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Sunday, 29 April 2007

Running The Sahara

Written by Sasha Didier
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Runners Kevin Lin, Ray Zahab, and Charlie Engle (left to right) traverse the enormous breadth of a Mauritanian desert.
Photograph by Larry Tanz

Have you ever thought it was possible to run across the vastest desert in the world? How about running for over 100 days in the hopes of helping to improve the lives of the people in African communities that don’t have access to clean water? On November 2, 2006, three runners, Ray Zahab, Charlie Engle, and Kevin Lin set out across the world’s largest desert on a life-changing quest that lasted 111 days and covered 4,300 miles.

Traveling through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Egypt, these runners fought through extreme physical exhaustion and injuries to help aid the water crisis in Africa through H20 Africa. This incredible expedition of humanitarianism and physical strength has been captured in a documentary that will premiere in fall of ’07.


inTravel Magazine had a chance to speak to two of the runners, Ray Zahab and Charlie Engle, who happen to be close friends, as they reflected on their accomplishment and shared some of their struggles.

As Charlie Engle explained, it was Ray Zahab’s idea to run the Sahara in the first place, “He called me and we were just having a normal runner’s conversation. ‘What race are you doing next? How is your training?’ That kind of talk. Then Ray said ‘ I wonder if anybody has ever run across the Sahara Desert?’ That did it! I did the research and I decided at that very moment to give it a shot. It turned out to be the craziest idea of my life.”

Growing up on an Arabian horse farm, Ray Zahab had always been enamored by the Sahara. In the three years of his running career, he raced in the Sahara five times and it always felt like home. “The people of the desert were amazing, the topography was incredible, and there was just so much to discover. When I returned from running a 333 km non-stop race in Niger in 2004, I asked a buddy of mine, Charlie Engle, a question- Next thing I know we were on a plane to Senegal!”


Runner Charlie Engle, expedition guide Mohammad Ixa, runner Kevin Lin, expedition leader Donovan Webster, and runner Ray Zahab (left to right) assess the expedition route.
Photograph by Don Holtz

Charlie Engle has had much experience in desert-type runs, “I have been running in deserts for many years and can honestly say it is my favorite environment to run in. I have done Badwater in Death Valley 3 times (two 3rd Place finishes and one 8th), run the Gobi March across the Gobi Desert (1st Place), and run the Atacama Crossing in Chile (2nd Place). I am not sure why, but the desert has always suited me.”

ray and boy

Runner Ray Zahab connects with a child he meets along the expedition route.
Photograph by Don Holtz

Ray Zahab had a rough start in his running career, which has completely changed his lifestyle. “Until January 2000, I was a pack a day smoker whose favorite hobby was drinking beer! I decided to change that- and a year or two later got into mountain bike racing and adventure racing. It really wasn’t until December 2003 when I read about that crazy race in the Yukon that was about to take place two months later- that was the start of my running career. Ten races later around the world from the Amazon to the desert to the arctic… and the rest is history. Training to run close to 7500 kms across the Sahara is just about impossible. It’s a race against the ‘body disintegration’ clock. As I always say when speaking about my crazy adventures—Ultra running is 90% mental- and the other 10% is all in your head!”

Even for the most mentally prepared runner, confidence in completing the goal is not always easy. As Charlie Engle confessed, “I was not confident at all. I used to laugh when potential sponsors would ask me if I was sure I could run that far. I would say ‘absolutely, no problem.’ But when a friend or family member would ask the same question, my reply would be, ‘ I have absolutely no idea.’ To me, that was the whole point. Why try something if I already knew I could do it? Where would be the fun in that?”

Ray Zahab lacked the initial total confidence as well, “Truly, my biggest fear was not being able to finish. This gig was by far the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done. Period.”


Kevin Lin, Charlie Engle, and Ray Zahab (left to right) pace their route down a straightaway on the Trans-Saharan Highway in Mauritania.
Photograph by Don Holtz

During the 111-day quest of physical and mental struggle as well as the change in climate and surroundings- there were inevitable ups and downs. For Ray Zahab, there were moments when he thought about giving up the quest. “There were several times when I thought that finishing was out of reach for me. The biggest mental hurdles were the ones totally out of my control. I missed my wife so much in those first weeks that I thought I would die. Knowing that she would visit and run with me in Cairo kept me focused- and was integral in my ability to finish. Another mental hurdle was the distance. Close your eyes. Imagine you are in a desert running between 70-80 kms per day- and you have done that for 3500 kms. Now open your eyes! You have woken up- and you still have 4000 kms to go. Physically, the toll was huge. I had two very serious physical complications out there- severe intestinal virus and tendonitis. I thought the tendonitis would be the end of me. But we got through it together.”

Charlie Engle remarked on positive and negative aspects of running as a team, “I don’t think that the three of us were ever more than 100 feet apart during the entire expedition. If any one of us was struggling, then the other two had to slow down. We were only as fast as the slowest one of us on any given day. Of course this was comforting if I was sick and frustrating if I was healthy but that is the tough park of running as a team. Running as a team was both good and bad. It was good to have company but it was really tough too. Rarely did we all feel good at the same time so it took a lot of patience. We had some rough times during the expedition but ultimately; our struggles drew us closer to each other. No matter how we explain our journey to others, nobody will truly be able to understand what we went through. There is great power in shared suffering!”


Charlie Engle, Kevin Lin, and Ray Zahab (left to right) along the expedition route in Mauritania
Photograph by Don Holtz

With his vast history of tremendous running accomplishments, Charlie reflected on running the Sahara as being his greatest athletic endeavor. “Running the Sahara was easily the most challenging athletic pursuit of my life. But I think what really motivated me to do it was the mental challenge. I knew instinctively that it would be impossible to train for running 4500 miles. I really relied on my life experience to get me through the toughest times.”

The documentary Running the Sahara is aimed at raising awareness of the lack of clean water in Saharan Africa that kills nearly 4,500 children a day and empowering people to take action. It is being directed by James Moll who won an Oscar for best documentary in 1999 and narrated by Matt Damon, who is also one of the executive producers. To further the goals of the film a new foundation was set up: The H20 Africa Foundation. Its objective is to create sustainable alliances between people who want to help, the best organizations in the field, and the communities of Africa that have no clean water.

Charlie Engle describes how he got involved in the cause: “When I first decided to try to run across the Sahara Desert, it was primarily an ego based idea. I wanted to be the first person to run all the way across the Sahara. While on my scouting trip, I realized I had a chance to do something more. I learned that the biggest single problem in all of Africa (if not the entire world) is access to clean water. As a runner, I won’t get very far without clean water. While I was able to buy a supply of clean water to carry along, the average person in the Sahara has to travel more than two hours each way just to gain access to water that is probably not clean. It is not that water doesn’t exist there. In fact, it is well known that huge amounts of water are in underground aquifers, but it takes money to build wells to access the water. One well that might cost $15,000 could supply thousands of people with life changing water.”


Local children run alongside Kevin Lin, Ray Zahab, and Charlie Engle (left to right) as they pass a small Mauritanian village.
Photograph by Don Holtz

To find out more information about this great expedition and humanitarian project visit: or the H20 Africa Foundation’s website:

© Sasha Didier

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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