Zahab is running for change

Running a marathon is tough for even the fittest people … what about running nearly two marathons, everyday, for two weeks? That’s what…

Running a marathon is tough for even the fittest people … what about running nearly two marathons, everyday, for two weeks?

That’s what ultra-marathoner Ray Zahab and his team are doing — 80 kilometres, everyday, and every day in a new province or territory.

On Wednesday, Zahab’s 11th day, he brought his trek to Whitehorse.

“Yeah, I’m tired,” said Zahab after running a portion of the Yukon River Trail Marathon’s route. The pace was languid as the small group, including local adventure racers Greg and Denise McHale, stopped for a break at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder.

“We’ve got a lot of aches and pains, and I’ve got some Achilles tendonitis,” said Zahab, pointing to his ankle. He added that it was nice to run on trail, since he’s been doing most of his running on roads. “The legs were dying from roads.”

Zahab prefers to get away from roads if he can … far away.

Last winter he ran across the Sahara desert, from the east coast of Africa to the west, to raise awareness about the water crisis there. It took Zahab and two other runners 111 days to make the crossing, doing about 70-kilometres a day, never taking a day off.

Slogging through soft, knee deep sand drifts in 50-degree heat was definitely a challenge.

That epic journey was captured by Oscar-winning filmmaker James Moll in a feature documentary called Running the Sahara, which is slated for release this year.

But Zahab keeps looking ahead, and this month’s cross-Canada journey, an awareness-raising trek for the charitable umbrella fundraising group ONExONE, has it’s own challenges.

“The logistics of this run are the toughest part, getting flights, checking bags,” said Zahab. A normal day on the Canada ONExONE run includes 10 hours of running, time spent meeting with students, officials and press, and then getting the team to the airport and the next destination.

Zahab said he’s lucky to get more than an hour of sleep in a night. In some ways, crossing the desert almost seemed like an easier run. “In the Sahara, I’d run all day, then put down my sleeping bag at night.”

The desert wasn’t just running and sand, however, and Zahab and company ran across some interesting sights. “There are no roads in Niger, and we come to the border of Libya, where this paved road begins, there’s nothing around for miles and miles … there’s this guy, all alone, standing there with and AK-47, barbed wire everywhere, communist hat, smoking cigarettes — right there where the road starts,” Zahab said with a laugh. “How did he get out there? It’s crazy.”

Combining his love of running with a progressive charitable message is Zahab’s deal, and even he seems surprised at the turns his life has taken.

Before he took up running four and half years ago, he worked as a personal trainer, competed as an equestrian and worked with horses (the family business). Even though he led an active lifestyle, he admittedly wasn’t in the best of shape. “I was pushing my bike up hills, out of breath.”

“I was a pack-a-day smoker, and I partied pretty hard,” he said. “But I was a very unhappy person.”

Running changed things, putting him, literally, on the right path. “There’s such a freedom in running, anyone can do it. I grew up hating gym class,” he said.

Yukon holds a special milestone for Zahab — he ran his first ultra-marathon here, the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2004, and won it.

Now that he’s back, and not racing against anyone, there’s plenty of time to soak up the Yukon wilderness.

 “I was so focused on racing then I really didn’t notice the scenery,” he said. Now that he’s not racing, he can take the time to enjoy it. “It’s stunning, every turn in the trail is a breathtaking scene, we even ran back over some parts of the trail to get it on video,” he said.

Since his first ultra marathon win, Zahab has raced in the Amazon, the Gobi desert in China, and all over North Africa — winning several times.

The Canada ONExONE run continued in Vancouver on Thursday, and finishes up today in downtown Toronto.

Zahab spends a lot of time speaking to corporate and school groups, and raising awareness for various charitable groups such as Spread the Net and Make Poverty History.

His next adventure is a North Pole trek, set for 2009, to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on the Far North.

For more information on Zahab’s adventures and projects, surf to www.rayzahab.com

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