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."
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.
To get to this point, he's undergone an intensive year-long training program. During the week he devoted himself to speed, power and strength training, then runs 40 to 50 kilometres on Saturdays and Sundays. He also got away last September for a multiday training trip through the spectacular Akshayuk Pass on Baffin Island to substitute for the rocky terrain of the Gobi.
Zahab has also prepared himself to process tremendous amounts of calories and fluids. During the run, he'll consume 5,000 calories a day and burn off 7,000, and expects to shed about 25 of his 153 pounds. For supplements, he packs drink mixes, vitamins, coconut oil and nut butters. The crew will bring water from Ulan Bator, then filter from streams and draw from wells as they travel.
He and his crew have worked hard to reduce their baggage to a minimum – one duffel bag each. Zahab has only packed three or four running shirts and pairs of shorts. The stench of unwashed, sweaty humans will get "disgusting," Zahab says. "You can't imagine. It all goes in the garbage in the end."
Shoes are one thing Zahab doesn't skimp on. He packed 25 pairs for the Sahara trip and ruined most of them. During the Atacama trip, he developed a rare blister, which became badly infected. He cut his shoe in half, duct-taped the upper part "and made it into a clown shoe" and ran like that for three or four days until the pain and swelling eased. For the Gobi trip, he'll bring 15 pairs made by new sponsor Inov-8.
Zahab will run through pain but tries to make things as easy as possible. The runners lighten their backpacks by sharing emergency gear. They carry bivy sacks (a lightweight cross between a tent and sleeping bag), 2,000 calories of food, compass, map and hydration formula. Water weighs them down the most. Zahab will start with six litres, reducing to two litres every 40 kilometres as his body adapts to the conditions.
Running is the simplest of sports, but impressive technology aids the expedition. Zahab will carry an iPhone that doubles as a GPS, tracking device and emergency beacon, and also a satellite communicator. The vehicles are equipped with portable solar generators to charge the devices and light the campsite.
Each morning the runners will rise at 5:30, eat, prepare their bottles and packs and head out by 6:30. The goal is to run for four to five hours while the vehicles race ahead, leaving a full water bladder for the runners to pick up. They then run for another four to nine hours, depending on conditions. They expect to encounter a handful of communities and nomads, and will distribute educational materials on behalf of the Nature Conservancy. Zahab is excited about a detour to see the Flaming Cliffs, a paleontologist's paradise where the first dinosaur eggs were discovered.
The crew faces one logistical headache: the preferred crossing point into China is a two-day drive from the nearest official border post. Unless they get state approval to keep running straight, they'll have to stop at the border, plant a flag and drive four days just to return to the same spot on the Chinese side to carry on. Zahab isn't hopeful: "Chances of [being able to run straight through] that are almost zero."
Zahab will film most of his interactions with people he encounters and create videos about the campsite and the food they eat, editing and uploading footage at night to his website (gobi2013.com). He'll blog and tweet to bring viewers along on the expedition – a kind of Chris Hadfield in running shoes.
"Chris Hadfield is brilliant in what he did," Zahab says of the Canadian astronaut who recently returned to Earth after commanding the International Space Station. "He spoke to people in terms of the things they want to know. It's what we've been doing with i2P for a long time."
Zahab is already thinking of future expeditions: the Arabian Desert, Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and the Ho Chi Minh Trail beckon. But he also wants to limit future journeys to 20 days so he isn't away from his wife and two young daughters so long.
"Kathy and I are raising our girls to know they can do absolutely anything they set their minds to," he says. Recently, their 5-year-old, Mia, who loves to run, went tearing around a local trail saying "I can't stop, I can't stop,'" Adams recalls. "She says, 'I picked a target, can't stop, I gotta get there.'"
Adams laughs, as if to say "You know where she gets that from."