Running Across India With Samantha GashElla Barba
It’s no secret that ultra running can be a tough game. Punishing environments and mentally draining days are just some of the variables one is likely to encounter on an ultra course. Running across India, though, is a different beast altogether. It’s a land of more than 1.2 billion people with diverse terrain and complex social structure. Safety, sanitation and access to clean drinking water are a handful of considerations a runner must take into account when committing to an ultramarathon across its countryside.
One might ask why anybody would sign up to run a race that most people would assume is physically impossible, let alone in such extreme conditions. It’s a good question, and one that ultramarathon runner Samantha Gash has pondered many times. She’s a Melbourne woman on a mission to make long-lasting change.
The Dandenong Ranges (commonly known as the Dandenongs), located about 35 kilometres east of Melbourne, Australia, is a playground for the adventure seeker. It’s a haven of flora, towering treetops and boutique-like villages filled with hidden galleries, places to eat and trails to run on. Its whimsical charms make it magnetic for the Melbourne city dweller looking for a quick weekend getaway. In spring, the Dandenongs come to life in bright colours as warm sunshine beams through the tall trees. In winter, the region is veiled in mist and often dusted with snow.
When Gash decided to move from Melbourne’s eclectic inner-city suburb of Collingwood to the small village of Kalorama in the Dandenongs, she expected the change of scenery. Little did she know that this move would also come to aid her in preparing for her biggest running venture yet. “I can never imagine living in the city again,” Gash says with gusto. “I leave my driveway and I am literally on the trails. Life is complete,” she adds.
Her India running adventure is just a few short weeks away (she has to be on the start line on August 22). It kicks off in one of the driest deserts on earth, Jaisalmer, in the heart of the Thar Desert in India. The run, aptly called Run India and supported by World Vision Australia, will end in one of the wettest places on earth, Shillong. Gash’s goal in this ultra run is to raise money and awareness for education initiatives in various communities across the incredibly diverse country. “India is a place that has changed me as a runner and as a person. It’s so incredibly vibrant and it’s certainly a land of vast contrast. That contrast is compelling but also disturbing,” she says.
"India was a place that changed me as a runner and as a person. It’s so incredibly vibrant and it’s certainly a land of vast contrast. That contrast is compelling but also disturbing."
Gash is the type of person who inspires the people around her to be better. She’s fiercely passionate about education and it’s not long until those around her are asking questions about how they, too, can make a difference. Her own fortune, as she calls it, in getting a quality education has become the driving force in her crusade for children’s education initiatives all over the world. “Young children—especially young girls—have the ability to bring their families out of poverty if they are educated. That’s a pretty amazing thing,” she explains. When she speaks, her eyes focus on each and every person in her presence, all of whom listen attentively to every word.
There’s a playful side to Gash’s personality too. Her cheeky smile and ability to laugh at herself is endearing, and it’s not long after meeting her that one feels like they’ve known her for years. As we speak, she’s standing at the bottom of one of her favourite trails, Trig Track, located about five minutes from her home. It’s 6:45am on a Thursday morning, the air crisp and clean, and there’s a light sprinkling of rain falling down over the treetops (and her). As she jokes about how warm and beautiful the weather is, it becomes clear that despite her well-versed sense of humour, she’s a veteran when it comes to running in not-so-ideal climates. This run is a picnic in the park.
Gash’s monumental Run India challenge won’t be the first time she has embarked on an ultramarathon through India. She’s completed ultramarathons in some of the most forbidding and harsh environments on this planet.
Motivated after completing the Melbourne Marathon while at university, and desperate to find an outlet while completing her law degree, Gash became the first woman and youngest person ever to complete the 4 Deserts Grand Slam, which comprised of four 250km ultramarathons across the driest (Chile), windiest (China), hottest (Sahara) and coldest (Antarctica) deserts on earth.
"Running was a sport I had some aptitude for because I was mentally tough enough to keep moving forward even if it wasn't at a fast pace."
“Running became my way of disconnecting. It was a rare time when I wouldn’t fret about the future or dwell on what had been,” Gash says. “It was a sport I had some aptitude for because I was mentally tough enough to keep moving forward even if it wasn’t at a fast pace.”
While numerous running endeavours followed in the years after the Grand Slam, none of them stand out to Gash more than the 222km non-stop race between the two highest motorable passes in India (and the world). “I was so incredibly out of my depth,” Gash recalls of the race. “It felt more like an expedition of survival than a race to the finish line.”
It was there where Gash made the decision to use her body and love for ultramarathon running to make change in the world. “I was hypothermic, fatigued and emotional. I realised that pushing my body that hard, simply just to prove that I could, held little meaning to me,” she says. “Running became my way of linking everything together, but it was the least important part.”
As we chat, Gash tinkers around her kitchen preparing her after-run staple: avocado on gluten-free toast with feta, olive oil, lemon and sea salt.
"The training will get me through the first few days and then the rest is in my head. I think the mind is far louder than the body."
Visualizing the specific challenges of Run India takes more consideration, and it’s in this process when Gash feels the most empowered. “If I can take myself to the darkest places that this project may take me—immense injury, food poisoning, a cultural misunderstanding even—I’m able to see myself calmly processing the situation and getting through it,” she adds. It’s on her long runs or hikes where the majority of her visualization takes place, when “pace isn’t an issue,” she explains.
Turning off that internal voice and dialogue is the big one. “Yoga has definitely changed my life and my perspective, too. It isn’t something that works for a runner merely when they’re injured, it’s highly complementary both physically and mentally,” she says. “This type of energy will provide me with a greater capacity to complete this project in the manner I hope to.”
Cheers to the adrenaline rush and the crew who pushes you to get there.
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