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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Ultra legend Ray Zahab fights cancer, while training for Baffin Island expedition

By Martin Cleary

At this time of year, Canadian Snowbirds have either made their way or are about to leave for the southern United States for warmth and relaxation.

Ultra-adventure-athlete Ray Zahab would politely shake his head at that thought for this year. His compass is pointing extreme due North, where there is no warmth at his hot spot and few, if any Canadians, would ever imagine visiting.

But the Chelsea, PQ., resident is perfectly fine with travelling more than 2,200 kilometres north for a return visit to the Baffin Islands, where the average temperature in February is minus-28C. He plans to gather weather data for the educational component of his next impossible2Possible youth expedition.

And as Zahab, 53, continues his training and preparations for the second in a series of three trips to the Baffin Islands to collect meteorological numbers, visit friends and just go one-on-one with Mother Nature at the coldest time of the year, he’s also in the middle of battling a rare form of lymphoma, a blood cancer.

Zahab has planned, executed and almost always successfully completed his adventure goals to the wildest and most extreme destinations that you could imagine and he’s doing the same with his approach to facing cancer.

He’s a fighter and is following a prescribed medical plan by his doctor to confront his cancer, which he said is totally treatable. He’s familiar with putting himself in unthinkable situations and emerging a champion.

His adventure resume would leave you amazed at what he has accomplished on foot, skis and a fat-tire bike, sometimes unsupported, while carrying and dragging his supplies and sleeping outside overnight, whether it’s blistering hot or bone-chilling cold. He has travelled almost 20,000 kilometres in his 30 expeditions.


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For 111 days, Zahab and teammates Charlie Engle and Kevin Lin ran across the entire Sahara Desert from west to east in 2006-07. He has run through Death Valley more than once. Zahab and a team of runners ran an average of 80 kilometres a day for 13 straight days in 13 Canadian provinces and territories.

He has been able to handle the pain and illness associated with the early days after each chemotherapy treatment because he’s familiar with the challenges of his expeditions – bitterly cold winds, the blazing sun and the great unknown.

On Dec. 22, Zahab reached the halfway mark of his chemo treatment schedule. And he was as upbeat about how he felt, but maybe not fully stoked as he would be before a new adventure.

“As much as I feel physically wrecked in the days post treatment,” Zahab wrote in Facebook posting, “I’ve learned I can start to bounce back within a week or so, and it’s nowhere near as bad as how I felt before going into this process.”

For the past year, Zahab has known something was wrong. But he put it on the back burner and continued his regular hard training and trekking, until the spring, when he felt he wasn’t functioning anywhere near normal.

“Honestly, I started feeling really, really bad. I felt weak after runs and most days I felt like I was non-functioning in general,” he explained. “I had enough. I started the process of figuring out what was wrong with my body.”

On Oct. 24, Zahab started his six-month chemo plan to fight lymphoma.

“I’m used to doing tough things. I’m mentally ready for the fact that this isn’t something I’ll just get through early. There will be ups and downs, but I’m super grateful things aren’t worse as cancer has taken the lives of family members in the past,” he continued.

Ray Zahab. Photo: impossible2possible.com

Two weeks after his first treatment, he went for a trail run, only two kilometres, but he was grateful he felt so good. In November, he returned to Chile’s Atacama Desert, where he once completed a 1,200-kilometre north-to-south run expedition, to run a few kilometres each day with his team and clients.

In the first week of February, shortly after a late January chemo treatment, Zahab and his team will leave for the centre part of Baffin Island with their food, living gear and scientific instruments to record precise weather data in the cold.

The data (temperatures, humidity, relative humidity, etc.) will be compared to the scientific weather information he collected in his last Death Valley expedition. It will all be used as part of the curriculum element for the student adventurers in the impossible2Possible youth trip in June.

As his departure date to Baffin Island approaches, Zahab can’t wait to get started because “I always love learning.” In a recent phone interview, he added it also was really important to visit long-time friends on the island.

“Things are going well. My doctor says everything is going well. I hope to start feeling normal. Between chemo, I feel fantastic. If I can keep that up, it will be fantastic.”

Zahab will have back-to-back days of cancer treatments, covering about 11 hours, in Gatineau, before spending 25 days at home recovering, training or travelling.

Zahab isn’t worried about tackling a huge cold-weather adventure expedition in the second half of his chemo treatment.

“I try not to focus on that,” he said. “I’ve discussed it all with my doctor. It’s totally safe.

“I have goals when this is all over. I’m certainly not stopping.”

TEAM CANADA REMAINS UNDEFEATED IN HOCKEY AT FISU GAMES

Canada won its fourth consecutive men’s hockey game at the FISU World Winter University Games in Lake Placid, New York, on Tuesday with a 9-0 win over Latvia.

Three players with Ottawa connections made the scoresheet in the assist column, while goalkeeper Kai Edmonds of Toronto Metropolitan University recorded an eight-save shutout.

Forward Liam Hawel of St. Francis Xavier University and Austen Keating, a former Ottawa 67’s forward who plays for the University of New Brunswick, counted two assists each, while defenceman Jacob Paquette of Queen’s University had one assist.

The Canadian women’s hockey team improved to 3-0 after blanking Great Britain 14-0. University of Ottawa’s Aurélie Dubuc of Trois-Rivières, PQ., was the backup goalie to Camryn Drever of the University of Saskatchewan and didn’t play.

In cross-country skiing, the Carleton University pair of Bronwyn Williams and Katherine Mason were 34th and 50th respectively in the women’s five-kilometre classic race in 14:56.8 and 15:45.5.

The men’s 10-kilometre classic race saw the University of Calgary’s Robin Mason of Ottawa place 34th in 26:31.6 and the University of Ottawa’s Aidan Kirkham finish 43rd in 26:51.1.

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.


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