Samantha Gash runs an incredible 3200km across India.
On 22 August Samantha Gash began a 3200km run across India. Samantha has partnered with World Vision to visit the communities they work with across India along the way. She will learn first-hand about the challenges they face, as well as sharing the stories of success that are providing hope for their future.
Samantha, an endurance athlete from Melbourne and passionate advocate for social change, ran from one of the driest deserts on earth (Jaisalmer, Rajasthan) and ended the run in the wettest place on earth (Mawsynram, Meghalaya).
A quality education can be the foundation that helps young people around the world achieve their dreams. From literacy and numeracy to essential life skills, education equips children with the tools they need to make positive life choices, advocate for their rights and support themselves and their families. Education is also a fundamental human right – one that too many children don’t get to enjoy.
The barriers that prevent children from accessing – and completing – a quality education are complex. Through Run India, you can join Sam as she delves deeper into the challenges facing Indian communities today – and witness incredible stories of change. Sam will be visiting 18 World Vision’s Area Development Projects across India and sharing the stories of people she meets in these communities. Tackling issues such as malnutrition, access to appropriate water and sanitation, early marriage and gender bias. These projects demonstrate World Vision’s holistic approach to community development and commitment to ensuring that all children can access the education they deserve.
The funds you raise through Run India will support six World Vision projects across India. You will be part of a movement that transforms lives through the power of education.
You can donate to Run India here
Ian: It’s been quite an epic journey. I was trying to think the last time we had you on the show and I think it was when you ran with Mimi Anderson in South Africa?
Samantha: Yes, in 2014. That would have been November 2014. Two years later.
Ian: Two years later, so you have Run India!
Samantha: Two years later. Yes, Run India!
Ian: Before we go into the nitty gritty and you can tell everybody all about the details of this. In simple terms the planned route was 3,800 kilometers taking approximate 76 days, averaging 50 kilometers a day. The whole process was not just you sort of fulfilling a passion to run across India and tick another ultra-box but it had a real reason. Like everything that you do it’s about creating money and creating awareness. Tell us a little bit about the whole process?
Samantha: Firstly, I knew from the get go that the route was not going to be 3.800km, but everyone wants a figure… I remember trying without much success, trying to say in every interview beforehand give or take a couple hundred Ks. It’s not like I’d gone out and mapped the route. The route was based on as much prior knowledge but I’ve always wanted to have that level of flexibility to make changes obviously based on safety but more based on an interest about a certain area.
I wanted to be able to go with the flow and change something. I was clear that the route would change and it did for both race and safety and for interest sake. The run was, if we’re going to talk about numbers let’s get those over and done with. The run was 3,253 Km’s. I stuck to kind of the time frame in fact I had no choice, I had to stick to the time frame because I had certain dates when I was going to community visits. The idea was to make sure I could get to those certain places on a certain date because these communities take quite a lot of planning when they have someone from the outside coming in. So, the reality was that this dictated the route and time frame.
Our goal was to meet with certain people and do interviews and to sometimes do experiential processes where I would see how they would cook meals, see their family and so on. I had so many ceremonial dances and songs. Most of the rewarding moments are when I would be sitting in someone’s home, a home that should only fit one person but has 15 people in there and I was just speaking to people about how they live their life and what are their hopes and what are the challenges.
I very much think that my run and the brutality of the run — I hate the road and my run was pretty much all on the road. To run the road like that I feel like my role and my treat was to get invited into strangers’ homes and to have those interactions.
Ian: One of the things that strikes me immediately is covering this distance and covering this distance over the amounts of days that you did it and covering a big chunk of mileage every day is stressful enough as it is because you’re worried about getting injured, you’re looking at your nutrition, you’re looking at your hydration but then on top of that, you’ve got all these other things going on.
You’ve got a time frame where you need to be in certain place which means that certain days you’re going to have to run a certain distance whether you want to or not, but also there’s logistics and there’s planning. I’m fully appreciative that you’re going to enlighten me on how that planning and everything happens because that’s obviously something that you can’t do while you’re running, so there’s a great team of people behind you organizing all that.
Is this type of thing a real positive in that it refocuses your mind and takes your mind away from the actual running and it provides a distraction? Or is it a distraction that impacts on the running?
Samantha: All the above at different times. It was brutal particularly the first month. You plan so hard for two years and you think that our plan will equate to success particularly when we’re diligent, when we work with the right people and then you get to India… I have done a lot of traveling in developing countries and I realize that nothing goes to plan.
I got very sick from week two to week four because it was so hard to get my head around just the immense amount of changes happening every day. I get there and the monsoon season had been much later this year which meant the humidity was high. I’m running in nearly 40 degree of temperature and high humidity – It made Costa Rica seem like a walk in the park with the temperature.
Ian: I was going to say The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica was must have been preparation for that?
Samantha: Oh, my god. I kept thinking where are those water crossings that I could just put my entire body in? Luckily I had Nicky Kimball who came out and joined me for part of the run, I met her in Costa Rica and we just kept saying, “Oh my god, this is so humid. This is just unbelievably humid.”
I had three teams out there with me. My crew which travelled with me, I had an Indian based logistics team that I had contracted in, they were well versed with the areas that I was running in and then I had a security team.
Essentially I had these three teams and I had a team leader from the Indian side because culture is different and you must respect it. You need an Indian team leader to look after that side of things and then I had an Australian team leader who I’d hoped would bridge that gap between all the different teams. To put it out there, my Australian team leader couldn’t cope with India, it’s completely understandable but it was very unfortunate.
He couldn’t cope with the intensity of India, the lack of privacy. We had a camper and were pretty much sleeping on top of each, add such high temperature as well and he just had a bit of a break down. Unfortunately considering the project was my baby and everyone else was pretty pushed as it was, my paramedic who was there for the first five weeks’ kind of took over some of the financial components of the project. But in terms of the liaising with the teams, it fell in to my lap which is not good. Tip – never ever allow yourself to be the one that deals with the rest of the human interactions when you must push yourself and do the running. Not a good idea!
It’s never going to be done as successfully as it can be done. I got to one point after I got very sick and I just got this realization, “Sam, a successful day for you is if you can just keep moving forward and no one wants to walk out on the project.”
The sickness was an issue, when I got to Deli I had an MRI on my knee because something felt wrong.
I got the results back and I had a couple of issues but nothing like what I thought I was going to have. I adjusted a mental shift and then we kind of went up north to the Himalayas and I just felt that there was a shift in the project from that point on wards.
Ian: It’s exhausting listening to you saying it.
Samantha: I haven’t even touched on the chaos!
Ian: Yes, I can imagine. I can absolutely imagine. You started on the Pakistan side and then went across, you went up towards Nepal and then came across towards Bangladesh. It’s part of the world I have visited and I can completely get what you’re saying about the chaos. There’s elements of these areas that are very very well planned. Very well-organized, but the problem is, nobody else knows what those plans are. Somebody knows, but nobody else knows. It’s about communicating with that person, and making sure that that person or several people are in line with the plan. I’m guessing that was one of the big stresses that you are having to deal with day in and day out.
Samantha: Yes. You just described it beautifully and I haven’t thought of it that way. Running across India is like running across a lot of different countries. If you know the history of India, it just had so much shit and border change, the language and dialects. Everything is just so… it can change every 50 kilometers. You must put so much responsibility in your Indian team and then accept on a cultural level of things are very, very different. You must give in to that when you do a project that’s in a country that’s not like yours. When you don’t accept that, that’s when things go wrong.
I remember saying to my crew constantly, stop longing for things that you’re going to have in a couple of weeks’ time. Accept and embrace what you have now which you’ll never ever have again. I was incredibly grounded into just try to make the most of every moment. Sometimes you feel you’re getting fleeced by that, and you start to second guess things when you’re being communicated too. Because India is sometimes the culture where people try and make the best of every situation.
You must think why that’s the case. That’s the whole point of empathy. I think it’s irrelevant for day to day life. But we think of India, population of 1.26 billion. People who are very successful are ones who have made the most of any opportunity that comes their way. Sometimes that gets interpreted differently from people. I just think I learned so much about my own ability to deal with stressful situations. I think just being very grounded and present with the survival being out there.
Ian: I knew Nikki Kimball was joining you because I’d spent time with her when I was in America, and you bumped into Emily Forsberg, she was out doing her yoga camp. Can you tell me how that came about?
In addition to all that, there was content being put on your website. The Run India website, and the address for that is runindia.org.au. There were stories appearing on there like Deepika’s determination to get education. There was one about self-defense, about a brave father being reunited with his daughter. How was that content being put together, was that content being put together in real-time as you were running?
Samantha: Yes, most it. That content was created with the supportive of World Vision and the community visits that we did. I had about 16 community visits that I did along the way, and within each of those community visits I probably did three to five different interactions around that community, and all of that we filmed. I mean, we learned along the way which were the better ways of filming it. Sometimes we would just first go in there and speak to people, do the interaction and then do a post interview. Other times we would film along the way.
You just had to learn quickly which was going to be the best way of creating content that could be shared later. We had one videographer out there with me. We would film it all, and then we would send it off trying to upload that content, that footage every night. It’s really, interesting.
Ian: Yes, I know that pain. Internet is not a strong point of these places.
Samantha: Exactly! World Vision wanted us to send it in hard drives back to this editing house in the south in India. And I was like, “There’s no way we’re going to find a post office to send you these.” So, we did the uploading, which brings its own problems – they did a great job.
The whole point of the project was to explore the barriers to why a child in India can’t go to school, and to look at it in a geographical sense that as you go across the country and the road that we were traveling across, those barriers are so unique to that area, and what makes up that area. We looked at malnutrition, which I think is a consistent barrier across the entire country. The prevalence of the sex trade, child marriage, all these different subjects such as personal safety and protection, particularly when you’re in the urban centers of India.
Those stories were about looking at education, but looking at the barriers. As opposed to just education itself.
Ian: What’s amazing and it’s always been one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about you as a runner. Running almost is an accident for you. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. But if I think back to when we first met, when we first started to talk, you’re a very educated person from a very educated background. You gave up a very successful career to start running. I guess it was that career that originally enabled you to take on the 4Desert races. You were the first female, the first youngest person to complete that – Gobi, Sahara, Atacama and Antarctica. Was it this experience that made you realize that there was an opportunity for you?
But also, using your education and your background to turn it all in to good. It’s obvious when you’re speaking now that you’re not talking about running. You’re talking about awareness. You’re talking about people. You’re talking about change. You’re talking about why this journey was happening. And I think if you were a pure runner you’d be telling me about how the running was, but you’re not. You’re telling me about the journey and why you’re doing it. Is that a fair assessment?
Samantha: Yes. I am not a professional runner. Though I get put in that category all the time, I’m derogatory to professional runners, but I do a whole lot more than just run. It’s interesting because people try and understand and try and make a connection with the way I’ve chosen to run, and why I’ve chosen to run.
At the end of the day, if you look at people who run, they always have different motivations. I think all those motivations are to be celebrated in their own way. And if you’re using running for the thing that makes the most sense for you, well then you’re more likely to be running for a much longer period. For me, I just think the way I’m in love with endurance sport. You see the highs and the lows, and the self-discovery that it takes people too, but it also takes you to your worst state.
In a development context, when you are being pushed so hard, your capacity to understand people who are in a daily worse state. Not by choice which we choose to do as ultra-runners, but because of their circumstances. And I think that connection allows us to share a story. And when we share a story, we can hopefully help other people understand a life that is so far removed from ours.
Ian: Absolutely. I hate asking these questions, but inevitably I must ask them because I’m trying to compress your incredible journey into a small block. What was the highest and the lowest point of your incredible journey?
Samantha: I guess on a running perspective, the low point, when I went up to Rishikesh and when I went up to Darjeeling in Gangtok, I really struggled on the road. The plains of India are just incredibly overwhelming from a running perspective. To be in that intensity of pollution, at times it was heartbreaking to my soul.
Anytime I got up towards the mountains, even though with technically harder running, my pace just increased. I live in a National Park; I love the solitude of running for what it does to our mind. I was on cloud nine and thinking of Nicky Kimball’s journey with me in India. She was there for some of the most crucial running. Later, like a week after she left, she saw me running up on the mountains and she was like, “Oh gosh I chose the wrong section of the run,” and I’m like, “I’m so sorry.” She was there for some of the most humid running. I didn’t realize it but don’t sweat that much. I didn’t sweat anywhere near as much as other people who came out which was why my feet didn’t get destroyed. Nicky unfortunately was getting some terrible blisters and her feet were falling apart by the end.
Highlight to me was going up to the mountains. It was amazing to see Emily Forsberg out there. The Himalayas are so incredible.
Then I think that visiting different people in Himalaya as well was quite transformational for me. I don’t think I could have done the run if I didn’t continually see people along the routes and understand what was going on. That is why this projects was so special, it was the connection with people. When I ran across South Africa with Mimi, we ran across some beautiful terrain but had no connection with the outside world or the beneficiaries that we were trying raise funds for. But because the running was so beautiful, it made running 1,968 kilometers okay. There is no way I could have run over 3,000 K on the Indian roads if every couple of days I wasn’t going into the slums or a development project and understanding why I was doing it.
Ian: You mentioned Emily, how did that happen? Was that a pure coincidence?
Samantha: I had a friend in India who was like, “Do you know Emily is here right now? I was like, “Really?” I had a quick check on Instagram which confirmed and so I asked a mutual Ryan Sandes to connect us. Emily had a very full schedule, she was doing a yoga training camp. But we managed to meet up on her day off.
We caught up, we did some yoga. I met one of her other friends who is from Australia and we just spent the whole time chatting and eating lots of food. It was nice to see someone from the running community out there.
Ian: How did the actual journey itself unfold? Did you stick to a daily average that was consistent with your planned 50 kilometers?
Samantha: It was an average 50 and there’s probably about nine days that I didn’t run at all. There were a few ad hoc days of around 30 to 40 but beyond that, it was 55 up to 76 k’s per day.
Ian: 55 to 76km days make a huge difference because if you’re trying to cover 50k (31 miles) you can jog, you can run, you can walk and you’ve got plenty of time in the day if you’re not going up 2,000, 3,000 meter mountains to cover the distance. If you then add 10 kilometers, 20 kilometers to that, then certainly you are talking about being on the road on the trails for 12 hours. Then that starts to impact on your rest, on your recovery, on your team, and everything else that you do. I guess what you were trying to do all the time was manage that balance between covering the distance but also making sure that you could recover and go the next day and do it again?
Samantha: Yes, and it was hard the first two weeks. One day, I had a community visit, I ran 50ks and then did the community visit immediately afterwards which lasted five hours. I remember I got there, it was so hot during the day because you’re in the desert. Also, as I ran towards the town the monsoon weather just came down – it feels like, “Oh I’m kind of hot, I’m cold, I’m steamy.” I didn’t know what was going on and then I go straight into a community visit where I am being presented about malnutrition issues…
I remember thinking, “I think I’m going to pass out right now. I am feeling really light headed.”
I had to quickly put food in and I go, “I’ve just really got to be on the ball. If I am going to try and do this. I have to make sure that I have food and water in these community visits.” There was maybe like a handful of times when I would run and then go into a community visit and I just had no other choice but to do that. That is what I didn’t want to do because I knew that I wouldn’t be fully engaged in that visit and I would lose these amazing opportunities. That’s why I had days when I wasn’t running and I’ve got to say now these were harder days than the running days. Because we never knew what the day would look like. We would be driven to the middle of nowhere and you would face confronting things.
One day I went into a malnutrition clinic and I just I saw babies who were so much smaller than they should have been for their age. The mothers looked so young. Then we did a backwards kind of on a journey and saw the travel that they would have done to go to that place to get to that clinic. Then you get perspective – you learn that those parents earn 40 cents/50 cents a week. They are on such a spectrum of poverty, that making the decision to take their child to this malnutrition clinic, which is their only chance of survival, they must potentially lose the income for the day, which means they might not be able to feed their family.
Every day was life and death. We were talking about education what they needed is food to survive. They can only change their lives once the children get educated, so, these families have some hard decisions.
Ian: Nepal is a similar situation. There’s people in Nepal who have money but there’s so many people who don’t have money. I have this real dichotomy sometimes whether what I’m doing is justified and right? I walk around with a camera and I see beauty in everything. Whether it’s something that is beautiful or something that isn’t beautiful but becomes beautiful because of hardship, poverty, etcetera.
It’s very easy to just lift a note out which is worth a dollar or two dollars and give it to somebody for a photograph. You walk away and you think, “Did I help that situation? Was what I did morally correct?” I must try and justify it to myself and I think it was okay because at least they can go and buy something.
But one of the things that you were doing was obviously you were raising money for World Vision who can then support six different areas within the regions that you were running. You already touched on the fact that that money could help malnutrition, child protection, maybe just provide clean water.
Ian: How did that fundraising project work and I’m assuming that the fundraising is still going on?
Samantha: Yes, the fundraising is still going on. We’ve raised over $160,000 so far. I expect we’ll raise close… I hope we’ll raise closer to the $200,000 mark. In a couple of ways, we worked with corporate partners to fund certain components. We also got people in the public to take on a 12-week challenge. The concept was Strong Minds and it was, “What strong mind do you need to take on a 12-week fitness challenge?” While also fundraising for the strong minds of those in these communities who must be so resilient to deal with the circumstances that they have every day.
We were looking at that, what does it take to have a strong mind and how can you make your footsteps count. We had public fundraising for people doing that and then also just donations through the website and through our awareness campaign. It was as much of an awareness as a fundraising.
How do you measure success in these types of things? I think it’s very hard. I always want to raise more and I’m very hard on myself; have the objectives being met? Did I make my footsteps count? But yes, having seen the project and seeing how far that money can go, I feel very confident that people’s lives can be changed in India and I don’t say that comment easily. These projects do make a tangible difference!
Ian: Now you started the journey on August the 22nd. What was the date that you finished?
Samantha: November 5th.
Ian: Okay. That’s a big chunk of time.
Samantha: Yes, it could have been 10 years ago.
Samantha: It feels like a lifetime.
Ian: It does. I know myself with travelling is that you wait for that opportunity to get home and go and relax and then within two days it feels as though, “When did I travel last and what was I doing and where was I going?”
Samantha: Yes, totally.
Ian: What’s the impact been on you emotionally, physically and what’s it like getting back into Australia and readjusting into normal life?
Samantha: I think it’s a lot easier to adjust to being back home than the adjustment to be India. I kind of told you before, my whole mental approach was about being very much in the present and having so much gratitude that I could have this experience.
I didn’t get down much when I was doing the project. There was plenty of reasons to be down. I think there was only one moment where I was like, “I just don’t want to run right now.” I had an hour sleep and then I got back out there.
It was a shock to the system that I had to do so much and I just felt I had been let down in that moment with the planning but physically I felt good. You can’t go from that much level of activity to inactivity. In fact, that’s not healthy. You have to kind of wean yourself off but you wean yourself off by just kind of being outdoors and listening to your body and not feeling like you need to wear a watch and not committing to a race even though I have a race in February. Physically I feel quite good. I do get tired when I do a little bit too much. I’ve gone back to work and I’m doing quite a bit of travel so I think it’s just that culmination of all that stuff that sometimes mentally and physically drains me a little quicker.
Emotionally it’s like I try not to talk about it. My job is to talk about it, I have now started to incorporate India into my presentations. The other day I was like, “Oh gosh, I’ve been so verbose”, because I haven’t verbally processed much of it.
Where do you start? You have given me quite a good platform to ramble but it’s hard to know where to start. People traditionally just want to know, “What was the hardest thing?” I give these generic answers like, “Well, there was no one thing that was the hardest. It was the culmination of many things.”
Samantha: Every now and again I watch back the footage and I just can’t believe that I got to live that life. The power of photos and the power of video. It makes it very, very real and I still can’t believe that I did what I did and I managed to fit so much into every day. That was a lifetime in three months.
Ian: I think you’re right. I think one of the reasons why I created Talk Ultra is that I said right from the start that it would always be a long show because I didn’t want to compress people’s experiences into 20 minutes. I wanted to find that space and that arena that would allow me to talk in more depth.
Admittedly I put my hands up 20 minutes ago and said I’m going to have to ask you this bad question because unfortunately the people listening do want to know the highest and the lowest points – equally, how do I compress your 3,000-kilometer journey into a period of time and try and encapsulate what you went through. It’s not possible. It’s not possible.
I think what is interesting is that you’ve managed to encapsulate a journey without talking about the running. You’ve talked about the important things about the journey, which is the impact that your journey can have now with fundraising and how it will affect people’s lives. You questioned yourself whether it is valid. Of course, it’s valid because I think sometimes we can look at these things and think, “Well what is the positive? What is the negative?” You only must change a handful of people’s lives for the journey to be valid because everybody has validity in an existence and a continued existence. I think you can create a knock-on journey which hopefully will continue to perpetuate.
Samantha: You’re right. This project is something that has had an impact. Its right we push ourselves in these types of way and yes we want to make an impact to other people’s lives but I think you should always be clear that the bigger impact is probably going to be on your life too. That’s okay because that’s how we push ourselves in endurance sports. It’s to see what we’re capable of doing and how far can we push our minds and how far can we use these thing, which is our bodies, to be able to do that.
Ian: You’re the type of person, Sam, that always has something planned. [laughs] Dare I ask, is there another project at the back of your mind that you’re thinking of for two years’ time or three years’ time?
Samantha: I wanted to do this since 2011. It was when I was running across South Africa with Mimi that I was like, “Yes, I think I’m ready now to tackle this,” because it wans’t just tackling the run and it wasn’t just fundraising. It was also to work with a not-for-profit and try and change the way that they connect with people as well.
World Vision being one of the — I think is the largest not-for-profit globally, this was a radical project for them to get behind. When so much is happening in the development sector at the moment with funding and foreign aid, it was an intense time to push the boundaries. I think I had to just be so strong with this project was important to doing and that for two years I was lucky enough to have a champion in World Vision that was willing to do the fight with me. I did a couple of trips to India and went to see the project. It was a lot. There was so much more to this than any other project I’ve ever done.
I think what I now need to do is to not plan for a little bit. This is the lawyer side in me. I like to plan and I can’t help but get obsessive in that planning process which is why I can do something like this. But I’m planning to do the Western Arthurs hike in January which is very technical hike in Tasmania. I’m doing that with another female endurance athlete. I want to look at kind of collaborating with other female endurance athletes in different types of, I suppose, adventures. I’m doing that in January and then in February I’m doing a multisport event in New Zealand called Coast to Coast.
These are just more light hearted things. I’ve been enjoying multisport hikes, cycling and kayaking now and it’s good to use my body in a different way. Yes, there is a project still in that region that I am interested in doing but I’m not planning anything right now. That part of the world (India) is still fascinating to me and obviously, the Himalayan area.
Ian: Can I ask you, your background as a lawyer? How much help does that give you in what you do now?
Samantha: You don’t need to be a lawyer, but my background helps, also my experience in performing arts. I think the two of them, that capacity for communication, for rational thought, for logistics understanding culture and bureaucracy and obviously, a lot of that was relevant in India.
On the flipside, being a strong independent, and I’m going to put it out there, fiery abrupt woman was also part of the negatives in India. One day there was a bit of a crisis over payments or something and I was being taken advantage of. I should have been calmer but I fired off an abrupt email.
You must change sometimes your style of communication
Ian: Yes, I am sure you do. Well, look, it’s been fascinating to get just a little insight into this journey. Where can people go to get more information? I mean the runindia.org.au website has got a lot of information on there and people can still go there and donate, but is there anything else out there Sam?
Samantha: So, in the runindia.org.au website has a lot of videos and I think the videos captures the imagination of what happened and provides a better insight than me rambling at times.
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