The Kiwi girl who dragged herself out of bed to play waterpolo just broke a record running 5000km around a New York block. And for once, ultra runner Harita Davies used being a female to her advantage.
For 51 mornings in a row, Harita Davies would wake up to her 5.15am alarm, try to steal another five minutes of snoozing, and then laugh at herself.
Laughter was one of her tools she used to cope, she says. To wake up and say: “Oh my god, here I go again.”
“I was just like, ‘All right, I know this is outrageous, but we’re going to do this… we’re going to just take the first step,” the New York-based Kiwi runner says.
That first step would be one of many thousands Davies would take on each of those 51 days, running 18 hours a day, until she’d covered almost 5000km. And all of it around an 800m block in the New York borough of Queens.
It’s just over a week since Davies finished the world’s longest foot race – the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race – and she’s still on the move.
The 45-year-old knows from experience – she’s completed this race twice before – that it’s not healthy to suddenly stop after covering such a gargantuan distance.
“One of the things that almost seems contrary to what people think is that, especially for the first week after the race, you actually need to keep moving,” she tells the Dirt Church Radio podcast. “Because all of your organs and your whole system is so geared to be working at such a hard pace that if you just stop and sleep, then you can actually even do damage to your kidney and liver.”
So Davies has forced herself back into her running shoes and out of her house in Jamaica, Queens, each day. But “mostly just walking”.
There’s a lot that’s incredible about Davies’ latest achievement.
She was the only woman in a small, elite field of seven runners. She broke her own national record over the 3100 mile (4989km) distance – described as the Mt Everest of Ultramarathons – by 20 hours and 11 minutes.
And it’s not too long ago she couldn’t run more than two miles without getting “really exhausted” – one of the effects that endometriosis had on her body.
But since then, Davies has found a new happiness, leaving her home in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake to live in New York. And with the help of New Zealand female sports physiology guru Dr Stacy Sims, Davies has learned how to make the most of her body at different stages of her menstrual cycle – and turned up at the start-line stronger and faster than she’d ever been.
This was the second time Davies has been the only woman running the famous Sri Chinmoy race. Yet she never felt alone or outnumbered.
She pulled together her own support team of women. Women who would help her get up each morning and drive her to the race start; women on the roadside cheering her through lap after lap; women who would get her home after she finished running at midnight.
Local Muslim women, would run alongside her for a little while some days.
“The nature of his race is not that you’re out on your own with these six other guys for 52 days. It’s a half mile loop, so every eight to 10 minutes, I would see a bunch of other women,” Davies says with a laugh.
“I live in this local area so I definitely wasn’t lacking in women power around me. And there’s a certain kind of responsibility to feel like you really want to do well for all of womankind.”
The men in the race were like her brothers, she says, all supporting each other. “I think some of the runners that do this race are really some of the best representatives of men in the world because they’ve gone through so much…they have so much humility and kindness and goodness, and the ultrarunning beats down their ego,” she says.
Davies is happy to be held up as an example, an inspiration, for other women. “It really inspires me to get on top of these things that are obstacles for other women so that I can show, yeah, we can do it.”
Growing up in Christchurch, Davies was surrounded by sport; her parents were surf lifesavers, and her own code of choice was water polo. As a teen, she struggled with depression, but says that sport saved her life.
“I would be so depressed, I’d have to crawl out of bed to go to a water polo game. Then I’d forget all my problems and be playing sport,” she says.
At the age of 20, she moved to Wellington in her third year studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree. She spotted a poster offering free meditation classes at the new Sri Chinmoy Centre, went along, and discovered she could identify with Indian spiritual leader and avid runner Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy around hope.
“That really resonated with me because I’d really lost hope in humanity,” she says. So she started meditating and running.
Davies suffered, though, from bad period pain. Soon after she did a series of multi-day races in 2007, she didn’t allow her body to recover properly and her endometriosis became a lot more serious.
“Then for almost five years, I really couldn’t run more than about two miles without getting really exhausted, and I would get a lot of internal inflammation,” she says.
So she asked Sri Chinmoy, just before his death in 2007, if she would have to give up running completely – as she’d been advised to by an Ayurvedic doctor. The spiritual guru told her to stop running for three months, then run and walk, then finally run.
It would take her five years to get to the running stage again. When the restaurant she was working in was damaged by the devastating Christchurch earthquake, she headed to New York and entered the North American Peace Run in 2012 (she stayed on, and is now one of the directors of the American leg of the global relay).
“Through doing that, and just kind of taking responsibility for my happiness and listening to my heart and being really true to myself, the endometriosis really just went away,” she says. “So I can’t say that would be like a magic cure for everyone. But Sri Chinmoy has a really simple little aphorism: A cheerful mind has always been a perfect guide to a healthy body.”
Running 5000km almost non-stop, you’re going to feel pain somewhere in your body. Over the years, Davies has learned to “go beyond the mind, because the mind always wants to tell you how difficult it is, how ridiculous it is,” she says. “The mind always wants to find the things to get really annoyed and upset about and to complain about and all the things that are sore.
“And in this race, there’s always something hurting.”
But since her last race in 2019, she’s also used the wisdom of Waikato-based researcher and scientist Dr Stacy Sims to understand how to train and run at different times of her menstrual cycle.
Reading Sims’ book ‘Roar’ and doing a ‘Women are Not Small Men’ course with her, boosted Davies’ confidence: “To not feel like you’re going to fall apart when you get your period during the race and that there are things you can do and that you can stay strong.”
She learned there’s a difference in how women cope with the heat and hydration at different stages of their cycle. “So the first half of the race in September, we had some quite hot weather. In the second part of your cycle leading up to getting your period, [a woman’s] blood becomes a little thicker, so they need to hydrate more, and their body temperature rises slightly, so it’s harder to hydrate. They need to drink more and take more electrolytes than men do,” Davies says.
She ate more protein and less carbohydrates this time. “Women have a lot more trouble with their stomachs… every woman you speak to who does multi-day races is like ‘You know, the stomach problems are really the worst part of it’,” Davies says.
Towards the end of the 51 days, she also drank a mixture of baking soda, salt and maple syrup, as her stomach had become so acidic.
Davies also built up her muscle mass before the race, which helped her be much stronger than in previous events.
She may have become only the second woman in the history of the race to complete it three times, but more significant to Davies was that the race even started this year, after Covid forced its cancellation in 2020.
“The fact that it happened felt very meaningful to me,” she says. “And at the end of the race, I was so happy that I felt it really did bring people together and give people joy and inspiration and hope, which is exactly what we need right now.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com