It’s been oft-quoted that Lao Tzu said “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” What’s the first step in a 1,100 km trek in Antarctica? But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go even further back… what’s the first step if you’re a pack-a-day smoker, 30 and generally feeling sluggish and like you’re missing out? For Ray Zahab…the step was asking himself if this was really what his life was all about. And his answer to himself? “No. There’s more…much more…I’m just not sure what”.

In the relatively short span of 10 years, Ray overhauled his entire life. He made the decision to butt out (a feat in and of itself), adopt a healthier lifestyle, and get active. An enjoyment of hiking and mountain biking eventually (and unbelievably) led him to ultra-marathoning in the Canadian north and the Amazon jungle. Pushing the envelope even further, Ray and two other ultra-runners made history in 2007 by running 4,300 miles across the entire Sahara Desert.

Ultra-marathoner Ray Zahab

By this time, he wasn’t facing the challenge of extreme sport only for his own satisfaction. Using the profile of his success for a greater good, Ray and two others accomplished the trek which in turn raised awareness of clean-water initiatives in Africa. You may remember it…it was the subject of the Matt Damon-narrated Running the Sahara. In January, Ray completed the South Pole Quest to raise awareness about climate change. Antarctica. Really and truly.

I am fascinated by people who make changes in their lives…at the core of the Board of Your Life philosophy is that, deep down inside, everyone has the tools to initiate change and become their best self. They need only find ways to identify and use those tools. Ray is an extreme embodiment of that…and upon learning about this incredibly cool man, I reached out to him to talk about his feats. He generously agreed to speak to me…told you he was cool.

Here are some of the highlights on our talk about his thoughts on motivation and inspiration…two of my very favourite topics. Ray on the “Stuck” Mindset—and how Mindsets can Change

With the changes in the world and the internet connecting people on a global scale, we’re now more aware that we only have one life to live and we have to take advantage of it. We have more diverse perspectives on the world which makes it easier to see that we have to make the most of every day we’re here. I think perhaps people look at their lives more introspectively than they used to—people get to 40 or 50 and think there’s got to be more to life.

Ray on his own Change

I needed something symbolic to happen in order to turn my life around. I butted out my last cigarette on New Year’s Eve in 1999. The next day i felt subtly different—nothing had really changed except that I had made a big decision, but the new mindset was definitely there. The commitment I made to myself was more important than the actual act of quitting smoking. I told myself I’d do the very best I could moving forward, and there was no looking back from there.

Once I started getting in shape, I spent the next three years doing mountain bike races, but I couldn’t understand why anyone wanted to run. I ran about five times between 2000 and 2003, but it never really took.

Then one day I was reading about ultra-marathoners and a race in the Yukon that was 100 miles nonstop—the fact that these people were running four times the distance of a marathon…I couldn’t believe it. How did they get past the emotional and physical barriers? There was a photo of one guy pulling the sled with all the supplies, looking so happy for his accomplishment, but what struck me was that he looked like a normal guy. It was like he was speaking to me from the page of the magazine. I decided then that I had to do this.

I was in shape from three years of biking but I bought a cheap sled at WalMart and started training.

Ray on Facing Significant Challenge

I went to the Yukon and thought that everyone at the start line looked more athletic, more able than me. Of course it was extremely difficult to continue on through the pain and the cold, and about halfway through I almost quit. I remember thinking in the middle of the night “how do I get out of this?” and I realized that it was the old Ray thinking; I was trying to find an excuse to get out of the commitment I made to myself.

I remembered the phrase “what are you made of?” and was driven by the fact that the race wasn’t about finishing; it was about being true to myself. I got up and started walking, soon I was running, and it was 20 kilometres down the trial, then 40, then 80. At the finish line I could hardly believe I made it, and I was still running at a good clip. I felt better than I’d ever felt in my life, and this was at the end of 160 kilometres. It was the first running race I had ever done.

The organizer came out and couldn’t believe I finished, but then he blew me away when he told me that I had won! It was so incredible a feeling—your highest high but without substance abuse. I decided that day that I was going to go around the world and do all of these races and test myself in the process.

Ray on Finding a Higher Purpose

When I was racing across the Sahara in 2004, I met nomads in the desert and this little girl asked for my water bottle. I thought she wanted it as a toy, but she was actually excited just to have the little bit of water that was left. This affected me for a long time but I remembered it acutely when word came that Matt Damon was interested in making a documentary film of our journey in northern Africa. He’s passionate about the water crisis there, but I hadn’t realized how serious the issue is, along with malaria and poverty.

At the end of the Sahara trip I realized I had to do something to make a difference in the lives of children. When I got to the Red Sea, I realized we’re all capable of doing extraordinary things. It’s a true belief that we can do anything we set our minds to- and a will to work incredibly hard to make things happen. The biggest changes we make in life are the positive ones. In some cases it’s a lot easier to be unhappy than happy on a given day. I don’t believe people are negative by nature, but some have to start by making the effort to be happy in their day to day lives, and they can make that change with hard work—but before long it shouldn’t feel like work anymore. I once was unhappy too- but now feel like the happiest guy in the world!

Through all of this, my life has got to a point where it’s all about inspiring change in young people.

Ray on Getting Started with Making Change

Fear holds people back—not fear of monsters or spiders, but fear of change. It’s a scary place to go. To be “comfortably uncomfortable” is very normal. At one point I analyzed my day that way and realized that I was doing exactly the same things in the same way every day. If you challenge people to change their routine, they are skeptical at first. “How will this impact me? Will I be late for work in the morning if I don’t follow my series of steps once I get out of bed?”

People need to see cause and effect—we need to see or know that something is going to work. But that’s the beauty of the unknown, the uncertain but positive future. The best things in life are the ones we have to really reach for. People have to let go of the insurance policy of their everyday lives and take a risk. This was my thinking: I’ve got one shot in life; I can keep going the way I am, or take a risk. There is no easing into things—there is try or don’t try and that’s the bottom line.

Through his many speaking engagements and his organization, Impossible2Possible, Ray inspires youth to reach beyond their perceived limits. He and his wife are currently looking to develop camps for at-risk youth, including a new one in San Bernadino, California for kids in southeast L.A. Attendees will learn to realize their best selves and get an education on environmental concerns at the same time. I encourage everyone to check out Ray’s websites to learn more about his journey.

And if anyone out there can connect him with some great corporate sponsors to support his programs, drop him a line.

Speaking with Ray was truly inspiring. In a really weird and scary way, I’m still kind of walking around in circles asking myself what else there is for me. I’m doing what I love…but what’s still there? What is now possible that heretofore seemed impossible? For me, a desert-length of possibilities, to be sure.

How about you?