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Desert Crossing: Ray Zahab and Stefano Gregoretti

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Ray Zahab (CAN) and Stefano Gregoretti (ITA) ran 1,230 miles along the length of the Namibian Desert in January. The month-long journey came to an end in February, and along the way, Ray and Stefano faced some of the planet's harshest terrain, going through large swaths of territory unsupported, with only the local wildlife (lions) for company. They chronicled the entire journey with photos and video updates, and strove to engage students around the world daily. Right after Ray landed back in his home base of Quebec, we caught up with him, to find out how it all went down. 

RP: Ray, what do we call you? You're an endurance athlete but a lot more...

RZ: I am an adventurer, which sounds like an occupation from the 1700’s…but that's my gig. I have ran approximately 14,000km across deserts around the world, and have completed multiple unsupported Arctic expeditions as well. My true passion is that i am also the founder and volunteer of impossible2Possible (i2P), an organization that that aims to inspire and educate youth through adventure learning, inclusion and participation in expeditions.

RP: What's your endurance sports background? Your website says you used to smoke a pack a day – what made you make the switch?

    RZ: In 1997, I made a choice to change the path of my life. I was very unhappy, and not healthy physically and in some ways mentally. I knew I needed to change but I just didn’t know how. They say that when you need someone in your life the most - even someone you’ve known your entire life - that person will be there for you like a light in darkness. That person for me was and still is my younger brother John. I was mesmerized by his passion for mountain biking, running, climbing…I made the decision to try my very best to follow in his footsteps. I quit smoking after a few years and became a functional strength coach. I worked with clients that ranged from beginner to champion endurance athletes. In 2004 I entered my first running race, the Yukon Arctic Ultra 160km, and I won it. I had never won anything like this in my life - and it changed what I thought I was capable of! I continued to compete in ultras, and then in 2006-2007 I began long expeditions. 

    After my 2007 crossing of the Sahara Desert, where we ran 7500km across Africa, things changed forever. National Geographic tracked the expedition by web, as well as the documentary film ‘Running The Sahara’, produced by Matt Damon and directed by Academy Award winner James Moll, was created in an effort to raise awareness for the drinking water crisis in North Africa. That expedition taught me that we're ALL capable of the extraordinary - and through adventure and experiential learning we can discover things about ourselves and the world we never thought possible. I knew that i wanted to do something to reach out to young people and give them an opportunity to see and experience the things I had through the Sahara run, so  myself, my wife Kathy and my best friend Bob Cox created impossible2Possible. 

     

    RP: How does impossible2possible work?

    RZ: Youth Ambassadors for i2P are selected from around the world, and then participate, at no cost, in all aspects of the expedition, from logistics and running to creating educational content and team support. All of the i2P Youth Expeditions include challenge based initiatives through an Experiential Learning program, in which thousands of students participate as active ‘team members’ during the expeditions, from classrooms all over the world. This program and its technology is also provided at no cost to the students or schools participating. Since its inception, i2P Youth Expeditions have included 14 gruelling expeditions; Baffin Island, Tunisia, the Amazon, Bolivia, India, Botswana, Utah, Peru, Chile, Italy, California, Greece, Death Valley and Canada. The programs and expeditions are 100% free of cost. 

    RP: You take on these crazy endurance sports challenges – what drives you? 

    RZ: We underestimate ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally, and my hope is that through sharing the expeditions we are able to inspire our followers to take on a challenge. Of course an equally important goal is to share our world, these remote places, and what we learn from these places with as large an audience as possible.

    RP: Where does the education element come in? Why is that so important for you?

      RZ: All of my expeditions are connected to classrooms and to a broader audience on social media. My goal is to essentially bring my expeditions into classrooms and living rooms around the world, and in turn, bring those classrooms and living rooms back onto my expeditions. We have a team that helps to create amazing content, and we essentially give it away through various platforms and satellite so that we can achieve our goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible! It is very important to me that people- and young people specifically- realize that we are ALL capable of the extraordinary in our lives. 

      RP: Why the Namibian Desert? It's remote, isolated... seems like an insane choice.

      RZ: Before i ran 7500km across the Sahara in 2007, i was a competing in ultra marathons all over the world, but my favourite location to race was the Sahara. I fel l in love with desert. Since that time i have crossed many of the world's large deserts including the Gobi (2,000km), Antarctica (1200km) and Atacama (1200km) among others. Namibia was always a dream...a huge goal. A place that had everything- amazing people, incredible landscapes and tremendous wildlife. I always knew someday i would come to Namibia!

      RP: How far did you run, and for how long?

      RZ: We ran close to 2000km, trying our best to get 60km each day. But the intense heat, difficult terrain and limited support meant some days were less.

      RP: What did a typical day look like?

      RZ: On a typical day we would wake at 5am, eat a quick breakfast, drink tons of coffee and then head to the point where we finished the day before. We would run the first 25km, take a break, then run to 40-45, have lunch and then shoot for 60km to finish. Once done, we had a recovery protocol that included eating tons of fat (olive and coconut oil) and rice or potatoes. Evenings were spent planning the next days route....and sleeping!

       

      RP: What were some of the most challenging parts of the whole journey?

      The more challenging parts of the journey were the heat (many days over 45c) and navigating sometimes tricky over land sections. For example, early on in the expedition we did a crossing of the north arm of Fish River Canyon, an area that has been virtually unexplored on foot, and so we had to plan to be self sufficient for the entire day navigating precarious terrain and huge elevations in a very remote area.

      RP: What made Rudy Project an ideal sponsor for the expedition?

      RZ: Rudy obviously makes incredible eyewear, but more importantly, Rudy believes and supports what we are doing. It is critical that partners become friends, and the passion shared. That's what makes Rudy an ideal sponsor.

      What’s your favorite Rudy Project product?

      Unfair question! I like so many of the products in the Rudy line! But these days i have been wearing my Syntrix and I LOVE them. The ease of changing lenses, and the ventilation and coverage makes these ideal for running, mountain biking and just about any sport.

       

      To learn more about Ray, and ror his complete bio and list of expeditions and races, please visit www.rayzahab.com/about. You can also learn more about the expedition here: www.transnamibia.com

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