How does a law student and casual runner from Melbourne become the first woman and youngest person ever to complete the ‘4 Desert Ultra Marathon Series’ – one of the toughest endurance events on Earth? Samantha Gash initially set out to test her physical and mental limitations – having no idea of the journey of self-discovery she would undertake.
Naivety, vulnerability, pushing through seemingly impossible odds, taking a collaborative approach to a solo sport, creating a high performing team, competing in a male dominated race, incredible feats of endurance and spades of unrelenting spirit are all part of Samantha’s story. Business and Sport Speakers spoke with one of Australia’s most inspiring and engaging speakers to learn more.
You became the first female and youngest person to complete the ‘4 Desert Ultra-marathon Series’ – considered to be one of the toughest endurance events on Earth. Can you tell us what made the series so tough?
From the outset, I was completely out of my comfort zone. Running the first desert race – 250kms in the Atacama Desert in Chile – marked my first true ultra marathon experience. On top of that, as the races were self-supported, I had to carry close to 20% of my bodyweight in a pack on my back whilst running. This included my clothes, sleeping bag and mat, medical gear and 6 days worth of food.
During the races (250km through each of the deserts in Chile, China, Jordan and Antarctica) ‘the challenge’ is about learning how to become adaptive in very hostile and extreme environments. You have none of your creature comforts and are surrounded by strangers who on the face are a lot more prepared than you are. The goal is to become comfortable in prolonged periods of discomfort – in the end, these challenges are the things I learnt to thrive in.
The ‘4 Desert Series’ was captured in the critically acclaimed documentary ‘Desert Runners’, in which you feature quite a lot. How accurately does the film capture your personal journey of transformation throughout the year?
The filmmaker Jennifer Steinman captures the question ‘why do people choose to push themselves in this seemingly extreme way.’ In doing this, she follows the journey of myself and 3 other relatively normal people – all of whom are non-professional athletes. I am accurately shown as a law student from Melbourne that comes out to the desert to break the conventional path, my routine and perceived ‘control freak’ nature. I was very eager to put myself into an unknown situation to see how I would survive. Parts of me wanted to explore what were my physical and mental limitations and discover if I could push past them.
As the film and the race series progresses, audiences get to view my breaking point through an incident that occurs outside of my control. Very true to the experience, the film highlights the comradery I develop with specific competitors and without a doubt, each of those relationships taught me how to cope with the uncertainty in how I would feel with the unpredictability of each race.
Is it true that you initially only took up running as a break from study whilst at University only a few years ago?
In my final year at highschool I had my heads in the books in a big way. I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do but In the back of my mind studying a law degree was appealing. Whenever I would get stir-crazy and anxious, my Mum would tell me I had to go for a run around Lysterfield Lake to give myself a break (I am sure she wanted a break from me too). Going for that 6K run became part of my study routine and I kept it during university.
You’ve since run 379km solo and non-stop for 3.5 days across Australia’s Simpson Desert and 2,300km across South Africa in aid of children’s education. How did these projects compare to your previous runs?
When I started running ultra marathons in 2010, it was very much a personal journey. Unsure of my physical capability, I wanted to see how using the body and mind in unison I could become a stronger, wiser and more self-aware individual. Since completing the 4 Deserts series, I was no longer motivated to run purely for my own self-exploration and surprisingly, competitive motivations were not enough. I learnt this after feeling empty and somewhat self indulgent after I completed a 222km nonstop race that peaked at 6000 metres above sea level.
After some reflection I realised I had the opportunity to use my capacity to run a very long way, as a unique vehicle to raise attention and change to social problems. It combined several of my passions (logistics, research, collaboration and adventure) and returned to the root of why I studied a law degree in the first place.
Running 379kms nonstop across the Simpson Desert was my first opportunity to pull together a philanthropic-based expedition. I loved that I was calling the shots – here I could determined where, how and why I would move my body/feet in this type of way. Since then, I have co-founded a community fundraising event for Kate Sanderson and Turia Pitt (the two girls burnt in the Kimberley 100km bushfire, to which I was also a competitor of that race) and most recently a 2000km run across South Africa to establish a social enterprise business (SEB) supporting the production of affordable feminine hygiene products for young women. I have never been more content and in the moment, which is a huge transition for me.
You mention your support team. How important were they for each of those projects?
Many people perceive running an ultramarathon as a solo endeavour. That success is achieved once YOU get to the finish line. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth in the way I approach the sport. From my first marathon, to the 4 Deserts to these self created expeditions – all of them have utilised the strengths of other people, whether they are competitors or my own support team.
My core support crew during my 32-day run across South Africa consisted of four incredible people. I had spent up to 2 years devising, preparing and sourcing the logistics, fundraising and of course completing the training. Then a week out from the expedition I hand over most of the control to this crew, as my ability to complete the run depended on my putting sole focus into the actual running. When I am fatigued and exhausted my crew becomes my brain and I depend on them to make decisions that balance out the objectives of the project and our teams’ safety.
There some pretty large goals you’ve achieved. Any advice on how we can achieve large goals in our own lives?
A large goal is always more enjoyable when you are not only passionate about its achievement, but the journey to get there. In my opinion the two questions you should ask yourself are (i) how much do you really want this, and (ii) what strategy towards that goal is going to keep you motivated and committed despite the challenges you might face.
Despite putting together a great strategy, it is key to be adaptable, responsive and positive to all circumstances. I have been getting excited about my next project (which was an attempted world record). Only today I found out we wouldn’t be able to do it in 2015 due to the availability of a key component. Of course it is disappointing, but the goal isn’t lost it just needs to be temporarily parked and revaluated when the time is right. The quicker you can turn a negative to a positive, the quicker your mind is opened to new opportunities and strategies.
Finally establishing your own support team is very beneficial. Those people can be involved at different points along the journey and for different reasons.
You speak a lot at conferences and events throughout Australia and also in the U.S. Can you tell us some of the messages audiences can expect to hear from your story?
It is an absolute privilege to be able to share my experiences with audiences around the world. I have faced some very challenging situations through racing in extreme environments, let alone the challenges I have added through using my running in an attempt to impact social change.
My motivation when I raced my first ultramarathon was very different from what drives me now. Despite still being daunted, the process of continually stepping outside of my comfort zone has allowed me to broaden my personal limits, gain perspective and press the reset button, prioritise what is important and decide where I CHOOSE to spend my time. I have also learnt that although past experiences can assist you in achieving a certain goal, there is rarely a mandatory pre-requirement if you are willing to work hard enough and surround yourself with the right people.
The greatest bonus I have learnt through endurance racing is the power through collaborating with others. It never fails me how much more you can achieve and how much each person can learn if they are committed to working together. I believe there is a science to effective teams and a great place to start is discussing each others personal goals in addition to the objectives of the project, realising everyone needs to ‘give’ to feel empowered and motivated, establishing lines of communication and it is always helpful to drop the ego.
Finally, how do you indulge yourself when you’re not running across continents or raising money?
I love to eat dark chocolate and I enjoy a nice glass of red wine!
About the author: Keith Harwood is Managing Partner of Inspire Speakers, providing companies with inspiring keynote speakers, expert trainers and professional MC’s for their training programs, events and conferences. Please connect with Keith on 0450 077 997.