Ultra Women: Running for Social Change

28th October 2014

By David Jones

Photos courtesy of Max Beauchamp.

Imagine running for more than 2,000 km over 32 straight days, up to 80 km every day, through every type of terrain and weather condition imaginable, and often through areas that are considered dangerous enough for you to need an armed security guard running, riding or driving by your side. Then, when you get past most people's first reaction of "you're joking, right?" consider what it would take to get your mind and body ready for such a feat of endurance.

For Sam Gash* (30) and Mimi Anderson (53), what is incomprehensible to many of us is now another very impressive line in their ultrarunning resumes, having completed this run across South Africa's Freedom Trail in the last weekend of October.  Between them they had previously run across the driest, windiest, hottest and coldest deserts on earth, over mountains in the Alps and the Himalayas, unsupported for 560 km across the Arctic (Mimi) and non-stop for 379 km across Australia's Simpson Desert (Sam).

Both women therefore knew a lot about the sort of preparation they would need to go through for this run.  They knew that it would be as much about the strength of their minds as their bodies. They knew that there would be low moments when their stomach would reject any sort of food, the muscles in their legs would cramp and the pain in their feet would become unbearable…followed by highs and a feeling of absolutely invincibility which would be impossible to put into words afterwards.

Long runs, stairs, soft sand and strength training are the foundations of every ultrarunner's training program.  But even more importantly this sort of distance requires practical, first-hand experience.  You need "time on your feet" to work out how your body reacts when you keep running for 12 hours at a time.  You need to push through those low moments while you wait for the highs.  You need to work yourself to absolute exhaustion, go back out and run 20 km as hard as you can.  Then get up the next day and do it all over again.

We all know that nutrition is key to a successful training program.  For ultrarunning it is integral to the sport itself, a highly complicated science of sweat rates, lean muscle mass and glycemic indexes aimed at getting as many carbohydrates into your system as you can absorb, to try and offset those you are expending.  Sam and Mimi needed to understand their bodies for this run better than they ever had before, and knew that they would also need a world class support crew - the secret ingredient for any ultrarunner.  People who can make sure you are eating and drinking the right amounts, who can meet you in remote terrain and make you laugh when all you want to do is cry, and even people who can undertake a bit of dry-needling in the back of a support vehicle (yes, that was needed) to fix locked up muscles.

It wasn't just natural talent and the detailed preparation and support that kept Sam and Mimi going on this occasion though.  A couple of years ago, they had discovered that in South Africa, 60% of women don't have access to normal hygiene products.  Commercially produced sanitary pads cost more than the daily income of most working parents in Africa, and as a result 1 in 10 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 miss out on up to 8 weeks of school each year due to their periods.  Many girls drop of out school completely, depriving generations of women of the opportunities that Sam and Mimi (and pretty much everyone reading this) take for granted.

So, it was with a goal of establishing a Social Enterprise Business that would employ and ultimately be run by local African women to make affordable hygiene products, that Sam and Mimi founded Freedom Runners (http://www.freedomrunners.org).  Aiming to raise awareness and $50,000 to fund the first year of operations, (after which the business should be self-sustaining) Sam and Mimi set out on what was to be a life-changing run for social change, and in doing so have given us a demonstration of the absolutely incredible feats of endurance that the human mind and body is capable of.

Donations to this very worthy cause are still being sought and can be made directly via the website link given above. The Social Enterprise Business is going to be initially established and supported by Save the Children.

*In 2012 we interviewed Sam Gash just after she had completed La Ultra: The High, one of the toughest ultras in the world. To learn more about her, check out her profile at http://jockathletic.com/magazine/meet-samantha-gash

David Jones is a Corporate Lawyer and Ultrarunning Junkie. For his professional bio see http://www.bakermckenzie.com/DavidJones/