On choosing a career path, Sam Gash was torn between wanting to be an actor and a lawyer, so she became both, completing a double degree in Performing Arts and Law. With the security of a graduate placement with an international law firm waiting for her in Melbourne (being one of eight law students chosen from a pool of 1200) Sam sniffed adventure and went travelling in 2010, signing up for her first ultra-marathon in Chile. It was a decision that changed her focus forever, igniting an ‘ultra’ bug and a love for desert racing – she was hooked.
“I wanted to fly to the other side of the world and experience that cool adventure – by myself. But when I got there I realised you don’t do it by yourself. With ultras you feed off the energy of other people,” Sam says.
Frustratingly, Sam got injured during training for her first ultra and spent her final week before the race hobbling around in a moon boot. But she was undeterred, with her steely determination and fearless “love of the unknown”.
“It was tough initially, and for the first few days, I just walked each stage then gradually started running. Unexpectedly, I found I was adapting to my environment, and I started to move quicker,” Sam explains.
“The experience of being injured in my first race was a valuable lesson. It forced me to take it slowly, and become an observer; watching others around me. This gave me the understanding of how I could do well in the sport. If you can conserve your energy on the first few days, you can make up hours down the line,” Sam reflects. Incredibly, she finished that race first in her age group and 15th overall.
The challenging nature of ultra-marathons mirrors Sam’s personality. They involve planning and strategy; sharp organisational skills; and being able to deal with “everything the environment throws at you”. And one key advantage Sam didn’t anticipate was the practical value her education was in relation to ultra-marathons.
“My training in performing arts has helped so much with my ability to race, in that it’s given me the ability to jump into character and anticipate what my body needs before it needs it such as water, food or rest. A lot of people can’t tap into what they need when they race hence they get into all sorts of trouble,” Sam explains.
Sam grew up in Ballarat then Melbourne, sharing a happy childhood with her older sister, who also runs. The tough 28-year-old, who is an ambassador for Impossible2Possible and crusader for the League of Extraordinary Women, largely credits her goal-driven, adventurous spirit and passion to create something out of nothing, to the loving guidance of “workhorse” parents (dad is an engineer, mum, a nurse).
“I’m good at focussing on a goal. My parents are that way inclined. They taught me to be disciplined, focussed, respectful and appreciative for what we have; they made me realise the value of money. You get what you create – if you work hard, you get results,” Sam says with pride.
“My parents are unique, and think outside the box. I’ll give you an example – we went to a wedding when we were young and danced the whole time. Mum thought dancing would be a great hobby for us, so she signed us up for dance lessons – but not mainstream dance lessons – Scottish highland dancing! I was actually pretty good and competed for about 10 years, as I had the attitude for that kind of dancing,” Sam laughs, adding, “I’m very small, so I always looked sweet so probably got a few extra points!”
It was Sam’s small stature that led her to running. “I went to a small private girl’s school, and being small meant I couldn’t participate in many sports. But the one sport I could do, and was good at, was cross country.”
Sam is a talented, bright spark in the ultra-community, completing major international races including ‘Racing the Planet’s Four Deserts Grand Slam’ where Sam was the first female and youngest person ever to complete the event.
Today, Sam applies the colossal effort involved in ultra events for the greater purpose of social change such as non-profit initiatives for indigenous communities. In 2012, she organised a solo (supported) 379km non-stop race across the Simpson Desert to raise over $30,000 for an early education ‘mobile playscheme vehicle’ for Save the Children.
“I’ve always had a desire to make an impact. I like the feeling and reward of working super hard for something. The greatest reward is going through some pain for it!”