ExWeb interview with Atacama Desert runner, Ray Zahab: I had two choices; keep going or stop. I chose to keep going

Posted: Feb 18, 2011 12:05 pm EST

His foot was so bloated that he had to cut open the shoe. Still, he kept running through it all: the changing terrain, the intense heat, and the 12 kg backpack.

Ray Zahab ran an average of 60 km per day for 20 consecutive days through the Atacama desert. Back home in Canada, he talked to ExWebs Correne Coetzer about the extreme jog, the recovery, and the lessons learned.

ExplorersWeb: How do you feel at the moment?

Ray: Tired!!! But very happy! I am totally pumped I made it - but most excited by the response we had from schools and students who I communicated with from the desert. They loved the Atacama and they are gearing up for our next Youth Expedition this May!

ExplorersWeb: After doing such a long run, how does your body react when you finally get into a bed and not up and running the next day?

Ray: I was asked the same question after I ran across the Sahara in 2006-7 (7500 km in 111 days), and to be honest, I assimilate right back into home life - especially sleep! My body seems to say thank you! Of course for a few days I do wake up thinking Omigosh - Im late starting todays run!!!

ExplorersWeb: Do you stop running for some time to recover, or how does your recovery program look like?

Ray: For recovery I typically take a few days off, then ease back into a light but fast running program so things dont get too tight. I emphasize core strength, and short runs at tempo pace.

ExplorersWeb: How is that blister doing?

Ray: The blister is doing great!!! Ironically, the only day I didnt have to bandage it was the last day...

ExplorersWeb: How on earth could you run with it? It must have felt like a knife cutting you?

Ray: The blister was very painful for the first few days after it got really bad, but we took as best care as we could including keeping it clean (there was infection, and the skin came off).

We cut the upper on my shoe in half and duct taped it so my swollen foot would fit, and then I ran! I knew in my mind that if I wasnt making it worse then I could mentally deal with the pain.

I know it sounds weird, but I told myself, you have 2 choices, keep going or stop. I chose to keep going, and on the second day after the blister I managed 70 km.

When the bandage was removed that night it didnt seem worse, so that gave me confidence. The most ironic thing about this crazy blister is that I rarely get them; so that threw a curve ball my way for sure!

ExplorersWeb: Have you lost a lot of weight? Do you crave any specific food? Were you hungry during your run?

Ray: I lost around 15 pounds during the expedition. My pack weight with Gatorade, water, gear and food was significant for me. I brought just what I needed in terms of food on the actual run with me and would consume that majority of my calories at night and in the morning before leaving. Lots of carbs, and fats.

I am always hungry, even while typing this I am dreaming of pizza, so thats something I was used to feeling!

ExplorersWeb: Your wife and daughter were your motivators during the run. Tell us a bit more please.

Ray: My family is always such an inspiration to me. My wife is one of the co-founders of impossible2Possible, and she is a great runner - and a super mom. She is always so supportive and even on my worst days I know when I call her on my sat phone she will pump me up with her words!

She is my best friend, and we support each other in our passions and get each others passions.

My daughter of course revved me up too! She LOVED the daily videos, and hearing her giggles at night had me in stitches!

ExplorersWeb: You had to make a quick mind change from running with Kevin who has gone through many tough expeditions with you, to suddenly starting without him. How did that affect you?

Ray: The commitment we made to our team in Chile, to the schools and students who were following and to our partners who make everything happen was so strong I felt we had no choice but to go for it and do the very best I could!

Thankfully I had my sat phone with me as part of my gear in my pack and I would call Kev from time to time in the desert. He is one of my best friends and just speaking with him was a boost for me.

ExplorersWeb: Lessons you have learned during the run?

Ray: Every expedition I do teaches me something.

I had originally planned on running an average of 70 km per day and finishing in 16 days. It took longer, was longer, and was overall much more difficult than I had anticipated.

In completing this project I was once again reminded that we ALL are capable of doing things we might not think we can - or are possible.

That is one of the primary objectives of impossible2Possible, to demonstrate to young people that they can achieve great things in their lives.

This May, an expedition will follow the Atacama Extreme in which 4 Youth Ambassadors will run an average of a marathon per day in a grueling desert environment, demonstrating to the thousands of students that they will communicate with that THEY are doing something very similar to what I did in the Atacama!!!

Of course there will also be a comprehensive Experiential Learning Program, including modules, live video, photos and video conferencing as well.... Stay turned to www.impossible2possible.com for more info!

ExplorersWeb: Anything else?

Ray: I would like to say thank you to everyone out there who followed along and sent messages to me while running in the desert. I received most of the messages in the last few days of the run, but the energy was felt throughout.

Also, if anyone is considering a visit to Chile, I would say please go! It is a magnificent country, and the people are so friendly. The Atacama is beautiful, but so is the entire country!

One last thing; this year (as last) there will be 2 Youth Expeditions. I am hoping everyone out there will follow along as these incredible Youth push themselves and inspire us all.

Note that there is no cost for schools to participate in any of the impossible2Possible programs including video conferencing, and Youth Ambassadors have no cost to participate in an impossible2Possible expedition.

Ray Zahab ran the length of the Atacama Desert from north to south, starting at the Peruvian border and ended at Copiapo, 90 km south of Inca de Oro. His run took place between January 23 and February 12, 2010. Ray covered a distance of 1200 km in 20 days, averaging 60 km per day.

The Atacama Extreme Runs support team was Javier Aguilera (Andes Expeditions), Cris Sieveking (Chilean running legend), Bob Cox (i2P Executive Director and co-founder). Bob and Cris sometimes ran sections with Ray.

Taking inspiration from the legendary ultra-running athletes called Chasquis, modern-day adventurer Ray Zahab tested himself on the trails of these highly trained athletes as he traverses the length of Chiles Atacama Desert. He carried a 12kg (25lb) backpack with all his gear/clothing/stove/tent to survive, and food and water (8-10 liters) for one day. Water/food drops will be available when a community or water source is not in the route. He had a GPS, topo map and compass and hopefully find the water.

Following the recently completed impossible2Possible Youth Expedition to the Amazon in October 2010, Ray Zahab visited a contrasting area of the Earth. The Atacama Desert provides a great point of contrast on the topic of biodiversity which he shared with thousands of school children. Ray will carried a Solara tracking device from start to finish, updated a live website www.atacamaextreme.com and communicating with classrooms via video conferencing software, a Macbook and BGAN.

Zahab was born in Ottawa, Canada on February 11, 1969. He grew up on a hobbyhorse farm in Carp, Ontario with his brother John, and his parents. Fast forward 39 years to today, and I now live with my incredible wife and soul mate Kathy and our daughter Mia Sahara in Chelsea, Quebec, says Ray. He is very passionate about the organizations he work with, and when not running he divides his time sitting on the board of directors.

Rays ultra-marathons:
- 2004 Yukon Arctic Ultra, 160 km
- 2004 Jungle Marathon, Amazon, 250 km
- 2004 Trans 333, Niger, 333 km
- 2004 & 2005, Marathon des Sables, Morocco, 250 km
- 2005 Sahara Race, Egypt, 250 km
- 2006 Gobi March, China, 250 km
- 2006 Libyan Challenge, 190 km
- 2007 Running the Sahara, 7500 km, 111 days, with Charlie Engle (USA) and Kevin Lin (Taiwan)
- 2007 three extreme coastal trails of Canada, back to back, 100, 210, 75 km
- 2008 Canada, in each province and territory, 80 km per day x 13 days.

In the 2008-09 Antarctic season Canadians Richard Weber, Kevin Vallely and Ray Zahab set the fastest time for a team from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole (1130 km) in 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes.

March 14, 2010 Kevin Vallely and Ray Zahab completed their world speed record expedition across Lake Baikal in a time of 13 days and 16 hours; running/walking the 640 km (as the crow flies) in an average distance of 50 km a day with special screw-in-spikes shoes. They started from the small village of Kultuk on the southern side of the lake and finished at northern tip at a community called Nizhneangarsk


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Ray Zahab: It took longer, was longer, and was overall much more difficult than I had anticipated.
courtesy Atacama Extreme i2P 2011, SOURCE
"I lost around 15 pounds during the expedition (...but) I am always hungry, even while typing this I am dreaming of pizza, so thats something I was used to feeling!"
courtesy Atacama Extreme i2P 2011, SOURCE

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