As National MP Nikki Kaye ran up the side of a mountain in the Southern Alps last month, scrambling her way over rocks and boulders, there were several thoughts going through her mind.
They included, "Why the hell am I doing this?" and, "What made me decide to inflict this pain on myself?"
But as she made it to the top of Goat Pass in Arthur's Pass, the highest point of the mountain run section of the notorious Coast to Coast endurance event, those thoughts were replaced with, "I thought I might not be able to do this, but I have!"
Nikki (38) had done the arduous Coast to Coast twice before – five and 10 years ago – but this time, she was tackling just the 30km mountain run section of the 243km race, which also includes cycling and kayaking stages.
Even though it was a shorter event and she knew what she was letting herself in for, Nikki had doubts about whether she'd be able to do it. Just 17 months earlier, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after going through treatment she describes as "very gnarly", she wasn't sure if her body was up to such a tough challenge.
"I had no confidence in my body," says Nikki, who has been a runner since she was young.
"I guess it's a natural thing, after what I went through. I hadn't done much running since I got sick, so to get back into it and compete in the Coast to Coast was pretty big."
She'd previously done the whole event in two days, and had always been keen to go back and try to get through it in just one.
"But I knew trying to do the whole thing that soon was too much – one thing I have learned from being sick is that you shouldn't push yourself too hard. So I decided to do just the mountain run, but it is still 30km and in some places it is more of a climb than a run."
She'd managed to do a bit of training during her summer break when she and a friend went to Argentina and Chile on holiday, and hiked up Monte Fitz Roy in Patagonia, as well as doing some runs up One Tree Hill in Auckland, but was not as prepared as she would have liked to have been.
So she was thrilled that her Coast to Coast experience went much better than she expected.
"It was actually the best run I have ever had," smiles Nikki. "It felt great and for a large part of it, I felt like I was in better form than I had been for a very long time. I did it in about five hours 48 minutes, which is a pretty good time considering it's a mountain you are running over.
"It was an incredible feeling when I ran over Goat Pass. I remember thinking how much things can change. To be able to get in condition to do that is something I am pretty proud of.
"And now I think I'm going to be a sucker for punishment because I still really want to do the one-day event, but it will take me a year to train for it."
Nikki says having gone through cancer has made her appreciate being able to do things like the Coast to Coast and to look at life through new eyes. "It does feel like a light has been switched on," she admits.
"I had always been pretty happy before but I think I am happier now. I am more grateful for what I have. I've always considered myself to be a positive person but now I think, 'Why would I spend however long I have got left on this planet being negative? Why waste your time with bad thoughts when you can be happy?'"
She also thinks going through a serious illness has made her better at her job. "It's forced me to see that instead of trying to do everything myself, there is power in empowering others. I'm definitely much better at delegating and bringing people forward who are better at something than I am."
The former Minister of Education has found that now she's in Opposition following last year's election, her schedule is a little less hectic, which will hopefully allow more time for her training.
"It is worth fitting it in because it is actually a good thing for my job – it's good for relaxing and for de-stressing. I feel really good when I exercise."
She adds, "We're still busy in Opposition, though – we're working on new policy, we're scrutinising Government policy and I've got the education portfolio. Plus, when you go from Government to Opposition, you go from having a whole lot of staff who will advise you on issues to just a couple. It's a bit like being self-employed."
Nikki had four months off work to recover after being diagnosed with cancer in September 2016 and admits she did consider not returning to politics.
"I thought about it a lot but I had support from people like John [Key] and Bill [English], and I had my family saying, 'You love helping people, so spend the rest of your life, whether it is five or 50 years, doing that. It's what you are passionate about.'
"They were right. It's what I got into politics for, to make a difference for New Zealand, and I want to keep doing that."
The hard-working Auckland Central MP has always been close to her family, but being ill has strengthened the bonds she has with them, especially her mum Julia.
"One of the beautiful things that has come out of this is that we have become even closer. She has been amazing. She, along with my uncle, were my support crew for the Coast to Coast, and she's so supportive. But she still tells me off!
"I know when I am in trouble because I get called Nicola, not Nikki. She's a lot more tactful in the way she tells me off now.
I get more ribbing: 'Oh look, you've left that towel on the floor again' instead of 'Pick it up!' I prioritise family more now and I love spending time with them, especially my nieces and nephews."
Nikki, who is single – "unfortunately!" she adds – is a doting mum to her two fur babies, British Blue cats Lily and Charlie.
"If I get an hour playing with them in the garden, or reading on the deck with them curled up next to me, then I am very happy."
Something else that has come out of dealing with cancer has been the ability to be more present in the moment, instead of worrying about the future or the past.
"One of my mates sat me down not that long ago and said to me, 'You are more present and calm and at peace than I have seen you in the last 10 years.' She was right – normally I would have been thinking, I have to sign off this paper, I have to make this decision. But I wasn't. So there have been some good things come out of this."
Another plus was the feedback she got, and still gets, from the public. "I've had some beautiful messages, including since I have done the Coast to Coast. I've had people saying that I have inspired them, which is lovely. I've also had people telling me to take it easy. It's nice that they're concerned."
People even noticed that she has recently had a bloodshot eye and left posts on her social media pages saying they hoped she was okay.
"To be honest, it wasn't anything major – I just accidentally stuck my finger in my eye! I'm totally clumsy. I had it checked, it's fine, but it is nice that people were concerned when all I did was poke myself in the eye! I think that's great."
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