Dean Karnazes

An Ultramarathon Man speaks out on long distance running and family



In early December, Julie and Dean Karnazes were watching television in their home overlooking Ross. Their children, Alexandria, a sophomore at Redwood High, and Nicholas, who attends Ross School, had retired for the night.

“It was a Barbara Walters special,” Dean recalls, “and she was interviewing Sarah Palin.” With an ironic smile, Walters posed the inevitable question: “So what are you reading these days?”

“Oh, this really fabulous book,” replied Palin. “It’s called Ultramarathon Man, by someone named Dean Karnazes.”

Palin might have added, “whoever he is,” but her inner politician knew better. That would have alienated thousands of the world’s devoted ultra-marathoners, athletes of all ages who enjoy running longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles—be it 50 miles, 100 miles or, in this man’s case, even longer. These types know very well who Dean Karnazes is.

Many even know the story of how, in 1992, Karnazes began the course that 15 years later would land him on Time magazine’s list of the “World’s Most Influential 100 People.” As Karnazes recounts, “it was my 30th birthday. I was in a San Francisco bar, drunk on tequila and fed up with my life in PR for a multinational corporation.” Suddenly he flashed back to his preteen years as a running and hiking sensation and decided that was when his life had had meaning. “Somehow, I found an old pair of sneakers, stripped to my shorts and, seven hours later, wound up in Half Moon Bay—I’d run 30 miles, straight through the night, to celebrate my 30th birthday.”

Putting it mildly, Karnazes hasn’t stopped running. He and Julie, a practicing dentist, have a lovely home, two fine children and a list of accomplishments that would exhaust most mortals. And both are extremely unassuming—pleasant, personable and unpretentious best describes them.

Following his tequila-inspired epiphany, Karnazes—who had not run since a high school coach in Orange County turned him off to the sport—began doing long-distance runs throughout the Bay Area. That’s when he heard about the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. The event was “in the mountains, from Squaw Valley to Auburn,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t believe people would or could do such things.” After qualifying with a respectable time in a 50-mile mountain run, Karnazes became fascinated to discover just how much the human body, namely his, could accomplish and endure.

In 1995, with four Western States 100-Milers behind him, Karnazes tackled the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon, a beyond-grueling 135-mile trek from the depths and 120-degree heat of Death Valley to the rarified heights halfway up Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. “My first attempt was a near-death experience,” Karnazes admits. “ I didn’t make it.” He didn’t give up, either. After four Badwater finishes, he won the event in 2004.

Before that, in 2002, Karnazes went over the top by going, with five other ultra-athlete/adventurers, to the very bottom of the globe for an unprecedented South Pole marathon. After stomach-churning flights in a marginal aircraft and mind-numbing delays in wind-buffeted tents, he raced through minus-40-degree cold, 70-mile-an-hour gusts and an endless indiscernible white landscape (in running shoes, not snowshoes) to the red-and-white-striped pole marking the middle of Antarctica. “This was the toughest physical challenge of my life,” he declares on page 185 of Ultramarathon Man, Sarah Palin’s recent favorite read.

Since then, among other endeavors that can only be described as amazing, Karnazes has run 350 nonstop miles in 80 hours and 44 minutes (2005), completed 50 marathons in all 50 United States over 50 consecutive days (2006), and participated in dozens of 200-mile non-stop twelve-person relay races from Calistoga to Santa Cruz, racing as a team of one. He’s appeared on 60 Minutes, the David Letterman show, Howard Stern’s show and NBC’s Today and in Competitor and Wired magazines, Men’s Journal, GQ and Men’s Fitness, and he writes a monthly column for Men’s Health. Then there’s Ultramarathon Man: 50 Marathons, 50 States, in 50 Days, the feature-length documentary done on Karnazes in 2008.

Oh, and in addition to 2006’s Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, Karnazes has authored two more books: 2008’s 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days and, due out this March, Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss.

Do you ever sleep? (laugh) That’s a sore subject around here. Julie, my wife, wonders the same thing. I usually sleep about four or five hours a night. By the way, Julie is both an angel and a saint. We were high school sweethearts and have been married 25 years. She not only puts up with my crazy antics but also supports them 100 percent. So do our kids, Alexandria and Nicholas. Back in 2005, when I told Julie I was going to quit my day job and pursue running and writing as a career, do you know what she said? She said, “What took you so long?”

Exactly how do you support your family? Royalties from my books; I also have a number of sponsorships and other places where (my) writing appears and I do several keynote speeches every year, which is fairly lucrative. Last year, I was on the road about 250 days. In addition, don’t forget, Julie is a dentist in San Francisco. Also, on January 20, we opened the Marin Yogurt Company in San Anselmo. It serves organic frozen yogurt, coffee and healthy snacks like steel-cut oats topped with sliced apples, cinnamon or honey. I keep busy (another laugh).

Locally, have you run the Dipsea? What’s a favorite training run? Do you belong to a running club? I ran the Dipsea once, several years ago. But I travel too much; it’s hard to make it on a regular basis. Also, at just over seven miles, it’s too short for me. I have run the Double Dipsea and the Quad several times; they are fun. Gosh, a local run I like? There are so many. I guess a favorite is to leave the house, go down to Ross Common, then up to Phoenix Lake; then I take Eldridge Grade up to East Peak and (run) back to the Ross post office to pick up the mail. I always wear a backpack and usually run alone, or once in a while with my best friend forever, Christopher Gaylord, the CEO of Mountain Hardware in Point Richmond. I call him Topher, he calls me Karno. When I’m training hard, I run between 120 and 200 miles a week; normally it’s 70 to 80 miles a week. And I belong to the Tamalpa Runners Club but, because of traveling, I am not very active.

Please share some vital statistics. And your diet secrets? I’m 48, stand about five-foot-eight, weigh around 147 pounds, but that can go up and down by six or seven pounds during an endurance run, and have 3.5 percent body fat. My resting pulse? It’s usually 38. And my blood pressure stays around 105 over 70. Diet? I follow what I call a Neanderthal man’s diet. Did Neanderthals eat bread, or grains, or rice? Well no, because those had to be processed. I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of monounsaturated fats, olive oil and lean protein. Basically, it’s whatever a Neanderthal could catch or pull from the ground. And I really feel great with tons of energy. Also, I love my morning coffee and occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or two. However, no beer or hard liquor; I’m not much of a drinker.

Has any medical researcher ever analyzed how and why you can run as far as you do? What about your knees? And, most important, why do you do it? In 2004, I was hooked up with all kinds of wires and put on a treadmill where I ran 148 miles over 24 hours. The biggest thing they found was that during physical exertion, where most people’s lactic acids rise and cause intense pain, mine stayed mostly low and level. So how did this happen? All I know is I’m 100 percent Greek and my dad insists our family comes from the same Greek village as did Philippides, the ancient Greek hero and original marathoner. So possibly there’s a genetic component. But who knows?

As for knee problems, based on extensive gait analysis, I do know my biomechanics and alignment are very favorable for long-distance running. Also, I cross-train extensively with other sports that I love: windsurfing, cycling, stand-up paddle boarding and others. As for why I continue to push the limit, I believe the modern world might have things a bit confused. I think we have become so comfortable, we’re miserable. Personally, I never feel more alive than when I am in extreme pain and discomfort, when I’m pushing my mind and body to the absolute extreme. This is when I feel most whole and in touch with the universe.

What’s your next big project? In 2012, I plan to run a marathon in every country in the world. The United Nations recognizes 205 countries, and I’m working with the U.S. State Department and the U.N. to (be able to) run 26.2 miles in every one of them—Afghanistan and Iraq included. Obviously, this is taking a lot of organization. I’ll run with each country’s long-distance runners. In Kenya, that’ll be a real challenge; in Tibet, who knows? Wherever in the world it is, I think running brings people together, while so many things seem to divide us.

Of all your running experiences, which is the most memorable? That’s easy. Twice now, I’ve run long distances on all seven continents and the most memorable by far is a 10K in Northern California. It was in 2005; my daughter Alexandria asked me to run it with her to celebrate her 10th birthday. We stayed together the whole time. I’ve never forgotten it.

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