The title of this interview kind of sums the process of the interview itself. Between juggling a packed international travel schedule, a world-renowned foundation and, most importantly, being a father to his two daughters setting up time for this talk was starting to seem, well, impossible. But, like all things in Ray Zahab’s life nothing is ever truly impossible and this goal, like most others, got met. And how! Ray gave us an interview as inspiring as the man himself and we thank him for being part of bringforth’s interview series.
Ray and his life story challenges each of us to, wherever we think our line is – cross it. Dare to cross it and come out the other side.
We begin with the classic bringforth question: what drives you? If you had to put into words what pushes you to do what you do and experience what you experience—how would you describe it?
I would have to say that what drives me now is something different than what used to drive me. What I mean by that is I used to be driven primarily by the challenge of wanting to do these things. Now, I would say that the drive, since “Running the Sahara”, is to communicate a message that we all are capable of the extraordinary, to this audience of young people that are following along through our organization impossible2Possible.
When in your life have you been most afraid or filled with self-doubt and what did you do to overcome it?
It’s one of those interesting things. At various times in all of our lives we experience doubt, self-doubt, and it would be dishonest if we said that we didn’t. I think that everybody feels that because we’re human. I think the greatest for me was in my teenage years and growing up I doubted my ability especially in sport. To be able to do the things that others could do, or, that I felt they could do. For example, gym class for me when I was growing up was a source of great apprehension and stress because I was not the kid that could throw a ball or skate or do any of these things well at all and I think that that sort of, it followed through for me into adulthood. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties early thirties when I sort of came to this resolution when I said ‘you know, what the hell am I doing with my life’ and I internally felt very, now I realize in retrospect, sorry for myself but externally was projecting this person who was very happy.
So, I knew I needed to do something to change my life and make a difference and, thankfully, my brother – my younger brother – who was my greatest inspiration, himself, had gone through a life transformation of sorts and discovered that he had a great athlete living inside himself and I thought, ‘well, you know, I’m going to follow him into what he does and see what happens for me’. I had nothing to lose but to try. He was an unconventional athlete – into mountain biking and hiking and climbing and all of these things and I thought ‘wow, I’d love to try that’ and, you know, the rest as they say is history.
How would you advise others, especially young people, to push past fear and embrace their wholeness? What helps you to embrace yours?
One of the greatest lessons that I’ve had personally is realizing that, in fact, the greatest impediment to us achieving something or taking a risk or doing something is ourselves. And what I try to encourage young people to do is not to be so self-doubting; not to build walls around themselves that become disablers instead of enablers and I always tell young people ‘you know, you can be amazing’. It took me until 40 to realize that we’re all capable of being extraordinary but believing in it now and, you know, taking chances and pushing yourself, testing your limits – there are no failures. You can’t become stronger if you’re not willing to push yourself past that limit and sometimes, occasionally, not achieve the desired outcome that you were looking for. But I would say, ‘you know what – if you’re not reaching for it, if you’re not stepping out across that line, you’re not living’. So, you really have to give it everything you’ve got and learn from every experience.
What does running fuel in you? Where does it help you to go within yourself and connect with that nothing else does? Are there other things that create similar effects?
What does running fuel in me? People ask me that all the time and I always say this: we all have a passion, we all do. I mean sometimes we haven’t discovered it yet but eventually, hopefully, at various points in our life we discover what is passionate to us and what fuels us and running is that for me. You know I look at artists and architects and people that are creative and musicians and I am just so enamored by them and blown away by what people can do and for me, you know, running is my way of learning. It’s been my best teacher and it’s a way of expressing, for me, myself. And I would have to say that, the neat thing about running is that very clearly for me as a teacher, it is very succinct. What I mean by that is that I get from Point A to Point B and I am running to do it or I am learning something about myself or challenging myself and I’m pushing myself. Well, with the running I am either going to get there or I’m not and so I’m able to really measure and learn from each experience while running. So, you know, running is for me what paint would be to an artist it’s just something that I’m very passionate about.
How did you come to find your passion and translate what you love into what you do? How do you suggest others find theirs?
I found my passion for running through making a series of decisions, you know, taking an introspective look at my life and coming to the realization that every decision we make or risk we take or anything you want to call it – there’s an outcome to that. For example, when I made the decision to follow in my brother’s footsteps in late ’97 – 1998; then quit smoking on New Year’s Eve 1999; then spent the next three years from 2000 – 2003 essentially doing everything my brother did and then picking up a magazine and reading an article in 2003 about running and being absolutely blown away by what these people were capable of doing in an ultra-marathon. I was realizing that I needed to discover in myself if I could do what these people could do, or, I at least wanted to learn what these people were learning about themselves.
It wasn’t about finishing even, it was just about risking and attempting and trying and then lo and behold two and half, three months after reading that article, entering my first ultra marathon and winning it and realizing that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. You know, this is how things happen in life and I would say that for people, the greatest advice, when they are looking for that passion and connecting with their passion – sometimes it’s very hard – such a corny saying – to see the forest for the trees. I think that many times are passions are there and they are inside us if we just give ourselves an opportunity to experiment and try different things eventually we’ll be lead to that passion, if that makes sense. So let’s say, you know, you’ve always thought about building your first deck in your house or whatever and so you try and all of a sudden you say, ‘hey I really like this – this is great’ and you pursue that passion of building. So, it could be anything, you know, that’s what I always tell people.
What are the most important relationships in your life? Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration your brother provided to you.
The inspiration my brother provided and relationships in my life…well I’ll start out by saying relationships, my wife, is not only my best friend and my soul mate and the most trusted person I know but, everyone in their life has someone that they share their deepest, innermost thoughts with and it could be a brother, sister, mother, father, best friend, a spouse, whoever it is and it’s that therapeutic ability to be able to share with one another that develops bonds. And my wife, we support each other, we have two children and my family is everything to me. Having my wife in my life I always feel like there is someone there that I can bounce an idea off of. I can support her in the things that she wants to do and, of course, she supports me and is a big part of our foundation.
My brother…my brother was my greatest inspiration, not only for the reasons I mentioned before, but my brother as well is incredible. He is one these people that just exuded a sort of self-confidence and many people in our lives are like this and they have that confidence and they don’t even need to say anything; you can just see them and tell that they have that confidence and he sort of had that. It was something that he figured out himself and it’s in every one of us and I am enamored by confidence in people. I think that it really shows a capacity to make a decision and see it through.
You have had many tests of endurance but “Running the Sahara”, as reflected in the film of the same, is arguably one of the most challenging. Why did you do it? Watching the film it was hard to conceive why three people would push themselves in such, almost unnatural, ways. How would you explain the desire to take this on to the many people who would say, “Why” or, quite simply, “No, way.”
In the “Running the Sahara” expedition Charlie, Kevin and I ran for 111 days averaging 70 kilometers a day. We learned about how serious the water crisis was in Northern Africa but, truthfully, when we started out on the expedition it was all about pushing ourselves and testing our limits and seeing if we could actually do it, run across the Sahara. By halfway through the expedition it became about something completely different and although we were learning these incredible things about ourselves, things we could have never expected or anticipated, even with the multiple ultra marathons the three of us did, leading up to running the Sahara, you know we’ve each won ultra marathons, nothing would compare to running the Sahara at that time and what we would learn about ourselves. And, truthfully, the greatest lesson for me is that we’re all capable of achieving extraordinary things. That was what was so amazing, that what was initially a personal experience became sort of this teaching – we were taught – that it’s not something about us (Charlie, Kevin and I) it’s that we’re all capable of being amazing in our lives.
But, also, we learned about water in Africa as I mentioned before and by the time we were ending the expedition we really wanted the film, the documentary “Running the Sahara” to share that story as well because we were learning about something that we did not or could not have ever conceived of being such a huge issue. Charlie and I coming from North America and Kevin coming from Asia, from Taiwan, and the water issues that we were seeing in Africa really reminded us that there are many issues that, unless you are immersing yourself and see and experience them perhaps you wouldn’t have known otherwise and so it was a great teacher for us. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and, you know, on that topic of water, running the Sahara taught me to want to learn more about my country and about things that are going on in Canada and learning about, for example, that water is a very serious issue in many of our First Nations communities as well.
You had only been running about three years when you decided to run the Sahara. What told you, “I am ready and I can see this through”?
I’d been running for about, yeah, about three years when we stood on the west coast of Africa and decided we were going to run across all those countries. I had been running for about three years and, you know, I sort of followed this philosophy since I entered the Yukon Arctic Ultra Marathon in February 2004 and I won it – I’d never won anything like that, nothing seriously with that kind of endurance in my life! – I thought ‘There is so much more I want to learn about myself’. It was like I was reborn and so I started doing these ultra marathons all over the world and I had to beg, borrow and steal my way to get there. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time and through the generosity of friends and partnerships that I would develop, I was able to get to these races and experience them and I was learning that we as human beings underestimate what we are capable of doing and I wanted to learn more and more about that.
But it wasn’t something that was totally about me, it about all of us and so by the time I got to running the Sahara I didn’t approach it with a mindset of ‘What if I can’t do this’. I approached it with the mindset of ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I have the opportunity to try and run across the Sahara Desert and I just want to learn something new every day’. So it was the starting perspective. I knew it was going to be tough there was no doubt about that – it was a given. You decide you’re going to do something like this it is going to be extraordinarily difficult but there wasn’t a part in my mind that said you can or can’t do this there was a part in my mind that said: ‘You’re going to try’.
Was there ever a point at which you thought, “I was wrong and I have taken on too much here and need to stop”? If yes, what kept you going and how did you keep your focus at different stages of the run?
This question about me wondering what the hell was I doing, happens all the time, in every expedition I do, every very difficult endurance thing that I do. I do have those thoughts and have to remind myself that I chose to be there and I chose to commit to doing the very best I could and that meant going until I absolutely could not take another step. So, with that mindset and not willing to accept anything else I’m able to push myself and drive myself.
Also, I am fortunate that I get to communicate with students when I am on my expeditions. Since “Running the Sahara”, not during “Running the Sahara”, and I’ve got to tell you that’s a great motivator for me because there’s nothing like speaking to young people at the end of the day and telling them I ran 70 k that day in a desert and this is what I learned and saw and they are so excited and I feed off of that energy.
Tell us about some of your recent adventures.
There’s been many! I ran the length of the Atacama Desert that was approximately 1200 kilometers, with minimal daily resupplies. As well I crossed Death Valley off road last summer 2011 with a good friend of mine Kevin Vallely. I have ran the length of Lake Baikal in Siberia in winter, approximately 650 km, totally unsupported meaning I dragged all of my supplies independently. I have been to the South Pole in 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes unsupported which is the world record with Kevin Vallely again and Richard Weber that was in 2009. I’ve ran the three extreme coastal trails in Canada back to back, all of them, with travel, in eight days total.
There have been others but I’ve got to tell you the ones I’m most proud of are the Youth Expeditions at no cost to schools and no cost to Youth Ambassadors. Get these young people out on expeditions, running. Recently we had an expedition to Rajasthan where four Youth Ambassadors ran 270 kilometers over the course of a week, learning about access to health care issues not only in India but in their own communities. It’s these sorts of expeditions that are, for me, the most exciting.
We’ve had youth expeditions to Tunisia, the Amazon jungle, the Arctic, Rajasthan as I mentioned, Bolivia. We have got an upcoming expedition to Africa. They are really exciting projects for me that fuel me and that are the reasons I do the things I do now.
Describe “impossible2Possible”. Tell the readers more about the organization.
I would have to say…well, first of all I would invite people to learn more because I am going to be brief here and invite them to go to www.impossible2Possible.com. We are an organization that is volunteer-based. I am a volunteer. Our goal is to inspire, educate and empower young people and give them the tools they need to realize that they can be exceptional and incredible and they don’t have to wait until they’re a middle-aged man like me to realize that. They can be exceptional and amazing at fourteen and fifteen years of age. We use the landscape, the theatre of adventure to share meaningful, educational programs about things such as water. This past year was the International Year of Chemistry. We have explored biodiversity, access to health care. Issues such as that and topics such as that and make them in a way extremely interesting. We use the latest technologies so that the young people (we call them Youth Ambassadors) on our adventures can communicate what they are learning about the subject to classrooms all over the world and have those students communicate directly back. We use a video conferencing system for that.
Again everything is 100% free of charge to the schools and to the Youth Ambassadors that go on these expeditions. We partner as well with great organizations and educational institutions to create content and curriculum that is accessible as a resource to various school age levels. We are always, constantly evolving to try and deliver a better and better educational program that gives students the opportunity, in a challenge-based setting to learn about something and put their own hands into the mix and get involved and not only challenge themselves on the topics and educational programs but as well learn from the challenges of others (i.e. the Youth Ambassadors) as they are doing something so extraordinary as running a marathon a day and making an educational topic unbelievably interesting and compelling.
What were some of the obstacles you encountered in getting into sport and starting up your foundation and how did you work around them?
The greatest advice I’ve been able to tell people and this is something I’ve learned from many people who I’ve been very fortunate to meet through the work that I do, people that we would look at and say are successful, and one of the things that these people have is unbelievable tenacity and resolve to get something done or to see a goal through. I say you know you set a goal and you work like hell to make it happen, I mean you put in the time and it really becomes your passion. And when you really, truly believe in something you can overcome obstacles. Things that would seem impossible! There’s no way I’m going to get past this barrier or this hurdle and you just do because you’re working so hard to make it happen.
And, there were many, many hurdles when we started Impossible 2 Possible especially given the fact that we wanted to keep everything free. All of our programs are free. That’s a difficult hurdle – a financial one – to overcome and we’ve been able to do it. It takes a tremendous amount of work, tremendous amount of effort but we’ve got people that are so passionate. You know, I always say to people the sum of our parts is greater than any one person in our organization and aligning yourself with others, a team can work at something much more easily and with more verve than one person working alone.
When you see people encounter obstacles entering into sport (or anything really!) what do you tell them are the benefits of persistence and tenacity?
In terms of explaining to others about being tenacious or sticking to one’s goals I would say the greatest gift you can give yourself is that of believing in yourself. Setting a goal and seeing it through or doing the very best you can to make it happen. These sorts of things and pushing yourself, you learn about yourself. When you are really challenging yourself you learn extraordinary things about yourself. It doesn’t even have to be a physical challenge it can be any sort of challenge or goal. And you learn all of a sudden you can say ‘wow I can’t believe I did that’ and you can and everyone can. I think that if anything running has taught me is that we’re all capable of being extraordinary in our own way.
What is your current involvement with H2O Africa? What inspired you to get involved?
My wife and I are volunteers in the Ryan’s Well Foundation a Canadian based water organization and we wanted to be involved in an organization that we could actually be hands on involved and volunteer in with water.
Matt Damon started H20 Africa and they have combined force with water.org and they are doing some tremendous work and Matt Damon continues to be an amazing – not only an amazing person – but he works tirelessly for these causes that he believes in.
Of the many experiences you have had what is your most cherished and why?
It’s a combination of questions but, for me, people ask me all the time ‘what is the greatest accomplishments you’ve had as an adventurer’, ‘what do you see as your greatest accomplishment’. I’ve got to tell you, you know, to be perfectly honest it is the founding of this organization impossible2Possible. I am just so proud of seeing these young people and seeing them experience what took me so long…so much later in my life to learn about myself to see them learning these things about themselves but, also, you know, it’s being a father. Being a father to my daughters and trying to instill in them from a very young age that they too can be amazing and that they can accomplish great things in their lives. They can do anything they set their minds to.
What would you say are some of the best ways to inspire, educate and ignite the spark, the possibility and the life force that exists in all people?
I would say a few words: Believe in yourself, and get out of “your” way!!! You can achieve incredible things – with tremendous effort. Some of the most rewarding achievements in life come from the most demanding and difficult processes.
What is next for you?
Taking 8 youth ambassadors to Botswana this fall and you can visit www.impossible2possible.com for info. Next March planning to run 2,300 km across Gobi Desert with limited resupply!
Thank you Ray – this interview has been a joy! If you want to follow along with Ray’s adventures you can visit his website www.rayzahab.com or keep up with him on Twitter @RayZahab. You can also visit the impossible2Possible website and see what is coming up.