Face Time: Scientist and Sahara marathoner Ray Stevens

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Meet Ray Stevens, a man who might make you feel inadequate. Ray is a professor at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., where he runs a structural neurobiology program. He is a man hard at work in a fight against an inherited metabolical disorder called PKU. It’s impressive work and a noble cause. But is that enough for Ray Stevens?

No sir, it is not. The former Auburn man recently spent six days completing a 156-mile marathon through – wait for it – the African Sahara Desert. That’s six days of running in heat rumored to have hit 131 degrees, and he did it all for the cause.

And here we’ve been complaining all week about how hot it is in the newsroom.

Battling disease and running through hell on earth will earn any man a break, but Stevens isn’t necessarily looking for a vacation. He’s back at work in the laboratory and already looking for new ways to challenge himself. In the meantime, he took time off from jumping over tall buildings and answered a few of our questions.

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What made you decide you wanted to challenge the Sahara Desert to a foot race?

Seventeen years ago I saw a “60 Minutes” episode on these guys running across the African Sahara Desert in a race called the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) and I said to myself “Someday, I am going to run that race across the Sahara.”

How do you train for this kind of thing?

I run a lot. It helps that I like to eat, and so I run to different Starbucks or 7-Elevens and eat at different stores across the city, 30 miles at a time and usually on both Saturday and Sunday. The biggest change for me was that I had to also start running all the time with a 20-pound backpack for the race. For the heat, I exercised for an hour at a time in a 160-degree dry sauna.

What was the most unpleasant part of the experience?

Putting my running shoes on each morning with five to 10 blisters and a swollen left foot. This was really painful in a crusty cold pair of shoes, as were the first few steps. Once the feet warmed up, I was OK.

At the worst of it, how much would you have paid for a Popsicle?

What I was really craving was a big greasy pizza, not a Popsicle. In the morning it was very cold, so we got to feel the cold temperatures along with the high 130-degree temperatures during the middle of the day. Although it got hot, I was tired of eating cold freeze-dried food twice a day for eight days.

What can you tell us about PKU?

PKU (phenylketonuria) is a rare childhood disease. My lab in San Diego helps to create drugs to treat the disease. If you have it, and eat protein, mental retardation can occur in the most severe forms. Children and adults with the disease have to very carefully watch everything they eat, for life. That is a real marathon to me.

Tell us something about structural neurobiology. Specifically, what is it?

A goal in my research is to understand the chemical basis and structure of how our nervous system works, and then develop drugs to treat disorders involved in our nervous system. In particular, we are focused on rare childhood diseases that most drug companies do not focus on.

Now that you’ve defied death in the desert, what’s next?

There is this mountain called Everest that I saw on TV one day, and I said “Someday, I am going to climb that mountain.” I told myself last year that after I finished the Sahara race, I would start training for Mt. Everest, and that is what I am now doing.

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