Dean Karnazes saved my bacon once, and he had no idea at the time. In my first trail marathon (Golden Gate Trail Marathon), I started out strong and found myself with the front two guys at mile six. Worried that my newbie pacing would leave me crawling, I asked the runner next to me for advice on taking in calories, which he happily shared. Then he started telling me about how it differs when you run 100, 150, 200+ miles, or say, in the South Pole or across the deserts of Death Valley. Needless to say, I thanked him for his advice, slowed considerably, and faded back from this crazy man.
At the finish line (where Dean, his wife Julie, and daughter Alexandria cheered for every finisher like they were family), I asked around and realized I had been running with one of the wildest ultra running bad asses on the scene. He was in the midst of completing a book, “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner,” sharing some of his madcap adventures (like running 146 miles across Death Valley in July, to the top of Mt Whitney), his insights gleaned from years of traveling and competing across the globe, and what it’s like to push the limits of human endurance. He’ll be embarking on a ten-city book tour beginning March 17th—the day his book is released—beginning with an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. However, if you want a glimpse of him earlier you can pick up the February issue of Runner’s World and find Dean on the cover, along with a feature story inside. He was gracious enough to let me ask him a few questions for us trail runners.
1) Even among ultra runners, you are an extreme athlete. This year you managed to win the Badwater Ultramarathon, considered the “World’s Toughest Footrace,” (135 miles across Death Valley and up the side of Mt. Whitney) less than two weeks after finishing top-ten at the Western States Endurance, and then went on to complete the 262-mile Saturn Relay all by yourself. Dare I ask what’s next?
DK: A nursing home (laughs). Actually, I’ve got a pretty full season ahead. I’m hoping to earn my 1,000 Mile Silver Buckle at Western States (10 sub-24 hour finishes), and I’ll probably return to Badwater to defend my title. I’ve also been experimenting with this contraption called a Hydro Bronc that allows me to run on water. It was designed for ice rescues on frozen lakes, but I’ve been running in the ocean on it. I’m hoping to run from Catalina Island to Newport Beach, which is 26.2 miles—a marathon—on water. That would be a first. And I might be the only person ever to have caught a wave by running, as I’ve taken the thing out in the surf a few times. It’s pretty wild running through a pack of guys surfing.
2) Do you think there is any limit to how far a human could run in one shot?
DK: I think the biggest barriers are psychological, not physical. The human body is an amazing machine; if we can just get beyond our perceived limitations, I think we can achieve more than we ever thought possible.The farthest I’ve gone in a single push is 262 miles. That was three nights without sleep, which got pretty psycho. The course I followed (Bodega Bay to Calistoga to Santa Cruz) was pretty hilly, and it rained for twenty of the hours I was running, which was a drag. On an easier course with better weather conditions, I think 300 miles nonstop is doable.
3) I wrote about the “runner’s high” last month, and am curious to your personal experience. How would you describe the “runner’s high” most of us feel at the end of a marathon, vs what you experience at mile 50, 100, 150, or 200?
DK: It’s more of a complete body high after these long distances. The first few days afterward you feel like you’re in a comma—kinda like the worst hangover you’ve ever had, combined with being in a train wreck. When the “runner’s high” finally kicks in, it’s like you’re floating on air. Sometimes the euphoric feeling can last for weeks. It’s almost like a drug I guess, only it’s self-induced.
4) What are you thinking about when you run? Is that where the book came from?
DK: The idea of the book came from a slideshow I gave, but much of the actual writing of the book was done while running. Let me explain: I’m asked to speak on running quite often, and at the conclusion of my presentations one of the most frequent comments I got was, “That’s an amazing story, you ought to write a book.” So finally I did. I’d just go running with a digital record and dictate into it as I ran. And that’s how much of the book got written.It’s almost a fairy tale story, because the first publishing house we sent the manuscript to - Penguin Books - called us the next day with an offer. That’s pretty rare for a first-time author.
5) What could a reader expect from your book? Is it for trail runners, endurance athletes, or could anyone give it a read?
DK: Pretty much anyone could give it a read. It’s about running, sure, but there are broader themes about life and the many life-lessons learned along the way. The book has gotten really good reviews, in some pretty big press, by both runners and non-runners alike. For me personally, it’s been a remarkable journey. The book has been given pre-release praise in Publisher’s Weekly and The San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ve appeared in GQ, Outside Magazine, Runner’s World, Trail Runner, and been on NPR. Upcoming, the book will appear in Esquire, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and the New York Times, and I’m being interviewed for feature stories in FHM, Sports Illustrated, and Time Magazine. A 60 Minutes interview of me is airing in March, and I’ll be on Letterman to launch the book (I guess he’s a big time runner). In my wildest dreams, I never thought running would take me where I’m going.
Sounds exciting! I’d love to ask a few training questions if you don’t mind.
1) In training, how many miles per week do your longest weeks go? Do you speed train, or is it all long runs?
DK: I don’t speed train per se, but I do run the hills hard. My longest weeks can be up to 120 miles, but usually they’re around 70 or 80. I’d like to log more miles, and I’d like to do more speed training, but I’m basically a working stiff with a regular job and a family. So there just isn’t the time. Maybe if my book does well, I can spend more time training, which I’m sure would benefit my racing.
2) Given the photos of your quads gracing the covers of GQ, Trail Runner, and Runner’s World, I imagine you also do some weight training. Do you cross-train in other sports as well?
DK: (Laughs) I would say “disgracing” the covers more than gracing them. To answer your question, the gym is my outlet of last resort. I get bored silly indoors, and much prefer going mountain-biking, windsurfing, snowboarding, climbing, or surfing.
3) When you run beyond 100 miles, what is your caloric “steady state”, ie, what is your average calorie burn per hour? And how many calories do you take in? What do you think is the most calories you have burned in one event?
DK: On these long runs, I’m what I call an “opportunistic eater,” meaning that I eat anything I can get my hand on that has lots of calories. Usually my diet is very strict: I don’t eat any refined sugar, I consume only good fats (i.e., mostly mono and poly unsaturated fats and omega-3’s, and eat no trans fat or hydrogenated oils), and avoid refined foods. However, on these long runs, I find it impossible to consume enough calories eating wholesome foods, there’s just too much fiber and bulk that fills me up without providing the necessary calories. So, on these longs runs I resort to highly refined foods and calorie dense items, like pizza and pie. During one 200-mile run we kept a food log, and I consumed 28,000 calories in 46 hours and 17 minutes of running. And I still lost five pounds!
4) What is your source of fuel (drinks, gels, etc.)? Do you ever mix in solid foods? Are there different nutrition issues that you have to take into account when running beyond 100 miles?
DK: Running beyond 100 miles requires a balance of science and art. Much of what I’ve learned has been through trial-and-error. For instance, in running across Death Valley this past summer, I consumed eight gallons of Pedialyte (an electrolyte replacement beverage designed for children with diarrhea and vomiting). I find that Pedialyte sits really well in my stomach. And I almost always eat solid food on runs over 100 miles. That seems to be threshold for me, less than a hundred and I can pretty much get away with liquid only if need be.
5) I imagine you have a pretty strong support crew. Who comes along most of the time? Do any of them get out and pace with you?
DK: I have the best support crew in the world - my family. (Laughs) They’re the only ones who feel sorry enough to join me on these multi-day runs. And it’s great having them! They all run with me for stretches, even my kids (Alexandria 10, Nicholas 7). The only one who doesn’t run with me is my wife. She only runs if someone’s chasing her (more laughs). She does lots of cheering, though, and sympathy eating.
6) Any advice for someone targeting their first 50-miler? 100-miler? 150-miler?!?
DK: Train like a mother. Your will to train has got to be as strong as your will to win. You simply cannot “fake” your way through these longer distances. You have to pay your dues by training like crazy.
7) Lastly, where do you see the future of ultrasport going?
DK: Judging from the interest in my book, there seems to be somewhat of a fascination with ultra endurance sports at the moment. A common response I get when someone learns that I’ve run a hundred miles in a clip is: “WOW…I didn’t even know that was humanly possible.” Guess I shouldn’t tell them I’ve run 262 miles in a clip (chuckles). I think the awareness of ultrasport in the general will increase dramatically in the short term. People find it so intriguing, word is spreading fast. I don’t think this awareness will necessarily translate into high numbers of people wanting to run farther than 100 miles, but I certainly think more people will want to try their hand at going beyond a marathon. It’s a step into the unknown—running beyond a marathon—and it’s very exciting and mysterious to try it. There’s a certain primal appeal, it gets in your blood.
Thank you for the interview, Dean, and best of luck on the book tour. If you miss Dean on tour, you can purchase his book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, at Amazon.com or other fine booksellers beginning March 17th 2005. You can also visit his site at http://www.ultramarathonman.com. For those of you wanting to ask questions, feel free to leave a comment and perhaps Dean will respond.