A Conversation with Ray Zahab
Pro tips for first-time stage racers and adventure runners
Ray Zahab on day nine of the Atacama Extreme Expedition. Photo courtesy of impossible2Possible
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in ultrarunner Jenn Hughes’ ongoing series on training for stage races.
Ray Zahab, a former “pack-a-day smoker” turned adventure racer and youth advocate, is perhaps best known for running across the Sahara Desert in 2006 with Charlie Engle and Kevin Lin—a journey chronicled in the film Running the Sahara. Since then, he’s completed countless adventure runs and founded impossible2Possible (i2P), an organization that aims to inspire and educate youth through adventure learning, inclusion and participation in expeditions.
Zahab took a few minutes to share his thoughts on adventure running and advice for preparing for stage races like the Grand to Grand Ultra.
Many people start with ultras and then become interested in stage races. What drew you to adventure racing from the beginning?
I was intrigued by the idea of going places I thought I’d never be able to see. When I was still new to running, I read a magazine article about the Yukon Arctic Ultra (160km) and immediately started training. It was my first race so I was nervous about the distance, but I was always driven by the place and the adventure.
That race taught me the beauty of ultrarunning—we are truly able to push ourselves beyond any limits we thought possible. Average, everyday people can will themselves to do incredible things and maybe not always complete them, but at least attempt.
When I was 15, I was the last kid picked to do anything and I never saw myself as athletic. I barely graduated high school and didn’t finish community college. When I was running the Sahara, which was 40 miles a day for 111 days, all of a sudden I realized running was teaching me things and allowing me to discover the world. I was amazed at how much I could learn from running, and that I did have the capacity to learn if I wanted to. That experience formed my passion for learning through adventure running and the desire to give other youth that same opportunity with Impossible2Possible.
What are the main differences you see between training for a multi-day race and a regular race?
When you’re training for stage races, you have to consider that you’ll be carrying a week’s worth of supplies in your backpack. In the months leading up to training, you can just train with your pack during your weekend long runs; you want the body to adapt slowly. But as you get closer to race day, you’ll want to wear your pack on most all your training runs. The second piece—almost as important—is that you’re going to wake up and run multiple days, back to back. It’s fatiguing. Prepare for both of those.
What advice do you have for finding a good pack?
Select a pack you like and that fits your body well. If you’re saving three ounces but it doesn’t fit your body, you’re going to be in a lot of pain. If you’re just starting out with stage races, I’d recommend a 25-30-liter pack. Someone who’s really experienced might be able to get away with 20 liters or less.
How do you prepare for weather or terrain extremes (desert, heat, altitude, etc.) that don’t exist where you do your primary base training?
The very best way to prepare for adverse conditions is to actually run in those conditions. An ideal scenario is to have your own mini training camp in some place that mimics the environment you’re going to race in, but for most of us additional travel is just not an option. So for a desert race, you can go running on a sandy beach, snow, or loose terrain to get practice on that unstable surface. Combining that with functional strength exercises will really help.
As far as the heat, sauna training will at least give you a ‘feel’ for what it’s going to be like. The most important aspect of being heat prepared is your body’s ability to process fluids and food while running in the heat. So, in the sauna, try consuming your hydration fluids and get your body used to processing fuel in the heat.
All these exercises will really help, but they are investments in time. Remember that your body is amazing at adapting and you will adapt over the stages.
Let’s talk gear. What are some weight-shaving tips?
Take care of your food first, then consider what you can cut from your gear. Choosing lightweight gear is more important than eliminating calories. For a seven-day race I’ll take about 17,000 calories. So find ways to cut weight by cutting tags, anything you can do to make your gear lighter. Food can be repackaged in Ziploc bags to make it lighter. Choose dehydrated foods—but choose ones you like. Taking lightweight food that you’re not going to eat doesn’t help at all.
Speaking of food, what is your favorite treat out there?
My #1 must-have is coffee. I use the Starbucks Via packets.