We throw around the expression ‘high performance’ readily, but Samantha Gash is someone who has earned the ‘high performance’ tag, and then some.
Samantha is an ultra-marathoner who runs for social purpose. Her chosen challenges are nothing short of incredible. From Run India (3500kms in 60 days across India) to Freedom Runners (2400 kms in 30 days along South Africa’s Freedom Trail), Sam’s mental and physical resilience has seen her push through extreme adversity.
In our second episode of the Performance Leaders podcast series, we speak to Samantha about her transition from corporate lawyer in a global firm to ultra-marathoner. We talk to Sam about setting big goals, the process of planning and achieving those goals, and how staying connected to purpose can help you push beyond your perceived limits.
Sam also reflects on the importance of team and the nature of leadership and high performance.
We hope you enjoy hearing Sam’s story.
[00:31] Ray: Today I’m joined by Samantha Gash. Samantha is an endurance athlete who runs for social purpose raising awareness and money for causes that are close to her heart. Samantha is a former corporate lawyer who has completed some of the most gruelling ultra-marathons on earth. She’s also developed her own run for purpose projects. A few years ago, Samantha ran the 2000-kilometre Freedom Trail across South Africa in one month. That’s a double marathon every day for 30 days to raise money for women’s health and education in that country. More recently, Samantha completed her Run India project 3253 kilometres in 76 days to raise money for children’s education in India. Samantha, your ability to set and achieve incredibly ambitious goals makes you the very embodiment of high performance and it’s great to have you on the Performance Leaders podcast.
[01:29] Ray: Sam talk us through the transition from corporate lawyer to ultramarathon runner.
Samantha: Well it wasn’t a particularly smooth or knowledgeable transition. I was taking part in endurance events and was also being a graduate lawyer at the same time and definitely felt a disconnect between the work that I was doing in corporate law. You know, I was a graduate lawyer. I felt like a very small cog in a big machine. I just didn’t feel like I had a role to play in understanding of the bigger picture was, which possibly was my fault in not kind of seeking out what that was. And endurance racing just filled me with a huge sense of contribution particularly because at the time I was using long distance running as a means to raise funds for social advocacy projects particularly in the space of access to education programs. So, when I left law I actually had no idea what I was going into except I was going into a run across South Africa and it was the first time in my life where I didn’t have a plan of what was next.
So the first point of transition was acceptance that I didn’t know what was next. And it was actually quite terrifying because I think for those who have done a law degree you are very focused on what is next and what looks like a successful path. And in that moment I said “I’m going to do what feels right and hopefully the answer of what is my next step will come”. And, as I was running across South Africa, I was sharing content and I was just very committed to the present. I got a phone call from a financial advisory firm who wanted me to do a speaking roadshow when I got back and my face that was like I am amazing I can pay my rent for the next couple of months when I get back. And yeah, I just kind of came back. I did that speaking engagement roadshow and I love that work and I was just really open to opportunities and not being fixed into what the next few paths would look like.
[03:35] Ray: And when you step off that that corporate path which is quite well defined and step into an unknown like a major ultramarathon how do you go about identifying and then approaching a goal like Freedom Runners or Run India?
Samantha: I definitely use a lot of the processes that I used as a lawyer. I think there are two phases to long term goals but the first phase is the planning. I have a huge risk mitigation process that I have to follow. So, there is a high degree of navigation. Sometimes they are politically unstable countries that I’m running in and often there there’s a degree of safety concern that I have to consider. And because my projects are about collaborating with a lot of different stakeholders and partners local agencies on the ground (and also international organizations) the risk mitigation strategy that I put together is huge. And then when I’m in execution mode it’s about having this very comprehensive plan but then being willing to be highly agile to that plan because things never go to plan in these environments. And I initially started with quite a fixed mindset. I had this beautiful plan that I spent potentially two years putting together and I found it hard to move away from it. And then I got myself into quite a few problems in my earlier projects when I was doing these runs. And so, I’ve had to learn that agility is probably the most important component.
[05:25] Ray: And there are so many barriers to these sorts of projects as you said from the planning phase through to execution pain injury personal safety. How do you push beyond these mental and physical challenges when you’re in the moment?
Samantha: I think that you can push through a lot mentally and physically if you know why you’re doing. You know, human beings are capable of far more than we ever realise. But I think if you don’t have something to connect to that pain and suffering, it’s hard to get perspective.
So, my biggest objective in my most recent projects was to find some kind of tangible initiatives that were going to remove some of the barriers that children face when they come to access and quality education. And it’s sometimes quite an abstract purpose. A strong way I’ve been able to connect to that purpose is finding means of accountability during the run itself.
When I ran across South Africa in 2014, I explored the problem of high cost of feminine hygiene products for women in sub-Saharan Africa. And that problem linked to girls dropping out of school. I was running in a rural kind of environment in South Africa where I didn’t see anyone. And so, I completely got caught up in the world of the run. I had moments of complete despair because of my suffering but the issues that the girls were facing was at the forefront of my mind.
In 2016, I ran across India to explore a more varied range of barriers to why kids can’t go to school. Every couple of days I would visit a community with World Vision (who was the beneficiary of the funds that I was raising). I would go into schools in the slums to learn about the issues of personal safety and protection. I would go to homes in the Himalayas where I realized food security was such an issue or in the desert to understand the prevalence of the sex trade.
And because I could realize some of those barriers my biggest sense was that I was running and it was a choice… all I had to do is put one from the other. And whilst it was quite painful at times that suffering was limited there was choice behind it. And a lot of the suffering that children in these environments faced were not by choice and I just put whatever I was going through into great perspective. I just think I was really able to access the reason behind my why a lot more than before.
[08:15] Ray: At some point in your journey you’ve made that leap from running for yourself to running for others. How did you how do you recognize that running for social purpose could be something you could take that bit further?
Samantha: I didn’t grow up being a physically active person. In fact, I kind I was pretty physically dormant. Obviously, the people listening to this podcast cannot see what I look like, but I am incredibly short. I’m a four-foot, 11.5 – that point five is really important! But I was never good at team sports. If a ball was thrown my way I would inevitably duck and not even try to pick it up. And so, when I found sports in I guess in my mid 20s I was really doing it as a means of kind of pushing myself beyond my comfort zone.
And I think the objective was to kind of become a bit mentally tougher. I think I was someone who, by default, when I experienced something that I didn’t know what it would look like I would always run away from that experience. And so, running was a way of me just facing a few of my fears. But once I faced my fears and realized how exciting it was to continually do it, I kept doing bigger, harder and bolder long distance projects.
And then I got to this point I asked myself ‘why am I doing this’? ‘Why am I pushing my body so hard in the toughest ultramarathon in the hottest desert on Earth or the coldest desert on Earth?’ I was turning to the longest run that I could do without stopping.
When you constantly push the boundaries you want to seek a bigger meaning for it than your own personal exploration. And that’s when I realized running is actually incredible storytelling. It provides a great story if you’re willing to kind of delve into the challenges that you face in pushing your body that hard.
I studied law at the very beginning to work in the social change space. And yes, I ended up working at a commercial law firm but I always had the objective of trying to make an impact. And so, I kind of linked these two very unique things together and it went from there.
[10:43] Ray: And how do you translate these ultramarathon feats when you’re talking to a corporate audience? What sort of lessons are you able to take from that experience that might make a difference for their day-to-day work?
Samantha: I think the first thing is I approach all of my projects as a team of people coming together and turning something that is a very loose idea into a workable blueprint. For me, it’s very much looking at teams. What makes a team willing to go to the edge of the world and do something highly innovative filled with a lot of complexity and challenges? And really, if you think of the financial industry or the legal industry, they’re all going through that same kind of challenge right now but it just looks a little bit different. There are just so many analogies with teams and leaders but also people who are willing to push beyond corporate boundaries. And I think the reason I have been successful in a not so typically corporate environment is that I still apply my lawyer lens.
[12:24] Ray: Tell us more about this. I know you have a team of people who come together and support you and sometimes these team members drop in and out on these really large projects others are there for the whole for the whole period.
Samantha: It’s not one person’s footsteps you know. My most successful project (which was the run across India) had the largest team that I’ve ever worked with before. You need to draw in people’s skill sets where you lack. I have now learnt that I can’t take on everything if I really want to achieve something significant. So, I’ll always have a development team in the very early stages who can critically examine the idea and make sure it’s going to stand. Because, at the very rawest beginnings, my run across India was to raise funds for access to education programs. That’s it in a raw sense. And so, I worked with World Vision (being the sectorial expert) because they have a strong footprint within Indian development programs. And the first thing that they did was sent me over to India. I started to visit some of the communities that I was hoping to raise funds for. That was very early. And then I came back and I thought “okay, now know what kind of team I need to assemble. I need to assemble technology experts. I need to assemble logistics experts on a global level but then also focused on an Indian level as well.”
And then I have people who are kind of based back home and then I have people who are willing to come you know out in the field with me during the project. And the right people come at different times. It’s very hard to get a group of people willing to commit three months of their life to it. Coming across India we lived in a camper van. Seventy-seven days without personal privacy. We didn’t have that. I could I can reach out my arms and I’d be touching another person in my team at night time because it was just like really jam packed. So you can’t expect people to stay in that environment for something that’s essentially your idea.
And so, I would have three teams. I had a team that came for the first month and I identified what skill set I needed in that first month. And I considered that that first month was about was about the body. In the first month of these projects your body is going through a massive degree of adaption. You know I came from a Melbourne winter and I was running in Rajasthan, in one of the driest deserts for a month, covering 800 kilometres, and I knew that at temperatures of 42 degrees, 90% humidity, my body would really struggle. So, I needed to bring out my physio to help my body go through that adaptation, and then people who were capable of giving me a bit of tough love. So I brought on people who’ve had that different types of skill sets because you were in an adjustment.
And so, I think when you’re going from something that you know to something that you don’t know which I sometimes describe as the wall, if any anyone’s a marathon runner listening to this, you always hit that wall often at 32k’s. You know there’s nothing special about the wall, it’s just like your mind and your body adapting to this new normal. And often people will quit in that adoption phase because it’s overwhelming. And so I try and bring on people who help me mentally and physically become stronger to get through that.
And then that middle section was all mind. I was running through the northern central plains of India. I knew I didn’t have as many World Vision community visits because it was so remote in the places that were running in. And so, I needed to bring on people who were going to help my mind to be the strongest through running. I was running about 70 kilometres a day for about a week. And so, I brought out what I consider to be the strongest mental person and her name was Nikki Kimball and she’s from the US. And she had done a similar project and she’s kind of mentally so switched on that she has endured some incredible feats on her own. And I was like I’m going to bring this woman to run alongside me. And she did for an entire week, she like ran side by side with me. And seeing her kind of struggle in that environment made me realise we’re both in this together and we just mentally kind of worked as a team.
And in the last month, I considered the heart month, I wanted to make sure that I just -you can become a little bit of a robot in these environments – you can get so single minded in your focus that you don’t tap into like what’s in your heart and the run for me was not just physically getting through a massive project but it was also connecting with people in India people back home who were sharing the story that we were releasing on a daily basis.
And so, I brought out my sister. There’s nothing that gets you connected to your heart more than your family; that brings your emotions more to the surface. I think you can be far more professional with people that you don’t know; your tolerances are a little bit less. They are the ones that you love the most. Which is not always the greatest thing but I wanted to kind of tap into that raw emotion. I brought out a yoga teacher who had helped me bring in that kind of spiritual side of what India was. I wanted to see it in a different lens because if I saw a different lens then I could communicate that with our daily content. And so, I had actually a very feminine team for my final month of the run. And yeah, I definitely got to go through the different emotions, and I think the combination of the teams actually brought out different things in those in that role.
[18:26] Ray: Do you see yourself as the team leader.
Samantha: This is my – that was my fundamental flaw of the project. I brought on a team leader for the first five weeks. And then I had people who I thought could take that team leadership role when that person left, and I picked the wrong person and I thought that I was drawing out qualities of what this person had.
So, I thought someone who has obviously taken on leadership roles before in situations of chaos. This person was military experienced and they, from day one, they couldn’t cope with India. And they knew the brief, but my fault was maybe I didn’t bring on them on to like the preliminary things early enough, and this is my mistake. I got out there, he couldn’t cope living in a camper van. He discovered within himself that he couldn’t be so close to people without being able to retreat. And unfortunately, that project did not allow you to retreat.
You couldn’t you couldn’t escape from what was happening outside the camper van every single morning at five thirty when the sun started to rise. You know women, sorry not women, men and children were defecating on the sides of the roads because there were no toilet facilities. And then you would see kids being so sick because we’re in the middle of the monsoon season and water was sometimes up to waist high. And we saw kids walking for k’s, one way to at a school and we would learn that they would have maybe just one bowl of rice in their stomach for that entire day. And so, it was emotionally draining, experiencing what was happening, and then having to be strong enough to deal with like the complexity of running in India which is completely different than organizing a project in Australia. And so he buckled.
So then I had to like make up things on the fly, and so I end up trying to take the team leader role – bad idea. Like I can’t, I couldn’t possibly run across India that amount of kilometres, and then keep the team together. So, four or five weeks it was really, really rough.
And my reflection on that is I needed to – the thing that I’ll do next time, and this is on reflection and evaluation, is I want to take out the team that I select on a kind of wilderness adventure. Something to kind of – you can never simulate the exact conditions – but something that pushes them really hard and allows them to see how they work with the people who will be on the team. When you don’t have your phone with you, when you have to sleep in a primitive environment, when you have to eat only set food that you don’t get to choose. So, there’s a couple of stress tests I could have done for the team for them to even determine if this was the right experience for them.
[21:12] Ray: That’s great learning, and I imagine that one of the key competencies you need to have is being able to learn from project-to-project. So, learning from the Freedom Runners project to Run India, what sort of mechanisms do you have for capturing that kind of learning and then making changes on the next project?
Samantha: It’s become huge and I think each project I’ve gotten that little bit better. You have to be able to takeaway from what are some of the adversities and the – you know – the things that you didn’t do right the first time. And I think you have to be very open minded to seeing in particular, as the project leader, in the early phases, what the pitfalls might have been. I get every single team member to write an overview on what worked, what didn’t work, and I get them to do it as soon as they’ve left the project. There might always be reflective analysis but I think you have to capture data immediately. So because people were leaving in different times like it was imperative that emails were getting sent back and they kind of write down all the things that worked and didn’t worked and we collated that information, which is how I know that everyone experienced the challenges of not having a unified team leader, that was there from point A to the very, very end. I need to sit down with stakeholders who played a role in putting the project on and see from their point what worked for them and what didn’t. You know the stakeholders, the project’s sponsors, all play a vital role and they might not be there on the ground but their contribution is what kind of makes the project come to life and you want to make sure that you have a long standing relationship with these people. Each time you put a project you don’t want have to create an entirely new team. So if you can try and retain the resources and talent that you have through open dialogue, not just at the end, but I also found it was important to do it during the project and I was trying to capture a lot of that. So if I again had a stronger team leader they could have been taking some of that responsibility from me. I definitely made myself – I pulled myself too thin – in the last project. Luckily we got out alive!
[23:28] Ray: And reflecting on your experience as a lawyer, ultra marathoner, corporate speaker, social entrepreneur, what do you think makes a high performance leader?
Samantha: I think leadership is a privilege but it’s actually an incredibly challenging role. I think the role of a leader is to be able to understand what the members in your team need at different points in time. I think the more traditional understanding of a leader is that the leader always has a great sense of clarity, strength, and has a clear vision on how things need to be. I don’t think that’s really what works the best. I think leadership is realizing that sometimes you need to display a degree of vulnerability that actually empowers your team to lead. And I think people are always far more motivated when they feel they have some ownership on the path that needs to be taken. And so, I have learned to play around with different forms of leadership styles to get the best out of the people around me. So, I see being a leader as a highly exploratory exercise of really knowing the people that you’re working with.
[24:42] Ray: Samantha what are your plans for the future? What’s next?
Samantha: Everyone all likes to know what’s next. I was really big on – I guess this is an evaluation process that I had during run India – I wanted to not answer what was next until I had a really good period of time of recovery, reflection and celebration. Because I think we very much get caught up in the ‘let’s move forward, let’s move forward, let’s get to the next thing, the next thing’ and there’s no time to calibrate, there’s no time to do proper review and we also, talking on a health level, we’re just constantly living in like high adrenaline, which is just not healthy for us.
So, I took definitely a couple of months where I didn’t even run after it afterwards. And of course, you’ve always got like these ideas of what you would like to do next because you get caught on like that high of creation and then execution. But I’ve learned it takes close to two years to put on any highly successful project. And so, I actually had a child in between that time frame. And so, I had to explore – that was like to be putting a lot of my physical and emotional energy into my family which I had definitely neglected because I’ve been so caught up on projects over the last 5 to 10 years really.
This year my partner I have applied for a new race. We find out in February if we actually get in, but it’s an adventure race over a couple of weeks and my next project that I want to be supporting is early education programs in Indigenous communities. So last year when I really didn’t physically want to move my body that much but I still wanted to do the early stages of project planning. I decided to focus on the social side of the projection, not the physical. And so I went out with World Vision to the most remote Indigenous community in Australia in the Pilbara, and I looked at some of the early education intervention programs that they have. So that’s kind of what I’m going to be looking to raise awareness and funds for. And the physical side of the project I’m still developing. Is it going to be through this adventure program? I’m still open minded to be doing another desert run. For me the running has become the story-telling but it has to connect with what the initiative I’m trying to raise funds for.
[27:16] Ray: And speaking of storytelling, you’ve got a book you’re working on, a podcast series, you’ve got a film coming out, so there’s plenty of the story that’s coming out over the next year as well.
Samantha: Yeah. We actually have our world premiere of The Run India documentary at the end of Feb. We were lucky to be accepted into the transitions Film Festival which is a festival all about ground-breaking documentaries that explore social ideas about change makers, different technologies and so we actually sold out the screening in four days and so we’ve just been given an encore screening. We hope to do actually at a national roadshow afterwards and then look to taking it on tour in the US. So that took two years. I feel like this two-years is this magical number for me and I think everyone has their own kind of time frame. But we finish that run and I had a filmmaker out there with me who was the only person who was there for the entirety of the 77 days. And so I wanted him to be able to be the person to edit it because I felt ‘I’m not going to bring in an external person’ because this guy lived and breathed it. He lived in that camper van. He knows the story better than anyone else and I had to definitely to appreciate his recovery time from being in an environment. So it took us two years to put it together, it’s a 43 minute documentary, and then we do a Q&A afterward, which makes it about a 70 minute screening experience for people.
And yeah, my book has been the most long-standing project of my life. I might as well say it’s 20 years as opposed to two years. It’s a book focused on the young adult audience, and definitely looks at what’s it like for a child who grows up and doesn’t feel like they fit in, and they kind of have that push and pull of trying to make themselves conform, because that’s what seems like the appropriate thing to do to be accepted. The reality is the things that we often get – may be bullied or pointed out when we’re young – you know for me was that I always talk too much and that I was really, really short and that I could never sit still and now I make my career from being a small person running through the desert and talking about it. So, being able to shift our mindset from a young age that what makes us stand out and potentially be ostracized as a kid actually can be what makes you incredibly strong and stand out when you get older. So that’s just a couple of things that I’m doing.
[29:45] Ray: Fantastic, Sam, all the best for those projects and for the future and thank you for joining us on the Performance Leaders podcast.
Samantha: Thanks so much, Ray.