an empty chocolate bar wrapper. I’d eaten it on the run and now I was achingly hungry. My poor breasts were also extraordinarily tender. Then I had a crazy idea. What if I drank some of my breast milk?
I could give myself some sustenance and relieve my painful chest.
Folding the chocolate packaging to fashion a little cup, I unzipped my jacket, squeezed my breast and milk spurted out. I hungrily drank it down, relishing the sweet and watery taste. Then I expressed more and drank until I felt better. The milk seemed to warm me from the inside out.
Feeling re-energised, I dusted off the soil around 9am and started running again, hoping I might be able to find the trail.
Incredibly, at 11.30am, I heard the sound of a helicopter flying above me.
Waving my arms frantically, I tried to get their attention.
The pilot spotted me and the chopper landed 100m away in a clearing.
I was bundled into it and flown over to a cabin near the edge of the forest.
After a full 24 hours lost in the bush, I was saved.
My entire family were waiting for me.
‘Thank God you’re okay!’ my mum Maggie sobbed, as she clung to me.
‘I need to feed Meisha,’ I said, giving Jayden a cuddle.
Holding her close, I fed my girl as everyone bustled around me. Daniel hugged me tight, his relief palpable. He said the police and teams of rescue people had tirelessly searched for me during my terrifying night in the bush. I won’t ever forget that.
Luckily, it didn’t scare me off from running – I’m still competing in events. I can’t wait to tell my kids about it when they’re older. Being a mother gave me the strength I needed to survive – literally!
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