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Running with your life on your back

Published : Feb 2, 2016, 12:25 am IST
Updated : Feb 2, 2016, 12:25 am IST

The petite woman who introduces herself as Samantha Gash is a far cry from what one would expect when one is waiting to see an avid ultra-marathoner.

The petite woman who introduces herself as Samantha Gash is a far cry from what one would expect when one is waiting to see an avid ultra-marathoner. Diminutive but full of fire, 31-year-old Samantha (she could pass for 20), who was in Bengaluru for the Australia India Youth Dialogue 2016, has taken on the most extreme territories in the world, running in some cases for worthy causes and in others simply for the challenge. She is the youngest person and the first woman to have done all four desert ultra-marathons within the course of a year.

“I did the driest desert — Atacama; the windiest, which is in China; the hottest — the Sahara; and the coldest — Antarctica,” she said. The hottest and the coldest deserts took place after a gap of only four weeks, because the window for racing through Antarctica is so small.

It’s a rigorous life, to be sure. Ultra-marathoners carry their sustenance in their backpacks, including food, sleeping gear and anything else they might need.

“As you can see, I’m not the tallest person in the world, I’m under five feet,” she laughs. “When you’re on an ultra marathon, you pack everything you need. I ran through the Sahara desert carrying 20 per cent of my body weight on my back! It boils down to the smallest details — I cut off the handle off my toothbrush and carry only the bristles because that saves me a good 10 grams. Everything counts.”

In August 2016, she will embark on a 4,000 km run across the breadth of India, to further education amongst women and also to explore the biggest barriers along this path. The proceeds will go to World Vision, a global NGO working with poor children and for which Samantha is brand ambassador. “In Rajasthan, for instance, there are communities which send off daughters to the sex trade. If they don’t, the girls are married very young. I’ve learned one thing, though — it’s not all black and white. It’s easy to say child marriage is awful, but if flesh trade is the alternative, which would you choose ” She will run 800 km across Rajasthan, upto Delhi and end just south of Shillong, going through desert, urban, jungle and mountain terrain.

Two years ago, Samantha set off on a 32-day run across South Africa, all of it cross-country, to spread awareness on the fact that 80 per cent of the women there don’t have access to traditional feminine hygiene products. “People would look at me and go ‘awww the tampon girl’!” she said.

It was more than that, of course. The lack of access to these products meant girls would have to stay home for four or five days each month, resulting in a very high dropout rate.

Samantha trained as a lawyer in Melbourne and in her last year of college set off to Chile, where she did her first ultra-marathon. “Doing the desert marathons was a big challenge in terms of funding and making sure I didn’t miss my law exams in the process,” Samantha recalled. “I was out of my comfort zone, yes, but it was my relaxation and freedom from the rest of the chaos, all of which we have constructed!”

Remarkably, she isn’t a sporty person at all. “It’s all about how strong your mind is and how you keep yourself calm as you run through the Sahara desert at 50°C.”

She doesn’t watch her diet — running an ultra marathon is a test of how you can survive on pretty much nothing, apart from the few packs of instant noodles that you manage to cram into your backpack. “You can’t simulate the weather conditions either, the closest I have come is hot yoga, where we do the poses in a room where the ambient temperature is 38°C,” she explained. It was a five-day, non-stop race in Leh-Ladakh that made Samantha resolve to return to India. “That was one race where I thought I pushed my body too far,” she said. “I went through altitude training, because the race peaked at 6,000 metres. We had 24 hours of incredibly hot weather and the next moment, we were bang in the middle of a blizzard. I had hypothermia and we weren’t stopping to sleep, either. I took two six minute breaks over the course of five days.”

Still, Samantha refers to her ultra-marathoning as “relaxation”. What began as a physical challenge became her vehicle for social change. “It gives you a great sense of perspective,” she remarked. “I realised that my diet during an ultra marathon is what most people in the world eat everyday. We consume a lot more than we need and this is my way of breaking it down and living as simply as I can.”

Location: India, Karnataka, Bengaluru