I was asked recently by a well-intentioned stranger why and how I decided to get into ultra trail running. I gave her the stock standard reply of “I started small, got to the marathon, couldn’t get any faster, so went longer”. She seemed happy with that and we both went about the business.
It wasn’t until I walked away from that woman that I thought, why on earth did I think running in the bush all day was a good idea? I always hated the bush. I’m not a bush person. I’m a never go out of range of decent WIFI person.
As I drove home, I tracked it back to a documentary I stumbled upon towards the end of 2014, maybe early 2015, ‘Desert Runners’. I don’t recall how exactly I came across it, but I do remember that it took ages to figure out how to download and watch it (yes kids, there was no Netflix or Stan or any of that jazz in 2014, we were still buying Breaking Bad as a DVD box set!).
I was completely enamered by the tenacity of the little (in height only) Samantha. I found her so courageous and determined even when she didn’t exactly fit the profile of the other people in the event. This sparked something in me.
I’d run a couple of road marathons at this stage and when I came across the Mt Macedon 50k, I signed up. Ok so I’d never done a trail race before, I didn’t even remember ever going to Mt Macedon before (I know my inner proud Victorian wants to smack me too!) but my other half was away with his buddies in the bush so there was no one to talk me out of it or tell me I couldn’t. Don’t ask me where I got the shoes or the running vest from, I don’t remember buying them, but it was safe to say I was completely unprepared for the day long adventure.
On the 31st of May 2015, I posted on Instagram “Hardest thing I have ever done, first ever trail run, 50km up and down Mt Macedon in torrential rain for 9 hours and 26 minutes. Face planted in the mud more that ones, slid on my arse a few times too. There is defintely no mountain goat in my DNA. No Garmin data as the battery only lasts 8 hours but hows the nerve of my vivofit telling me to move with 72,000 steps on the clock” with a picture of the two Garmins I was wearing (because my running watch didn’t do steps at the time, so I needed one to track my steps and one for running, duh!). What I didn’t post is the swollen and black toenails and the epic red raw chafe around my entire mid section.
The comments on that post highlighted that I wasn’t the only one surprised I had ventured out into the bush. “That’s awesome”, “tough day”, “You’re a star”, “Superstar”, “Bummer about your Garmin dying on you”.
I learnt so much on that first adventure, and it really was an adventure. The mud was ridiculous, my shoes and general kit was ridiculous. At one point I was trying to get up a short steep hill, the mud was so thick and slippery that people were holding on to small thin trees up the side of the trail to get support. Of course I slipped, hands and face first into the mud, and started sliding backwards, filling the beanie in my hand with mud. It felt like such a long way, I felt completely out of my depth and like I had no business being there.
With about 10km to go and with no chance of making the cut off, I met three other people who were hiking it in. Struggling, praying for the bloody thing, that we all paid for, to be over. We talked, we walked, we laughed as we slipped in the mud. I’d never done anything like this in any other running race. I was always obsessed with what other people thought of me and the time that I was going to finish in. I would never have considered stopping to wait for another competitor to get through a tough section in the past, but we were doing it together. Overall it was a brutal but clearly formative experience, I have kept going back.
I had another go at the Ultra distance almost 12 months later at the Maroondah Dam 50k. It was memorable on many fronts. I don’t remember exactly what I said when I got on the phone after I finally crossed the finish line but it might have been “I got super lost, I just made the cut off and I saw Samantha Gash!”.
I don’t think I saw her again after that. She was off running across countries and raising a bucket of money for educational charities but I have followed and been inspired her adventures online, mostly through her Instagram and now through her new podcast. But I have continued to run in the trail and ultra space and I have made so many friends and achieved more than I ever thought I could.
So thank you Samantha Gash for having the ovaries to challenge yourself, to prove something to yourself and to the people who doubted you. Thank you for being you and showing us that we can do extraordinary things too, if we are willing to put in the work and stay the course.