Ray Zahab running in the Sahara
Credit: Impossible2Possible

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, Ray Zahab stubbed out his last cigarette, vowing it was time to follow through on a decision he had made in 1998 to get off the couch and get physical. Four years later, he entered his very first ultra adventure race: the 160-kilometre Yukon Arctic Ultra, held in February. And to the surprise of everyone—including himself—he won it. An unstoppable endurance adventurer was born.

Zahab made international headlines in 2007 when he joined forces with American Charlie Engle and Taiwan’s Kevin Lin to traverse the 7,500-kilometre Sahara Desert in 111 days. Shortly afterwards, he covered three of Canada’s best-known hiking trails (Akshayuk Pass, the East Coast Trail and the West Coast Trail) in eight consecutive days. Since then, Zahab, 43, has gone on to run some of the most inhospitable stretches of frozen and sun-blasted land on the planet. In January 2009, Zahab, along with Canadians Richard Weber and Kevin Vallely, broke the speed record for a non-supported, 1,100-kilometre trek to the South Pole, coming in just under 34 days. Vallely joined him again in March 2010 for the fastest unsupported run across the 650-kilometre frozen expanse of Russia’s Lake Baikal. Zahab was also the first to run across the 1,200-kilometre Atacama Desert, a feat he managed in 20 days in February 2011. Last summer, Zahab ran 300 kilometres across Death Valley when, at one point, a laser thermometer recorded ground temperatures of 63.88 C.

It was while running across the Sahara that an idea came to Zahab. “I realized that it wasn’t me who was unique necessarily; it was that we are all capable of doing extraordinary things,” he says. It was a message he wanted to pass on to others. And so in 2008, he founded impossible2Possible (i2P), a volunteer-operated charity that aims to educate, inspire and empower youth around the world. So far, by uplinking live video and other learning materials to participating schools, i2P has spread its message to 70,000 students across 14 different countries. It has also taken 22 lucky young people (at no cost) on running adventures of a lifetime—to Baffin Island, Tunisia, the Amazon, Bolivia and India.

Meanwhile, Zahab’s next adventure is slated for this spring, when he will attempt a 2,000-kilometre journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic in South America, starting in Concón, Chile, and then going east over the Andes, across the southern part of the pampas, and down through Argentina. He plans to finish the last 100 kilometres with former i2P youth ambassadors running by his side.

This profile is part of our top adventurer series, The Elite, from the Spring 2012 issue.