Pursuit: Running man

Ultra marathoner Ray Zahab conquers deserts, swamps and jungles to complete some of the world’s toughest races on time — and stay alive.

Imagine you’re in the Ténéré desert in central Niger, running through a sandstorm that’s been blowing three weeks straight. Your skin is actually being sandblasted away bit by bit. Chronic tendonitis in your legs makes it feel like someone is stabbing a knife into your shins with each and every step. Then your support crew’s Land Rover disappears, its tracks quickly obliterated by the shimmering dust. For a few terrifying moments, it’s just you, the wind and the sand for a thousand kilometres in any direction.

That’s when most of us wake up. But the nightmare was all too real for Ray Zahab last winter. From November 2006 to February 2007, the Chelsea, Que., ultramarathoner ran the entire breadth of the Sahara. That’s 7,000 km in 111 days, the equivalent of running more than two marathons a day. According to National Geographic, which ran a website following the expedition, such a run was an unprecedented feat of human endurance—which is a big part of why Zahab wanted to do it in the first place. “It was the most difficult and challenging thing I’ve ever done,” says Zahab, sitting in a packed bar in Ottawa’s Byward Market, a broad grin splitting his deeply tanned face. “Maybe also the craziest.”

Slight, wiry and of average height, Zahab taps his feet constantly. He exudes coiled energy. It’s as if his body is anticipating its next big test. (This past August, he ran the Three Trails Challenge—400 km of trails along Canada’s east, north and west coasts.) Like most ultramarathoners, he isn’t the fastest of runners—he estimates he’d run a standard 42-kilometre marathon in slightly under three hours. The difference is his capacity for endurance. That’s what allowed Zahab and his two teammates, American Charlie Engle and Kevin Lin of Taiwan, to run through sand up to their ankles in Saharan 45-degree heat, fighting diarrhea, a near complete loss of appetite, and the brain-numbing monotony of running 70 to 80 km a day.

That Zahab runs marathons at all is a marvel. Eight years ago, a 30-year-old Zahab was racing and training horses, living at his parents’ place in Kanata, Ont., and drinking and smoking heavily. “I really wasn’t happy with my life,” he recalls. “I couldn’t control other things, but I decided I sure as hell could control my body,” he says. “So, I quit smoking.” And then he hit the hills. In the summer of 2000, Zahab tackled serious mountain biking just north of Ottawa in Gatineau Park—with disastrous results. “I pushed my bike up all the hills,” he recalls. Abashed, Zahab started training five hours a week on the bike, gradually increasing the intensity as his fitness improved. He began competing in races, but still wasn’t satisfied. Then, in December 2003, he read about the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a particularly crazy-sounding foot race through the territory. “It was 160 K over frozen ground, frozen rivers, snow and rugged terrain, dragging a sled,” he says. “I was like, ‘I gotta try this.’” He swapped biking for running, trained a couple of months—and came in first. “When I won, I decided, maybe this is what I could do. And when I get into things,” he says, “I really get into them.”

Since then, Zahab has raced through snake-infested jungle swamps in the Amazon (“mud up to my chest and things slithering past my legs”), across Morocco in the Marathon des Sables (the equivalent of racing six standard marathons back to back), and through China’s Gobi desert. Of the 10 ultras he’s tried in the past four years, he’s won five.

Zahab’s success rate makes running these races look easy. It’s not. In the Libyan Challenge, for example, more racers drop out than complete the course on time. Zahab’s own moment of reckoning came during the ominously titled Bad Water race through California’s Death Valley in July 2005. One-third of the way in, he was flat on his back, his body dehydrated beyond recovery. “Bad Water was my fault,” he says now. “I just didn’t drink enough.” Taking his failure as a challenge, he started planning his water and sodium intake more carefully—and handily won the next three ultras he entered. The wins gave Zahab the confidence to tackle his ultimate goal: running the entire breadth of the Sahara desert.

But running the Sahara wasn’t just about testing the outer limits of human endurance. With a documentary crew from LivePlanet and the Independent Producers’ Alliance alongside, the idea was to boost awareness about the region’s lack of clean water, and raise funds for, a water charity. (The documentary, narrated by Matt Damon and directed by Academy Award winner James Moll, was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.)

The team started on Nov. 2, on the coast of Senegal. Zahab recalls the first 30 klicks as “sheer pain; unbelievably hot.” Running at night, they encountered wild warthogs—“grunting, evil-looking wild pigs with big tusks.” As they headed through Nema in Mauritania, to Timbuktu in Mali, the rocky terrain gave way to sand and Zahab saw “camels and people drinking and pooping in the same well of water.” The Ténéré desert was next, then Libya, which he says has surprisingly excellent infrastructure, roads, and power lines and industry, a huge contrast compared to impoverished countries nearby.

A typical running day started at 4 a.m., pulling on specially designed jerseys and shorts that wick away sweat, then covering their shoes with silk to keep outthe sand. “I learned that trick the hard way,” Zahab says. “After my first Sahara race, my feet were like roast beef.” They would run from 5 a.m. to noon, take a break for a few hours, and then start up again to see how much more distance they could cover. The support crew—including a doctor, a physiotherapist and a local guide—trailed them with food (rice, pasta and bread) and equipment.

The hardest thing to deal with, says Zahab, was the monotony. “I’d play my iPod at top volume,” says Zahab. “Or I’d imagine myself back home with my wife, Kathy.” Toward the end, he stopped eating. “It was a race against time to get to the finish in Egypt, before my body gave out completely.”

Now back home, Zahab is writing a book about the experience, tackling charity work and the motivational speaker circuit. In between gigs, he trains by dragging a tire to simulate the muscle fatigue caused by the resistance of running on sand. After sessions with clients in the Ottawa area, he often runs home, according to his wife. And he swears by simple dicta. “Racing is 90% mental—and the other 10% is all in your head,” he says. “The most important thing is to make the decision to run, and then go do it.” Rachel Pulfer