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Original Issue

A Line in the Sand

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

Most people findit too hot even to sit by the pool when the temperature is 110°. So it'sunderstandable that director James Moll, working from dawn to dusk in thedesert heat, is usually drained at the end of the day. His crew is just asspent: All anyone wants to do is lie down. Which is why Moll is so amazed thatthe three distance runners he is filming do not seem tired at all. These menhave just run the equivalent of two marathons in the wilting heat. As they didyesterday. And will again tomorrow. "You'd think they would beexhausted," Moll says, "but they'll stay up, have dinner and sit aroundchatting."

The mystery ofthese runners' endurance is what lured Moll to Africa to shoot Running theSahara. An Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, Moll had devoted most of hiswork to the Holocaust and World War II. But he had long been fascinated by thestrange capacities of ultramarathoners, so when he heard that three of themwere planning an improbable run across the biggest desert in the world, heasked to film it.

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

The runners setout across the Sahara from the city of St. Louis, in Senegal, on Nov. 2. Theyexpect to reach their finish line by the Red Sea in Egypt in late February orearly March. Last week Moll was in Los Angeles to do some editing on the firstmonth's shooting--a skeleton crew stayed with the runners--but he plans to goback around Christmas. "Believe it or not, I'm missing it," hesays.

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

The shoot has notskimped 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 awayfrom desert runways. But for every hairy experience, the filmmakers have had anuplifting one: In a remote village in Mauritania the crew drew water and thevillagers refused to accept payment for it. Then there are the children who aremagnetically drawn to run alongside the marathoners in every village they passthrough.

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

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

The Road to the Red Sea

Engle, who has run an ultramarathon in the GobiDesert, and Lin and Zahab, both veterans of races in the Sahara, began inSenegal and will traverse six countries and about 4,000 miles in around 90days. As of Sunday they were near the border between Mali and Niger.




From left: Lin, Engle and Zahab chugged across Mauritania inNovember.


•Mediterranean Sea





•Ivory Coast


•Burkina Faso