Ray Zahab, a former “pack-a-day smoker” turned adventure racer and youth advocate, is perhaps best known for running across the Sahara Desert in 2006 with Charlie Engle and Kevin Lin—a journey chronicled in the film Running the Sahara. Since then, he’s completed countless adventure runs and founded impossible2Possible (i2P), an organization that aims to inspire and educate youth through adventure learning, inclusion and participation in expeditions.
Zahab took a few minutes to share his thoughts on adventure running and advice for preparing for stage races like the Grand to Grand Ultra:
Many people start with ultras and then become interested in stage races. What drew you to adventure racing from the beginning?
I was intrigued by the idea of going places I thought I’d never be able to see. When I was still new to running, I read a magazine article about the Yukon Arctic Ultra (160km) and immediately started training. It was my first race so I was nervous about the distance, but I was always driven by the place and the adventure.
That race taught me the beauty of ultrarunning—we are truly able to push ourselves beyond any limits we thought possible. Average, everyday people can will themselves to do incredible things and maybe not always complete them, but at least attempt.
When I was 15, I was the last kid picked to do anything and I never saw myself as athletic. I barely graduated high school and didn’t finish community college. When I was running the Sahara, which was 40 miles a day for 111 days, all of a sudden I realized running was teaching me things and allowing me to discover the world. I was amazed at how much I could learn from running, and that I did have the capacity to learn if I wanted to. That experience formed my passion for learning through adventure running and the desire to give other youth that same opportunity with Impossible2Possible.
What are the main differences you see between training for a multi-day race and a regular race?
When you’re training for stage races, you have to consider that you’ll be carrying a week’s worth of supplies in your backpack. In the months leading up to training, you can just train with your pack during your weekend long runs; you want the body to adapt slowly. But as you get closer to race day, you’ll want to wear your pack on most all your training runs. The second piece—almost as important—is that you’re going to wake up and run multiple days, back to back. It’s fatiguing. Prepare for both of those.
What advice do you have for finding a good pack?
Select a pack you like and that fits your body well. If you’re saving three ounces but it doesn’t fit your body, you’re going to be in a lot of pain. If you’re just starting out with stage races, I’d recommend a 25-30-liter pack. Someone who’s really experienced might be able to get away with 20 liters or less.
How do you prepare for weather or terrain extremes (desert, heat, altitude, etc.) that don’t exist where you do your primary base training?
The very best way to prepare for adverse conditions is to actually run in those conditions. An ideal scenario is to have your own mini training camp in some place that mimics the environment you’re going to race in, but for most of us additional travel is just not an option. So for a desert race, you can go running on a sandy beach, snow, or loose terrain to get practice on that unstable surface. Combining that with functional strength exercises will really help.
As far as the heat, sauna training will at least give you a ‘feel’ for what it’s going to be like. The most important aspect of being heat prepared is your body’s ability to process fluids and food while running in the heat. So, in the sauna, try consuming your hydration fluids and get your body used to processing fuel in the heat.
All these exercises will really help, but they are investments in time. Remember that your body is amazing at adapting and you will adapt over the stages.
Let’s talk gear. What are some weight-shaving tips?
Take care of your food first, then consider what you can cut from your gear. Choosing lightweight gear is more important than eliminating calories. For a seven-day race I’ll take about 17,000 calories. So find ways to cut weight by cutting tags, anything you can do to make your gear lighter. Food can be repackaged in Ziploc bags to make it lighter. Choose dehydrated foods—but choose ones you like. Taking lightweight food that you’re not going to eat doesn’t help at all.
Speaking of food, what is your favorite treat out there?
My #1 must-have is coffee. I use the Starbucks Via packets.
And what about key products that you rely on nutritionally?
I love Artisana nut butters, like their macadamia nut butter. In colder climates where it stays solid, I add coconut oil to everything. I’ll scoop out a chunk and add it to all my meals for an extra hit of quality calories. Plus, I salt all my food. It’s a small thing, but it really helps with your capacity to stay hydrated.
Do you use any traditional energy fuels?
I use about one gel a day. I can’t stand overly sweet food or drinks. I actually even make my own homemade ‘energy drink,’ mixing a combination of electrolytes, Emergen-C and maple syrup with water. Before an expedition I boil down pure Canadian maple syrup until it’s condensed into a solid hockey puck, then I just shave off slivers and add it to my water.
What about coming back from an adventure … do you have a favorite thing to look forward to?
Salmon, broccoli and potatoes.
Wow, no hesitation there. Not a shower or a beer or something less healthy?
Well as soon as we’re done, sure, a beer … and I love to eat local. I really like to experience the traditional food of wherever we’re visiting, but as soon as I’m home the first meal is always salmon, broccoli and potatoes.
Beyond the required gear on stage race checklists, what are three things you recommend every runner consider taking along?
A camera. Even if it’s the smallest camera possible, you’ll want one because it’ll be beautiful out there and you’ll want to share that with people. Some kind of anti-chafe is really important, too; you never know when you get in the dry stuff and the wheels come off. The last thing would be a spare pair of socks. If you get a blister, changing socks can adjust the position of your foot in the shoe; changing the friction point can make a huge difference.
Small decisions like how many socks become a big dilemma during final packing. How many do you personally take?
For a week, I’ll take two pairs: a pair of Injinji toesocks and a back-up pair.
That is minimal. What about other ‘optional essentials’ like a sleeping pad? Do you use one?
I do, but to keep it light, I make my own out of foam, cutting out any parts that don’t touch the body.
You seem well versed in do-it-yourself adaptations; any other MacGyver recommendations?
In case my pack breaks, I always bring an emergency fix kit. I make a cardboard tube out of a toilet paper roll, about the width of a pencil, and put some sewing needles inside, seal it with Duct tape and wrap it in fishing line to use as thread. Simple, but it comes in handy.
That’s a great tip. Any other pro-advice for first-time stage racers?
If your goal isn’t to win, take your time to really enjoy the surroundings. You’re probably going to be in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. In the case of the Grand to Grand, the people of Kanab are incredible—so take time on either end of the race to enjoy the town itself and the locals.