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Friday, April 6, 2007
Run through Sahara more than personal challenge

By Graham Bensinger
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Three runners embarked on an epic journey to run across the Sahara Desert, not only for the challenge but also to raise awareness of some of the most impoverished nations of Africa. Three runners -- Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab and Kevin Lin -- ran for 111 days over 4,300 miles through six countries (Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Egypt) and lived to tell their tale. Engle took time to share stories about this incredible journey with ESPN.com contributor Graham Bensinger.

Question from Graham Bensinger: How did the idea come about for this?

Answer from Charlie Engle: It was one of those bad ideas that runners have when they're out for a run. Ray [Zahab] and I began discussing the possibility. I must admit that it came out of his mouth first, and had I been a little smarter, I would have turned and run away. He mentioned that he had a friend that looked into running across a big chunk of the Sahara one time. He then asked the question: "I wonder if anybody has ever run across the entire Sahara Desert?" We did a little research, found it had never been done before, and decided to give it a shot.

Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab, and Kevin Lin
Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab, and Kevin Lin (left to right) covered over 4,300 miles during the expedition.

Q: What had you done prior to this that made you think it was even physically possible for you to accomplish the feat?

A: I've done a lot of running in deserts. I met Ray in the Amazon Jungle, but I met Kevin [Lin] in 2003 in the Gobi Desert. Kevin and I competed against each other in the Gobi and in the Atacama Desert in Chile. We really just decided that deserts were a place that we enjoyed running. The challenge of doing something that has never been done before really appealed to us.

Q: What type of training is involved in preparation for this?

A: [Laughs] When we did the math, we realized that we need to really cover 40-50 miles per day, every single day. It became obvious we couldn't physically train our bodies for that type of stress. What we really did was try to go into the expedition as healthy as possible. Of course, we did a lot of running, hundreds of miles a week in preparation. It was much more of a mental exercise than physical. We weren't going very fast, but we were running 14 hours per day, every single day. It was much tougher on the mind than it was on the body.

Q: You were able to get Matt Damon's production company on board. How difficult, if at all, was that?

A: I am a very motivated person, and normally I take an idea and try to push forward very hard. In this case, it was simply me mentioning the idea to a friend of mine. He happened to be a friend of James Moll, a director who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary several years ago. Frankly, James took it from there. I really had very little to do with it. He had previously worked with LivePlanet, which is the company that Matt Damon is associated with. When Matt heard of the idea, he volunteered to come on board and wanted to narrate the movie. He's very passionate about running and Africa, and it was a good fit for him.

Q: The expedition is starting. It's your first day running. What was that like?

A: The first day in Senegal was really scary. We felt very apprehensive just about getting started. It took everything we could to get on the road. Logistically, there were a massive number of problems just getting started. It seemed as if we'd never get going. I'll never forget that first day because we actually only covered about 30 kilometers, which is around 20 miles, far short of what we ended up doing each day. I felt terrible the next day. I woke up sore and tired, and then I realized how this wasn't going to be fun. The body has a great capacity to adapt to stress. We took it one step at a time, focusing on the short term and not the big picture.

Q: [Laughs] Right. Until you realize that the planned 80-day expedition just got extended an additional 31 days.

A: As I like to say, Graham, Africa just ended up being a whole lot bigger than I planned! That sounds like a silly comment, but there are just no accurate maps. We had the good fortune of having Magellan GPS as our primary sponsor for the expedition. I got very good at using the Magellan system. Even with that, there always seemed like there was something in the way, some obstacle to go around. You just cannot go in a straight line in Africa. You have to adapt.

Q: I read that there was basically this 10-day running acclimation period.

A: It's very true. I've since learned that almost everybody, including friends and family watching us online, really gave us very little chance at getting all the way across the desert after those first 10 days in Senegal and Mauritania. We weren't adapting very well. Kevin and Ray both had serious stomach problems. Kevin had some major muscular issues. We were just falling apart. Temperatures were well over 115 and 120 degrees every day. One day, about 10 or 11 days into the expedition, it was almost as if someone flipped a switch. We began to get into a rhythm. From that point on, things got better and better.

Q: What's the average day like?

A: The average day is very monotonous. We're up at 4 a.m. I was the taskmaster, although Kevin referred to me as the monster. Part of what I did as the expedition leader was focus on getting us going every day. We'd start running at 5 a.m. and take a break around noon for some lunch and even a quick nap on the hottest days. We'd start running again at 2:30 p.m. and not stop until 9:30 p.m. We'd get five hours of sleep and get up and do it again. There wasn't a lot of variety going on in our lives at that point.

Expedition group
The expedition crew struggled to keep an accurate day-to-day account of their course through the Sahara.

Q: Five hours sleep?

A: [Laughs] We literally did 111 straight days on an average of five hours sleep per night. It caused a lot of physical problems. Hydration was a major concern. I think I set some kind of a record. I drank something like 1,411 liters of Gatorade. Thank goodness Gatorade is kind enough to make 10 or 12 different flavors, otherwise I don't think I could have done it. In the Sahara Desert, you become dehydrated just breathing. The air is so dry, and then when you add running 40-50 miles each day it can really be dangerous. It was the thing that had the greatest likelihood of bringing this expedition to a dead stop.

Q: In addition to hydration, you needed food. How much were you eating?

A: Not nearly enough. Our eating was a very difficult problem. Anyone who has actually gone out and run in the heat recognizes losing the appetite is almost the first thing that happens. I'm 180 pounds. I need to get 10,000 calories a day to even have a hope of maintaining my weight. That didn't happen. I lost somewhere between 25-30 pounds in the first month. Once again, the body has a great ability to adapt. It sounds funny, but I was getting more than I would eat in my normal life, over 2,000 calories a day, from Gatorade consumption. Liquid calories became very important in this expedition.

Q: What people were on your team to ensure your well-being?

A: We were really a small team, if you compare us to expeditions that have taken place over the last 50 years. We had three runners [Engle, Zahab and Lin], a friend of mine, Chuck Dale, Stanford's Dr. Jeff Peterson, our logistics coordinator Don Webster, who's also a writer for National Geographic, and the remaining member was Mohamed Ixa. He was the native tour guide that enabled us to get across the desert safely. He was always out in front making sure of that. He knew the desert unlike any other person on earth.

Q: What do you talk about for that long each day? Or do you even talk?

A: [Laughs] Ray and I could talk about nothing all day, every day. Poor Kevin was stuck listening to us. I've known Kevin for a long time. He's Taiwanese. His English is quite good, but it's very difficult to jump in with two guys that talk as much as Ray and I do. We talked a lot about running and our daily schedule. We got along great and we're still great friends, but just image spending 111 straight days with any single person in your life never being more than 100 feet away from them 24 hours a day. I'm talking eating, bathroom, sleeping, running, you name it. We're right next to each other. At some point, you're ready to kill that person and push them off to the side of the trail!

One of the things that really motivated us was the fact we decided that water was our real focus during this expedition. That sounds obvious for runners, but what I mean by that is we actually aided in setting up a NGO [nongovernment organization] called, "H20 Africa." The goal was to help bring attention to the problem of clean water in Africa. In particular, bring attention to the problem in the Sahara Desert. It was very motivating for us just to run through these towns and villages and see people that were happy, well-adjusted and family-oriented. But almost every place we encountered lacked access to clean water. We're hoping that in phase two of this expedition, happening now, we're able to bring attention to that and solve a few of the problems over there.

Q: I recall reading a story from Don Webster's blog. You all encountered a 7-year-old boy whose parents left him alone for a couple days, with very little food and drink, while they went to search for water. It seemed stories like that were common.

A: Very common. That little boy was incredible. I have children of my own, Brett and Kevin, who are 12 and 14. I couldn't imagine leaving them anywhere in the world. I couldn't imagine leaving them in the house for two or three days by themselves! Just picture this 7-year-old boy who is out there in the desert in his nomadic camp. He's fending for himself while his parents are off with the camels on a two-day journey just to get enough clean water to bring back to camp to last for a week. Then, the process starts all over again.

Q: I know you were able to give the boy some water and cookies, but it's like that will only last for so long.

A: You really hit the nail on the head right there. I was almost embarrassed at times about the expedition. When we did happen to encounter a village that might have some bottled water, I'm a Westerner and I could afford to go in and buy it. These people don't have that luxury. It was just very humbling to be there and see it firsthand. I realized that I had an opportunity to do something about it. I'm not sure what kind of impact I can make, but I do feel like it's my responsibility to at least spread the word and do what I can to bring attention to it.

A: What political conflicts did you encounter?

A: We had a very difficult time getting in Libya. It's a dangerous area to go into and they weren't certain they wanted us there. Politics, religion and everything else was taken out of the picture. We commend them for that because we were certainly nonpolitical and nonreligious. They recognized that and realized we were hoping to do some good things for Africa. They allowed us to pass through.

Q: It was actually a situation where Damon had to fly over from the "Bourne" set in London to Washington, D.C., to meet with people. Ultimately, it wasn't him that ended up helping, but rather a gentleman from Los Angeles who was involved in that community.

A: Right, it was a man named Omar Turbi. I had actually seen him before on "Larry King Live" and some other shows. He's an American, but born in Libya. He's a Libya expert. He was very well-connected with the Libya government.

Q: You mentioned the dangers involved with this expedition. It was scary enough running on the streets with how bad some of the drivers were. Then, you're running through areas where there are minefields.

A: I'll give you two very brief stories. One was when we were in Mauritania. We called it the Highway of Dead Animals. It was a wide two-lane road where cars regularly drove 100 mph. There were no fences, even though camels, goat and sheep were all being herded. Animals, just like deer in our country, happen to wander out in the road all the time. Let's just say it was ugly. Every day, we literally encountered hundreds of dead animals along the side of the road. Unfortunately, the smell that comes with that will never leave me.

The other story involves me stopping to pee for the hundredth time that particular day. I stepped into this field and stepped over the remnants of a barbed wire fence. I'm standing there, doing my business, and one of the guards yells at me to come back over. I walk back over to him and he's making what I like to call the international sign for explosion. He's shaking his finger at me and pointing to where I was just standing. I got the picture and was a little more careful after that.

Q: I should also point out there are apparently some difficulties in going to the bathroom in sandstorms.

A: Very, very true! We had a 21-day stretch where we had winds and sandstorms that blew up every single day. Our joke, Kevin's in particular, was that you have to be very careful which direction you pee in a sandstorm. The crazy thing is that it's almost like a little tornado. Really, it didn't matter which direction you peed in. You were either going to pee on yourself or somebody nearby.

Expedition Group
The crew stands at the exact starting point of the expedition in St. Louis, Senegal.

Q: How sick were you getting toward the end of the expedition?

A: Sick of running, that's for sure. We really had some major problems during the last third of the expedition. Even though the body has a great ability to adapt to stress, I think there's a point at which it says, "OK, I've had enough." That was really the case for us by the time we reached Egypt. In fact, I made a decision that I wanted us to pick up the pace, if you can believe it. I wanted us to run 60 and even 70 miles a day for the last 10 days of the expedition. The primary reason was that we were so wasted physically that it didn't even matter anymore. I was concerned that we were not going to be able to make it to the finish.

Q: When the three of you were on "The Tonight Show," I recall seeing a picture of a blister that was on your foot, which literally had the circumference of a hockey puck. What kind of condition were your feet in?

A: I've been running for 30 years. I knew that our feet would be the key. Once the feet begin to have problems, it puts a big problem into the entire system. Lucky for me, the blisters came at the end of the expedition. It was a result of us doing more and more miles. Each of us had no fewer than 50 blisters during the expedition. You just have to deal with it. If you're going to run that far, you better expect your feet to hurt.

Q: How much did the actual size of everyone's feet increase?

A: [Laughs] Swelling was a big problem. Everyone had accounted for it going into the expedition. I was wearing a 12.5 shoe size and I brought size 13s. My normal shoe size is a 12. Kevin is the smallest of the three of us and actually wears a size seven. His feet swelled to an 8.5 shoe size! We didn't have shoes that were that size. Nike had been kind enough to provide all of the shoes for us. We had to send out for a special shipment to get some shoes for Kevin. Nike did a great job of getting those to us in almost no time. We each went through about 25 pairs.

Q: What do you most recall from all of the places you visited?

A: The lasting image I'll always have is running through villages in Mali and Niger. Don't forget, Niger is currently the world's poorest country. We'd be running through these villages where, by our standards, these people had absolutely nothing. These kids would start running out of their houses or tents or whatever they were living in. They would run with us for three, four or five kilometers. They were just happy and being kids. I could picture it being my children. They wanted to touch us and hold our hands. They weren't asking for anything. They were just happy to have a few minutes of something different. That will always be my favorite image.

Q: What's the plan for the documentary?

A: People can track this on RunningTheSahara.com. There will always be updates there. It will come out in September at the Toronto Film Festival. Immediately after that, during the second week of September, people should start seeing it at a nearby theater. I should also point out that National Geographic filmed many hours of footage also. At some point in August, they'll be airing a two-hour, behind-the-scenes special. I haven't seen any of it yet! It seems surreal. I'm glad there's proof that I did it because I don't know if I would believe it myself.

Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at graham@thegbshow.com