The world’s most famous ultrarunner talks about his life, diet, cross-training and his favorite subject of all, running.
In August of 1992, Dean Karnazes, a successful advertising executive living in San Francisco, was having drinks with friends at a bar called the Paragon when a mid-life crisis struck and he returned to his childhood passion of running by taking off on an all-night bender in his underwear, running 30 miles and getting home at 4 a.m. His life forever changed. His love of running rekindled, leading him to push his limits and discover the world of ultrarunning.
From the classic races such as the Western States 100 and Badwater Ultra through Death Valley to his contrived conquests of running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, running across the country for the “Live with Regis and Kelly” national morning TV show and running 300 miles at a time, Karnazes’ exploits has drawn an unprecedented level of national attention to ultrarunning, fitness and, of course, Karnazes himself. His first book, “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner,” published in 2005, sold more than 100,000 copies and led to TV appearances on shows such as “David Letterman” and “60 Minutes.”
Yet, not everyone in the ultrarunning world has been so thrilled. Since his rise to national prominence, Karnazes has arguably become the most polarizing runner in the U.S. People seem to either love him or hate him. Those who appreciate his outside-the-box endurance exploits consider him inspiring and motivating, but there are plenty who vilify him on a regular basis for making a living as a runner by way of contrived endeavors and not solely as a competitive athlete. However, detractors haven’t slowed down Karnazes or limited his impact one bit.
There’s no mistaking his inspiring effect: Time magazine listed Karnazes as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world and in 2011 he published his third book, “Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss.” In addition to being a family man, Karnazes is also a successful entrepreneur—he started a company called Good Health Natural Foods in 1995 and continues to serve as president. He also travels around the country promoting his foundation, Karno Kids, in an effort to counter the rising levels of obesity in American youth. And he’s still running: This past July he ran in his 10th Badwater Ultramarathon.
Competitor recently sat down with Dean—something he rarely does—to get a glimpse of what makes him tick.
“I’m so comfortable; I’m miserable.”
In “Ultra Marathon Man” you describe speaking to your wife on your 30th birthday about fearing a mid-life crisis. That night after some drinks at a bar you struck out on your first run in 15 years, a 30-miler through San Francisco. Had you been thinking consciously about this at all or did it just happen?
It happened in a subconscious way. It was this feeling of dissatisfaction I had in my life. There was no intensity. Everything was safe. I recall feeling, “I’m so comfortable; I’m miserable. I want to be in pain. I want to hurt.” I wanted all the things you go through when you run.
Do you think this is part of why your book was so popular in the mainstream? That it was this point you connected with people on?
I think that’s the case for a lot people in their 30s and 40s. It seems like the message also resonates with kids of the MBA student variety. As Thoreau said: “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Many people are unhappy with what they’re doing and in the book they could see that’s what I was like.
A lot of ultramarathoners are soloists. They’re single and live lives off the grid. I was a guy that went to college, had a family and a career in the corporate world. But I said, “Screw it. I love to run.” Running was a part of my hardwiring, and that’s what I wanted to do. So this is what I tell people who talk about wanting to follow their passion. It doesn’t have to be running. It can be basket weaving. Be the best basket weaver in the world. Throw your heart and soul into it.
Did this have something to do with the impetus to write your first book?
It was on my proverbial life list to write a book. It was a challenge. I didn’t want a ghostwriter. I just wanted to see if I had the discipline to do it. If I got published and five of my friends had read it, the book would have been a success. But a friend passed it on to a book agent and she sent out some proposals. Penguin contacted me and wanted to buy the rights to the book. I asked, “What does that mean?” Next thing I know it was a New York Times Bestseller. It was a complete surprise to me.
The book obviously struck some sort of sweet spot. The next thing you know you’re on shows like “Regis and Kelly” and “60 Minutes.” What was that like?
It was a head trip. I’m just in a room doing an interview with Leslie Stahl, and then 25 million people see the show. The weirdest interview was when I was on The Howard Stern Show. He’s actually a pretty fit guy and he was captivated about the subject. Mostly he asked about running. Then I found out 38 million people heard that interview. I recall thinking how easy it would be to ruin your life being interviewed on that show. But after the show he kept asking me questions about how I trained and what I ate. He was really into it.
“I’m a pretty sensitive guy.”
The ultrarunning community existed as more of a quiet, underground culture before you began attracting all of this attention. And you’ve been attacked by some—the suggestion being that you’re a publicity seeker. What has been your response to this?
First, it shocked me. I’m a pretty sensitive guy. But I think everyone is entitled to an opinion. There have been certain criticisms I’ve agreed with. But what has bothered me are people making statements about me without even having met me. I think I’ve been painted as something I’m not. My dad said if I ever had a problem with someone the right thing to do is to tell them about it face to face. It’s the honorable thing to do. I don’t think some of this is honorable. They’re saying things about me without having met me. They’re not saying it to my face. There’s someone on the listserves with the handle Toe Jam that disses me a lot, saying that I’m a showboat and that I must have a pretty good publicist. Publicist? You mean me? If I get an e-mail asking me to do an interview I’m respectful and give the interview. But I’m not some sort of marketing machine. I don’t send out press releases. I think I’ve been misrepresented. And some who do meet me will come around full circle and say, “What you’re really about and what I thought you were about are two different things.”
Runners are competitive folks. I think some might feel slighted they haven’t got more recognition. I think they have a point. In running you won’t necessarily get noticed just for turning in good performances. And so some don’t have much of a presence—even when it comes to marathoners in the running world. At an expo I’ll have a line around the corner and someone like Scott Jurek will be at a different booth and will be alone. I think that’s tragic. An injustice. In my worldview the guys who are winning races should be recognized.
I think the true measure of a champion is how they use their notoriety. Rod Dixon is a great example. He won the New York City Marathon and was an Olympian and he’s become a great role model and is using his celebrity to help kids. [Ed. note: Dixon started a children’s running program that is now integrated in schools and races around the U.S. and New Zealand.]
One of the memorable images from “Ultramarathon Man” is how while on a long run you would use your cell phone to call a pizza joint and have a pizza delivered to you up the road—Hawaiian-style with extra cheese. But your approach to eating and overall health has changed, hasn’t it?
I now believe when you start running you are investing in changing your entire life paradigm. You’re an athlete now. You should pay attention to your diet, your sleep patterns. Alcohol consumption should be scaled back.
Yes, you can see this in my first book. My diet was crap during my first years as an ultra runner. I once kept a food log of everything I ate over the course of a 200-mile run and I just ate garbage. Over the course of 20 years I’ve refined my diet. I feel a lot more energized and healthy. I don’t get the huge spikes and drops of energy I used to. I moved to what’s now being called the Paleo diet. I didn’t know it was called that. But what it means to me is avoiding processed or packaged foods. I still eat meat. I like wild salmon—if I can get it raw that’s the best. I don’t eat cooked foods—nothing above 120 degrees. I don’t eat rice or wheat or any grains because they all have to be processed to eat them. You can’t just pick up a piece of wheat and eat it. It has to be processed and milled. Jack LaLanne once said, “If man made it, don’t eat it.” But the one thing I do still eat is organic Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is unprocessed and includes all the fat. Nothing added and nothing taken away. For breakfast I’ll have Greek yogurt, berries and maybe some sliced almonds. [Editor’s note: Karnazes acknowledges that a strict Paleo diet excludes dairy products, including Greek yogurt.] That kind of diet is what I’ve gravitated to over the last two decades. And I feel a lot better.
In addition to running in races such as Western States 100 and the Badwater Ultramarathon, you’ve pulled off feats such as running across the country, running 350 miles straight, running 212 miles on a treadmill in 48 hours and running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. How are you in one piece? What’s your secret to durability?
I think total body training is essential, at least for what I do. That said, I’m definitely bulkier that the average runner. Compare me and Scott Jurek: he’s more svelte. The truth is extra muscle slows you down. Look at the Tour de France riders. They call it ‘man-orexia.’ They have massive legs but no upper body weight. The more muscle the more weight to push around. There’s more muscle that the heart has to service with blood. It makes your heart work harder.
Muscle can slow you down, but for me I feel building strength has been essential to injury prevention and overall health. Knock on wood—I’ve never been injured. Running 150-175 miles per week is a lot for any runner. When I ran across American, for 10 weeks in a row I was running more than 300 miles per week without any injuries and without a sick day. I had a couple of blood blisters. But that was the extent of it.
I do a lot of cross-training. And one thing I rarely do is what I’m doing right now: sitting down. I never sit. I have a standing desk in my home office. I have a pull-bar and a dip bar and do a Navy SEAL fitness routine of push-ups, pull-ups, dips and sit-ups. I do six cycles per day. I’ll be in between emails and whenever I’m starting to bonk I’ll pop out a set. Just that body resistance work keeps you pretty tuned. I think for injury prevention, it’s critical to have that extra bulk.
I just ran Badwater. I was traveling a lot this year and my base was only 35 to 55 miles of running per week. My longest training run had been running a marathon. I just didn’t have time to train. But I was able to finish Badwater without an injury and the strength work is the reason why.
The first thing I do when I walk into a hotel is find the gym and if they don’t have a gym I start looking for a handhold where I can do my pull-ups. Sometimes if a shower curtain rod is sturdy enough I’ll do them there.
“I can have this reckless view that I’m immortal.”
In July you finished another Badwater 135-mile ultra race through Death Valley, placing 12th overall. How did it go?
This was my 10th go at Badwater and my ninth finish. I DNF’d the first time I tried it. I literally blacked out. By the way, at Badwater, DNF stands for Did Nothing Fatal.
My goal has always been to finish Badwater 10 times, so this year I went into it without much training. I said to my crew, “Let me run at a slow plod. Don’t let me get ahead of myself. No hero antics; I just want to finish. If I can finish under 30 hours that’s great but if my body is not there then let’s just slow it down and get to the finish line.” [Karnazes finished in 27 hours, 57 minutes and 50 seconds.] I was just going to rely on past experience and fitness, not let my heart rate get too high and motor through it knowing it wouldn’t be a fast motor.
This was the first time I ever enjoyed Badwater. Usually I’ll tell myself, “I know I said I wanted to do 10 of these, but I didn’t know what I was thinking and I’m never coming back here.” But this year I actually enjoyed it.
What about those times you don’t enjoy it? When everything feels horrible?
I try to intellectualize it all. A low means this: “I’m destroyed.’ The finish line is 80 or 100 miles a way and you’re not sure you can run another 20 feet. It’s demoralizing. You think, ‘Please dear God where’s the next mile marker?” What I try and do then is get granular about it. I’m literally thinking only about my next foot strike and how I’m going to make that my best effort. I offer this advice to marathoners. When you’re at mile 18 or 19 and cooked don’t get trapped into looking for the next mile marker. Don’t look for it. It’s a Zen thing. Just blank out everything around you except the foot strike you’re working on and just go.
I once watched Western States from the big aid station at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing at Mile 78. There were lawn chairs with blankets set out and it seemed as if half of the runners who decided to sit down ended up dropping out of the race right there. I noticed pacers trying to talk their runners out of sitting down at all.
There’s a saying in ultramarathoning, “Beware the Chair.” This especially applies to Badwater. I said to my crew before Badwater, “Two things I don’t want you to bring: a chair and an umbrella.” A lot of runners bring these things so they can take a break and sit in the shade. But I know for me as soon as I get comfortable I’m in trouble. I ask my crew to keep me in a constant state of misery.
When I ran across America there were a lot of miserable stretches, but Kansas was the worst. It was supposed to be a break after crossing the Rockies. The course was going to be flat and I was expecting a prevalent tailwind. But a storm came in. For six days I ran into a 15 mph wind and often amid a sleety rain. Snow will bounce off you, but the sleet got into every seam. My feet were never dry. And there was this constant fog so I only had 20 feet of visibility. I freezing and miserable, running into this white cloud for 10 to 12 hours a day for six days. I was losing my mind. My crew would stop ahead of me every mile. They’d open the car door and I could feel all the heat and warmth in the car and the aroma of hot chocolate. It was too much. I told them to start driving ahead 10 miles for every crew stop. They asked me, “Is that what you really want?” and I said, “Nooooo, but every time you open that door I just want to crawl in start drinking hot chocolate.”
What does it take to get you to drop out of a race?
I have policy that unless I’m going to do some sort of permanent harm I won’t drop out of a race. I’ve run hundreds of races and only dropped out of a handful of them. I know there are elites who drop out if they’re just having a bad day, and I get it; there are a lot of pros and cons to this—like saving your legs for another race—but my policy is to finish unless I’m going to get hurt.
I’ve failed at the Leadville Trail 100. I remember I was at mile 80, feeling great and thinking I had a shot at finishing top five. It felt as if I had a lot of gas in the tank. At mile 85 I couldn’t see straight. Next thing I know the medics put me on a cot and were asking me how many fingers they were holding up. I couldn’t articulate to them he was holding up three fingers. I thought, “What’s this joker up to?” Then he said, “Get this guy in a car and down to Denver. He has high-altitude cerebral edema.” I can have this reckless view that I’m immortal. That taught me about precaution.
The extremes of ultrarunning clearly appeals to some because of the spiritual dimension that apparently is involved when one pushes so hard. But it seems as if part of the appeal for you is also the science and precision that can be applied to running.
Endurance is my thing. I love reading about obscure studies that might relate to a runner. I have a file cabinet full of clipping and studies and I like to set them side by side and try and triangulate the data points.
I doubt there are many ultrarunners that intellectualize the sport the way I do. For example, I did the Boston Marathon this past spring and I noticed we had a four to five mile-per-hour tailwind. Well, you don’t notice that, but because you’re moving at the same speed as the wind; you don’t get the cooling effect you ordinarily would—even if the air was simply still. In effect you’re running in a vacuum. I heard so many people say, “God, it was unbearably hot.” This was part of the reason why.
A lot of things happen to you at Badwater. This year we had a 25 mph headwind. This is why it’s called Furnace Creek. Your eyeballs can dry out. You can also fry your soft palate—the reflective UV radiation from the road bounces up and hits you in the mouth and under the nose. You’ll see these poor guys that can’t eat or drink. I suggest to others to chew gum to help keep your mouth closed while you run and put sun block on the bottom of your nose. Every little misery there compounds itself.
So you turned 50 this past August. How did you celebrate?
I went for a long run culminating at the top of Mount Tamalpais to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Then the kids made me dinner. It was a good day.
This interview originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
T.J. Murphy is a contributing writer for Competitor magazine and author of, “Inside the Box.”