When you think of women making an impact in the world you need go no further than Samantha Gash. This vivacious woman from the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria is a small package doing amazing things in the world, using running as a vehicle for change.
As we chatted, what was of no shock to me, and like many women I know, was that Sam’s running story started out just like any other running woman’s might – that in 2008 she decided after running for a short while she wanted to train and run her first marathon. What she didn’t know was the journey to where that ‘marathon’ would take her, and the reasons for running her in the future.
Sam’s background was far from the world of marathon running; in fact sport wasn’t even on her radar as a young girl, and she was far more focussed on academic pursuits growing up than getting out for a run. It was Sam’s mother, also a runner who convinced her to get out into nature and be active as a teen and run on the trails to help her chill out her otherwise racing mind. Luckily for Sam she lived close to Lysterfied Lake and she soon began to love taking herself out for a run into nature, which served to take her focus away from the strain of study, and relax and calm her mind, and here she discovered the benefits of mindful running.
Sam’s initial focus on wanting to run the Melbourne marathon in 2008 was to tick it off the bucket list. She wanted a challenge that she could strive towards and something to push hard for physically after years of arduous study to become a lawyer. She trained hard and lined up on race day, but suffered terribly mentally through the back end of the marathon and nearly quit. After finishing the race one could wallow and say never again, but Sam used this experience, driving her commitment to push herself out of her comfort zone, and break through the mental barriers that may hold her back in the future to become stronger. It was time for another goal.
In 2010, only two years after her initial marathon was firmly ticked off her list, she decided to take on one of the biggest races of her life, the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. According to the website, the “4 Deserts Ultra marathon Series is widely recognized as the most prestigious outdoor footrace series in the world. The series consists of the Sahara Race (Egypt), the Gobi March (China), the Atacama Crossing (Chile) and The Last Desert (Antarctica). Competitors in the races traverse 250 kilometers (155 miles) in seven days over rough country terrain with only a place in a tent and water provided”.
So why such a big event? What makes anyone want to go out and run 250km across the desert spanning multiple countries? “Running filled me with uncertainty and required me to mentally push into a world unfamiliar to me”, said Sam. The event was solo, running alone, and all she thought was “will I survive this?”, all the while having enough bravery and determination to take up the challenge and experience and push through this unknown space.
Sam was the first and youngest woman to complete the 4 deserts Grand Slam in a calendar year. Not long after she finished she harnessed that achievement as an opportunity to do something more. At that point she believed that anything was possible, and finally believed in herself, a far cry from almost pulling the pin at the Melbourne Marathon just two years earlier. She moved to Malaysia to do a semester of university and trained hard. Pushing herself more and more physically and mentally and searching for the next goal that would fulfil her desires to push harder and go further. She had no sponsors and little experience, and 4 Deserts was the first time she had been recognised in her running, so she used that exposure and started on the journey toward gaining more and more experience. Little did she know that in the future that would help to attract sponsors to causes she was passionate about, and change why she runs entirely.
After training hard, in 2011 Sam ran the non-stop LA ULTRA-INDIA, a 222km race in the Himalayas, which peaked at 6000m above sea level.
It was here, still relatively inexperienced in ultra running, yet passionate and resolute about her goals, that she realised that there must be a bigger reason to run. After reflecting on the support she had around her by friends who came to crew and help her to compete, she realised she needed a greater reason to push herself. This was when Sam decided that she would transition from running for self, to using her running for others.
This new desire to run for others was accomplished in 2012 when she ran 379km non stop across the Simpson Desert, and in 2014 when she ran across South Africa’s Freedom Trail for a sum of 1968km for Save The Children, both causes raising over $85,000 for initiatives around education and health for women and children. This new found reason to run was only just the beginning.
When I asked Sam about why she does the work she does and why use running to do it, she reflected on the reason she completed a law degree was to work in the social impact space, and marrying it with running was the perfect medium to create change, which lead to her next adventure, Run India, as an Ambassador for World Vision.
Run India was to be a 77 day, 3253km journey from the West to the East of India in which Sam was exploring the barriers to education faced by children, while visiting World Vision programs across the country. The expedition would end up being much more than just a run, as they battled the barriers encountered from not only the sheer logistics of the run itself, but the cultural expectations and the extreme conditions experienced in such a landscape. It took a long time, and a huge amount of preparation to get the run off the ground, with a large team, including a lot of mental preparation for Sam who had to believe that she was ready for the task ahead. “I had to do it because I believed in it, not for the response that the expedition may get”, said Sam.
Some of the challenges that the team faced at Run India were because of India’s extremely complicated space. Sam learned that in any good mission a good team selection is crucial, and that even as the runner you need to be able to empower the team to have a voice and feel equally invested and aligned in the mission ahead. There were challenges with the team getting used to India; the culture, the smells, the sheer amount of people and the extreme weather that was while running and filming, sometimes 95% humidity and 45degrees in the shade. There was also the demand for content and footage for partners, and the logistics of getting that back to Australia in a timely manner. And then there was the running itself; mainly on the harshness of the road, where Sam learned the importance of protecting her greatest asset- her human body as it broke down with the weight of the project. It took Sam a whole month of resting and re-building mid expedition, where she not only had to recover her body, but her mind. Here she learned that the mind is strong, but when it isn’t working as strong as it should, it can weaken the body. The starting point needs to be the mind. That in an expedition there will be a constant mind/body battle and when she learned to manage her mind better, and really harness and understand her own expectations for the expedition her body started to heal.
The Run India feature documentary has been released and you can see it at the Gutsy girls adventure film tour in your state.
After Sam’s adventures in India she spent some time on the television series, Australian Survivor. Here she met and fell in love with her now fiancé Mark Wales. Together in 2018 they welcomed their first child, Harry who joined them on a new adventure – parenthood.
Sam now spends her time being mother to Harry while juggling her professional speaking career, and partnering with causes and brands that are still aligned with her vision. I asked her if she would ever embark on another project like Run India now that she has Harry and she said yes, but that she “would really have to believe it was worth all the training and the expedition itself”. That “retaining a sense of identity even when becoming a mum is so important and healthy for relationships to not lose that sense of self”.
For now Sam’s biggest drivers in her running are still why she loved it in the first place – relaxation and connection. She wants to instil in her son Harry a love of nature, but also that running can be used as a powerful tool for social change. She wants to teach Harry that he has a choice in how to live his life. That a good person has good values, serves others, and cares and appreciates diversity and equality, and Sam wants Harry to see those traits in her as a strong woman as she lives them out, and that he hopefully aspires to be like her too. She wants to expose Harry to culturally rich, purpose driven people to help him make choices to where he wants to take his life.
Sam is under no illusion that being a mum is easy. As a mum Sam knows that now the goalposts have changed. She is no longer so rigid in the way things get done and knows that with children comes responsibility, and through being a mum and the love and nurturing that has come from that, now she has higher empathy towards those around her. She has a greater desire to keep Harry healthy and happy and that things may change on any given day and plans may change, and that’s okay.
As we wrapped up our conversation I asked Sam if she had any expeditions in the pipeline. She wasn’t able to elaborate at this time, but that we need to stay tuned as there is one planned for the near future around the identity of women, the freedom of movement and self-care. So watch this space……
For more information and to follow along Sam and the work that she is doing through the vehicle of running, head to www.samanthagash.com.