My pregnancy journey is not a story of an adventurous woman continuing to do the things she loves. Merely surviving the day-to-day has been the biggest physical challenge of my life.
I felt pretty envious reading Leigh Bowe’s blog ‘Whoa baby!! Mountain biking throughout my pregnancy’ a few months ago. At the time I was 13-weeks pregnant and so floored that I could barely get off the couch to walk to the bathroom, let alone ride my bike.
I grew up in the South Island of New Zealand and have been very active in the outdoors my whole life. As an adult, my adventures have taken me all over the world, from multi-week hiking and packrafting trips in the Himalaya and Alaska to regular missions in my own backyard. Running, mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, hiking and packrafting have long been part of my day to day life.
In May 2020 I was signed up for my first bikepacking event, the Highland 550 trail in Scotland. Due to the Covid pandemic, I ended up riding the inaugural Tour Te Waipounamu bikepacking event in NZ in 2021 instead. I’m not actually that motivated by racing but I’ve always loved setting myself physical challenges on a bike. I relish back-to-back big days on technical trails.
I envisaged breezing through pregnancy, slowing down but continuing to do the outdoor activities I loved. I had heard isolated stories of women being totally wrecked but nearly everyone in my social circle had relatively easy pregnancies. My vision was to keep hiking in more rugged and remote places while I could. Then I’d bike and swim more. Every so often, I’d go on a weekend adventure that was much more mellow than normal. I figured that towards the end, I’d at least be able to walk regularly.
In August 2022, my partner and I spent a month hiking and biking in Switzerland. We gained over 40,000 metres of elevation on our holiday, hiking around Kandersteg and finishing with a bikepacking trip across the Swiss Alps on the ‘Alpine bike 1’ route from Scuol to Aigle.
Biking across Switzerland
A month later, I was pregnant. The months that followed totally blindsided me.
First Trimester: Weeks 3 to 12
In early October, I went on a casual overnighter to Mackenzie Hut on the Routeburn Track with a friend. I napped until the middle of the day and felt nauseous before we walked out. I was unsurprised to get a positive pregnancy test the next day. I was three weeks along. Two weeks of mellow symptoms followed before things went downhill rapidly. I went on weekend hiking trips in the Livingstone and Eyre mountains at weeks four and five, feeling fatigued but adamant to make the most of being outdoors while I could. I vomited for the first time when I was five weeks pregnant, and by six weeks, my body was a complete mess.
Week 4 – Livingstone mountains hike
Week 5 – Eyre mountains hike
I’d spent most of my adult life doing at least two hours of aerobic exercise each day. But for the next eight weeks, I did virtually nothing other than work and exist. Life was a blur of constant fatigue, nausea, vomiting and headaches. I had gnarly insomnia, triggered by pregnancy hormones. Most days I didn’t even have energy to water the garden. I remember looking around at spring blossoms and everything in nature coming to life and I felt like I was shrivelling up and dying.
My 33rd birthday passed, and for the first time since I was 16 years old, I didn’t celebrate with an outdoor adventure. Plans for hiking on Stewart Island turned into an evening lying in the foetal position on the floor doing my best not to throw up Indian takeaways. Simply surviving day-to-day life became the biggest physical challenge of my life and I had to keep reminding myself that growing a human wasn’t nothing.
After week five in the first trimester, there were only two days when I felt good enough to do an outdoor activity. I went whitewater kayaking with two local guys one day, leaving around lunchtime after my nausea had passed. I was off from the beginning and found myself portaging a rapid that I would normally feel so confident paddling. After hauling my kayak up the bank, I lost my hold on it and watched as it slithered back into the river and down the rapid without me. I struggled to pull myself through the bush to finish the portage and reunite with my kayak. I felt so embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t be out here,” I told my partners. “I thought it was a bit early to tell people, but I’m pregnant. I didn’t think it would mess with my head so much.” The next day was a bluebird Sunday and I slept for ten hours straight right through it.
A few weeks later I woke up feeling surprisingly back to normal and walked up Gertrude Saddle!
Two days later, the fatigue and vomiting returned with a vengeance. I lay on the couch for hours every afternoon, ate a lot of comforting rösti, walked around in a daze, a shadow of my usual self.
At 12 weeks, I went on the first bike ride of my pregnancy – a casual 45-minute ride on a flat gravel track. I felt nauseous, got off for a rest and then felt exhausted on the ride home. I was stoked to be moving my body, even if the intensity seemed laughable. I remember thinking Cool, I can manage a small bike ride every day. I just need to keep the wheels turning and have no expectations on distance or intensity. The next day I was vomiting into my bowl in the evening and could barely walk around the house.
It has now been 26 weeks since I went for a ride. I gaze wistfully at my bike gathering dust in the garage. I remind myself that next summer I’ll be back out there with a newfound appreciation for moving my body. I’ll be able to ride those mellow classic trails – the Otago Central Rail Trail, the West Coast Wilderness Trail, the Timber Trail – pulling a baby along, slowly getting my fitness up.
I remind myself to be thankful that I was able to get pregnant and to appreciate my body, let it rest, and to not be hard on myself. I’m growing a human! At times, of course, I’m still a bit envious of women around me who’ve been able to continue exercising throughout their pregnancies. But I’ve come to realise that there’s no use comparing my experience to that of others’ – our bodies all react differently to pregnancy and we need to mentally adapt to our own circumstances.
Second trimester: weeks 13 – 26
At 13 weeks I went 24 hours without vomiting and felt cautiously optimistic. Then I vomited six times in the following twelve hours. Two friends arrived from Alaska and Australia for a two-week hiking and packrafting trip in Fiordland over Christmas and New Year that we’d been planning for months. I’d been hanging onto the hope that my symptoms would dissipate at around 12 to 14 weeks.
At 14 weeks pregnant, almost like magic, I woke up one day and felt okay. Two days later we set off with two weeks up our sleeve to traverse the Kepler Mountains from Lake Manapouri to Charles Sound in Fiordland. It was rugged terrain, but we had heaps of time and plenty of early exit options if I needed to bail. We had short hiking days and for every three days moving, we took one full rest day. I was moving slower than normal, especially on climbs, but still had good coordination and balance on precarious logs and through windfall in the forest. I was convinced that the hard bit of pregnancy was over and it’d be easier from here out. This twelve-day trip reminded me that I hadn’t lost my ability – the hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy was just a temporary chapter in life. After going on only one walk in eight weeks (no exaggeration, I didn’t even walk a flat footpath to work) I was scrambling through the mountains and thick bush with a heavy pack.
Instagram reel: traverse of the Kepler Mountains, week 14 – 16.
My confidence was up so much that when I returned home, I pencilled in a tramp to George Sound for Easter weekend. It’s a trip that would normally be so easy for me, spread over several days and without a huge pack. But well before Easter rolled around I had to bail. I could barely walk a kilometre.
After the high of the Kepler Mountains trip, the next month (16 to 20 weeks pregnant) was a bit more mellow. I couldn’t plan much and every few days I was back to feeling nauseous and vomiting. But in between the lows, I had a little more gas in the tank. I went on a very short overnight hike up Mount Barber, off Borland Road. My low moments were more isolated than the first trimester but I paid a high price anytime I pushed myself physically.
Instagram reel: Mt Barber overnighter
At 19 to 20 weeks pregnant, I went on a 10-day trapping trip in Dusky Sound for work, servicing stoat and rat traps on remote islands. We based ourselves off a boat with 11 people living in close quarters. A trip that would normally be super easy for me felt like a big physical challenge. My coordination was getting worse and I was extra slow on climbs. I sat on the top of Mount Phillips soaking in the view of Anchor Island and wondering how long it’d be before I’d be out on a work field trip again. Descending the steep rooty trail, I felt I was at my limit and knew I had to take extra care not to fall in that terrain. To those around me, I seemed relatively normal, perhaps just a bit chubby and antisocial. But I wasn’t my usual self. Almost constantly nauseous, I spent most of my free time lying down in the dark and I didn’t have the energy to join in any fun activities in the evening.
Instagram reel: Work trapping trip in Dusky Sound, Fiordland National Park
After that trip, I went downhill again very quickly, waking up a few hours before my alarm almost every morning and vomiting bile. I’d planned a two week trip to the Nelson area, figuring I’d be good to get amongst some adventures in the second trimester. But I ended up doing just one six-kilometre walk in two weeks. I spent five nights in Totaranui, next to some of my favourite trail running tracks but didn’t even set foot on them. I’d developed pelvic girdle pain that persisted, every day, for the next three and a half months. Rolling over in bed was a task involving a painful five-point turn. Significant pelvic girdle pain affects around one in five women in pregnancy. It’s mostly linked to hormones in our bodies designed to relax and stretch ligaments in preparation for childbirth. For some of us, this happens a bit too much and too soon. The most I could manage was walking a couple of hundred metres on a flat dirt road to the beach. I made peace with that and decided I’d just have to enjoy swimming. It turned out I could hardly even swim – I could float in the water but I couldn’t kick my legs without intense pain.
Back in Te Anau, some dry needling and physio helped alleviate the pelvic girdle pain a little but it always came back with a vengeance.
Third trimester: 27 weeks +
By the time the third trimester rolled around I felt well and truly over pregnancy while simultaneously being weirdly thankful for the journey. I knew shifting points of physical suffering would make me stronger when I went back to outdoor activities. Pregnancy has reinforced valuable life lessons in surrendering control, being more at peace when expectations don’t match reality, and celebrating the small wins – like walking two kilometres return to go a cafe for lunch, being able to spend an hour in the garden without stopping to lie down, or laminating some pieces of plywood in lieu of a hiking trip on a long weekend.
Persistent insomnia ended up being the most challenging symptom of my third trimester. For ten weeks, I only had a couple of days respite. I didn’t have issues getting to sleep, but I couldn’t stay asleep. Like clockwork, I’d wake up around 2 am and be wide awake for five consecutive hours and get a maximum of three or four hours sleep a night.
At 31 weeks I was still vomiting. After going several weeks without even walking 300 metres, occasionally I could manage a two kilometre walk on flat footpaths to the local hardware store or supermarket on the weekend. Fiery red, orange, and golden leaves reminded me that the shortest day, my due date, was getting closer.
At 34 weeks, I felt like I’d reached my limit. Perhaps when you know the end is near, you start preparing for it to be over. One moment stood out. I’d been wide awake since 2:30 am, got up, vomited and sat on the couch feeling nauseous while the rest of the house slept peacefully. I’d had more than four consecutive weeks of insomnia. I just lay on the couch and cried softly. A few hours later I hauled myself off the couch and went to work.
Many people have told me insomnia during pregnancy is far more challenging than living with a newborn because you often don’t have the ability to nap during the day and you don’t experience the flow of love a baby brings. I had moments when I felt guilty about not feeling more excited about being pregnant and not feeling a connection to my baby. Realising you hate being pregnant is a strange feeling when online media seems to focus on stories and images of women absolutely glowing as they grow another human. There’s a huge amount of luck involved in the physical side and your experience is rarely a reflection of your health or activity levels prior to pregnancy.
I have well and truly surrendered to being stationary and, at this point, I’m just hanging on for dear life.
I managed to keep working full-time until 37 weeks pregnant, probably out of sheer stubbornness more than anything – and the ability to adapt my hours and cancel all field work. I think having work as a distraction has helped me mentally cope. Interestingly, throughout most of my pregnancy, I hadn’t struggled with my mental health. Despite the adversity, there was an end date in mind. It’s not like an injury that has an uncertain recovery period.
But in the final few weeks I’ve been getting down. The accumulative effects of pain, sleep deprivation, and feeling like such a slob in a body that seems foreign to me have taken their toll. I’m ready to give birth and meet our baby. And to experience the simple joy of moving my body again. Even a 1,400-metre return walk to the lake on a footpath will feel like an adventure after this.
Photo: Evolution of a heffalump: 10 weeks, 20 weeks, 34 weeks.
The final countdown: 38 weeks +
As I finish writing this, I’m nearly 39 weeks pregnant. I’ve been embracing the dwindling daylight hours, fog, and rainy weather this season brings to Te Anau. The world around me is finally joining in on my hibernation! I am terribly impatient to give birth but also feel surprisingly at peace with the unknown that lies ahead. I feel like a challenging pregnancy has prepared me well for motherhood.
To those of you who find yourself in a similar scenario to me… you’ve got this.
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