Ultramarathon Man (or) Super Freak

Dean Karnazes is a complete freak of nature, and I don’t think he’d mind me telling you so; I do it with the utmost respect. Before I talk about him, though, let me give you a little personal context.

My siblings and I are very tall and we look like we should be in good physical condition, capable of handling all sorts of rigors. In reality, we bruise like fruit, have no stamina, and get listless and crabby when our blood sugar plunges. Various ones of us have been known to cap off a strenuous afternoon at Disneyland by collapsing onto a bed, pasty-faced and trembling, for the remainder of our vacation. (Sadly, this is not a lie.) Our daintiness is a source of great irritation to our partners, each of whom has a fantastic, ox-like hardiness that calls to mind pioneer stock of the 19th century. My brothers and I, by contrast, would never have survived in an earlier era. We are barely making it in this one.

When we were kids, our coach-Dad tried valiantly to mold us into world-class track athletes, but we were just too puny. Running has remained my exercise of choice, into adulthood, but the most I have ever been able to eke out, with peak conditioning, were a few 10K’s. I have friends who regularly run full marathons, and I find their abilities profoundly confusing. (Also, their tendency to use words like “fun” to describe running long distances. I have been running for 30 years now. I don’t believe I have hit the “fun” part yet.)

Given my own physical frailty, you will understand why I am absolutely befuddled by the humanoid that is Dean Karnazes.

I learned of Karnazes when I bought and read his book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-night Runner. His writing is solid enough, but you don’t read books like this for the writing. You read books like this to blow your own mind by what some human beings are capable of. Human beings who are not, you know, YOU.

Karnazes grew up in California, where he ran track throughout his school years but quit when he was in high school. Fifteen years later, on the night of his 30th birthday, Karnazes, a businessman who was married to a doctor, had a sort of mid-life-crisis moment. That night, he put on some old yard sneakers and took off, through the streets of San Francisco, and ran, off and on—all night. He loved it, despite the blisters and the shin splints and the strained muscles, and decided he would take up running again. But Dean Karnazes tends not to do things normally.

Did you, like me, think that the pinnacle of athletic endurance was perhaps an Ironman Triathlon? Guess again. Back in 1974, a man named Gordy Ainsleigh entered his horse in the Western States Trail Ride, a 100-mile equestrian race through the Sierra Nevadas. When Gordy’s horse went lame just before the race, ‘ole Gordy decided (as any sane person would) to run the entire course himself. Sans horse. On foot.

Almost twenty-four hours after starting out, Gordy revealed himself to be an extra-terrestrial being from a highly-advanced species finished the race. And a beast called “ultradistance running” was born.

By the time Dean Karnazes had his Come-to-Running birthday experience, Gordy’s little caper had evolved into the annual Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, a race that incorporates a total elevation change of a staggering 38,000 feet. (Lest you breeze on past that figure, let me give you this by comparison: the peak of Mt. Hood, which is the highest point in my mountainous home state, is just over 11,000 feet. Try to imagine running up and down for 3 1/2 times that height, in one race.) In order to even qualify to enter the Western States, you have to have previously run fifty miles straight in less than nine hours.

Look, I would love to dwell on how insane this all is, but I have bigger fish to fry. Because two years after he started running again, Karnazes completed that 100-Mile Run in twenty-one hours – and decided that it wasn’t enough.

A year later, he ran the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race across Death Valley, where the asphalt temperature can reach 200 degrees. An hour into the race, his first pair of shoes melted off. Thirty miles in, he started vomiting. By the 42-mile mark, which he reached at 1:00am, the air temperature was 112 degrees. After 72 miles, Karnazes passed out and was hauled off the course. But the following summer he was back, and that year he successfully completed the Badwater race.

During the next seven years, while holding down a day job, Karnazes did the following:

Scaled Yosemite’s Half Dome.
Swam across the San Francisco Bay.
Did triathlons, adventure races, and 24-hour mountainbike rides.
Surfed, snowboarded, windsurfed, and climbed mountains.
Oh, and continued to run ultramarathons, to the tune of almost one a month.

I know, this is starting to sound ridiculous, ludicrous, and fictional. Just wait, it gets better.

In 2002, Karnazes realized that no one had ever run a marathon at the South Pole. You know, as in Antarctica, the coldest place on the Planet (officially, at -128.6 degrees.) I don’t know about you, but if I learned that no one had ever run a marathon at the South Pole, I don’t think my reaction would be: “Well, this simply will not do.” But then again, I’m not Dean Karnazes.

Yes, our intrepid athlete went to Antarctica, and yes, he ran 26.2 miles in the snow there. He celebrated by stripping naked and doing a quick loop around a barber pole that’s planted at the exact center of the South Pole, so he could say he’d run naked “around the world.”

This might be a good place to talk about Karnazes’ mental state. Clearly, he has some “drive” issues, to say the least. Here’s what he says about it:

The average obsessive-compulsive takes seven years to get help. The average runner covers 10,920 miles in that time. Whether my affliction was clinical is anyone’s guess; I never did submit to testing. Some seek the comfort of their therapist’s office, other head for the corner pub and dive into a pint, but I choose running as my therapy. It was the best source of renewal there was. I couldn’t recall a single time that I felt worse after a run than before. What drug could compete? As Lily Tomlin said, “Exercise is for people who can’t handle drugs and alcohol.”

That doesn’t fully satisfy my curiosity about his psyche, but it will have to do.

As for his physical biomechanics, the reasons he can do things that most of us couldn’t do no matter how hard we trained…who knows? Evidently doctors have determined that Karnazes’ body somehow reduces lactic acid as he exercises, which is contrary to normal physiology; but that is all the medical information I could find. Obviously he is made of different stuff than the rest of us. He doesn’t stretch before running. He says he’s never had an overuse injury. His resting pulse is 40. And so on.

Your guess is as good as mine, folks.

Anyway, in the last decade, Karnazes has completed a 199-mile Relay Race (normally run by teams of 12 men), single-handedly, six times. He has run 350 miles, without stopping, in less than 81 hours. He has run on a treadmill for 24 hours straight (the thought of which makes me want to poke my own eyes out with a sharp stick.) And in 2006, he ran 50 marathons, in all 50 states, on 50 consecutive days.

It bears repeating: 50 marathons. 50 states. 50 days.

He is also president of his own company, a motivational speaker, and a media darling. In his spare time, he keeps an active blog.

His book, Ultramarathon Man, is utterly fascinating, especially to a runner (can I still call myself that, after all this?) Karnazes discusses some of his feats in great detail, and he writes in depth about his training and diet. For example: he eats while running, consuming 28,000 calories during a typical endurance run. He actually has a post on his blog where he explains, very sincerely, how to order a pizza and have it delivered to you while you’re running. With a side of cheesecake, if you’re so inclined.

I have always loved learning about people who push themselves to do unbelievable things. It’s beyond inspiring, and it lifts me a little out of my daily drudgery; it lets me know that I’m capable of more than I dream. Reminds me that maybe I can manage another mile or two, metaphorically or literally.

Which is nice and all. But I don’t believe I’ll go running with Dean Karnazes anytime soon.

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4 thoughts on “Ultramarathon Man (or) Super Freak

  1. Kathy,

    I just saw a national geographic documentary on this guy. They did a medical evaluation of his abilities and discovered that while a normal athlete can endure until too much lactic acid builds up in the muscles good old Dean’s body has the ability to reduce the lactic acid. He never hits that level of fatigue that the rest of us are all too familiar with. Pretty awesome.

  2. I’m at the point now that I want to run for adventure or to just say “because I can”. Two weeks ago Dallas 100 degrees at 1:00pm I went out for 8 miles. I ain’t bragging I just enjoy the adventure. A new town, a mountain. Can I do it in two hours or two and a half? The look on a mountain bike riders face…”you freaking run here”? Or even better to pass one on a nice climb. Endurance running… Maybe it’s my way of having dominon over the earth as God told us to do. Run Dean Run! We’re all behind you in some form, shape or fashion…

    • Jeff, when you put it like that it sounds fantastic. I wish I could’ve been there to see that bike rider. Hah! Maybe if I ever got to the place where it wasn’t such a struggle, I’d enjoy it too. I’ve just never been there…in 30 years. I’m poorly built.
      Thanks for reading!! 🙂 Keep running and posting…you inspire me.

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