This weekend Ray Zahab sets out on one incredible journey. Starting from the northeastern edge of the Gobi Desert, the 44-year-old athlete from Chelsea, Que., aims to run an average of 70 to 80 kilometres each day – the equivalent of almost two marathons – day after day for more than a month, as he crosses the desolate landscape from Mongolia into China.
“I think this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve done since the Sahara,” Zahab says. He is actually talking about the entire Sahara Desert.
Six years ago, Zahab, along with running partner Kevin Lin of Taiwan and a third runner, completed a 7,500-kilometre, 111-day trip across the Sahara, an odyssey of endurance captured in the documentary Running the Sahara.
“I’m in great physical shape, but that means nothing. I’ve been in great physical shape before and then things go off the rails. So I just roll with it.”
In an era where pursuits such as climbing Mount Everest or biking across the country have become increasingly common and the “ultramarathon” has replaced the marathon as the pinnacle of running achievement, Zahab’s epic expeditions across the world’s most inhospitable places set him apart. In recent years he has run across South America’s Atacama Desert, Death Valley National Park and trekked to the South Pole, setting a world speed record with two other adventurers.
“People question whether the distances I run are healthy for the human body,” he says. “I don’t approach running with this mindset of injury, but with a mindset that running is good for me and something I enjoy.”
The challenges of the 2,300-kilometre Gobi trip are unimaginable for most: searing heat, sandstorms and severe winds coming down the Altai Mountains.
Zahab crossed the Sahara to see if he could, but now his goal is to build on a message he’s spread to thousands of young people since. “I want others to realize they can do their own version of the extraordinary in their own lives,” he says.
Through his non-profit organization, impossible2Possible (i2P), groups of students have accompanied him and others over the past four years on multiday expeditions into some of the world’s most extreme places, and reporting their journeys online.
“I’m driven by something more than the challenge, which of course I love, but it’s become about i2P,” Zahab says. The Gobi run is about the chance to meet nomads, learn about one of the world’s most rapidly expanding deserts and collect educational content for i2P. “All these other things totally usurp my desire to get across the entire Gobi Desert.”
A life changed
Zahab has come a long way. Growing up in rural Carp, Ont., west of Ottawa, he was a poor student and the last kid picked for team sports. After dropping out of college he worked as a horse trainer and spent his 20s in aimless and sometimes reckless pursuits: drag-racing, excessive drinking and impaired driving. He was “broke, bored and unhappy,” he wrote in his 2007 autobiography, Running For My Life. “My life ... was like one big ‘so what?’”
Inspired by his younger brother John, who had quit smoking and taken up adventure sports, Zahab kicked his pack-a-day habit on the last day of 1999 and never looked back. He became a personal trainer and entered adventure- and mountain-biking races, barely scraping by financially but feeling reborn as he got into shape.
One day in December of 2003 he picked up a magazine in his chiropractor’s office and read about the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 160-kilometre multiday race through sub-zero conditions. He was in awe – and decided to enter. Three months later, he won. Zahab realized that with the right training he had the stamina and will to succeed in ultra-marathon races – races longer than standard 42-kilometre marathons and often in extreme conditions. “I say it’s 90-per-cent mental, and the rest is in your head,” he says, repeating his well-worn mantra.
His brother John, a strength and conditioning coach for athletes and himself an ultramarathon runner, says, “A lot of people say, ‘You guys are genetically gifted.’ I disagree. He trains hard and does all the physical work he needs to prepare. He treats it as his job. He has a capacity to persevere when things get difficult.”
In the next two years, Zahab won four other 200-km-plus, multiday races either individually or as part of a team, in African and Asian deserts and the Amazon jungle. He survived sandstorms, close encounters with poisonous snakes, parasites, as well as infections, chafed legs and dehydration.
Entranced by the Sahara during one of the races, he decided he wanted to cross the whole thing, a gruelling trip he made in early 2007.
Zahab says the expedition changed him. He encountered extreme poverty and witnessed the acute water-access challenges the locals had. He hasn’t competed in another ultra competition since. “When we reached the Red Sea [at the end] it was a given that everything I would do after that would have different reasons and motivations. It was no longer about trying to be the best. It was about what we were learning as we were making our way. There was so much more to this, and I just wanted to recreate this for young people.”