A former “pack a day smoker,” Ray Zahab ran across the Sahara Desert in 111 days; he ran the three coastal trails of Canada, covering 400 kilometres; he and two others broke the world speed record for an unsupported expedition by a team to the South Pole; he ran 1,200 kilometres in 20 days in the Atacama Desert; and in 2013, he took on his most grueling journey yet when he ran over 2,000 kilometres to cross Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. The founder of impossible2Possible, an organization that inspires and educates youth through adventure learning, and the host of television’s The Project, Ray’s high energy and visually stunning presentations showcase his challenging adventures, focus on his philanthropic endeavours, and–most importantly—relay that the impossible is possible. The Ottawa Citizen spoke to Ray about his new television adventure, To the Edge, a series that will draw on his many international experiences as a runner and air on Outside TV later this year in the USA:
Ray Zahab’s running adventures have taken him all over the world. He’s crossed the Sahara Desert once and Baffin Island four times. He’s led expeditions through the Atacama Desert and down to the South Pole. Last month, just for fun, he and his wife Kathy ran from the north rim down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up to the top of the southern edge. The next morning they ran the same route in reverse.
There is, it seems, no place on the planet that Zahab wouldn’t run. But where he most loves to train is right next to his home in Chelsea, in Gatineau Park. On Aug. 23 and 24, he’ll be joined on the park’s trails by about 150 other runners in the annual i2P Run, a fundraiser for his foundation, impossible2Possible.
The foundation is how Zahab has expanded his adventure running from a personal passion to a vocation. Zahab’s goal is to offer the lessons he learned on his first major expedition across the Sahara, seven years ago, to a generation of young runners and students.
Eleven years ago, Zahab had competed in mountain biking and adventure races, but he had never run a 10k race, let alone an ultramarathon. In the waiting room of his chiropractor’s office, he read a magazine article about the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a multi-day, 160-kilometre event the following year. He decided he had to enter it.
As a rookie racing against experienced, competitive ultra runners, he won the race. Over the next two years, Zahab went on to compete in 250k races in China, Morocco, Egypt and the Amazon and a 333-kilometre race in Niger.
His focus soon shifted from racing to seemingly impossible expeditions. When Zahab and two other men became the first to run across the Sahara in 2007, they became the focus of international attention. They were interviewed by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show and were the subjects of a documentary narrated by Matt Damon.
Zahab went on to set a world record for the fastest unsupported trek to the South Pole on foot in 2009, reaching the destination in 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes. And in 2011 he became the first person to cross the Atacama Desert from North to South on foot. He’s run in 40 different countries on six continents.
His remarkable achievements have launched a successful career as a public speaker. Zahab has given a TED talk and spoken at events all over the world, including symposiums sponsored by the Economist magazine and the World Affairs Council. In June, he spoke to the Taking IT Global conference in Hiroshima, Japan. Starting later this summer, he’ll be hosting To the Edge, a TV series that will draw on his many international experiences as a runner.
“Rather than being about running it’s about the people I meet,” he says. “When you run in these remote places, extraordinary things happen and you meet amazing people — people who live at the edges of the Earth.” The series will air on Outside TV in the U.S.
Zahab continues to seek out ambitious adventures and is currently working on the plans for his next solo expedition. He’s hoping to cross the Patagonia Desert in January 2015. Significant portions of the journey will be unsupported, meaning he’ll have to carry all of his supplies with him and will receive no help.
But his main passion has become sharing his love of running and exploring with young people. The inspiration for impossible2Possible came at the end of his Sahara run.
“When I reached the edge of the Red Sea, I realized two things,” says Zahab. “I realized I spent 111 days pushing myself but also learning about a part of the world I didn’t know. And I realized how much I learned about myself. I thought we needed to find a way that young people could experience their own version of running the Sahara.”
Zahab has led nine youth expeditions in the last six years, taking about 50 young men and women aged 16 to 21 to places all over the world, including Northern India, Bolivia, the Amazon Jungle and the Canadian Arctic. The youth ambassadors, as Zahab calls them, run about a marathon a day for a week to 10 days and share their experiences with thousands of students following along over the Internet.
“This really is 21st century learning,” says Zahab. “We take these kids on an incredible expedition that they need to prepare for in advance. And we offer a very specific curriculum to them. We’re really trying to push the limits of what experiential learning is all about. And because of the foundation, it’s all free for the participants.”
Indeed, all the proceeds from the i2P Run will support the youth who will run on future expeditions with Zahab. The event includes a 100k race stretched over two days, a 50k ultra marathon and trail races of 38k, 23k and 15k. The event is intended to be for people of all abilities and experience levels.
“Some people will be experienced trail runners and some will be doing their first trail run,” says Zahab. “The idea is to help people get to know Gatineau Park and have an adventure of their own.”