Pushing the limits
Earlier this month, Zahab was speaking to a group when he was asked by someone training to run five kilometres for the first time what it was like to reach the Red Sea. “I said, ‘I felt the same way that I felt the first day that I ran five kilometres without having to take a walking break,’” Zahab recalls. “I’ll never forget how gratifying and confidence-building it was.”
Zahab has a knack for translating his incredible experiences into something even the novice runner can relate to: the notion that starting out can be difficult and discouraging, even for the most accomplished runner, but soon overcome. Having discovered in his mid-30s he had immense athletic ability and inner strength, Zahab is on a mission to reach out to younger people and show them the benefits of pushing beyond their perceived physical limits. It’s as though he’s searching for himself at that age, willing for that young man not to waste precious years as he did.
The charity he founded, impossible2Possible, uses adventure to educate, inspire and empower young people: i2P has organized expeditions Zahab describes as “scaled” versions of his Sahara trek, to regions such as the Thar Desert in India and the Amazon jungle.
Each expedition features a team of “youth ambassadors” who are selected and put on a 16-week training program developed by John Zahab to build their strength, mobility and running conditioning. They need it: during this past spring’s trip to southern Utah, five youth ambassadors ran an average of 30-plus kilometres a day over the eight-day journey.
“I was in no way any kind of ultramarathoner before this,” says Emma Morley, a 21-year-old third-year science student at Utah’s Brigham Young University chosen as a youth ambassador for the Utah trip. “But we were all able to push past physical and mental limits.”
Zahab’s youth ambassadors are more than athletes: they are stars in an educational online reality show. After a day of running and learning about the natural environment, they present their findings in videos posted online. As many as 10,000 students at roughly 100 participating schools across North America tune in and take part in live Internet chats with the youth ambassadors each day of the trip.
The organization depends on corporate donors and an extensive volunteer support (i2P has one staffer and does not pay Zahab) to keep participation free for schools and students. On the Utah expedition alone, a support group of 13 adults including doctors, scientists and educators came along. The curriculum was developed by faculty at Simon Fraser University.
Involvement with i2P has further positive effects on participating schools: at Oak-Land Junior High in Stillwater, Minn., nearly half the student body of 800 kids recently participated in a five-kilometre physical-activity challenge. Adriana Rossi, a teacher at D’Arcy McGee High School in Gatineau (who, like husband Brad Smith, volunteers for i2P), says students inspired by the Amazon expedition picked trash in a nearby forest while a further group of 200 students planted trees.
“Non-traditional, experiential learning adds a whole level of cool to it, and that keeps people engaged and involved,” says Smith, an executive with Canada Post. “It’s incredible to see what these kids are putting themselves through. Ray makes you feel like you’ve crossed your own Sahara Desert.”
“There’s no greater reward for all the things I do than being on one of those youth expeditions and seeing these kids doing what I do, and they’re just 18, 19 years old,” Zahab says. “They complete that expedition and they go home changed from it. That’s monumental to me.”
Sitting in Chelsea’s Les Saisons café earlier this month, Zahab looks less like one of the many elite athletes who call this forested community near Ottawa home than a downtown clubgoer, dressed in a blue v-neck T-shirt, jeans, a silver bracelet, funky titanium watch, flip-flops and a pair of white-framed sunglasses from Oakley (one of his sponsors) perched atop his head.
He is a chatty and animated presence, infectiously enthusiastic, and outgoing (he hosts an adventure-reality show airing this fall, The Project: Guatemala and makes part of his living as a corporate speaker).
“He’s pretty much on all the time,” says his wife Kathy, a distance runner who also volunteers for i2p. “He does switch off now and then, but it’s definitely [only] now and then.”
The long road
To get to his Gobi race, Zahab flew to t’s Friday June 14. In less than 72 hours Zahab will be on his way to Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, this week before taking a further two-day drive to the starting point in the desert with a small support crew.