Meet Samantha Gash, a woman who is literally blazing a trail around the world. This Australian powerhouse became the first female, and youngest person ever to complete The 4 Desert Race Series grand slam in one year in 2010. It’s a marathon not for the faint-hearted, and not many people would even bother trying.
It is widely recognized as the most prestigious outdoor footrace series in the world. TIME magazine ranked the 4 Deserts series as one of the Top Ten Endurance Events in the world for two consecutive years.
It consists of people running “ultra marathons” in 4 of the world’s harshest terrain, for 7 days (each location) and running a total of 250km self-supported.
At 25, Aussie girl Samantha made history simply by showing up and participating. But by completing the race, she became a trailblazer and pioneer for others wanting to follow in her footsteps.
Samantha and a group of other ultra-marathon runners were the subject of a documentary called ‘Desert Runners’ which takes the viewer on the harrowing journey across the world with these men and women.
Aside from her extraordinary achievement in these races, Samantha is also a National Crusader for the League of Extraordinary Women, and is currently raising money to supply feminine hygiene products to underprivileged girls in South Africa. She is a true symbol of determination and perseverance.
After watching this documentary (which you will be compelled by, whether you are a runner or not) it’s easy to see why someone like Samantha Gash can be a source of inspiration. Her marathon journey was filled with highs and lows, including a couple of major incidents during the Gobi Desert run. All of this is played out in ‘Desert Runners’.
But we wanted to get inside the mind of a woman who has literally gone where few dare to tread, and find out just what the human spirit, the female spirit is really capable of.
What made you want to participate in the ultra-marathon?
I just wanted an incredible adventure to begin with. I signed up for the first race with no intentions of doing the series – one race was more than enough for my brain to compute. I was drawn to the idea of running in a remote location, with people from all corners of the globe and l was intrigued by the idea that you had to carry everything on your pack for the week adventure. In a sense I liked the simplicity and rawness it provided. The running element was so far out of my comprehension but I knew it would test me mentally and physically.
You are the first female and youngest person to complete the Desert grand slam in a year in 2010. Why do you think it has taken so long for a woman to do this?
This race series began in 2003 and the 4 Deserts Grand Slam (grand slam meaning all four races being completed in one year) were first completed by Dean Karnazes and Paul Liebenberg in 2008. I think these guys paved the way for others to believe that this challenge was possible. In 2009, the race in Antarctica didn’t occur as it only takes place every second year. The ratio of men to women in these events is far greater. So, in this sense I think it is quite remarkable that three women completed the Grand Slam in the first year possible after Dean and Paul.
Aside from the physical difficulties, many of the participants faced emotional and mental hardship along the way. What were some of yours?
On the first day of the Gobi Desert I seriously questioned why I thought it was possible for me to complete all four of these races in an 8-month period. After the Atacama Desert I was living in Texas and somehow I managed to romanticize the experience. It was a rude shock when I arrived in China and the first day had us pushing through some challenging hills. It was the lyrical voice of Dave the Irishman that coaxed me through those hills and reminded me that the lows do pass.
Also, the long stage in China was one of the hardest 18 hours I have gone through. The weather was mild for the desert for a good portion of the day and as the clock turned to 7pm the clouds parted and the heat was incredibly unbearable. Some local children had taken the flags, which were directing us which way to go, and the course was longer than we expected. The mental hardships for me come when things turn out not as I imagined – which happens often.
Tell us about the charity you are involved in for South African girls?
Ah you are speaking about my passion project and labor of love! I am partnering with UK ultra marathon extraordinaire Mimi Anderson. Together we are running 2350kms across South Africa’s Freedom Trail to raise awareness to the issue that far too many women/girls in sub Saharan Africa do not have access to affordable feminine hygiene products.
This is a huge inhibitor for girls in these communities being able to access education as they miss school during their menstruation – think about it, that is approx. 5 days a week everyone month. The girls then fall behind in class and for many they eventually drop out of class, which I imagine has a lot to do with their lack of confidence and self worth. This would in part stem from the fact that they cannot look after themselves during one of the most natural things that happens to a women’s body.
The 2350km run is merely the vehicle to raise awareness to this issue and raise funds to establish a social enterprise business in the Free State of South Africa. The business will employ a dozen South African ladies to manufacture affordable feminine hygiene products that will benefit 1500 schoolgirls in that community.
What message are you hoping to inspire young women with by being part of the ‘Desert Runners’ documentary?
I hope both young women and men take away the message that if you want something enough, and you have the belief in yourself that you can make it happen – there should be no reason why you cannot achieve it.
I certainly hope to be a positive role model for women, and not just in the realm of sport. I would hope that women could translate my journey through the four deserts into whatever is their passion.
I truly believe it is a valuable skill to be able to turn what are seemingly negative moments/experiences/challenges and be able to turn them into opportunities and strengths. Just because that opportunity isn’t made clear to you in the very moment, the ability to be adaptable and have realistic optimism can be so powerful.
In the age we live in, young women are bombarded with sexual imagery in the media and fashion, reality TV stars everywhere, and not-so-great role models. How do you hope your achievements will stand apart and be a positive influence on girls?
These images exist but the power is to have perspective on what is important. It can be hard to have that perspective when we become consumed in social media, reality TV and possibly be surrounded by negative people. Running in a desert taught me perspective. It taught me to live in the moment and to embrace not having knowledge on what was happening next.
I didn’t care that my body was puffy because I was holding onto my fat stores and retaining fluid. I thought it was incredible that my mind was allowing my body to move through the sand and heat whilst carrying close to 20% of my body weight on my back. Prior to doing this, I never imagined that would be possible.
The ability to have perspective allows us to reason when these other thoughts come through our mind – and of course they come through our mind (we are all human and have insecurities at some points).
What makes you a powerful woman?
The choice to surround myself with people that I can be vulnerable with. People who empower me to take risks and give me a wake up call when I need it. I am a powerful woman because I am self-aware, am not afraid to fail and believe in the power of collaboration.
What’s the best advice you were given before embarking on the desert run?
Prepare yourself in every way possible, learn to read your bodies signals and be ok with the fact that what you experience isn’t what you expected.
What is the line between being confident in our bodies and keeping fit, and making our physical appearance an obsession?
You need to fuel your body properly in order for it to be able to do all of the amazing things we want it to do – and for the entire duration of our life. Treat it with the respect you would give your mother.
You willingly chose to do something very difficult, but you conquered it. What kind of advice would you give other women about jumping in feet first and challenging themselves?
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and then work your butt off to make it happen… then remember to reward yourself once you reach each hurdle and reflect where possible.
What is your next major goal you hope to achieve.
Freedom Runners = www.freedomrunners.org
‘Desert Runners’ is a documentary everyone should watch. Not because it’s about marathon runners, but because it shows the true extent of the human spirit. We all have times in our life when we feel we literally cannot go any further. Watching the men and women push through the pain, vomiting, dehydration and emotional breakdowns to cross the finish line is a pretty awesome reminder of what we all are capable of if we don’t give up.
For the month of June, if you purchase the digital download of ‘Desert Runners’ you will also be contributing to The Ronan Thompson Foundation which is an organization that helps fund childhood cancer research, along with their purchase. Every dollar spent over the package price of the film goes to the charity. Enter the code RUNNERS for 10% off the digital download at checkout at www.desertrunnersmovie.com