Ultra-marathoner Ray Zahab had already run across the Sahara Desert and Death Valley National Park when he decided to take on yet another challenge: to run across the Gobi Desert.
The 44-year-old Chelsea, Que. native set out in late June on an expedition that spanned 2,100 kilometres and tested both his physical and mental endurance.
After just four days of running, Zahab’s partner Kevin Linn was forced to drop out due to injury. This meant that for the remaining 31 days, Zahab ran his daily 60 to 70 kilometres alone, battling ever-changing weather extremes and the diverse Gobi landscape.
With just 200 kilometres left, Zahab himself experienced a back injury. His wife joined him and together they marched the remaining distance, finishing in an oasis at the edge of the Gobi Desert.
A film crew and photographers documented every step of Zahab’s run and encounters with Mongol towns and nomads that will serve as free educational material for schools and his youth expedition organization, impossible2Possible.
Canadian Geographic caught up with Zahab to hear about his epic journey.
Canadian Geographic: How does it feel to have finished your run across the Gobi Desert?
Ray Zahab: Well, you know, it feels great. The purpose of the Gobi that was exciting for me was going to this incredible place to create a film archive for impossible2Possible. The goal of this expedition was us saying, ‘Let’s get this archive of Mongolia, let’s record footage in a place that so few have been before, and let’s make this a journey about more than just a run.'
Can Geo: What were some of the most memorable moments?
RZ: For sure the most memorable moment was that we were there during Nadaam Festival. To be there and see horse races where it’s kids racing these horses across the desert and some of them are like 10 years old. I mean, it was gnarly and so extreme, yet kids are doing it. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
Can Geo: What were the reactions of the nomads and the locals to you and your team when you arrived in their towns?
RZ: Well the first sort of reaction was usually: ‘What are you doing out here?’ But then it became: ‘Hey, this is really cool,’ and it sort of brokered conversation. They loved the fact that this crazy guy was running 2,000 plus kilometres across Mongolia in the Gobi Desert, yet the primary focus was going to be creating and telling stories of the Mongolian people. They just thought it was cool that people were going to be able to learn about their country. The Mongolian people were some of the kindest, friendliest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met in my life. It really was extraordinary.
Can Geo: What were some of the most challenging moments?
RZ: I’d say the most challenging thing was the weather. I had wicked rainstorms and lightning storms right up until the last day. When I reached the Western Gobi, which is an incredibly arid part of the desert, it rained for five hours that day. I’d never seen anything like that before. There was one day when the wind was consistently gusty up to 100 kilometres per hour, and I’m running into it.
Can Geo: What was it like travelling through such a diverse landscape on foot as opposed to travelling in, say, a car?
RZ: When you’re on foot, you’re experiencing every inch of that part of the world, so it gives you perspective. You’re seeing and experiencing absolutely everything. It connects you with the landscape and everything that’s going on. That wouldn’t have happened if I was in a truck, bombing past at 100 kilometres an hour.
Can Geo: How does the Gobi Desert compare to some of your other expeditions?
RZ: Aside from the run across Death Valley — that was the most difficult four and a half days of my life — the toughest expedition was this last one.
Can Geo: You’ve run across a lot of major deserts. What are you going to do next?
RZ: The truth of it is that my passion is in impossible2Possible — taking these young people on expeditions and creating the best learning experience we can. I encourage young people to get our there and make their own adventures. It’s an incredible world.
Read more about Zahab and other newsmakers of the year in the October issue of Canadian Geographic.