Zahab-Atacama

Zahab pounds his way through the driest place on earth. Because he can

Running 60 klicks a day for 20 consecutive days while schlepping a 30-pound pack and sporting an infected blister the size of a baseball. Across the driest desert on earth. In 55°C heat. Could it be done by anyone but Ray Zahab?

Canada’s premier ultra athlete took on Chile’s 1,200-kilometre Atacama Desert in February 2011, running the whole length of the salt-strewn landscape. For Zahab, who also ran across the Sahara in 2007, it was one of his toughest expedition challenges yet.

Originally planned as a two-man feat with fellow Canadian ultra athlete Kevin Vallely, the trip was rejigged as a solo event at the last minute when Vallely’s father fell ill. Vallely and Zahab teamed up most recently in March 2010 to sled unsupported across Siberia’s 650-kilometre-long frozen Lake Baikal. In January 2009, the duo—along with famed arctic adventurer Richard Weber—had smashed the world record for the fastest, unsupported expedition to the South Pole.

But this was different. In an environment so inhospitable that 800-year-old corpses have been found virtually mummified in the desiccating winds, is it any wonder that no one (with the exception of the Chilean army in 1879) has been loco enough to try to cross the Atacama? Until now. Zahab knew it would be a grind, even with the help of his support team that provided precious water resupplies along the route, but he didn’t foresee some of his toughest challenges.

First, there were the 3,000-foot-deep gorges. Zahab had hoped to cross them overland, but it quickly became apparent that the only way up and down was to stick to the broiling Pan Pacific highway. Then there was the delay when he and his team were detained by security officials who weren’t too pleased about Zahab traipsing through their mining territories.

But Zahab’s biggest trial came straight from the Book of Job. After a difficult jaunt through the uneven terrain of a dry riverbed on Day Seven, a blister erupted on Zahab’s instep. Not just any blister, Zahab stresses—“the daddy of all blisters.” The blister soon became infected. “It hurt like hell. It was all pus and blood in my sock.” But after getting a jolt of antibiotics and MacGyvering a shoe with duct tape to fit around his swollen foot, he managed—barely—to continue.

Still, for Zahab, the scenery outshone the misery. In addition to such natural wonders of the ancient world as Inca trails and geoglyphs, Zahab was surrounded by mountains the whole way. The coolest thing? Video conferencing with thousands of school kids who got the full gross-out factor of Zahab’s epic blister—in real time. Excellent.
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