Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Runner

Telegraph Magazine, Aug 2006

In the world of ultrarunners, for whom a non-stop 60 hour slog is the norm, Dean Karnazes is considered extreme. This is a man who ran 63 miles just to get to the start of a 99 mile race. Sanjiv Bhattacharya joins him for a gentle jog.

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It seemed like a good idea at the time, to go running with the runner Dean Karnazes. What better way to warm up for our interview and to see his home town of San Francisco? “It’s a beautiful day for it,” he said, as we set off from his house. “How far can you run?” I told him four or five miles, recalling one of my better days on the treadmill.

But those were flat miles not hill miles. And evidently there are no flat miles in San Francisco. So now I’m half-way up some spine-crunching slope, beet-red and huffing until my lungs rattle. My calves are burning, my lower back is pounding. I beg to stop for a breather. Or better yet, a taxi.

“No, come on, you can do it,” Karnazes grins, trotting on ahead of me. “Not far now. Just one small hill and we’re there.”

His words are of little comfort. For Karnazes, a “small hill” could be 20,000 ft and “not far” could mean 80 miles or more. He’s an ultrarunner, one of a hardcore fringe of endurance athletes who think nothing of running a marathon before breakfast. Ultrarunners run ultramarathons – strictly, races of at least 50 miles, though often they go for double that distance. They are the toughest, most extreme runners in the world, and, though no official figures are available, an estimate by Time Magazine puts their population at roughly 15,000 worldwide, with women, though a minority, among the hardiest in the sport. They don’t run for money – few races offer more than a buckle at the finish line. And they don’t do it for fun – ultramarathons are so physically grueling it hurts to describe them. And yet ultrarunners will often run for 60 hrs straight, until their feet bubble with blisters, their toenails fall off, hallucinations set in and occasionally, their kidneys shut down.

Even in this kind of company, Dean Karnazes is considered something special. He is the only ultrarunner, for example, to have completed, solo, the 199 mile Providian Relay, a race originally intended for teams of 12. Every October, it runs a colourful course through northern California, from Calistoga down to Santa Cruz, and Karnazes has so far notched up ten consecutive finishes.

He became the first person ever, in 2001, to run a marathon to the South Pole in temperatures of -40F, at which feet turn green and eyeballs freeze over. He had to wear skiing style heat pads in his shoes, a neoprene mask and goggles which were frozen to his face by mile 22. And at the other extreme, he has run in one of the hottest places in the world. Billed as the world’s toughest foot race, the Badwater Ultramarathon follows 135 miles of highway through the Death Valley desert in July, up a jagged elevation of 38,000 ft, in temperatures of up to 130F. In these conditions, sweat evaporates before wetting the skin, bread toasts and the tarmac melts shoe soles so the 80 or so runners have to stick to the white line on the side of the road. Karnazes runs in a full white jogging suit and hood as protection from the beating sun. Having finished the thing four times already, he came in first last year in 27 hours and 22 minutes.

His crowning achievement to date, however, came last year in October when he ran 262 miles, the equivalent of 10-marathons, at a clip. Since there’s no official race of that length, Karnazes ran 63 miles to the start of the 199 mile Providian Relay, and he completed it in 75 hours and 43 minutes.

Admittedly, Karnazes had to stop along the way, but only when absolutely necessary – to change his shoes and socks and answer nature’s call. And not every call, either. He didn’t stop to urinate – “I just kind of waddled so I missed my shoes”. Nor did he stop to sleep. Typically in an ultramarathon event, runners need to finish within a certain time so only the quicker runners can snatch a few hours of sleep along the way. Karnazes didn’t indulge himself. His only shut-eye came when he drifted off while running and was woken by a car horn behind him – “I was running in my sleep!”

Karnazes also ate full meals on the go, a practice at which he has become quite adept. He runs with a cell phone and a credit card so that whatever the time, he can order junk food and have it delivered to him en route. Under normal circumstances, of course, he avoids junk food just as he avoids refined sugars and alcohol. His daily diet is impeccably healthy, full of vegetables and heaps of fish – “salmon’s my wonder food, I eat it like 3 times a day.”

But during an ultramarathon when his body is screaming for fuel, calorie-rich pizzas, candy bars and Burger King milk shakes are just the thing. On several occasions Karnazes has found himself running the streets of northern California in the dead of night while devouring a family size Hawaiian pizza in one hand and a whole cheesecake in the other. During his 262 mile run, he consumed some 35,000 calories – food for over two weeks – without so much as a rumble of indigestion. And still, by the end, he had lost six pounds.

“I want to push the limit of what’s possible,” he says. “I want to find out what the human body is capable of.” And ten marathons is evidently only the start. This year he is determined to run more or less continuously from San Francisco to Los Angeles – the equivalent of running from London to Edinburgh – a distance of about 400 miles.

“I felt pretty good after the ten marathons,” he shrugs, “considering it rained for 20 hours and a lot of the course was through the mountains. If I pick a flatter route I think it’s doable. As you know, hills make all the difference.”

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Karnazes cuts an incongruous figure. He doesn’t look like a typical beanpole marathoner, for example, somewhat aged by the miles on his clock. Rather he is a youngish 42 with the ripped and stocky physique of a prize fighter. His chin is square, his smile polite, his manner unassuming. He’s like a comic book superhero who remains undercover by day, every bit the unremarkable family man from the suburbs. Were it not for his freakish calves, in fact, one would scarcely suspect that Karnazes ran at all. And he wouldn’t tell you – he doesn’t like to advertise. For someone of such extraordinary achievement, his humility is acute, almost pathological.

Giving me a tour of his 5-bedroom Victorian house in the comfortable neighborhood of Pacific Heights, I saw no evidence of his running. He proudly pointed out pictures on the fridge of his children Alexandria, 10, and Nicholas, 7. He told me how his wife Julie built her successful dental practice in the heart of downtown. “I got a great family,” he said. “I don’t know what I did to deserve it.”

But none of his medals, plaques or finish-line photos were on display.

“I keep most of my trophies in boxes in the garage,” he said and rummaged through a few to show me. It took a while to find the right box. The rest are tucked away in a small room in the far corner of his house – the medals clumped together on a rack, various plaques on the floor. “I guess I should organize this room, some day.”

Quite why Karnazes runs isn’t immediately obvious. Clearly neither glory nor fame has any bearing, and he’s not interested in world records. In fact, none of the mundane motives seem to apply. It’s not for the money, for example – there’s no money in endurance running. Though Karnazes is sponsored by the North Face (manufacturers of outdoor wear) his deal covers his equipment, not his lifestyle. To support his family, he has a full-time job as vice-president of Good Health Natural Foods, a manufacturer of healthy snacks with annual sales of about $25 million – which makes for a hectic and gruelling schedule.

It’s ironic that for someone who runs everywhere, time should always be in short supply. But Karnazes has to somehow accommodate a busy work schedule, family commitments and a training regimen of up to 120 miles a week, and a routine of 400 sit-ups and 200 push-ups twice a day. In fact the only aspect of his life that has blipped off the chart is his social life – “I figure something’s got to give.” So he has conditioned himself to sleep only 4 hours on most nights, often waking at 3.30am to run 40-50 miles before work. When mornings won’t do, he fits running into his day – he will run to work, for example, or take his work on his runs, making business calls and sending emails on his Trio (similar to a Blackberry) along the way. The same goes for what few social events he can squeeze in. One Saturday, for example, the family was expected at a wedding about 70 miles away, so after Karnazes got home from work on Friday night, he said goodbye to the kids, and ran through the night, meeting them at the hotel the following morning.

“My wife gets mad at me,” grins Karnazes, “She says I have to sleep somewhere else because when I wake up in the middle of the night, she can’t get back to sleep.” It’s particularly bad during the lead-up to a big race because of the anticipation. “It’s funny – the more I run, the more energy I have and the less I sleep.”

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(Photo by Chad Riley)

Quite how funny Julie Karnazes finds it, is difficult to tell. She reveals none of the strain that one might expect. Certainly one wonders what her options are, given Dean’s bottomless determination – “once he sets his mind to something,” she says, “there’s literally no stopping him.” Nevertheless, her support for his running is unwavering, even though she herself doesn’t run, nor has any interest in starting.

“I know Dean tortures himself about not spending enough time with the family, especially the kids,” she says, “but I tell him, it’s great for the kids. They get to experience things they never would unless he ran.” As a result, his ultramarathons often become family occasions. Every year, at the Western States run and the Providian Relay, Julie and the kids come to ‘crew’ – to drive alongside him with a supply of fresh socks, T-shirts and bottles of pedialyte, a salt solution designed for babies with diarrhea. The kids spray him with water from the car and hand him

This is the unique lifestyle he describes in his recent book – and brief best-seller – “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-night Runner” (which he largely dictated into a recorder as he ran). It’s a story, ultimately of obsession, as perhaps any book by an ultrarunner is wont to be. The annals of endurance running are full of astonishing stories of men and women who, like athletic explorers, gave their all to run harder and farther than anyone had dreamed possible. Karnazes joins a tradition of men like Gordon Ainsleigh who in 1974, entered a 100 mile horse race without a horse (his horse fell ill). Ainsleigh ran the thing on foot and so the Western States Endurance run was born. Or Al Arnold, who ran the first ever Badwater Ultramarathon in 1977; Arnold trained in part by pedalling for 2 hours per day in a sauna.

Ultramarathon Man begins to probe the roots of his obsession. Certainly many of the reasons Karnazes gives for his running will be familiar to the millions of people who run marathons each year (roughly half a million in the USA alone). Running naturally lends itself to obsession. Few other endeavours offer such a ready measure of progress or such a potent metaphor for life – a long and painful journey where every step counts and only hard work will see you to the finish. There’s an attractive simplicity to running, a relief from life’s ambiguities. Karnazes talks about the “Zen quality of these long races. There’s a clarity of purpose. It’s like climbing a mountain – the goal is clear and defined.” And that goal is seldom to win – more often simply to finish, to survive. “I don’t think I’ve ever entered an ultra-event and not thought ‘can I make it?'” he says. “So I don’t talk about winning. I talk about surviving the fastest.”

He is also drawn to the intense and guaranteed pain of ultrarunning. He writes: “never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is magic in misery.” And his book charts an excruciating litany – temporary blindness, blistering, fainting, vomiting, altitude sickness and diarrhea. “I embrace it, I seek it out,” he tells me. “I’m not a masochist, but if things come too easily you don’t feel the sense of achievement. I think we’ve confused comfort with happiness. There’s a quotation by Dostoyevsky that pretty much says it: ‘suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.'”

Karnazes isn’t typically given to pondering the esoteric. A masters graduate in science and business, he is pragmatic by nature, a man of action rather than ideas. When I ask him about the Marathon Monks in Japan who run two marathons a day for 100 consecutive days in order to push their bodies to the brink of their mortality, and thereby transcend the physical, he just shakes his head. “Yeah, I heard about those guys,” he says. “They’re crazy.” But on his bookshelf at home is “Why We Run” by a fellow ultrarunner, Bernd Heinrich, who poses one of the most intriguing theories about why the likes of Karnazes run such punishing distances. He argues that we’re hardwired as a species to run for vast stretches and that ultramarathons, in particular, link us to our ancestry as endurance predators. This “kinship with ancient man” is observed among the Bushmen of southern Africa who were known to chase down zebras and wildebeest. “The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico,” writes Heinrich, “chase down deer until the animals are exhausted, then throttle them to death by hand. The Paiutes and Navajos were reported to do the same with pronghorn antelopes.”

For his part, Karnazes jokes that his running is more to do with his Greek ancestry than his inner Bushman coming out. The marathon began in Greece, after all, when Pheidippedes ran 26 miles from the city of Marathon to Athens and then, reportedly, dropped dead.

In truth, however, Karnazes’s urge to run stems largely from the death of his sister, Pary, over 20 years ago, in a car accident. She was 18 at the time, and Dean was 21. It was 1984.

“Her death was the most tragic event in the history of mankind, as far as I was concerned,” he says. “For a decade afterwards, I could see nothing beyond pure tragedy. And it just destroyed my parents, it felt like their lives were gone as well.” Marathons are popular among those who have lost loved ones; for many they work as an exorcism of grief. Dean’s father, Nick, ran his first marathon a few years after her death. And Pary still occupies Dean’s thoughts, deep into his runs. His book is dedicated to her memory.

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“I think about her every day,” he says. “She was just an amazing person. She was so alive and vibrant and so comfortable being who she was… Pary always did what she wanted. And she always encouraged me to run.” It would be almost a decade, however, before he started running in earnest. During that time, he focused entirely on getting himself through college and onto the corporate ladder. Typically industrious, he won windsurfing scholarships to relieve his grieving parents of the fees and he graduated with distinction. By his late-20s he was successful a sales executive at Glaxo Smithkline, happily married to his high school sweetheart, Julie, his first and only girlfriend. In fact, by the time he experienced his epiphany, his life seemed complete. He was earning six figures, driving to work in a suit and a Lexus. And he was miserable. “I wasn’t living my life to the fullest,” he says. “Pary’s death taught me that life is a gift and I had no excuse for not following my heart and challenging myself. You see it all the time. People get comfortable and stop pushing. To me that’s death. Death is living within your comfort zone.”

It all came to a head on his 30th birthday which Karnazes describes as his “awakening”. He was celebrating at a bar with some friends when a married woman came onto him and he was so disgusted with himself for even considering it, that he ran out of the bar – and he didn’t stop. Stripping down to his sneakers and underwear along the way, he decided then and there to run 30 miles – one mile for every year of his life.

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“Oh it was brutal,” says Karnazes, as we jog past the bar in question. (Mercifully, he has altered our route to run downhill instead of up.) Though he was always in good shape, he hadn’t run cross country like this since he was 14. So he was in a terrible state, physically, when he called his wife, the following morning, to pick him up from a 7/11 30 miles away. But emotionally, he was exhilarated.

“I knew it wasn’t a call for help,” says Julie. “It was more like ‘hey, look what I did! Come and join me!’ I could tell he wasn’t happy with where he was in his life. So I thought ‘great, he’s out of the doldrums now.”

Karnazes vividly remembers the thrill of that pivotal run. “Going up the last hill, running through fog, I was dying, sucking wind, dragging my feet. I was in much worse shape than you are now. And I’ll never forget when I reached the top, the fog cleared and I could see the sky, the stars were beautiful, I was no longer in this haze… It was like this Biblical moment! I got the chills. I was standing here in my underwear at 4am and I thought – this is it! This was meant to happen.”

He still experiences these highs when he runs. He lives for them. He’s addicted. But in the trenches of ultrarunning, the highs are followed by lows – the physical pain and the gruelling mental battle are accompanied by sharp spikes of emotion. “It’s intense,” says Karnazes. “One minute the world is full of possibilities and I can do anything – I can solve world issues, I can be President, I’ve got boundless energy… But literally five minutes later, the maelstrom hits. It’s like severe depression – my life is useless, I’m a horrible father, a shitty husband, I’ve done nothing that matters to anyone.”

And the further he runs, the more powerful and frequent these spikes become. It’s a phenomenon that many ultrarunners have experienced, though few talk about. Often Karnazes has found himself laughing out loud at 4am on some back country road, only to be sobbing minutes later.

At the end of our run, I stagger into a restaurant in downtown San Francisco and land in a heap in the corner, my legs reduced to gelatin. Karnazes looks daisy fresh, of course. He orders a tub of poached salmon – “this is my wonder food, I eat it 3 times a day”. And as he eats, and I recover, I ask him about the fabled loneliness of the long distance runner.

“It’s weird,” he says. “I feel more plugged into humanity when I’m out on the road by myself and I can’t see a soul.”

Chris Kostman, an ultra-athlete himself who has organized the Badwater event for the last few years, knows what he means. “You feel really human, out there on the limit of your experience,” he says. “It brings you in touch with your own mortality and therefore your kindred spirit with other people.” And for ultrarunners, a typically introverted bunch, “kindred spirit” is often preferable to actual people. Something that Karnazes has realised all the more these last few months, as he has been running from book signing to book signing and addressing groups of his fans, other nerdy marathoners who bring long lists of questions about diet and footwear.

“It’s so nerve-wracking,” he says. “I mean cold sweats. I hate getting in front of groups… I mean I like people but I get uncomfortable around them.” He laughs. While at Glaxo Smithkline, he was put in for the Myers Brigg psychological profiling test, a cheat-proof multiple choice. “I was off the scale. I came out as the most introverted person they had ever met. Actually this interview is kind of painful for me, but I’m trying to put up a good front.”

Still, there are pluses. His visibility just got him a huge order at work because “the buyer’s a big runner – she’s a fan!” And the sheer turnout at his book-signings goes to show that by running alone in the desert, by pushing through pain like pushing back a giant boulder, he is inspiring people in a Forrest Gump kind of way, his own family among them. His family are often his crew for his events – Julie, the kids and his dad, Nick. His father runs alongside him for stretches, sometimes even making copious notes about his race – the food he eats, the number of times he changes socks and shoes.

His brother comes to cheer him along. Where once his family were devastated by Pary’s death, his running has helped heal the wounds. “It has definitely brought us together,” says Karnazes. “I mean, to be honest, it’s still a taboo subject to bring up my sister, but it’s better now than five years ago.”

His phone goes off. Since the start of our run he has received 40 emails on his Trio (similar to a Blackberry) most of them concerning orders for his company. So it’s time for Karnazes to run again, back the way we came – five hilly miles back to the office, and then maybe a marathon in the morning.

“When I was 30, I was running from my life at that time,” he says. “But now, running defines me. Maybe that was the plan all along. I’m not running away from anything anymore.”

So what is he running towards? When will he finally be satisfied that he has answered the question: “how far can I run?”

He smiles. “Oh, I answered that one a long time ago,” he says and reaches for the door. “Further!”