Interview with Samantha Gash

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I recently was given the opportunity to interview Samantha Gash, ultra-marathon runner, the only female and youngest person ever to complete the desert-slam (running 4 desert ultra-marathons in 1 year), and a featured runner in the new movie Desert Runners. She has a very inspirational story that will inspire anyone to push themselves physically and mentally. 

Read on for her wisdom about training, self-talk during runs, how to keep your feet blister free, and more!

You mention in the movie that endurance training requires so much time that it can take away from other areas of your life. What is your typical training schedule (How far in advance do you start training? What are your training sessions like? Do you cross train or take any breaks?)

"When I trained for the 4Deserts I was a little (or a lot) in the dark about how to train for an event like this. It was a crash course in survival and I felt as though I developed and revised my training plan as the year progressed. I take a much more strategic approach to training now. The way I train depends on the type of event that I am preparing for. For example my big event for this year is a 2350km charity run across the Freedom Trail in South Africa, where I plan to run on average 80kms a day for 32 days.  You can check out the expedition here.  I have a couple of 50km and 100km events in the lead up to it, but this is definitely my focus for 2014.

This is an expedition run rather than a race, so speed is not the biggest factor, rather resiliency and my ability to be able to run that type of distance over quite technical terrain day after day. My running coach is ultra marathon extraordinaire Ray Zahab and he focuses on training phases that build upon each other. Despite the long distance of the run he still incorporates speed and track work in addition to longer runs at race pace, plenty of hill repeats and runs that look at my leg turnover efficiency.

My strength and conditioning coach Mathieu Dore has me in the gym 2 – 3 times a week. This is where the resiliency is really being developed as he has me working on all my weaknesses and instabilities, making me as strong as possible to deal with the stress I will be putting my body through.

In terms of cross training I am a hot yoga fan!!"

I am also a huge lover of hot yoga! In terms of your long runs, what kind of fuel do you use to get ready for a run? What do you bring mid-run?

"During my runs I will drink a high performance drink called biosteel – it is all natural, organic and it has the right formula of amino acids and electrolytes. It is low in sugar so it doesn’t get my stomach upset as if I took Gatorade (ps: I am not sponsored by them). I take the sugar I need in solid form such as honey stingers and clif bar shot blocks. If I am crewed in a race, I will try and have small bites of corn chips with avocado or hummus and I am definitely partial to salt and vinegar chips on a run."

You said that you are always stressing about potentially injuring yourself. What mental and/or physical advice do you have for runners who have similar stress? How do you avoid injury?

"I definitely don’t focus on the threat of injury as much anymore. I was so underdeveloped as a runner when I did the 4Deserts that my body constantly had niggles because I was expecting it to do large mileage through such extreme conditions. Now I am far more proactive and smart with my training to be adequately prepared for a race. I would always suggest the key is to listen to your body. If you are being smashed with long hours at work and trying to do long runs before and after work your body will wear down. Knowing when to take a day off training to get good sleep and rest is crucial. It is also not simply about training the body – you need to train the mind to be strong enough to get through these types of races."

Speaking of training your mind... it sounds like you do a lot of self-talk during your long runs, and I especially appreciated how you spent some time thinking about how strong of a girl you are after a negative experience caused you to consider dropping out of the race. What are some of the motivational and self-talk techniques you typically use? How do you keep your mind strong during a tough race?

"After the incident in Sahara all I could think about was moving forward and getting to the checkpoint. In my mind the checkpoint equated to safety and another step closer to the goal of finishing the race – which is the objective in these races. For some reason I didn’t contemplate the idea of waiting where I was for the next competitor to reach me, which would have been a lot sooner than finding someone ahead. In that moment, all I could think about was holding myself together and putting one foot in front of the other. People say that all the time “running is just about putting one foot in front of the other”, for sure it is but for me the reason I was doing that was to prove to myself that I was physically and mentally stronger than I had previously given myself credit for.

At the end of the day when you are placed in a challenging moment in the process towards any long-term goal, that is what you should keep going back to – why am I here and why I have I chosen this journey/process as the path to get me there. I feel this helps me keep perspective."

During the desert runs in the film, temperatures fluctuated wildly. What kind of effects did you notice on your body, and what did you do to try to train for that or alleviate the impacts of it?

"Ahh my body blew up like an inflatable cushion. A combination of the heat, the distance and consuming a lot of salts meant my body really did get quite puffy. Clearly my body was in shock and it was holding onto whatever it could as a survival mechanism. 2 – 3 days after the race my body would go back to normal. It is tough training for those types of extreme conditions. I would do a lot of bikram yoga in preparation for the Sahara Race and I also trained in a cool chamber for Antarctica."

A very common concern for runners - ultra-marathon or not - is foot care. As someone who clearly has a lot of experience on her feet, what tips do you have for runners who are looking to avoid skin, nail, and blister issues? 

"I had pretty terrible feet in the first race in the series so I took blister care prevention pretty seriously after that. My approach is covering my feet with hydropel, putting on a pair of thin Injinji toe-socks, a thin pair of smart wool socks (for the first 2 days before my feet swelled up) and then wearing Brooks Cascadia’s. Since using this combination I have hardly gotten anything more than a small hot spot and this was even when I ran for 389kms non-stop across the Simpson Desert, which was all in sand."

You and Lisa were holding hands for a bit of the run in the Gobi Desert. Can you tell us about the relationships you form with other athletes as you complete these challenging events? 

"Oh boy I vividly remember that moment and it was quite crazy to see it on the big screen. Specifically in that race Lisa and I formed a really special friendship right from the get-go. I knew about Lisa before the race so I introduced myself to her on day one and by chance our running pace was very similar on the first day of racing. After that Lisa asked if I wanted to do the long day (110kms) with her as she always tries to head out on the long day with someone else for safety and support. The rest is history and we have run together many times since then.

Some of my closest friends are people that I have met through the 4Deserts experience. I think there is something special about meeting someone in a desert when you are sleeping in a tent relying on very little supplies and home comforts. In a sense what becomes important is the relationships you form with other people as that is the “something” that often gets you to the finish line."

What did you learn about yourself through the course of these races?

"So many things!! It was the biggest year of my life as I also took on a three-month internship in a capital defense office in Texas, moved to Sydney, received my job as a lawyer at international law firm Baker & McKenzie and started a new relationship.

The 4Desert races taught me about the depths of my mental determination to push on despite adversity. It taught me that I often rely on the strength and comradery of others to achieve big goals. I learnt about resiliency, my love of extreme and isolated environments, my need to constantly have adventure and take risks."

It looks like you have continued to run since the Grand Slam! Do you have any new goals, now that you've officially completed the Grand Slam?

"For sure, I now love to run ultra races for fun and then construct ultra expeditions in combination with social advocacy projects. There is something that draws me to defining the parameters for my own adventures as opposed to always relying on a race director who tells me when to start running, where to run and where you have to stop.

As I discussed above the next big expedition, which has been in the works for over 18 month is a 32 run across South Africa’s Freedom Trail. I am running with the incredible Mimi Anderson from the UK who also just happens to be 52 years of age. We learnt the statistic that one in 10 school age girls in Africa miss class during menstruation or drop out of school completely at puberty, because of a lack of sanitary products and toilet facilities, and negative social stigma.

This really devastated us both and we wanted to use our run to bring awareness to this issue and then take steps to bring forward positive change. We are collaborating with the global NGO Save the Children, and our goal is to raise $50,000 for the start-up of a social enterprise business to help keep girls in school. The business will employ women to make and distribute low-cost feminine hygiene products for the Namahadi Community in the Free State Province of South Africa. Save the Children will project manage the business for one year, which includes providing all of the materials, supplies, wages, skills training for 12 South African women who will manufacture the products.

I am working with the filmmaker and producer of Desert Runners, as they have become two very influential women in my life. So I guess the 4Deserts also taught me the power of collaboration with like-minded people to create social change.

The website for our project is www.freedomrunners.org and you can donate to the social enterprise business here - https://donate.savethechildren.org.au/FreedomRunners"

Many thanks to Samantha for taking the time to give me these great answers! I hope you can benefit from reading about her experience and story.

If you are interested in checking out the movie Desert Runners, it is now available on DVD and for digital download at www.desertrunnersmovie.com. As a reader of this site, you can get 10% off the film by entering the code "RUNNERS" at checkout! 

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