Aussie woman Samantha Gash to finish India Run in Shillong


In 2011, Samantha Gash made her first trip to India. She was participating in the Ladakh Marathon, one of the highest and toughest ultra marathons 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. 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 Jaisalmer with Shillong as her final destination.She is excited about the run culminating in Shillong. "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."

Gash is not intending to set any running records but as ambassador for World Vision, she will be raising funds for education initiatives across India that addresses the barriers to quality education.

Prior to India, Gash partnered with Save the Children Australia to support their domestic and overseas programs through expedition length projects in Australia and South Africa. Now her focus is India.

Interestingly, Gash says the seeds for the India project were planted on her first visit to India in 2011. "Running 6000 metres above sea level at the Ladakh marathon, 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.

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. "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. Right now Gash's focus is more on the logistics and the fund raising than the training. The whole project will take up 76 days. She will be travelling on super speciality camper van which will include her cook, publicist and her driver who will benefit from temporary employment.

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 emphasize 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."

Gash 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. 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."

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."

Along the way, Samantha will also be running an unofficial 10 km where she hopes otherIndian runners, whom she has met in the past and forged great friendships with,will join in. "This is truly for India and I wantthe people to be connected to this project and feel an ownership about it."

A corporate lawyer who quit her lucrative career to pursue running, Gashsays 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 may be 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 Gashwould run around the lake near her house – purely connecting her to the moment. It drew her deeper into running developing 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 379 km solo (supported) non-stop run across the Simpson Desert in Australia, a 250 km, multistage race in Nepal, the second female to do so.

As a dynamic corporate speaker, empowering audiences in Australia and internationally, Gash reflects"Running is the thing that has taught me the most about myself and 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."

Rest assured, Gash 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)