Ultrarunners cover legendary journeys at unprecedented paces during 2007

By Kate Lapides, a great article from Trail Runner online. It includes recaps of the most famous ultra-running feats of 2007 including Canada’s Ray Zahab who ran Canada’s Akshayuk Pass, East Coast and West Coast Trails all in a row.

Ultrarunners cover legendary journeys at unprecedented paces. In addition to Sue Johnston’s John Muir Trail (JMT) record-setting run, several other records were established on trails around the world in 2007. Two of these were international never-been-done-before link-ups, and two were domestic trail records.

Official logs of such records, even on established trails, are difficult to come by. Trail foundations such as the Pacific Crest Trail Association (www.pcta.org) and the Ice Age Parks and Trail Foundation (www.iceagetrail.org) keep registries of thru-hikers, but do not attempt to verify their “record” times. More often, their veracity relies an honor system based upon regional and national distance-hiking and ultrarunning communities. News about these ventures and the style in which they were completed ripple through this extended community, garnering general credibility-or not.

Thru-trail attempts are subdivided into two main categories: supported and unsupported.

In supported efforts, crews restock the runner’s food and water, set up camps, and pacers provide much-needed camaraderie. On unsupported attempts, hikers and runners carry their own supplies, and run or hike without pacers, often pre-arranging delivery of food, fuel and gear supplies to towns that intersect with the trail.

What compels these folks to push themselves to such extremes, enduring sustained fatigue, physical pain and discomfort, and fear? Reasons range across goals as diverse as these running expeditions. Some were personal challenges, and others were motivated to raise social awareness about issues ranging from poverty to clean water.

Throughout all of them, runners pushed through the terra incognita of previous physical and mental limits to experience profound life shifts and realizations. Most concluded that those barriers had not only been unnecessarily limiting, but also self-created and imposed.

Charlie Engle, Kevin Lin and Ray Zahab: First Run Across Africa’s Sahara Desert

American Charlie Engle, 45, and fellow ultrarunners Ray Zahab of Canada and Kevin Lin of Taiwan, ran over 4300 miles across one of the earth’s hottest, most inhospitable landscapes: The Sahara Desert. From November 2006 through February 2007, the trio covered an average of 42 miles per day (over 14 hours) for 111 days straight, an epic journey through six countries, from the Atlantic coast of Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Egypt, and Libya, ending at the Red Sea.

The idea for this monumental crossing of a vast, arid desert took seed during a run through Brazil’s dense Amazonian tropics. While racing the 2004 Jungle Marathon, a 200-kilometer stage race, Engle and Zahab pondered whether anyone had ever traversed the Sahara on foot. They returned home to research the topic and concluded that it had not been done. “This should have been a sign that the run might not be a smart idea,” Engle remembers wryly. “Instead, it lit a fire inside us both and we decided to give it a try.”

The trio originally planned to complete the run in 90 days, but the passage took three weeks longer. The first 10 days they struggled to adapt to North Africa’s heat, the huge daily mileage, difficult navigation, and geographic obstacles that forced lengthy detours. Permission to cross into Libya took months of pre-trip negotiations with the Tripoli government, and even then, the group was held up for a day at the Libyan border.

Major sponsors largely paid for the endeavor’s high price tag. Toyota provided Land Cruisers to transport the support and film crews, Magellan provided GPS units, Gatorade chipped in 3000 liters of fluid, Champion provided apparel, and National Geographic came on as a major expedition media partner.

During a typical day, expedition members arose at 4 a.m. and hit the trail an hour later. The runners met with their support crew to eat and rest midday, then started running again when the heat subsided-usually until 9 or 10 p.m. The support team comprised of physician Jeff Peterson, M.D., massage therapist Chuck Dale, logistics coordinator and National Geographic writer Donovan Webster and native Tuareg guide Mohamed Ixa. Each night expedition members stretched out in tents-or, in Engle’s case, under the stars-for some well-earned shuteye.

Along with the usual ultramarathon difficulties-dehydration, swelling feet, blisters, overuse injuries and upset stomachs -Engle, Zahab and Lin dealt with challenges unique to the Sahara’s political and ecological environment, including blinding sand storms, camel spiders, scorpions, minefields, AK-47-toting border guards and treacherous roads.

They drew drinking water from the same often-contaminated wells the locals used, giving them a visceral experience of Saharan Africans’ clean-water shortage. “A lack of water and sanitation was the most critical problem they faced,” says Engle.

Since returning to the United States, Engle insists that gaining acclaim for crossing the Sahara on foot was not the journey’s most important outcome. “I wanted to do this run for some reason other than my own selfish ambition,” says Engle, who started H20 Africa, a charitable organization, prior to going to Africa. H2O Africa partners with the non-profit organization WaterPartners International to raise funds and awareness for water and sanitation projects in Africa.

A film documenting Engle, Zahab and Lin’s record run, Running the Sahara, produced by Matt Damon, was released in September 2007.

Ray Zahab: First link-up of Canada’s Akshayuk Pass, East Coast and West Coast Trails

Just seven months after completing a first-ever crossing of the Sahara Desert in February, Zahab conceived of another endurance challenge, this time closer to home. On August 22, Zahab, a personal trainer and adventure athlete from Chelsea, Quebec, began a never-before-attempted 10-day link-up of three breathtakingly scenic trails on each Canada’s coastlines, totaling 400 kilometers.

Why choose three trails on opposite sides of a continent? “These trails have ‘legendary’ status in Canada,” explains the enthusiastic 38-year-old Zahab. “They are all
beautiful, rugged and describe each coastal area of Canada perfectly.”

Starting near the remote Inuit community of Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island, lying above the Arctic Circle in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, Zahab muscled through the 100-kilometer Akshayuk Pass Trail in 27 hours.

He and support runner, Chuck Dale, crossed glacial streams nearly fifty times while traversing Akshayuk Pass, occasionally forced to fjord waist-deep, turbulent rivers. Their battered and swollen feet would freeze in the icy water, then thaw during the bone-bruising slogs over rocky tundra. For Zahab, the Baffin Island’s dramatic landscape and the Inuit’s generous hospitality balanced out the difficulties. “Baffin is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life,” he says.

Zahab then flew to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to run the 225-kilometer East Coast Trail. Running with his wife Kathy, they completed it in just 42 hours, receiving support and food from their crew at several small towns along on the route. Running with his wife in her home province Zahab says was a highlight: “She has always supported me in my adventures-and to share this with her was awesome.”

The ubiquitous, jet-lagged runner then caught a trans-continental flight to Victoria, British Columbia, and boarded a bus to Port Renfrew to traverse the 75-kilometer West Coast Trail, which took him 16 hours.

During this final leg, Zahab ran solo and received no outside aid-carrying only a lightweight shell, Fuel Belt filled with Gatorade, Aquatabs, and an emergency blanket. After realizing that he was within easy range of achieving his target goal of 10 days for the three-trail link-up, Zahab took his time running along the beaches at night, going from campfire to campfire and conversing with hikers camped there.

Throughout the Canada Three Trails Challenge, as he called it, Zahab appeared almost daily on the Canada AM national morning television show to talk about his run and draw attention to the issue of malaria prevention in Africa-specifically promoting the non-profit group, Spread the Net. The organization raises funds to purchase insecticide-treated mosquito nets for distribution to rural Liberian and Rwandan households.

In 2009, Zahab plans to run and trek 750 kilometers from Ward Hunt Island to the North Pole with explorer Kevin Vallely to raise awareness about the issue of global climate change.

“Running across the entire Sahara changed and bettered my life forever in so many ways,” says Zahab. “I love Canada so much and to experience these coastal trails has fueled me to explore even more of my country.”

Jennifer Pharr: Fastest self-supported traverse of Vermont’s Long Trail

Green Mountain Club members celebrated their completion of Vermont’s Long Trail’s final segment in 1930 by lighting flares from every summit in the Green Mountain Range, which arcs from the Massachusetts-Vermont state line to the Canadian border.

On August 8, 2007, 24-year-old Jennifer Pharr felt like rejoicing in a similar manner after covering the 270-mile distance in a record 7 days 15 hours 40 minutes. Previous record holder is Dr. Warren Doyle, who, in 1978, covered the distance (unsupported) in 8 days 13 hours 25 minutes. Ted “Cave Dog” Kizer is owner of the Long Trail’s fastest overall recorded journey (with outside support) of 4 days 14 hours.

Doyle, along with ultrarunner David Horton, is an unofficial record keeper for the Appalachian (AT) and Long Trails. He is the Interim Director of the John B. Stephenson Center for Appalachian and Comparative Highland Studies Institute at Lees-McRae College, and has thru-hiked the AT fourteen times. Most thru-hikers and runners inform him of their record attempts on significant Eastern hiking throughways and Doyle verifies their claims primarily via an honor system, and more importantly, through the Appalachian region’s hiking and ultrarunning community grapevines.

Pharr, of Hendersonville, North Carolina, completed the Appalachian Trail in 2005 and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, but yearned to thru-hike a substantial trail in a sustained push. “I wanted to immerse myself in the trail and give it my all,” says Pharr. “Nothing could have taught me more as pushing my limits on the Long Trail.”

Pharr’s unsupported journey began each day at 5 or 6 a.m. She averaged 30 miles daily, hiking until 8 or 9 p.m., snacking all day. She had mailed three shipments of food to towns along the trail to restock her food supply. Pharr’s 10-pound pack contained food and clothing, but no tent, as she slept under the stars, and when weather looked threatening, stayed in Green Mountain Club huts.

After blitzing through 45 miles the first day, Pharr awoke on the second morning to a swollen knee and ankle and later that day, suffered a bee sting on the same leg. Mildly allergic, she endured a painful and swollen leg for two days, icing it in streams wherever possible, doubting her ability to continue.

But day four was a turning point. “I had physically overcome a great deal of pain and was now ready for the challenges ahead,” she says.

After graduating from Alabama’s Samford University three-and-a-half years ago, Pharr works seasonally for six months at a North Carolinian summer camp for girls and then travels and hikes the remainder of the year. She took up ultrarunning shortly before her Long Trail attempt, running Virginia’s 2006 Promise Land 50K in 7:00:19 and the 2007 Holiday Lake 50K in 5:34:14. After her record-breaking hike, she also completed Lynchburg’s Mountain Masochist 50-miler in 9:41:21.

Pharr is considering a thru-hiking speed attempt on the Appalachian Trail next summer. “I know that hiking strong, fast and smart can teach you specific lessons, and [being really fit] is a gift that will not always be available to me,” says Pharr. “So I want to take advantage of it while I can.”

Pharr’s Long Trail sojourn profoundly changed her. “I am not the same person that I had been at the start,” she says. “Endurance hiking had taught me to unburden myself from physical gear and emotional ties that slowed me down in the past, and in turn focus on what is positive in my life.”

Pharr didn’t keep a blog on her Long Trail record-breaking hike, but a thoughtful write-up on her 2006 Pacific Crest Trail hike can be found at www.brmsstore.com/blogs/jennifer

Jason Dorgan: Fastest supported run of the Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin

In mid-April 2007, 42-year-old mechanical engineer Jason Dorgan traded in his CAD drawings for an 8-pound black Camelbak, which he carted for 11 hours a day for three weeks while running Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, completing the 1079-mile journey in 22 days 6 hours.

The Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (IAPTF) documents thru-hikes on the trail, recognizing anyone who reports completing the entire span-including its interconnecting road segments-with the official “Thousand-Miler” designation. Only a handful of hikers are recorded as having covered the full distance to date.

Commencing at the Ice Age trailhead in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, Dorgan averaged nearly 48 miles a day, ending in Potowatomi Park, at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Upon completing his passage on May 6, the Madison-based ultrarunner was greeted by a troupe of friends and family toting celebratory champagne and brownies.

Dorgan ran in high style, resting in hotels each night and meeting up with support-crew members Tom Bolt and Robert Wehner several times daily to refuel with pizza, hamburgers, jelly beans, gels, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and Ensure-to the tune of 6000 calories a day. Dorgan’s crew also heated up chicken noodle soup on the support vehicle’s engine block. Friends and fellow runners often accompanied the lanky runner for long segments of his run, occasionally bringing him milkshakes and other treats. He posted regular reports on his blog, which the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, Madison Capitol Times and other regional papers occasionally picked up.

In terms of sponsorship, Dorgan was pretty much on his own: a pair of shoe inserts from a Madison-based Fleet Feet store was his only freebie. His primary interest was in garnering awareness and monetary support for the Ice Age Trail, a landscape he has run and hiked through for much of his life, and for which he retains a deep connection. “I thought the Ice Age Trail was worthy of more recognition and figured one way to do that was a thru-run. It took about two years from the idea bouncing around my brain before I was able to realize the accomplishment.”

Dorgan’s record-setting run raised $15,000 for the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (IAPTF) which maintains the pathway and is converting 400 miles of the trail’s road segments to unpaved trail. “Jason’s run was a terrific development for our organization, ” explains the IAPTF’S Eric Sherman. “Not only did it provide some very valuable financial support, it also generated a tremendous amount of publicity for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, both around Wisconsin and throughout the country.”

The final Ice Age Trail route, named one of eight National Scenic Trails by President Jimmy Carter, will extend 1200 miles along terminal glacial moraines and is a veritable showcase of glacial geological history. Speeding through this quietly glorious terrain with the persistence and determination of its former ice flows, was an affirming experience for the Madison runner. “The run confirmed my belief that anything is possible, and that the
human body is very resilient. ”

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