Samantha Gash was into the toughest leg of an ultra-marathon race when disaster struck. The pain in her right knee had increased and she lost her sunglasses, a necessity when you’re running in the sands of the Gobi Desert in China. She was exhausted, dehydrated and lost, thanks to some local village children who had stolen the flags that guided competitors around the course.
Just 21 kilometres from the finish line of a 250-kilometre race, Gash suffered hysteria, injury, and fatigue. Suddenly, the fierce competitor did not think she was going to make it. “When I reached the final checkpoint I just collapsed on the ground,” recalls Gash. “After a couple of minutes I pulled myself up, cried, vomited, and then cried again. It was like experiencing 10 billion emotions at the one time.
‘’They wanted me to take a mandatory stop but something triggered in my brain at the word ‘stop’. I pulled myself up, put some food in my mouth and started to walk away. I had to keep going, because I never give up on something I have set out to do.”
Despite her physique – all of 151 centimetres and 44 kilograms – Samantha Gash is a giant in the world of long-distance running. At just 26, the Melbourne-born law student has run more than 1000 kilometres in the coldest, driest, hottest and windiest places on earth.
And in November last year, she set a record to become the youngest person and the first woman to complete all the 4 Desert races in one calendar year. But that day in the Gobi remains her toughest challenge.
“There were times when we would throw our bodies onto the sand, and I remember thinking to myself, it would be so much easier if I was dead right now. But, finally after 18 hours of hell, I could hear the drum beat signalling camp. It was the biggest relief.’’
Described by locals as “the race of no return”, the Gobi March is the second marathon in the RacingThePlanet 4 Desert Series – an event consisting of four 250-kilometre runs held in the salt plains of Atacama in Chile, the riverbeds of the Gobi, the undulating dunes of the Sahara in Egypt and the icy flats in the Horseshoe Valley in Antarctica.
Commonly referred to as a “place as hot as fire”, temperatures in Gobi can reach a searing 50 degrees. Last year American Nicholas Kruse, 31, collapsed less then two kilometres before the line due to heat stroke and dehydration. He died in hospital later that day.
“There is such a fine line between pushing the boundaries and risk of death,” says Gash. “In these races, everyone always thinks you have these profound thoughts, but your mind is just so occupied with survival, that it’s all about trying to put one foot in front of the other, while battling with demons of how painful this is.”
As well as the heat, the Gobi is known for its spectacular landscape. Starting in the rolling green hills it takes competitors through a variety of river canyons, cliffs and oasis farmlands before making its way down through the seemingly endless dunes of the basin.
“The idea behind RacingThePlanet, is to take people to culturally rich locations, see stunning scenery, and experience pristine environments before they disappear,” says Sam Healey, a spokesperson for the company. “The races take competitors back to basics, spending seven days in the desert carrying everything that you need your backpack is a world apart from the material world that many of us are used to living in every day. These facts in themselves attract people from all around the world and all walks of life.”
Filled with food and racing equipment, the average backpack weighs between seven and 15 kilograms. This fact alone has guaranteed it a second placing in Time magazine’s Top 10 Endurance Competitions in the world, right behind the iconic Dakar Rally.
“The events usually attract elite athletes who are well established in the small but growing ultra-running community,” says Healey. “There are also the rocketing number of competitors who have left road running and marathons to start trail racing. These competitors have discovered the compelling concept of running off-trail in places they would never be able to visit in this way by themselves, the ultimate freedom for a runner.”
The number of competitors on each leg of the 4 Deserts race is strictly limited – up to 180 on the Gobi March, but capped at just 80 for the Atacama. Australia is always well represented, and last year’s Gobi saw 12 Aussies compete.
With an unquenchable thirst for adventure, Gash again will embark on an ultra-marathon in August called La Ultra (The High). This time, the setting is the foothills of Himalayas and again Gash and her competitors will run 222 kilometres. Restricted to 40, the competitors must travel up and down the world’s highest motor pass, reaching heights of 5390 metres.
“I am very nervous about the High, it will be my biggest challenge yet,” says Gash.
Gash’s rise in marathon running is extraordinary. Her introduction to it was when she signed up to the Oxfam 100-kilometre trailwalker with three friends.
“The race ended up being a complete failure,” says Gash. “Two of us wanted to run and the other two wanted to walk, which they did while on the phone to their boyfriends. It was not cohesive and our team was an absolute shambles.
“But it gave me a taste and even though I was so physically unprepared, mentally I was strong. I kind of went into this autopilot.”
Two years later, Gash entered the race again. She established a team of like-minded athletes, and trained intensively beforehand. The team ended up being one of the first young teams across the finish line.
“I loved the adrenaline, and the whole organisation of pulling something like that together,” says Gash. “I became anal about making sure everyone had the same desires, because you can’t do a team event if you don’t share the same goal. In running especially, a lot of it is the process of how you are going to get your goal.”
Despite being brought up with in what she describes as a “non-athletic family”, Gash says her love for running was apparent even as a child.
“I always did cross country at high school, but its a big jump from doing 10 kilometres at high school to ultra-marathons,” says Gash. “One of my close friends from high school used to do the Oxfam every year and I remember we would be sitting in the car waiting for our (VCE) results, and we would be talking not about our results but about the race. I loved her stories of the pain but also the camaraderie of working with other people.”
Her first serious running started in 2006, when she entered the Melbourne Marathon. Before the event, she contacted Linda Quirk, a 58-year-old mother who has run seven marathons in seven continents in a bid to raise money and awareness for drug and alcohol addition treatment and long-term recovery. Quirk’s motives were inspired by her stepdaughter, Katherine, who struggled with meth addiction. Gash offered to wear some of her merchandise.
“When I first met Sam, I remember her stating that she was a bit nervous and unsure of what it would be like to go the distance,” says Quirk. “But anyone meeting Sam for the first time cannot help but see a very determined, energetic and vivacious woman behind the tiny stature. With all of her initial trepidation going into the race it was evident that she was well prepared. Once the gun went off I did not see Sam until the finish … she was there long before me.”
After the 4 Deserts races, Gash has found a routine that works. Always starting out slow, the self-described “pocket rocket” sacrifices water at checkpoints, and runs in what she calls “a grandma shuffle”.
“Everyone always asks me, ‘how the hell did I get better in each race’,” says Gash. “I feel it’s because I didn’t over-train. I did a lot of bikram yoga and whenever I felt an injury coming, I would jump in the water and run. There were times when I would be doing seven-hour, deep-water running sessions. My goal was never to come first, but I got better and better.”
Jennifer Steinman is the director of Desert Runners, a movie that follows Gash and other competitors through the various countries as they attempt to complete the 4 Desert “grand slam”. She says that Gash was a real dark horse.
“Sam really came out of nowhere,” says Steinman. “From being just a casual runner, she suddenly became determined and serious and her hard work paid off. She had to balance so many aspects of her busy life and make everything fit together. She made many sacrifices to get to the races, and yet she was able to make it all happen and succeed at all of it.”
The documentary investigates the psychology of an ultra-marthon runner, questioning why these competitors are willing to step so far outside their comfort zones. In the trailer, it shows a very exhausted Gash running with a photograph of a child strapped to her arm. The child is cystic fibrosis sufferer, a cause that Gash supports. Motivated by her cousin’s experience of the genetic disease, Gash explains how there has been great medical progress in CF in the past decade. Although currently incurable, 80 per cent of those born with CF are expected to reach their 30th birthday, 10 years ago the expectancy didn’t reach beyond 21.
“I wanted to raise money for a charity that doesn’t always get pumped up with support,” says Gash. “Through these races which are internationally based, a broad of spectrum of people get to understand about it.”
For the Himalayas race, Gash will also raise money for Nutrition Plus, a charity that works closely with schools to improve the health of indigenous and other low socio-economic children.
Gash’s decision was inspired by an experience she had in 2007 when she worked as a volunteer at Mutijulu and Kaltukatjara in the Northern Territory. Through her relationship with her sponsor Juice Plus+, Gash became interested in the education and health of indigenous youth, Gash is proud to support a charity that focuses on improving nutrition, particularly through encouraging the consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables or bush-tucker species on a daily basis.
“This year its all been about working out the best way for doing different things, I’m focusing on how I can incorporate my love of running, into being able to raise the most amount of exposure and generate the most amount of money for a charity that I care about.
“It’s really easy in life to give yourself a way out. In these races there are so many moments when it’s so hard. There is always a perfect excuse to pull out or slow down, but what I value is that I won’t let something hard in my life be a reason to stop me and in some ways it pushes me to go harder.”
More information at www.4deserts.com
Samantha Gash’s marathon training tips
1 – Quality in training over quantity. You can do this through varying your running sessions. Add in speed, hill and interval sessions to complement your longer runs.
2 – Cross training will assist you to develop strength and help reduce injuries. I love bikram yoga, spin classes and cross-fit training. You have to work the core muscles and incorporate plenty of stretching.
3 – Racing is the best training – shorter distances of course.
4 – Train with friends or join a running group for some of your runs, it can help you stay focused to your goal. I’ve started running on Wednesday’s with a group called Running Divas at the Tan.
5 – Try and hit the trails wherever possible – even if you are training for a road marathon.
6 – Find gear that works for you. It’s really important to have the right runners as it can prevent shin splints and other injuries.