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Getting to the Starting Line

Osprey Athlete Ray Zahab reflects on his most recent crossing through Death Valley, the challenges he faced, and what he is working towards next.

I’ve heard it said before that the hardest part of any adventure is actually just getting to the start line. These past twenty years of expeditions have taught me that there is a lot of wisdom and truth in that statement. When we ran 4500 miles across the Sahara in 2007, I wasn’t sure we’d ever get to our start in Senegal, let alone the finish, 111 days later on the Red Sea in Egypt. While planning my unsupported 2009 expedition to the South Pole, funding was so tight, I wasn’t sure we’d make it to the start – but somehow, we did. With over 40 expeditions spanning 20,000 kilometres across most of the largest deserts on the planet, and coldest winter months in the Arctic and Siberia, I thought I’d faced every possible hurdle in trying to get to the start line.

But as we all know…life can be wickedly unpredictable.

A landscape view of Death Valley as the sun sets on a cloudy sky
Image via Ray Zahab

In 2019, while training for an upcoming expedition to the Canadian Arctic, I was feeling like I simply couldn’t recover from longer workouts. I pushed on and completed that unsupported adventure across Baffin Island in January 2020, but was wrecked after. The pandemic was soon upon us, and travel stopped, bringing to a halt my expeditions, the guided expeditions I would lead for my clients with KapiK1, and our free-of-cost, learning-based expeditions for youth with my foundation impossible2Possible. My family and I spent endless days throughout 2020-2022 in the backcountry together, but I just didn’t feel myself. By the time the world started to travel again, and I began a mission of preparing for upcoming adventures and expeditions in 2022, I was finding myself chronically exhausted with the added symptom of constant brain fog, and a dwindling ability to focus or even breathe well, while out trail running and skiing.

As summer 2022 approached, I was training for a west-to-east crossing of Death Valley at its widest point, about 130km, set for early July. I struggled to get to that start line due to the unbearable exhaustion and diminishing that I felt I was going through. I was definitely NOT myself anymore.

My wife Kath convinced me it was time to finally go to the doctor (yes, I am one of those people who frustratingly refuses to go to the doctor!), and after multiple tests and an eventual bone marrow biopsy, I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, which pretty much explained everything I’d been feeling up to this point!

That fall of 2022, six months of chemotherapy and monoclonal therapy would begin, and everything else I had planned, well, let’s just say I would have to find a way to adapt.

I made the decision, along with my oncologist’s support, to stay focused throughout treatment, and keep doing the things I loved. I would tell myself that I was going to get myself into the best shape possible before each round of chemo that was separated by 25-day blocks.

That would mean, I would receive three treatments over two days, then I would lay on the couch exhausted, sick and toxic for a few days. Then Kath would get me up and I would walk 500 meters up our road, and I would begin…. living again, for the next 23 days.

I’d build myself back up until I felt like I could “go do something” with the final 10 days before my next chemo. Don’t get me wrong, I still had an underlying nausea that pervaded everything I did. I mean, I actually felt nauseous in my hands. I know that sounds weird, but that’s how it was.

Each month I got ready for that 10-day block, and I went and did something epic. I actually did an Arctic ski expedition in February. In March I did a desert running adventure with my youngest daughter. In the previous November I guided clients in the Atacama Desert. In December I attended the Running Event in Austin with my buddy Nick who is the founder of Norda. That focus and commitment got me fit and mentally prepared for the next rounds of chemo and monoclonal therapy, and how disgusting I was going to feel.

But I also knew that at some point I’d get through this, and hopefully feel amazing again.

In an effort to give myself something to really look forward to, a huge goal that I would need to truly be in the best possible shape -  mentally, physically, and emotionally to achieve, I decided that I would return to a place I love so much: Death Valley, California.

A windy day of sand dunes, with sand wisping off the dunes
Image via Tucker Prescott

Over the years I have completed many adventures in this most extreme of environments. In summer of 2011, Will Laughlin and I ran the length of the National Park, completely off-road, about 250km, with minimal support. We went back in July 2019 and crossed west to east over the Panamints and Amargosa ranges. And there’s been many more memories and adventures there.

Why Death Valley?

There’s just something about this place that draws me in. It’s unexplainable. I always say I’ll never go back…. but I do. I love it. There are really only three places on the planet I have returned to over and over. Baffin Island, Nunavut in the Arctic, The Atacama Desert in Chile (the first time was in summer 2011 when I did the first north-to-south solo crossing of the desert, 1,200km) and Death Valley.

There are places on this planet where my adventures have been so personally challenging: a 1,850km crossing of the Namib Desert in summer, a 20-day unsupported winter crossing of Kamchatka, Russia, and of course, 111 days of running across the Sahara, just to name a few. But the biggest ass kickings I’ve taken, have been generously handed to me by Death Valley.

My goal was to return to this awesome place in July 2023, hot off chemo, fit and raring to go.

They say getting to the start is the hardest part, and being ready for this was surely going to validate that statement!

My training felt great, better than I had in years. I was logging bigger and bigger miles on the trails. I dropped the 20 pounds of water weight I gained from the chemo almost instantly and my brain became clearer and clearer.

I had only a few days to achieve my goal of going self-contained from the most northern part of Death Valley and heading south to my finish roughly 100 miles later. This was a personal adventure, a journey I had completed once before, and I just wanted to see if I could solo it, and improve my navigation, training and preparation.

A man wearing a fast-packing pack and holding trekking poles, heading through Death Valley desert terrain
Image via Jesse Delgrosse

My best friend Bob Cox (co-founder of our charity impossible2Possible), my buddy Jesse and I headed to the desert in early July and began preparing for my adventure, but also another special project we were working on for a client in a different region of the Mojave. This special project was my time limit. I had only a few days to do my crossing- that was my window.

Unfortunately for me, a forecasted weather system was moving into Death Valley that would make my crossing extremely difficult. I’ve faced all sorts of weather on my multiple summer adventures in Death Valley, and deserts all over the world, so I felt like I could handle it. The forecast called for possible record temperatures, and a driving south wind that would be relentless for days. But I was ready. I had just finished chemo! “I can do this!!!” I told myself.

Bob dropped me up north, and I started to make my way through the mountains to the valley floor, and my first cache of water, at around the 20-mile mark. On average, that’s how far apart my water caches were. That meant I carried with me: food, my camping gear, and 6-8 litres of water for each pull. I had an emergency sat phone, and other items that I felt could save my life out there, if needed.

Bob dropped me up north, and I started to make my way through the mountains to the valley floor, and my first cache of water, at around the 20-mile mark. On average, that’s how far apart my water caches were. That meant I carried with me: food, my camping gear, and 6-8 litres of water for each pull. I had an emergency sat phone, and other items that I felt could save my life out there, if needed.

Everything was packed in my Osprey Talon Velocity pack, which I had helped out with in the testing and development phases. The pack was PERFECT. Everything fit in its place, and it was comfortable enough with the load I had on board, to run and navigate the sketchy terrain, without being bouncy or creating hotspots or pressure points.

A man running down a dirt road in a desert landscape
Image via Tucker Prescott

I headed south, got my first cache, and dropped from 6900 feet to sea level. The predicted wind picked up, and the heat wasn’t too bad, hovering in the 115-120F range. By afternoon, the winds were blowing so hard it was like walking into a wall of wind so hot and debilitating - it took all my strength to use into it and walk.

By the time I hit my second cache I was so chronically dehydrated from the wind, I was cramping everywhere in my body. I was a mess. And I was unbelievably frustrated with myself and my situation. This wasn’t my first rodeo – I have thousands of miles, on foot, in summers across deserts all over the world- including this one! But this time…this time, the wind was different. There’s always been a shift in the wind at some point in the day, or night, in most deserts (and in Death Valley in particular) I have routinely in crossings past. The wind shift typically enabled enabling a chance for a tailwind to let my body catch back up and recover.

But not today.

A man running downhill among a desert landscape
Image via Box Cox

I sat at any cache, not even close to being overheated- but totally vapid of all minerals, electrolytes and body fluids. It took me sitting there for three hours, drinking electrolytes and taking magnesium and other concoctions I have, to get myself to a point where I could get going again. The sun had set, and I loaded up for what I was sure would be a shift in the wind, a drop in temperatures, and a long night of desert hiking ahead. I suited up, and stepped back into the Death Valley Wash, out of the cover of brush and rocks. And the wind hit me like a ton of bricks.

Within a few kilometres, just a mile or two, all of the fluids I had re-upped, had been stripped away by the driving winds.  

I knew I was done.

Frustrated, I got to a point where extraction was possible, and the boys picked me up.

I was disappointed, but ironically, I wasn’t at all defeated. When we do hard things and we push ourselves, occasionally things don’t go as planned. I’ve learned that hard lesson in the past on Arctic expeditions where life or death decisions need to be made, in an instant. As a friend of mine taught me: there is no FAIL. Just a First Attempt In Learning.

I’ve never stopped learning with every expedition or adventure I’ve done.

Of the more than 40 expeditions I’ve done, the outcome didn’t go my way three times previously. Now this was number four!

I left the desert STOKED, knowing that I would be back. In retrospect, the combination of weather anomaly plus the relative closeness of the completion of my chemo was too wicked a mixture to overcome. But I love the challenge, and the unknown.

I’m post chemo almost 10 months as I write this.  And I can honestly say I haven’t felt this awesome in years. I AM my old self again.

A man with running gear and a headlamp beaming off into the distance, with a starry night sky in the background
Image via Jesse Delgrosse

I’m post chemo almost 10 months as I write this.  And I can honestly say I haven’t felt this awesome in years. I AM my old self again.

Right now, I am preparing for an upcoming impossible2Possible Youth Expedition, a few KapiK1 client trips and my own month-long expeditions in the remotest Arctic and South America. But I’ve always got a place in my heart, and time for Death Valley. I’ll be back there this summer, on an epic adventure, in a place I love, at the time of year I can’t seem to get enough of.

There’s no cure for the type of blood cancer I have. There is no doubt it will return someday, but remission is one of those bittersweet things in life that make you appreciate exactly where you are- and the potential of where you could be going.

I just need to get to the start line.


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