Kelly Hutton was two-thirds of the way into an epic attempt to cycle through Aotearoa, when her cancer caught up with her. The netball trailblazer spoke to Suzanne McFadden about her journey against all odds.
When she started out from Cape Reinga on her odyssey to cycle the 3000km length of Aotearoa, Kelly Hutton felt she’d be okay if she only got as far as the end of Ninety Mile Beach.
That’s about 43km.
“Honestly, hand on heart, I always said if I got down Ninety Mile Beach, I’d be happy,” says Hutton, an original Canterbury Flames netballer who has advanced ovarian cancer.
“I just didn’t know what my body was going to do. I hadn’t really been able to train because I kept getting sick.
“Now that’s changed. If I don’t get to Bluff, I’ll be devastated. I’ll have to be pretty sick not to finish.”
Hutton made that declaration last week as she was about to cycle into Wellington, and complete the first half of her mission. The 48-year-old former New Zealand indoor netball captain was over the moon, “probably the best I’ve felt in years”, she reckoned, and was even more determined to pedal her way to the bottom of the South Island.
But Hutton’s worst fears were realised earlier this week as she was cycling over the Maruia Saddle just outside Murchison on the West Coast. Severe abdomen pain forced her to stop riding, and friends rushed her to hospital back in her home city of Christchurch.
It turns out the cancer in her abdomen had progressed unusually quickly and strangulated her bowel, and she had to undergo urgent surgery.
Hutton was devastated. After riding just shy of 2000km, she knew she wasn’t going to finish the journey.
But in another way, she was relieved. “Maybe doing this bike ride saved my life in a way, because it’s emphasised to the [surgical] team that I’m fit and can cope with whatever the surgery throws at me,” she says.
Just before she started this adventure – one she’d been planning for over a year – Hutton was told her cancer had returned for a third time.
She was first diagnosed with advanced stage three ovarian cancer in 2019 while she was living in Bahrain, where she’d captained their national netball side. Around the time of her 45th birthday, she was overwhelmed with exhaustion and had an unrelenting pain in her side, but kept playing sport until she got the diagnosis.
Her mum, Val, and sister, former Southern Steel netballer Megan Hutton, brought her home to Christchurch where she underwent chemotherapy (during a nationwide lockdown) and had major abdominal surgery, including removing her ovaries.
Hutton went through a year of being cancer-free – taking the opportunity to tick off a half marathon, race mountain bikes, play netball again and work out in a homemade gym with Silver Ferns shooter Te Paea Selby-Rickit.
But the cancer returned in June last year, and Hutton went through another gruelling course of chemotherapy (again through a lockdown) and a blood clot in her lung, forcing her to put her cycle plans on hold.
A year later, as Hutton was preparing for this ride, she had more scans. She could see the results online before she visited her oncologist.
“I knew it was going to be bad, so I prepared myself,” she says. “And [the oncologist] said ‘Yes it’s back. But we don’t have to start treatment today – please go and do your bike ride’.
“She said there was little chance it would make a difference if we held off treatment for a month or two. I couldn’t believe I had her full blessing without me even having to beg.”
Hutton was still daunted knowing she’d have to return to six weeks of intense chemo that would leave her bedridden.
“But honestly, when I walked in, I thought she’d say no bike ride and that I’d lose my hair again. But she said with this particular combination of chemo I won’t lose my hair. So I actually skipped out of her office like it was bloody Christmas,” Hutton laughs.
“It’s amazing how your life changes. They were two big wins for me.”
Hutton left Cape Reinga in early November on an e-bike, to give her extra power on hill climbs. But by the time she reached Wellington, she was powering through 100km days without the need of electric assistance.
“I could ride 116km without turning my e-bike on, whereas two weeks ago I needed two batteries to get me through the day,” she says.
“Everyone said I would ride into fitness, but I didn’t know how I would react. It’s just been so nice to have my body back.”
Since her days playing for the original Canterbury Flames franchise in the 1998 Coca-Cola Cup, which ushered in the new era of professional netball in New Zealand, Hutton has always relished a physical challenge. Especially after the ravages of cancer treatment.
“When you’ve been lying in bed and you’ve got virtually no muscle left and then all of a sudden you feel you want to challenge yourself,” she says. “And I also want to be in the best fitness possible for the next lot of treatment.”
Hutton insists she wasn’t doing anything superhuman riding the 3000km ‘Tour Aotearoa’ route along mostly off-road cycle trails and quiet back roads.
“You get up in the morning, ride for five and a half hours, come home, charge your batteries, have a feed and go to bed at 8.30. And then you do it all again the next day,” she says.
“Anyone can do it. There was an 84-year-old in our Escape Adventures group, and the majority of the riders were over 65. They’re so fit, and they’re so inspiring.
“It’s such a great way to see the country. I feel like we’re a bit pioneering.”
There was the odd setback even before she was forced to abandon her ride. She suffered one flat tyre, going too fast downhill on a gravel road, and had to push her bike for 10km to get help. She also got “mildly hypothermic” cycling out of Cambridge in driving rain for three hours then stopping for lunch in a shearing shed.
Her young niece and nephew followed her journey every day; on a map of the motu, they’d put a pin in the town Aunty Kelly had reached.
She got to ride through rural towns and villages she’d never heard of. Like Kimbolton in the Manawatu, with its famous rhododendron gardens and pedigree rams.
“I bumped into three of my mates in Kimbolton, including a friend I’d played with in the Canterbury U18 team, and the policewoman who drove my mum to my dad’s funeral,” says Hutton, whose father was a policeman who died soon after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Each day, Hutton would allow herself a “moment” while she cycled. “A 20-second moment where I’d think ‘It’s not fair. Every day I’m getting stronger, and I don’t even feel like I’m ill’,” she says.
“But I also felt grateful – this is what I’ve been wanting to do for so long, and I know so many people can’t.
“If this [illness] hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d still be stuck in the nine-to-five grind. It’s certainly opened up some real opportunities in my life.”
That’s been Hutton’s astoundingly positive attitude all through this three-year undulating journey. And even after she came out of surgery, she hadn’t given up on one day finishing her Tour Aotearoa.