Look to your mountain – running the long distance Indigenous PhD race

I come from Ahipara, a small settlement located at the southern end of Te One roa a Tohe (90 Mile Beach) in the Far North of Aotearoa. Our beach is a designated highway, used to travel the coast by foot, horse and vehicle. On any given day local fisherpeople, looking to feed their whānau, can be found surf casting or gathering shellfish. Each year around March I run a half marathon (21 kms) down Te One roa a Tohe in an annual long distance event – the Te Houtaewa Challenge – which commemorates the deeds of an eponymous ancestor of the Far North.

The Indigenous PhD journey, like the Houtaewa Challenge, is a gruelling long distance race that demands persistence, determination, motivation and an understanding support team to get you across the line. Having recently completed my own PhD marathon (and with the lactic acid still coursing through my aching muscles) I share this story for other Indigenous ‘PhD runners’ so that when times are tough and you want to give up that you ‘look to your mountain’ to find the strength to cross the finish line. Drawing on the metaphor of running the Te Houtaewa Challenge I share with you the lessons I learnt as an Indigenous ‘PhD runner’.

I would not describe myself as a runner nor as an academic. Rather, I am a teacher, Māori woman, Kaupapa Māori researcher, mother, daughter and weaver who was coerced into postgraduate study by a dear mentor and friend.“Just do one paper” she said. “You’ll love it” she said. She was right, I did love it! Three postgraduate qualifications, a baby and eight years later here I am. Running is a bit the same. Someone says, “hey, lets do a 5km event” and you go “I’m not a runner but sure, that doesnt sound so bad” and before you know it you are signed up for a half marathon running down the longest beach in Aotearoa.  You stop and think about it and realise that you only thought you weren’t a runner because somewhere way back in your childhood someone had told you so. And you believed it.

Lesson: As Indigenous people we are writers and runners, theorists and politicians, educators, historians and any other role that we want to play that creates transforming positive change for our people. It all starts by putting your shoes on.

Enrolling in a PhD. So you start training (postgraduate papers and Masters degree) and eventually make it to the start line. You are surrounded by other runners – some look pretty flash, others look like you. You talk, laugh and share ideas as you stretch and try to look like you know what you are doing. Then before you are truly ready a karakia (prayer) is said and you are off! No fan fare, just an optimistic “see you at the finish line” from the starter.

Provisional year – 21kms to go. Okay, I am off and running! The sun is shining. There is a spring in my step. I am chatting to those around me but before long I see that what was once a close bunch of runners is thining out. The fast ones streak off into the distance. They obviously like running by themselves. The slower ones fall behind. You slow down too so that you can stay together – like a whānau, a half-marathon whānau. You still talk but there is less laughter than at the start line. One of your marathon whānau says “Sis, don’t wait for us. Go ahead so we can see you and know where to go”

Lesson: even when you are out of breath don’t stop talking to your PhD whānau and those around you. They are your biggest and best support network.

Year two – 14kms to go. You press on and before long you find yourself running alone. The hardest thing about this race is that the beach is straight and flat, stretching endlessly into the distance. There are no turns, no hills, no markers to help you gauge time and distance. You often feel like you are running on the spot making no progress at all. The only check points to keep you sane are drink stations at 3km intervals along the beach. These drink stations are your supervision meetings. Here you receive encouragement and advice and at the same time you’re reminded that there is still a long way to go and time is ticking.

The checkpoints are manned by volunteers who smile and offer you drink. They say, “well done you’re doing great! and you know damn well that they have never run this race before. Their supportive comments are well meaning but they really have no idea what you are going through. You smile back and remind yourself that their job is important. If it weren’t for them you would die of thirst.

Two Lessons: Make sure to stop regularly and listen to your supervisors their experience and support is crucial and, not everyone in your world knows how hard the PhD marathon is. They want to support you but sometimes all they can do is smile and offer you a cup of water.

The sun is beating down. Fisherpeople call out, “isnt it a beautiful day for a run”. You want to swear at them – can’t they see how hard this is? A bit like when you tell your non-academic friends that you are on a writing retreat and they say, ‘Well doesn’t that sound nice” – said no PhD student ever! – or “aren’t you lucky, staying home all day writing”. Then I remember that doing a PhD is a privilege and that the opportunities I enjoy as an emerging academic have been hard won. I lift my head to the sun and feel the wind on my face as I get a burst of energy and keep going.

Lesson: remember that you are contributing to a whakapapa of thought, resistance and reclamation. It is our right, our privilege and our responsibility as Indigenous academics to contribute to and enhance that whakapapa.

Year three – 7kms left to the finish line. Two thirds of the way in and the body really hurts. Your eyes blur. You can’t see any sign of the finish line in the distance. Your support crew pulls up in the car beside you – remember our beach is a designated highway – and they can see that you are struggling. You start crying – no mean feat whilst gasping for air – and all your supporters want to do is make it better. They say “you dont have to do this” and from the backseat of the car your kids call out “we love you Mama! Please get in the car and come home”. You think about it for a moment and then remember that this marathon is bigger than you. Although your kids want you back, you are doing this for them so that they know that they can be runners too. Your stubborness kicks accompanied by another energy burst. Your support crew drives off to meet you at the finish line and you are alone again. Or are you?

You lift my head and realise that  you are running directly towards your ancestral mountain. At the base of your mountain stands your tribal meeting house and, close by, the resting place of your ancestors. To your right, the ocean that carried your ancestoral canoe to shore and has feed and sustained generations of your tribal people sparkles in the sun. You remember your motivation for starting this race – this PhD marathon is not about you or for you – it is for your people.

Lesson: The aches and pains you feel now will quickly subside but the achievement of completing this PhD marathon will have long lasting and sustained benefits for your whānau, hapū and iwi.

The last stretch. Reconnecting to your motivation you pick up the pace. You can see the finish line in the distance where, amongst the crowd, your support crew is waiting. There are a rocks to negotiate towards the end, but the legs are still working and the lungs are holding out. You lift your head one last time to look at your mountain which now stands directly in front of you and make the final dash to the finish line.

As you cross the line your whānau envelops you. Others smile and clap. You hand in your race timer and number to an official and thats it – your race is over. Before long your whānau go back to what they were doing and you are left to tend to the blisters and sore muscles and ponder what you have achieved. You raise your head again to look at your mountain and turn to look out to your ocean and know that it was all worth it.

Lesson – the Indigenous PhD race feels all consuming when you are in the throes of it, but it is actually only a few steps in a much bigger race. When your body is aching and you don’t feel you are making progress, lift your head and look to your mountain – whatever that means to you – to remind you of your motivation as an Indigeous scholar to contribute to creating positive transformative change for our people.



  1. Leonie Ngahuia Mansbridge

    This was just what I needed I feel like I’m on the last 7 Km struggling for breath at times thinking it’s all there just have to the last few kms and I’m over the finish line. Now I need to look at my mountain because I am not only doing the PhD race for me but for my whanau and mokopuna. My support team are my tipuna cheering me on.


  2. Abigail McClutchie

    Thank you for this exhilarating prose and example of commitment and determination. Just past the half way mark on my marathon, I certainly needed this reminder today. Thank you Hinekura!


  3. Christine Nichol

    Congratulations on receiving your doctorate, your hard work is inspirational Lisa. Your family must be very proud. Nana Ethel and Nana Joy and Tony also. Love and best wishes from the Nichol family. xx


  4. Lisa Watson

    Congratulations e hoa, thank you for the lovely words of encouragement and motivation. I’m in year number 4! Still tripping over my feet and sometimes the finish line just seems too far out of my reach. But as long as I’m still moving – one foot in front of the other…


  5. huka

    Beautiful kupu e hoa! As I read I recalled those moments shared on the omaoma, when we both were sweating it out wondering whether we were going forward or back. I’m glad and inspired that we cruised over the finish line together…forever PhD weaver twins lol. I’m looking forward to the transformative potential and futures we will contribute to. Love u heaps my friend xxx


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