The multifarious shades of India can only be seen if you travel by road, across its colourful and shape-shifting landscape, where, within a span of a few hundred kilometres, barren stretches of the desert give way to lush green fields which in turn lead you to highways and urbanised spaces. The sights are worth experiencing. But in the headlong rush of the speedway, you’re not likely to get the chance to stop and relish this beauty. So the only alternative, for someone who wishes to truly engage with the landscape of this country, is to walk or run across India — as crazy as that sounds.

The 31-year-old Australian national Samantha Gash, a lawyer turned athlete and social entrepreneur, recently achieved the astonishing feat of running across the breadth of the country — all the way from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan to Shillong in Meghalaya, spanning a total distance of some 3,000 kilometres, across 12 states. This “ultra marathon” was among the first of its kind to have been held in India and among the most challenging that Gash had ever undertaken in her career as a marathoner. Her journey began on 22 August this year, ending 12 weeks later on 5 November. And it was done for a cause.

 “I don’t see myself as a career marathon runner,” Gash says. “It is what I do to try to make an impact. So I see myself more as an advocate of social change rather than a marathon runner.” This particular run, she tells us, was undertaken as a means to raise awareness of the need for basic education in India. Gash says: “I was chatting with my Indian friends and I started discussing the challenges that Indians and specifically Indian children face in this regard. We also discussed the adventurous pursuits that had been undertaken in India and I was told that the route from the Rajasthan desert in the West to the mountains of India in the East had not been explored on foot. So I told my friend, one day I would run across this route and link it to a social impact project specific to India.”  

Gash passing through Delhi on her ultra marathon.

Part of the Run India Campaign, organised by  World Vision Area project, this 3,000km run — beginning at one of the most arid deserts in Jaisalmer and culminating in one of the wettest regions in the world, namely Shillong — wasn’t the first of Gash’s Indian adventures though. In 2011, she had completed a 222km nonstop run in the Himalayas, which is considered the highest ultra marathon on the planet, and it was here that she decided to commit her whole life to “running for change”.

Yet running an ultra marathon poses risks and difficulties that are more immediate than social issues. Gash says, “I was challenged with everything from stomach illness, injuries to dehydration. I expected my body would go through a significant adaptation period early. It is not particularly normal to push your body in this way in those types of extreme conditions that I faced in the Rajasthan desert. Because I had prepared myself for this, I was able to retain my mental balance. I had the patience to let my body go through whatever it was going through.”

“I was running on the road and had a lot more connection with the people, unlike during my runs in the Simpson Desert and South Africa, where I was running in isolation. I also came face to face with what I was trying to change whenever I stopped at a World Vision Project camp,” she says. It was, overall, an enriching experience and, Gash believes, a meaningful one. 
 

Acclimatising to the climate here — which itself would rapidly change during the course of her journey — was among the big difficulties of the run. Gash says, “The conditions were difficult at times, but I was prepared and I had a good team around me. It was very humid at the start in the desert as they had a late monsoon; it was chilly in the foothills of the Himalayas; and the jungle and mountains in the end were quite humid again. I’ve just learnt over the years that you need to be able to adapt quickly to the climate in order to get to the end. I tried to adapt to Indian cuisine, too, as this was going to be a long project. I brought some creature comforts from home like avocados and chocolate, which I rationed to myself.”

Still, the trickiest part of the journey came when Gash had to continue her run alongside vehicles belting down national highways. “Running on the roads and beside the traffic, as well as getting my head around the changing cultures across the country was the trickiest bit,” she says.

Throughout her journey, Gash was driven primarily by one thought — of never giving up. “I never thought I would give up. I knew it would be hard but never contemplated giving up. There are a lot of things you can do before you give up. I explored many of those options but giving up was so far at the bottom of those options, it was always in my mind that I would finish,” she says. 
Prior to her latest endeavour, Gash had gained significant experience as an international marathoner, having previously run across Australia’s Simpson Desert in 2012 and across South Africa in 2014. But her recent run across India had little in common with those earlier expeditions. She says that, throughout her 3,000km journey here, she felt more connected, not only with the landscape but also with the people inhabiting it. “In India,” Gash says, “I was running on the road and had a lot more connection with the people, unlike during my runs in the Simpson Desert and South Africa, where I was running in isolation. I also came face to face with what I was trying to change whenever I stopped at a World Vision Project camp,” she says. It was, overall, an enriching experience and, Gash believes, a meaningful one.

Samantha Gash

Communicating with the locals was also an essential part of her expedition. She says, “I had a great team who helped me communicate with the locals and of course the World Vision team helped me with my visits to the development projects. Run India was definitely a team effort and I am so grateful that the team I had backed me every day.” 
Now that she’s to her home in Melbourne, Australia, she recollects not the gruelling challenges of her India marathon, but only the beautiful memories. She remembers most fondly the Himalayan leg of her journey: “The landscape was incredible, the energy of the people and how I personally felt completely shifted from the mental and physical harshness of the central Indian plains.”

Gash believes that every journey changes the person undertaking it and the same thing happened to her after her 3,000km run. “My mind is still pretty overwhelmed,” she writes from Melbourne. “Now that I have returned back to Australia I can’t wait to have some time to reflect on everything we saw and did in those 77 days. There is a lot, so it will take some time.” 

 

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