It’s rare for Ray Zahab to not finish the adventures he sets out to do. A few weeks ago, (July 2021), Death Valley experienced its hottest weekend ever recorded, and Ray and his running partner Will Laughlin were right in the middle of it. Their goal was to repeat their 2011 route albeit more swiftly. But nature had other plans.
Ray and Will were teetering on a razor’s edge: terrain was slow, sand was very soft due to dryness, water packs were filled with surplus liters, and as a result everything required more effort. And it was 120-134F. 109F at night. The wind was so hot rehydration was impossible. With no emergency access, re-supplies 12-25 km apart, no ability to shorten those distances, no driving off road for emergency assistance in a National Park, after 24 hours and 80 km, the duo made the decision to pull the plug. They knew taking chances and risks that put their support team at risk was a step too far.
On the morning of July 13th, the day after norda™’s official launch, we had not heard from Ray, our top advisor and product tester. His tracker had stopped dead for 12 plus hours. After a complete black out, we finally got a call from Ray. He described something akin to an inferno at the centre of the Earth.
Here is our Q&A debrief:
norda (Willa and Nick on the phone with Ray); What did it feel like in the extreme hot conditions?
Ray: Conditions in Death Valley in summer are always extreme. On our 2011 North to South off road crossing, Will (Laughlin) and I found ourselves in a heatwave. It seemed as though we were walking into winds that were like a blast furnace. But this year was completely off the rails. Strong winds and the record-breaking temperatures above 130F made our finger tips burn. We realized that after 24hrs of exposure to this heat, moving forward between limited resupplies would be deadly.
norda: What was the terrain like?
Ray: On our 2019 West to East transect, Will and I crossed the Panamint and Amargosa mountain ranges as well as the Badwater Basin. The terrain on that adventure ranged from high alpine desert to salt pans and rock. But on our 2011 and on this 2021 North to South, the terrain was mostly salt, vast rocky sections, dry river washes that were like deep trenches, soft sand and occasional brush.
norda: What is it like running at night in a desert?
Ray: Death Valley has a way of never providing relief. The break in the heat (the coolest it got at night was 109F), was offset by tons of bugs flying around our headlamps and into our eyes, and of course all of the wildlife that comes out at night. In the span of just a few kilometers we ran into a rattlesnake, sidewinder and scorpion! Yes! The desert is full of life! I love running at night in the desert, there are so many different things to experience. Including the incredible skies!
norda: What was the standout moment for you?
Ray: I think the standout moment was when we realized that we couldn't complete what we did in 2011- a complete North to South crossing. But at that moment when we had to pull the plug, I was totally comfortable with our decision. The terrain was a much slower go from the extreme dryness this time. Sandy sections were super soft requiring more effort, and due to heatwave, our packs were loaded with several extra liters of water each, and other emergency gear. But taking chances and risks that may put others at risk to rescue or extract us, is a bridge too far. We were super stoked to put a solid 24 hours of hard effort in, especially when Death Valley was in record breaking temperatures. I’ve never been afraid of pushing my limits to the max, or taking a hard decision when needed.
norda: How did you fuel yourself?
Ray: We relied early on with resupplies that were approx 20-25km apart, and after those resupplies would remain 10-20km apart. Due to the world record heat, we decided as a safety precaution to meet our team at each resupply to assess health. The resupplies are remote, and really the only places that can be accessed by vehicle in Death Valley. Off road driving is not permitted, and most of our route was not accessible by vehicle at all. We consumed around 10-12 liters of Xact Nutrition Electro, coconut water and water between resupplies.
norda: What do you think about on these long days? What keeps you going?
Ray: Most of my longer expeditions are connected to classrooms, through live websites, so typically I am motivated by classrooms all over the world. I do spend a great deal of time thinking about my family, and I spend the long days immersed in the geography I am visiting, but also in reliving an entire day at home with my family, playing it over in my mind like a reel, to get through the day and pass the time.
norda: How did the norda™️001 hold up?
Ray: What stood out the most for me is that I wore no socks through gnarly terrain and intense heat and had no blisters. The upper on the norda™ 001 is like a sock, with no seams or hotspots. Also, the grip on precarious terrain like the river washes with deep vertical cuts, was outstanding. I never lost traction, even in Northern end of Death Valley, as we descended from 6,800ft to below sea level. When we were finished, and I had time to rest, I grabbed my shoes to take a look at how beat up they were. Other than being a bit dusty, they looked like they just had a few trail runs on them!