Words: Reilly Doucet, Altitude Sports writer
Distance Diaries: Ray Zahab’s Need for Death Valley Speed
Ray Zahab is not interested in easy. The ultra distance runner has traversed every desert on earth on his feet. His first-ever desert crossing spanned 7,500 kilometers and 111 days, and many of his other expeditions have spanned over two weeks. Crossing the widest part of Death Valley - at 133.8 kilometers - almost seems like small fry compared to his other pursuits.
But for this summer’s Death Valley journey, Ray raised the stakes. The goal: to move as quickly as possible from the West to East transect. And he certainly succeeded. Ray and his running partner Stefano had originally aimed to complete the crossing in 48 hours, but finished in just 34 hours.
In Southern California, where the border collides with Nevada, the largest, hottest, driest, and lowest National Park in the United States entices tourists and outdoor lovers with its unique natural features. Alpine forests lined with cedar and joshua trees, slot canyons, sand dunes, narrow valleys and desert bush: it’s a hotspot for sightseeing, hiking, camping, and road trips. But very few would dare to run across the entire expanse of Death Valley in one trip.
For Ray, the more daring a quest, the better. With every kilometer he completed, the arid landscapes morphed into something slightly new and equally challenging. He started the run high up in the mountains, where he was surrounded by Joshua tree forests and the smell of almost burning cedar. But upon descending down into the valley, he was greeted by vast salt flats, alluvial fans, 100-foot canyon walls, and much hotter temperatures.
“When you’re running through Death Valley, it’s like a one way street” Ray explains. “There are parts of the route where there is no way out. You have to be fully committed to a certain stretch at a time, moving through some of the area’s most precarious terrain. Going the wrong way, turning back, and possibly running out of water could be detrimental.”
Though the physical demands of the crossing were insane from start to finish, the most difficult part for Ray was getting over his own mental roadblocks. Since he’s been to Death Valley before, he knows just how risky and unpredictable it can be. Just enjoying and living in the moment, rather than dwelling over what ifs, was the biggest challenge.
But planning always helps ease the mind. The timing of the crossing had to be thought out very meticulously, so they moved across the lowest, hottest section in the middle of the night, when temperatures drop significantly. Instead of a good night’s sleep, Ray and his running partner snaked through the valley floor, between daunting dunes and enormous rock formations. Above them, an extraordinary sky lit up with stars and afforded the trip’s most unforgettable views.
“Temperature changes are fundamental to every expedition I do,” Ray told us. For Death Valley, he chose to go in July, fully prepared to take on daytime temperatures that reach over 50 degrees Celsius. It’s so hot in the day, that the mountain and nighttime temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius can feel quite chilly. “And I’m not just talking about the temperature outside,” he says, in reference to the cold. “I’m talking about my body temperature, which gets used to spending all day in the scorching hot sun. If you’re not prepared, you can actually go hypothermic from the drastic changes.”
It all comes back to preparation, and that means gear is picked very methodically too. Ray’s essentials are his lightweight Canada Goose down jacket for those temperature fluctuations, his norda trail running shoes, and his Osprey running backpack. “Essentials” also means products that Ray could take on a 34-hour run through the desert without breaking them in, that’s how much he trusts them. The norda shoes, for example, would still give him zero blisters, running without socks, in some of the most heinous conditions - even straight out of the box.
Plus, when all the gear you need is carried on your back, you need to pack light. “I’ll cut labels just to save the tiniest amount of weight,” he reveals. Any extra grams affect speed, and speed is the end goal. In order to complete the journey as quickly as possible, breaks were only taken when successful navigation provided extra time.
SHOP RAY ZAHAB’S TOUGHEST GEAR PICKS
Luckily, throughout all the varied landscapes, no major navigational errors occurred. Ray’s journey ended 14 hours earlier than expected, in the middle of nowhere, encircled by low, spiky grasses, just after crossing into Nevada. Another 133.8 kilometers added to his tally of almost 20,000 kilometers of total running.