Runners first modern athletes to cross Sahara

IN THE WESTERN DESERT, Egypt -- Three ultra-endurance
athletes have just done something most would consider insane: They
ran the equivalent of two marathons a day for 111 days to become
the first modern runners to cross the Sahara Desert's grueling
4,000 miles.

"This has been a life-changing event."
-- American runner Charlie Engle

"It will take time to sink in ... but this is an absolutely
once in a lifetime thing. They say ignorance is bliss, and now
that I know how hard this is, I would never consider crossing the
Sahara on foot again," said American runner Charlie Engle, 44,
hours after he and the others completed the run at Egypt's Red Sea.

Engle said he, Canadian Ray Zahab, 38, and Kevin Lin, 30, of
Taiwan, ran the final stretch of their journey that took them
through the Giza pyramids and Cairo to the mouth of Suez Canal on
four hours of sleep. Once they hit the Red Sea, they put their
hands in the water to signify crossing the finish line.

"We touched the water in Senegal at the beginning, and we
touched the water in the Red Sea at the end. They were the bookends
of our journey," Engle, of Greensboro, North Carolina, said on the
telephone from a hotel room in Cairo.

In less than four months, they have run across the world's
largest desert, through six countries -- Senegal, Mauritania, Mali,
Niger, Libya and finally Egypt.

A film crew followed them, chronicling the desert journey for
actor Matt Damon's production company, LivePlanet. Damon plans to
narrate the "Running the Sahara" documentary.

The trek is one of extremes. The relentless sun can push
temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, but at
night it sometimes dips below freezing. Strong winds can abruptly
send sand swooping in every direction, making it difficult to see
and breathe.

Running through turbulent conditions is nothing new for these
athletes who have traveled the world competing in adventure races.
But they say nothing has tested their physical and mental
limitations like the Sahara.

Throughout the run, the runners have been stricken with
tendinitis, severe diarrhea, cramping and knee injuries all while
running through the intense heat and wind -- often without a paved
road in sight.

"This has been a life-changing event," Engle said.

The runners say they undertook the challenge to see if they
could accomplish something that many have called impossible. They
use GPS devices to track their route and teamed up with local
experts and a host of sports professionals who also followed them,
along with the documentary crew, in four-wheel drive vehicles.

Typically, the three began each day with a 4 a.m. wake-up call.
About an hour later, they started running. Around noon, they took a
lunch break at a makeshift camp, devouring pasta, tuna and
vegetables. A short nap on thin mattresses in a yellow-domed tent
usually followed before they headed out on the second leg of their
day's run.

Finally, around 9:30 p.m., they called it quits each day,
returning to camp for a protein and carbohydrate-packed dinner
before passing out for the night.

Despite the preparation and drive to finish, the runners said
they often questioned -- mostly to themselves -- what they were
doing. Zahab described stopping one recent day for a bathroom break
only to discover the wind was blowing so harshly that he couldn't
keep the sand out of his clothes. "And I thought to myself, 'What
the hell am I doing?"' he said.

But Zahab kept going, as did the other two, never skipping a
day. Most days the three ran a total of 44 to 50 miles -- sometimes
a little more, sometimes a little less.

They were interviewed by The Associated Press on Saturday -- day
108 -- on the side of a road about 112 miles from Cairo in Egypt's
harsh Western Desert, part of the greater Sahara.

At several points in their trek, the athletes stopped near
sparsely populated wells to talk with villagers and nomads about
the difficulties they face finding water. That marked another goal
of the run -- raising awareness for the clean water nonprofit group
H2O Africa.

"We have seen firsthand the need for clean water, which we take
for granted in North America. It's such a foundation for any
community," Zahab said during day 108's lunch break. The three
plan to fund-raise for the group after they return home and finish

"It started off as a huge motivator, especially as we passed
through countries where the water wasn't clean," Engle said.

But as the trio's bodies became more depleted, the focus was
"the day-to-day battle to stay alive and keep moving," he said.