Some people (including me!) might think the Marathon des Sables is tough. 156 miles in 6 days. Even the organizers call it “the toughest footrace on Earth”. To my guest today that would be small fry, a mere warmup. Ray Zahab is surely one of the world’s greatest ultrarunners.

Yet it wasn’t always like this. Ray used to be a pack-a-day smoker until he dramatically turned his life around in his thirties. He kicked the cigarettes and started running….. and running, and running.

In 2006, Ray and two colleagues ran across North Africa through the Sahara – a staggering distance of 4,300 miles, through 6 countries, in a time of 111 days, i.e. averaging around 40 miles a day. Or to use another metric, it cost him 25 pairs of shoes.

In 2009, he completed the fastest unsupported trek to South Pole, using moonboots rather than skis.

This year, Ray ran across the Gobi – about 1500 miles – despite a back injury.

He is a co-founder of Impossible2Possible, an organization that takes youngsters out on expeditions and allows them to education, inspire and empower their peers around the world.

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Show Notes

0:00 Introduction to Ray Zahab

3:40 Running the Sahara with two teammates

5:20 Ray’s previous life, how his brother’s influence helped create the turning point

8:00 We underestimate our capabilities

8:40 On commitment, procrastination and dropping bad old habits while acquiring good new ones

12:10 The more difficult the decision, the greater the reward

13:30 On starting a major challenge

15:00 Ray’s first running race – the Yukon Arctic Ultra – learning to suffer, learning about himself

17:30 What contributes to Ray’s ability to run epic distances, how he trains for ultra expeditions

22:20 Commitment to completion, mind over matter, “When the chips are down, we can rise to the occasions”

22:40 The Jungle Marathon

26:10 Ray’s sense of adventure – discovering people and places during his expeditions

28:10 Family life: “I want my daughters to grow up knowing that they can do anything”

29:20 The work and achievements of Ray’s nonprofit, Impossible2Possible

Limitations – Are They All In The Mind?

Ray Zahab, by Kathy Michaels
Ray Zahab, by Kathy Michaels

“I believe that we truly underestimate what we are capable of doing, and we can exceed limits that we think we might have.”
(Ray Zahab)

The name of Ray Zahab’s organization, Impossible2Possible, sums up Ray’s philosophy of life. His story of going from being a pack-a-day smoker to one of the world’s greatest expedition runners demonstrates just what can be achieved when you commit to a big hairy audacious goal, and dare to believe that it can happen.

I am absolutely able to relate to this philosophy, and it’s something I learned, not something I knew from the outset. When I was rowing the Atlantic, there were so many times when I thought I had hit my absolute limit – of fear, of pain, of discomfort, of boredom – but I really had no choice but to keep going, because that was the only way I was going to reach the other side.

And when you JUST KEEP GOING, you eventually find that the limit existed only in your mind, because at some point you find yourself on the other side of the limit, and you look back and see it for the illusion that it was.

If you can just keep going with that vision of your mind of your goal, and keep putting one foot – or one oarstroke – in front of another, you really can achieve almost anything.

A question: what do you perceive as your limits? What evidence do you have that they exist? Is it possible that they exist only in your imagination?


Interviewed on The National after run across Gobi, his 17th expedition, which took place earlier in 2013

Running for my Life (book)

Free excerpt from the book – Ray’s account of the Jungle Marathon, including an amazing and disgusting account of intense heat and humidity, swamps, mud, blisters, caymans, tarantulas, and a serious tropical infection

Running the Sahara (film) and check out the map of Ray’s route

One of his colleagues from the South Pole expedition, Kevin Vallely, is now rowing the Northwest Passage in a crew of four to make a statement about climate change. Is everybody one degree of separation from an ocean rower?!

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