Susan O’Brien, 29, of Johnsonville, had been missing for exactly 24 hours after she was due to end a race through the Rimutaka Forest Park.
She had taken a wrong turn near the end of the 20km run in a forest south of Wellington and became disorientated.
O’Brien said she believed she would die during a night of torrential rain and high winds, but spent her time praying and thinking of her family.
To survive she she dug a a hole to keep herself warm and fed herself with breast milk.
“I just kept chucking dirt on top of me and every time I heard something I’d just scream ‘help’,” she told reporters after a helicopter fitted with heat-detecting sensors found her.
“One thing that helped me, I’m breastfeeding my baby, so I had a bit of my milk because I thought that would help me keep going for energy,” she said.
O’Brien was reunited with husband Daniel, son Jayden, two, and eight-month-old daughter Meisha before being taken to hospital for a check-up.
A Westpac Rescue Helicopter had been hunting for about four hours and had just dropped in a land search party when they spied a figure waving frantically at the sky about 11.30am. She was just standing on the edge of the bank waving at us,” crewman Colin Larsen said.
“She obviously looked very relieved, she looked quite cold and tired but certainly very relieved to be taken back to her family.”
O’Brien said she was not good at orienteering and thought she was going to die.
“I thought of my baby and my son and my family.”
It was a cold night and she didn’t have a survival blanket to keep her warm. “For some reason I kept strong because I kept praying all the time.”
Race organiser Mike Thomason said 423 runners went on the run on Sunday around 9am. O’Brien was expected to finish by 11.30am, but by midday it was discovered she had not returned.
Runners scoured the entire track twice after it was established she was not in the race finish area or back home. Police turned up to start searching about 5pm.