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RockStar Samantha Gash is an adventure racer and ultra-marathon runner. Samantha has just returned from running over 3200km across India, partnering with World Vision in a project to decrease the barriers to education for Indian children. The 3 month trip had her running 50-77km per day and visiting many communities and social projects along the way.
What’s your favourite colour RockTape and why?
‘Hawaii’, Black with orange flowers – it’s happy and bold. It really pops in photos.
You’ve just run across India – what an incredible and demanding journey. What was the reason behind putting together the trip?
For the last 5 years I’ve been using my enjoyment and capacity to run for social change objectives. My area of interest is in exploring the barriers for quality education for children and shedding light and raising funds to this issue was my objective in running across India. Initially, I knew what I wanted to do and the purpose behind it, but I wasn’t sure which sectorial expert I would collaborate with. I was introduced to World Vision and the projects they are involved in across India. After a trip to India to view firsthand their development projects across the country I felt reassured that the funds we raised would go to where it was needed. There is no doubt, the work they do is incredible and life changing. The fact they were willing to give me access to their people on the ground and contact with different community groups made this project so much more meaningful and real.
My run taught me that the barrier a child can face when accessing education can dramatically differ, such as the remoteness of a community, malnutrition, the prevalence of the sex trade, food security and gender bias. Therefore, the initiatives need to be geographically and culturally specific.
What were the best things about coming home?
I was away for 3 months. You miss the simple things like avocado, and being able to eat fresh food. Also being able to have a shower and not worry if you take a gulp of water.
What experience really stood out for you on your Run India trip?
What continually struck me is the power of a community coming together to push past geographical, social and economic adversity. We talk about the power and strength of working with other people – but to see it in a context of life and death is completely different.
As an athlete I used to do a lot of solo racing. Now I rely on teams. Indians in the communities I visited are very team orientated – they live closely together and support each other to overcome some extremely difficult challenges. In India you are never alone.
Go through how you got into running such ridiculously long distances. I don’t think anyone wakes up one day and says I want to run a marathon every day for 3 months. How did you get into it?
I am not really an athletic person. Growing up I was pretty terrible at most sports on first attempt, particularly if it had anything to do with a ball. Running & the challenges associate with that activity was something I could use my mind to overcome. It is definitely a mental sport and once I learnt to use my mind my physicality began to develop. In university I decided to do my first marathon and from there it was a quick transition to ultras (any distance longer than the standard 42km of a marathon, but are usually 50km+). Ultras were a means to travel overseas and be in extreme environments. I love to be outdoors and explore other places so ultra-marathons tie a lot of my interests together.
For people that hate running, but want to get into it, what are the first few steps for getting into running.
Firstly, join a runners group. Make it a weekend social event where you tack on coffee or brunch after you run. Also, if you love the outdoors get on trails. I live in a national park and it is on the trails where time stands still whilst I keep moving.
And how do you reach that mental state called ‘runners high’?
After most runs I am on some kind of ‘high’ or supreme state of contentment. Often during the activity of running itself it is hard and in the environments I choose to run in I have to work hard to keep focused.
The saying is, you rarely finish a run feeling regretting that you went. When you push yourself you’ll experience adrenaline and an endorphin release. These are the things that make you feel great.
What did your training in the lead up look like?
Parts of me felt like I trained inadequately. But I honestly don’t know what adequate training would have looked like. For the 8 months leading up to Run India I did strength training 3 days per week. The strength training is a really important part of the preparation and I wouldn’t have made it through the trip without that. I also did a couple of long runs a week, trained in an altitude chamber, ran on a treadmill in a hot yoga studio and practiced hot yoga several times a week. In terms of pre-event races I completed the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker and a 500km adventure race on the Garden Route in South Africa.
What about your mental preparation? How mentally tough was running across India for 3 months?
When I ran the 100km Oxfam race I had a fractured rib. There wouldn’t have been more than a 10 minute stretch in the whole race that I wasn’t in pain. Because it’s a team race I kept pushing, but I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I kept telling myself that if I can push through this imagine what I can push through in India.
I really believe in this project so I was willing to give it whatever I could to complete it. That doesn’t mean that I’m always willing to go there mentally, and I rarely do I if I don’t care so much. Just because we can be that tough, doesn’t mean we should always be so.
India was challenging. It was 3 months of getting up between 3:15 and 3:45am. And I have never been so hot or so sweaty when running. The temperature went over 40 degrees and the humidity up to around 90%. I was also living in a campervan with 8 other people and no privacy or personal downtime. I had to learn how to have down time where I was constantly surrounded by other people.
How did you convince your friends into going with you? Do they think you are crazy?
I didn’t have to convince anyone, people were excited to go. But it is important to carefully select the people that join you on this projects. Often I use my gut instinct and I have a combination of people who really know me and some who I’ve just met. I think people can romanticise what we are going to do and the reality rarely matches with that. I walked away from Run India realised that just because you are a successful and resilient person in Australia doesn’t mean that you’ll be that way in India. The place is so intense and culturally different.
Many of the people I took had been with me on other projects, and I took some wildcards that I thought that would be a good fit for the situation and the demands.
Why did you settle on running as the best way to help communities in need?
Supporting community based projects is the real driver for me. Running became the mechanism for me to do that. It’s surprising to people that often we can affect the greatest change by doing the thing we are most willing to become vulnerable in. Running, surprisingly for me, is something that works because I am willing to be vulnerable when I push myself, and have the courage to share that as well.
How does your mindset differ when you are racing, versus running for charity?
When I’m running for a cause the things I think about while running are very different. You need to think more about the bigger picture of why you are there, and not your distances and times. You need constant reminders that while the run is important, if you fixate on the run too much you lost sight of the people who are the beneficiaries of what you are doing.
If I’d prioritised the run over the people I wouldn’t have done things like stopping to chat to a man in a chai tea store, or visited schools and local children. You have to let go of ego as a runner – your role is as much that of a story teller as a runner on a journey like this.
When racing you do everything for your best interest to get to the finish line. You do anything. If you are being super competitive then you are very ‘I’ focused, and there is nothing wrong with that. There are other athletes that feel they need to justify their competitive mindset with me. I don’t judge those who are competitive. There is no need for anyone to be critical of the reasons why others do sport and conversely there’s no reason for anyone to be critical of the reasons I choose to do what I do.
For local Indians in the communities you visited, did meeting you inspire them to run or become athletes?
I didn’t really talk about running to them. Instead, my message is that you have the capacity to do whatever you want with your life if you choose to work hard enough and believe in yourself. For many children in these communities the prospects for their future seem bleak or limited. They may have not even contemplated what it means to think ahead, life is often a daily struggle.
What’s the best piece of advice your coach has given you?
Ray Zahab is my coach. He is a Canadian runner and coach and founded the ‘Impossible 2 Possible’ initiative. He ran all the way across the Sahara desert (which is about 7000km) so he knows what he is talking about. Your coach doesn’t always need to have done the things you need to do but it’s nice to have someone who has been where you’ve been and can help balance both the physically and the mental sides of running.
He is very much about learning to listen to my body. I think there are different types of athletes – some need structured programs and they love benchmarks and goals to tick off. I’m different. I’m definitely an intuitive runner. I’m not scared of pushing myself but I’m also ok to back off if I feel my body needs the break.
Ray has helped me work on making my mind strong enough to do what I do. It’s human nature to push away from discomfit and pain. But we can be so much stronger and do so much more if we are willing to try, fail and push through temporary discomfort or awkwardness. He’s helped me to read and listen to my body and mind – to know when I’m trying to back away from discomfit, versus when I’m hitting a boundary that’s not worth pushing through at that point of time.
If people want to support Run India and the work you are doing, what’s the best way they can learn more and donate?
You’ve run over 3200kms across India. What’s next?
It will take me about 6 months to fully recover from this trip. So I’m not planning anything that extreme right now. Run India was the most complicated trip I’ve ever put on. It takes about 2 years to prep a project like that so I want to take a break not just from the running, but also the planning. The planning alone is very demanding, and it’s challenging on the people around me too because I need to be very absorbed in it.
Coming up I’m doing a self-supported hike in Tasmania with an amazing lady and the Coast-to-Coast multisport event across New Zealand… I think that is plenty at this stage!