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Ray Zahab crossed the Sahara to see if he could, but 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 his non-profit organization. (HANDOUT)
Ray Zahab crossed the Sahara to see if he could, but 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 his non-profit organization. (HANDOUT)

human endurance

Canadian runner embarks on a daring adventure of mind, body and spirit Add to ...

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.”

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