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Short track speedskater and avid hiker Jill Gilday is embarking on a new adventure as she runs more than 250 kilometres across the desert in Tunisia. Gilday is a youth delegate with impossible2Possible, a group founded by ultra marathoner Ray Zahab, which hopes to teach schoolchildren about the importance of clean water during the North African journey. - photo courtesy of David Gilday

From snow to sand
Jill Gilday embarks on 10-day run across Tunisia

Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 19, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - A Yellowknife woman is trading ice for sand, skates for sunblock, and embarking on a trek across the Sahara desert.

Jill Gilday, 21, is heading to Tunisia but her trip isn't most people's idea of a vacation.

Over the course of 10 days, Gilday will run more than 250 kilometres, the equivalent of completing a half marathon or more a day, through extreme conditions.

She's one of four youth ambassadors who will be joining adventurer Ray Zahab, founder of the non-profit group impossible2Possible, in traversing the North African country towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Gilday is taking it all in stride.

"One of Ray's sayings that he uses a lot is that it's 90 per cent mental, and the rest of it is in your head," she said. "I'd really like be able to share my experience and show it's not just the super elite insane athletes who can do stuff like this.

"With the right training and the right team, anybody can achieve great things."

Ultra marathoner Zahab previously took a group of youth ambassadors to Baffin Island last September, and he completed a self-supported trek through Antarctica to the South Pole in 2008.

Called the Twenty10 H2O Initiative, the Tunisia group wants to raise awareness about clean water and inspire young people.

The project is raising money for drinking water projects in developing countries and involves 10,000 students from classrooms around the world through online discussion forums, lessons and blogs.

"Hopefully it'll set their sights higher," Gilday said.

The group will be followed by a camera crew with CNN International's Backstory and each day the participants will participate in live chats with students, writing blogs and uploading photos.

"We really want to increase people's awareness for the abundance of water and how lucky we are in Canada and the U.S. to have such an abundance of water, freshwater and clean water," she explained.

While many people would dedicate months to prepare for a less extreme feat, Gilday had to juggle school and full-time speedskating training.

After she completed national trials for short track two weeks ago, Gilday took three days off and shifted her focus to running.

"I had a few extra runs thrown in here and there," she said nonchalantly.

A kinesiology student at the University of Calgary, Gilday wrote an exam Tuesday morning and left Wednesday to join her teammates for some pre-departure training in Montreal.

They were set to arrive in Tozeur, Tunisia, Friday and they'll finish April 26 in Gabes, Tunisia.

In prime physical condition or not, each runner will pushed to the limit by the experience.

A jeep carrying food and supplies will follow the group but each runner will be covering the parched ground for up to 10 hours per day. Each runner will also carry a pack weighing approximately five kilograms, toting Gatorade, GPS systems and an emergency first aid pack through the sandy terrain.

With little humidity, the temperature will rise to 40 C, and at night it'll drop back to zero.

"Obviously I'm from the North and that might be the biggest challenge - adjusting with the heat."

Not deterred, she'll be covering her dark hair with a hat and has loaded up on sun screen.

Gilday plans to be back in Yellowknife in May and said she hopes to speak to students here about her experiences.

She won't be the only Yellowknifer on the trip either. Dr. Ewan Affleck is joining the team as a runner and team physician.

It's his third trip with impossible2Possible and he'll be keeping runners on track by ensuring people stay hydrated.

"It's really fun when we do these things with young people," he said.

Affleck said he was looking forward to seeing how the youth ambassadors interact with students around the world.

"Hopefully it'll bring an interesting experience into their classrooms," he said. "It's a grand experiment."

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