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Posted: March 31, 2005

Ultra Running: Q&A with Endurance Athlete Ray Zahab

By Lynne Bermel

Ray Zahab is something else. His latest venture will see him challenge the Sahara Desert in what is considered the toughest footrace on earth. "Welcome to the world of lunatics and masochists," goes the opener on the homepage of the Marathon des Sables.

Is this the world of Ray Zahab? What drives this new breed of athlete to stretch the bounds of human endurance?

Consider that last year, Ray ran 333km non-stop through the intense heat and sand storms of the African desert, raced through mud, 100% humidity and bug-infested swamps in the Amazon jungle and covered 164kms race in the Arctic in the middle of winter. Amazing that the guy can still walk!

Even more amazing is that other than the odd blister, a few ankle sprains and a hole in his back from an insect bite he suffered in the Jungle Marathon, he hasn't really had any major injuries. What does this guy eat for breakfast? How can so much grit and determination be packed into that 5'7" frame? We sat down to find out what makes him tick.

RW: What's been the highlight and lowest point of your career so far?

Ray: I'd have to say the highlight was competing in and finishing third in the Trans 333. That was non-stop in the Nigerian desert. My lowest point was getting really sick in the weeks following the Jungle Marathon.

RW: And your toughest race?

Ray: The Jungle Marathon by far, in terms of everything related to pain and terrain. You had to be self sufficient for 200kms of brutal terrain with lots of swimming and wading through bug-infested swamps.

RW: What got you started in Ultras?

Ray: My brother and I competed in the Canadian Quest in 1998. Last year, I raced with Benoit Letourneau on his team of Simon River Sports. Those experiences were amazing. I also raced in a 24-hour mountain bike race. They got me started.

RW: How do you train for something like a 333 kms race in the Sahara Desert or 164 kms of running on frozen trails in the Yukon?

Ray: I just run in the snow. I also seem to deal well with the heat. I'm lucky I guess.

RW: What's the longest run you'll do in training to prepare yourself for an Ultra?

Ray: The longest is probably about 60kms with gear.

RW: What's a typical training week for you?

Ray: I ride my mountain bike on the Computrainer for about 10 hours a week and run up to 12 hours when I'm peaking. I also do some functional strength training and work on my core twice a week. (Editor's Note: Ray teaches an excellent ball class for the core at various Ottawa locations. Check out his site if you're interested:

RW: How many pairs of running shoes do you go through in a year?

Ray: At least 10.

RW: Are you concerned about the potential for adverse long-term affects all this ultra racing could have in your body over the long term?

Ray: Hmm, now that you mention it…

RW: What injuries have you had?

Ray: Nothing more than some blisters, parasites and several sprained ankles.

RW: There is obviously a certain stigma attached to ultra racing. How do you answer the critics who might think you're a little crazy?

Ray: My brother does the Ironman. I think he's nuts. My friend Jodi is going to paddle in a race in the Yukon next year for 50 hours. He's nuttier.

RW: What do you think about in a 333km race? How do you deal with the pain and the desire to quit?

Ray: I just tell myself I chose to be here and remind myself that I love what I'm doing. Then I focus on the finish and count down the hours.

RW: Do you follow a strict diet?

Ray: I eat fairly well I guess. I eat lots of complex carbs, veggies and protein. The occasional Guinness or five after a race too!

RW: What do you do to relax when you aren't training or working with clients as a personal trainer?

Ray: Go to movies. Hang out with my friends.

RW: Why do you pick the toughest races in the world? Do you really like to suffer?

Ray: No, I don't look at them for the suffering, just the challenge. I figure if I'm going to do it, I might as well pick the toughest ones out there and really challenge myself.

RW: What are your future race plans?

Ray: In 2006, my plans are to traverse the whole 4500kms of the Saraha from Mauritania to the Red Sea with an American and an Italian runner. That might be it. If that doesn't' fly, I'll keep trying the toughies until my body say: "Enough."

Jungle Marathon Solo09/048
Jungle Marathon Team09/041
Marathon des Sables04/0447
Yukon Arctic Ultra02/041
Raid the North (AR)05/033
Ecochallenge NA (AR)06/034

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