Is it possible to run 500 miles in one go? Take it from the man who has flirted with the edge, it is in the realm of possible. And if given a chance, he might just prove it to all of us.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve caught Dean Karnazes on the cover of one of your favorite sports magazines, or in recent TV appearances on David Letterman and 60 Minutes. In many ways, he and his new book, ‘Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner’ is bringing the world of ultrarunning to the masses by redefining the type of endurance the human body is capable of (well, his human body anyway). I caught up with him on his book tour to catch up, and give us the “unplugged” version of where he’s headed next.
1) The magazines have focused on “can Dean go 300 miles”. I’ve run many sections of the Saturn Relay course where you ran 262 miles last year, and it’s far from flat, so I suspect you could do 300 miles easily on a flat course. Do you think 400 or 500 miles is possible? Would you try it?
The course that I followed during the recent 262 mile run was mountainous and difficult. Making it even more demanding was the storm that rolled-in along the way, and the torrential downpours and headwind for twenty-hours. So I would say it was easily a 300 mile effort, if not farther, had it been a flat course in better weather conditions. But I think 500 miles is possible, and I hope to find out.
The 262 mile run (ten marathons nonstop) was in honor of the ten year anniversary of Nicholas Green, the young boy who died while on vacation in Italy and donated his organs to seven Italians. The whole idea was to run ten marathons in honor of Nicholas, and to raise money for childhood organ donation, in which The North Face made a generous donation. The whole fund-raiser was structured as a ten-marathon run.
At the finish of the 262 miles I felt really great, and could have kept going. We attended a celebration and awards ceremony at the finish, and then went to the Santa Cruz Beach Amusement Park with my kids and went on all the rides. So I definitely felt like I could have kept running strong if that had been the intent.
2) Why 500 Miles? Why not make things easy on yourself?
The spirit of ultrarunning is about exploration and engaging with nature, not running around in circles on a flat and easy course just to say you did it. That approach seems so contrived and self-serving to me; it’s just not something that I’m interested in. There are so-called ‘pedestrians’ that ran huge mileage in a go in the early 1900’s around a track. In that day and age it seemed fitting, and I admire their gusto. But it’s just not something that appeals to me today. When someone says, “The longest run in a stretch,” most people interpret that as running from one point to another. The run I recently completed stretched for 262-miles from the starting point to the ending point. If you’re running around a track, you might be covering ten or twelve miles in a stretch, and then just repeating yourself over and over again. That’s quite a different challenge than running the equivalent distance in a stretch, where terrain and conditions change throughout.
To me, the big number is 500 miles from point to point, in a stretch, and I plan on attempting it later this year. My intention is to run from Northern California to Southern California. The biggest challenge to overcome in attempting 500-miles will be the sleep deprivation. I’ve actually fallen asleep while running before on several occasions. I didn’t fall over or anything, just keep “sleep running” for a fair distance. Initially I thought this was a bad thing, but I realized that when I awoke I was actually refreshed. So now I’m going to try to train myself to sleep-run as a way to overcome sleep deprivation.
3) How does one train to sleep run?
I’ve been pulling all-nighters with this book tour and trying to keep up with work and all. Then I’ve been going out for a run that second night without sleep and closing my eyes and letting my body fall asleep for short periods.
It’s kind of psycho because you’re not always sure where you’re going to wakeup (sometimes in the middle of the road, sometimes in the bushes on the shoulder). I’m continuing to experiment with different techniques and further refining my approach with every go out.
4) You have tremendous faith in what the human body is capable of. Who inspires you?
I’m very inspired by Yannis Kouros, John Gessler, Monica Scholz, Marshall Ulrich, Ann Trason, Christopher Bergland, John Stamstad (the endurance mountain-bike king turned ultrarunner), Lynn Cox (the long-distance endurance swimmer and author of: Swimming to Antarctica), and the late Alex Lowe (the famous mountain climber who died tragically in an avalanche). The things these people have done are absolutely other-worldly. Their accomplishments are amazing. When I think of these people and their remarkable undertakings, I get all fired up to keep pushing the envelope.
5) You seem dedicated to overall fitness, to being a ‘complete athlete.’ Is overall health and well-being something you strive for?
I put a high value on physical excellence. To me, that means having your entire body fit and youthful. A complete package, if you will. I think it’s important to show that ultrarunning is a healthy pursuit for many; it’s not something that is killing us. So yes, I try to be as healthy and vibrant as I can in every regard. I think ultrarunning is a terrific sport, so long as it’s not killing you.
6) What is your ultimate goal, what are you trying to achieve?
As an ultramarathoner, I think we have the power to inspire. I’m not talking about inspiring other ultramarathoners, because these folks already have tremendous motivation and resolve, I’m talking about inspiring the ‘everyday athlete’ or the person who is just thinking, hoping to become more active. We have a terrible problem with our health in America. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension are all at record levels. We don’t eat a healthy diet, and we don’t exercise enough. This is tragic, especially for our children.
If I can encourage people to become more active, to make exercise and activity as important as any other priority in their lives, then I have achieved my goal.
7) You’ve taken some heat lately for exposing the running “Garden of Eden” to the world. Are ultrarunners not happy about having the spotlight shined on “their” sport?
Some, apparently, are not, and I respect their opinion. In honesty, however, I’ve never appointed myself as the spokesperson for ultrarunning, and would never claim to be one. I’m just telling my story, and people pick up on it. I’m not trying to promote the sport per se, I’m just doing what I love, and people recognized that there must be a little magic going on, a little lore.
I’ve heard some pretty misguided statements lately that have left me scratching my head in bewilderment. Things like, “He’s laughing his the way to the bank.” I’m not sure whose bank account they’re referring to, but it certainly ain’t mine. I got the exact same belt buckle and t-shirt for winning the Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon as every other competitor. There wasn’t any million dollar payout for winning the thing. In fact, most of these long races I do are for charity, and 100% of the proceeds from my fundraising go to that charitable organization. I give my time and energy, and expect nothing in return except for the gratification of knowing that I’m trying my best to help others who are less fortunate.
I wrote the book to share my story, honor my late sister, and hope that it might inspire someone to recognize their inner potential. It’s not a judgment on ultrarunning, it’s just a story of how one man’s passion for ultrarunning came to be. I answer hundreds of emails a week, sometimes a day, by people who are looking for ways to become more active. No one is paying me to do this. I routinely stay up past midnight trying to respond to all of those who have taken the time to write. I just do it because I want to help anyone who is trying to live a healthier, happier life. How a true ultrarunner can find fault with that is a bit hard for me to comprehend, so I take this “Exposing the Garden of Eden” thing with a grain of salt. I’m not sure the analogy holds up, but you get my drift.
8) Lastly, how is your new book doing?
It just hit the National Bestseller List this morning, less than three week from publication, which has me stunned. Demand has been well beyond what anyone had anticipated, and the book has gotten some stellar reviews by the likes of: TIME magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. David Letterman launched the book, and that was a fun segment. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined that things would come this far, because two things I’ve never considered myself particularly gifted at are running and writing. And here I’ve written a book about running that’s doing really well. Go figure?
The book tour has been demanding, but well worth it. I’ve met some great people, and have been able to run with many of them. It’s been a pretty wild ride, and I’m thoroughly enjoying my fifteen minutes while it lasts. But once it’s done, I’ll be back out on the trails getting ready for my next adventure. And that will be good, too.
Keep us posted, Dean. We look forward to hearing more!