A Conversation With Samantha Gash:
The Ultra Runner's Mindset for the Rest of Us
Endurance athlete, social impact entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and lululemon Ambassador Samantha Gash went from rookie runner to trailblazer, turning marathons into an “ultra mindset” for life.
She has set world records, run on every continent on Earth, and raised more than $1.3 million for charity. But according to Sam Gash, she isn’t the fastest nor the strongest runner. So, what is it that makes her one of the most inspiring runners on the planet? We caught up with Sam to find out how she continues to use running to reinvent herself, and to learn how a running community can reach far beyond a run.
You started running in 2008, as a break from law school. How has your reason for running evolved since then?
Initially, it was very bucket list. I wanted to know if I could do something where I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. That was the drive behind my first ultramarathon. From there I wondered, “What if everyone tried to make a positive impact through the things that they found exciting and fun? What would be the result of that mass micro impact?” So, it became about bridging my love for running and exploring new places, with wanting to address the barriers that prevent children from going to school. And using storytelling as a mechanism to tie it all together in my keynote presentations. This integration has allowed me to connect with people all over the world and expand my perspective. As much as my reason for running may change, learning and discovery will never end for me.
What is a truth about running that you wish you knew as a new runner?
It's not going to look the way you thought. And every run is different.
As a keynote speaker, you tell your story to many different audiences, including non-athletes. How does the ultra mindset empower people who aren’t necessarily runners?
Running across a country is not an activity that everyone experiences. Yet, the thoughts and emotions that come up in an ultramarathon are familiar to us all. The ultra mindset is about relentless forward motion, where placing one foot in front of the other, without expectation, is the name of the game. This mentality insists that small progress is still progress and that, at times, we need to pause to prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed.
They come to understand that “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do things that you’ve never done,” Thomas Jefferson.
I talk about balancing the power of vulnerability with the armour of toughness. And the last thing, which is probably the most important: we can’t always influence the things that happen to us, but we can always control our response to it. The ultra mindset doesn’t allow us to be a victim of our circumstances. It’s a tool for moving forward. From the way you describe it, ultra running is a microcosm for life. Ultra running is life compressed. You go through it all in a relatively short time frame: fear, self-doubt, inadequacy, failure, burnout. If you reflect on that experience, it can easily translate into powerful insights for your everyday life. Is there a particular distance where the fear, self-doubt, and inadequacy usually hit? Ah, it could hit at any time. I’ve really learned to remove expectations and submit to the experience. Part of the adventure is being truly present and aware of circumstances as they come up. Sometimes what I expect to be hard is actually smooth and vice versa. Ultramarathons are about surrender.
Is there a mantra you turn to when a run gets tough?
It’s your choice to be here.
In December 2020, you ran the Cape to Cape, a 138-kilometre stretch from Cape Augusta to Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia’s southwest. In what ways did running feel different going into this race?
December felt like a separate year because COVID was no longer in high force for us [in Australia]. So, when I transitioned [out of lockdown] into running the Cape to Cape, the intention was to feel freedom… freedom to go from point A to point B, to be self-reliant, to do something for myself.
And so, naively, I thought, “I can just run 138 kilometres. It’ll be amazing!” I literally had three weeks to train for it after not running for more than an hour a day. And I imagined it would take around 24 hours to do it nonstop. So, it was like cramming for a test. I was cramming for freedom. I loved training for it. It felt like I was back to being a professional athlete, in a way. And then, I did the run, and I was like, “Oh no, this is really hard!” I made a couple of mistakes, like forgetting my head torch. It became very much about survival at the end, but it felt like freedom. And I was amazed that my body was doing it.
If you had to choose between eliminating a weakness and building on a strength, what would you choose?
I would focus more on my strengths, and I would work with people who complement my strengths and weaknesses.
In March 2021 you co-founded Her Trails, a female trail and adventure platform that provides training programs for a 21.1km trail run. What inspired that idea?
As an endurance athlete and corporate speaker, my usual routine involves constant travel. And then 2020 happened and I had to put everything that I talk about into practice. I had to apply my lessons on resilience and mindset, not in an expedition that I chose, but in an experience that was thrust upon me. Last year made me wonder how I could turn “I” into the collective. I tried to create connection and community in the way that I could, by launching a podcast. I connected with Bec Wilcock who I had on my podcast as a guest and we came up with this idea of creating a platform where women are encouraged to feel brave and go out on the trails—whether they want to hike, run trails, or mountain bike—and experience our wild places in a different way. It’s really nice to create a global community with like-minded individuals, a space where we can feel a sense of belonging and support despite physical distance.
What is it about running that presents that opportunity for community and connection for you?
It’s the way that running takes you to a vulnerable place. You're battling your mind. You're battling your body. You're questioning yourself, “Is this pain or is this discomfort? Should I be pushing through this? Is this where the growth happens? Or is this actually too much?” So, there’s a lot of inner dialogue that happens and women are sharing that inner dialogue with each other. They’re not holding back. They're saying “I'm feeling this. Is this normal?”
And, so often, sports, particularly trail running, has been talked about from a male lens. The modifications to nutrition are like, “Okay, if this is what a guy needs, let’s take the 75 percent version of that and that’s what we’ll give to her.” A woman’s physiology is unique, and we need to respect that. We need to understand the hormonal phases and train accordingly. We need to turn our physiology into our secret weapon.
So, our biggest thing is getting women to listen to themselves, listen to their bodies, and understand when to push and when to support themselves. And it’s through community and connection that we get to really support each other through our challenges, our inner resistance, and our learnings.
Perhaps a woman’s physiology is her strength because she goes through cycles every month, making adaptability an inherent quality. Clearly, you’ve honed that. You’re constantly adapting to the environment and circumstances in expeditions. How do you adapt to the unexpected while staying laser-focused on your goals? I expect the unexpected… Sam vanished for a quick moment and returned with two toddlers, her son and her neighbour’s daughter.
Perfect timing. You're in the middle of answering a question about adapting to unforeseen circumstances and here we are. [Laughing] Here we are. This is what we do. Sometimes the unexpected is the best thing and sometimes it's challenging. But you just have to play. Again, remove that rigidity.
Did having a child change anything for you?
When I had Harry, I got really sick. I couldn’t run. And I was amazed at how quickly I could just not give a sh*t about running. But if you’d asked me before being pregnant how I’d cope with that, I would’ve said, “Probably not very well.” This is where running and the ultra mindset has been a lesson on grounding into what’s important.
There is an evolution of who we become as women that constantly changes. A rigidity mindset doesn’t serve us.
My heart tolerated running across a country as extreme as India, less than a year prior. And then I had a child and it was really physically demanding for me. It enhanced my respect for women. I’ve gone from being one of those women that say I connect better with men than women to saying that I work better with women. And that’s been a massive shift.
And what about the idea of success?
How do you measure success in running these days—besides personal bests, world records, and reaching fundraising goals. Is there something more qualitative that you look for? I actually don’t care about the records. Never have. I’m not the fastest. I’m not the strongest. My greatest tool has always been my mind and my ability to connect the important things together, and to share that. Success to me is connection. It’s creating experiences that are meaningful and valuable, that go beyond the run. And it’s encouraging women to feel like they are stronger and more capable than they realize.
Thank you for sharing your run journey with us. One last question before we close this off. Your son asks you why you run, you say:
Mummy is creating time for herself.
There was a time when Sam Gash could be found running 3253 kilometres across India. Today, she hosts 12-week training programs and life-changing adventure and cultural retreats for women to experience the wild in ways they never have. Click here to learn more.
Some photography courtesy of Nic Morley.