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A Line in the Sand
Bill Syken
December 11, 2006
Film cameras trailing, three ultramarathoners are running the Sahara, from one side of Africa to the other
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December 11, 2006

A Line In The Sand

Film cameras trailing, three ultramarathoners are running the Sahara, from one side of Africa to the other

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Most people find it too hot even to sit by the pool when the temperature is 110�. So it's understandable that director James Moll, working from dawn to dusk in the desert heat, is usually drained at the end of the day. His crew is just as spent: All anyone wants to do is lie down. Which is why Moll is so amazed that the three distance runners he is filming do not seem tired at all. These men have just run the equivalent of two marathons in the wilting heat. As they did yesterday. And will again tomorrow. "You'd think they would be exhausted," Moll says, "but they'll stay up, have dinner and sit around chatting."

The mystery of these runners' endurance is what lured Moll to Africa to shoot Running the Sahara. An Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, Moll had devoted most of his work to the Holocaust and World War II. But he had long been fascinated by the strange capacities of ultramarathoners, so when he heard that three of them were planning an improbable run across the biggest desert in the world, he asked to film it.

The runners--Charlie Engle, Kevin Lin and Ray Zahab--have all competed in long-distance desert races before, but what they are attempting in Africa is unprecedented. The Sahara, 3,000 miles across, is slightly wider than the continental U.S. But owing to geographic and political obstacles, the runners are staying as much as possible on roads and are avoiding Chad altogether (it's too dangerous), thus extending their route to about 4,000 miles. They've been covering about 50 miles a day. They usually wake at 4 or 5 a.m., slather on sunscreen and then run until about noon, stopping every few miles for food and water. After breaking for a few hours to avoid the midday heat, they run until about sundown, when they set up campsites. The terrain, Moll says, sometimes reminds him of Arizona, other times of Lawrence of Arabia.

The runners set out across the Sahara from the city of St. Louis, in Senegal, on Nov. 2. They expect to reach their finish line by the Red Sea in Egypt in late February or early March. Last week Moll was in Los Angeles to do some editing on the first month's shooting--a skeleton crew stayed with the runners--but he plans to go back around Christmas. "Believe it or not, I'm missing it," he says.

The movie is being coproduced by three companies, one of which is LivePlanet, founded by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Damon will narrate the documentary, which is expected to premiere in September 2007. The actor is also using the production to highlight Africa's water shortage: On the movie's website,, you can not only follow the journey but also make donations to charities that help build wells and make clean water more accessible.

The shoot has not skimped on adventure. Keith Quinn and Larry Tanz, two of the movie's producers, tell stories of bribing officials with goats and having to shoo camels away from desert runways. But for every hairy experience, the filmmakers have had an uplifting one: In a remote village in Mauritania the crew drew water and the villagers refused to accept payment for it. Then there are the children who are magnetically drawn to run alongside the marathoners in every village they pass through.

For a while, anyway. "I've heard more than once that people thought these guys had to be crazy," Moll says of the runners. "People don't understand why someone would want to run in that kind of heat." That is, of course, the mystery of the movie. Asked if he is any closer to solving it, Moll says, "A big part of it is learning how to deal with pain, rather than making the pain go away."

The runners are about a third of the way through their task. Their chief complaint, so far, is that they miss their families. "We definitely think they're capable of finishing, but it's by no means a lock," says Tanz. "This is harder than climbing Everest."