Why is an Australian girl choosing to run across India is the first question that comes to mind when one meets young Samantha Gash. Probe further and you will find out why Samantha is a cut above the rest.
In 2011, Samantha Gash made her first trip to India. She was participating in the Ladakh Marathon, one of the highest and toughest ultramarathons in the world. A 72 km non-stop run across high altitude, it is said that the Leh-Ladakh marathon tests the limits of human endurance. Of course, Samantha was not new to such a challenge. Just the previous year she became the first female and youngest person to complete Racing the Planet’s Four Deserts Grand Slam in one calendar year (more on that later). But on completion of the Ladakh Marathon, Samantha had made up her mind: she would run across India with a purpose. Five years later, she is ready.
This August, Samantha will embark on a 76-day run starting from the desert state of Rajasthan and culminating it in the remote north eastern state of Meghalaya. She is not intending to set any running records but, through her runs, focus on the bigger picture – that of raising awareness on the plight of the girl child and raising funds for educating them.
“This seed was planted on my very first visit to India in 2011,” says Samantha. “When I was running in India, up to 6000 metres above sea level, it was obviously physically very hard but on top of it I felt the overwhelming sense of culture and people around me. I saw a powerful connection between endurance and development. And I think I went to the length of choosing the two together. Since I have done that it’s made my running so much more meaningful and bizarrely I have made a career out of it,” she smiles. India will be her biggest run and charity project so far.
Prior to India, Samantha partnered with Save the Children Australia to support their domestic and overseas programs through expedition length projects in Australia and South Africa. Now as ambassador for World Vision, her focus is India.
In many ways, Samantha says her first India trip completely changed how she viewed her ability to run long distance. “I used to do it very much for myself, for the competition. But India is a unique country and changed how I saw things. It is such a boiling pot of intense culture and tradition, landscape, diversity etc., as opposed to what we see in Australia. It was overwhelming and it was a hit on my senses. And it’s stuck with me since.”
Since then she has visited the country thrice. At the end of last year, Samantha was in India for a couple of months to visit some of the developmental projects that she plans to visit and raise funds for. As a World Vision ambassador, she will be raising funds for education initiatives across India that addresses the barriers to quality education.
Samantha also addressed her biggest fears of how she would be perceived by the locals. So when she flew to Delhi and spent few hours in the slums, the fears were quelled when young girls expressed their excitement at the idea of her embarking on a 4000-km run. “They were so excited that someone would do something like that for them and also something like that was potentially possible,” she says, adding, “I felt it was important to truly get an understanding about the people who will be the beneficiaries of the funds that I would raise. I wanted to understand their stories, their concerns and I also wanted to ask a question ‘what do you think of me doing this run’. If you do not connect or relate to what you are doing then it does not make sense.”
It has taken her all of two years planning this project. “I knew I was going to run from the west to the east, I knew the structure but once I met World Vision the development of the plan just got a lot more structure.”
Right now Samantha’s focus is more on the logistics and the fund raising than the training. “In many respects that is where my greatest passion lies but I would love running and I will love doing it. I suppose running is my sense of meditation and now I have made my sense of meditation meaningful.”
The whole project will take up 76 days. Samantha will be travelling on super speciality campervan which will include her cook, publicist and her driver who will benefit from temporary employment. She chose the campervan instead of checking in and out of guest houses to keep things as simple as possible. “On many levels the latter does not connect with me and will contrast too much with what I will be seeing.”
There will be no set km for running each day. A lot will depend on her developmental projects that she will be visiting along the way. There are 18 different projects of World Vision spread over Agra, Delhi, Jaipur, Meerut, Darjeeling and Shillong. “I think it is important to emphasise that I am not doing this run to set a record, I don’t know anyone who has run from the west to the east before, I don’t even care if there has been. I have specifically made sure I have a couple of days where I am not running because those are the days when I am with the community. As much as I have a demanding running schedule I am giving space when I am with that community to make meaningful relationships.”
Samantha is nervous about the heat but admits her main focus is making sure she arrives in the east before winter. “I think the cold is more unpredictable. I have done a lot of desert running and so I am quite used to running in extreme heat though not for this long. Obviously the toll it will take on my body will be different but it just means that I have to be very careful and make sure I get enough electrolyte, hydration etc. My pace is more manageable. There’s no point where I am sprinting, I am not an Olympian running for the marathon. I have got 76 days where I am out on the road and I will make sure my pace is sustainable. To be honest, as hard as things get I think I will be reminded constantly for the things I see in India and that I am very lucky that I have chosen to put myself in a challenge.”
Asked about her preparations, Samantha explains this is definitely more an intellectual and mental challenge. “Physically you can’t prepare for a close to three-month run in India. So what I do in my training is prepare myself for the unexpected.” She quips the Indian diet of roti, dal and paneer will also be great for her running.
Along the way, Samantha will also be running an unofficial 10 km where she hopes other Indian runners, whom she has met in the past and forged great friendships with, will join in. “This is truly for India and I want the people to be connected to this project and feel an ownership about it.”
Indeed Samantha will be exploring the highly complex challenges to accessing quality education. Factors such as malnutrition, access to appropriate water and sanitation, and gender bias all play a part in whether a child can receive an education, she believes.
“I think people generalise India’s challenges far too much but when you travel across the country you start to see everyone’s differences are related to the landscape and the terrain that people live in. I think by doing the run and experiencing those transitions I would share that a little bit better,” she says.
Samantha’s project is focussed on access to quality education as opposed to just getting kids enrolled in schools. Initially, she thought she would only focus on the education of the girl child but after travelling to India broadened her objective to include boys as well. “I wanted to look at the barriers to education. While a lot of it was related to girls, a couple of them were related to boys as well such as malnutrition. So I thought both boys and girls need education. If a boy is educated they can also understand the need of female empowerment, the value of a woman’s point of view and so on. But let’s get realistic, the main issue is girls getting quality education, the barriers and gender bias for girls in India is far greater than boys. Gender bias is prevalent in so many aspects.”
A corporate lawyer who quit her lucrative career to pursue running, Samantha says running has shown her to the doors to many fulfilling opportunities. “When I started my law degree I thought I would impact social change through a legal structure and the older I got the more I realised that we are capable of making change in the thing that we are most extraordinary at. For me being a lawyer was something that I was not extraordinary at. And I think it was because I was never willing to make myself vulnerable and maybe the competitive nature of law or the environment of the corporate law space made me feel protected.”
Even though she didn’t start being good at running, it was something she was willing to constantly put deep out of her comfort zone to be the best that she could be.
And it was her mother, she says, who coerced her into running as a form of break from her heavy studies during her final years in high school. Against the backdrop of the setting sun and jumping kangaroos Samantha would run around the lake near her house – purely connecting her to the moment. It drew her deeper into running. In time it developed into a full blown passion. She would go on to achieve great heights.
In 2010, she made history becoming the first female and youngest person to complete Racing the Planet’s Four Deserts Grand Slam in one calendar year. It is known to be one of the toughest endurance events on the planet. Amongst her many other achievements, she has done a 379km solo (supported) non-stop run across the Simpson Desert in Australia, a 250km, multistage race in Nepal, the second female to do so.
As a dynamic corporate speaker, empowering audiences in Australia and internationally, Samantha reflects “Running is the thing that has taught me the most about myself. Everything that I do now is connected to running but running has become the ways to a lot of my work. I just love the outdoors, I love exploring places I have never been before and I love the moments it takes me to.”
For now, Samantha is only thinking about India. She is excited about the run culminating in Shillong, one of India’s matrilineal town. “I chose Shillong on purpose. There is something poetic about it. If, say, 90 per cent of India is patriarchal, it will be interesting to see how this matrilineal community looks in contrast to the rest of the country.”
But most importantly, she can’t wait to connect with the women in India. One thing she knows is she will not be able to evade the question ‘When are you getting married? Your mother must be so worried.’ “It’s funny but I know it comes from a place of love and care,” she laughs, adding, “I suppose only in time will the value of education prevail to a point where all the benefits will come with it. I have highly educated friends in India and the pressure of finding a man is high. And we have the conversation that it’s better to have the challenge of finding it hard to get a man than the challenge of not getting educated.”
Rest assured, Samantha will see India up, close and personal. She is not hoping to change the world or India overnight with her work, she cautions. “I just want to be able to raise awareness and funds towards life changing programs across India.”
By Indira Laisram