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Ultra Marathon Man 

Even among long-distance runners, S.F.'s Dean Karnazes is a phenom

Wednesday, Jan 14 2004
A blaring car horn shook Dean Karnazes awake. His eyes snapped open to see two headlights coming straight at him in the middle of a two-lane highway in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He was completely confused. Where am I? he asked himself. What in the world is going on? Whatever it was, it seemed dangerous as hell. A split second later, he hurled himself into the brush on the road's shoulder.

By the light of the full moon, Karnazes checked his watch -- 3:30 a.m. He finally realized what had happened. He'd fallen asleep while running and veered into the center of the highway. Shakily, he stood up.

Karnazes was near the end of the 2002 Providian Relay, a 199-mile footrace from Napa to Santa Cruz that's normally run by teams of 12 people. But as he had for the past seven years, Karnazes was running the entire course by himself, as what he wryly calls "Team Dean." When the horn jolted him awake, he'd been running for more than 50 hours, without sleep, and had covered 160 miles.

Brushing debris off his Polarfleece jacket and checking himself for cuts and scrapes, Karnazes set off again along the dark road. Only 39 miles to go, then there would be plenty of time for rest.

Karnazes is an ultrarunner. He belongs to a niche of long-distance runners who consider 26.2 miles -- the length of a marathon -- a mere warm-up. Their races, called ultramarathons, are generally between 30 and 150 miles long, often on steep hiking trails, lasting into the night, with no breaks for sleep. Just to complete them requires almost superhuman endurance. And even among ultrarunners, Karnazes is considered something of a machine.

At 41, Karnazes (rhymes with "Onassis") has a tanned body so taut that it looks like you could lob a tennis ball at any part of it, even his cheeks, and it would bounce back with a resounding thwack. It's a body that's taken him farther than anybody -- including him -- thought possible.

Last year, he placed second in arguably the toughest race in America -- the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, held in Death Valley National Park in the middle of July, when temperatures soar to a flesh-frying 130 degrees. To insulate himself against ultraviolet rays, he ran in a protective suit made of synthetic Coolmax microfiber, keeping his feet on the road's white divider line to prevent the soles of his shoes from melting.

In 2002, Karnazes had gone to the opposite extreme, flying to Antarctica and becoming the first person to ever run a marathon to the South Pole.

Karnazes balances all these achievements with a wife, two kids, and a full-time job -- he and a business partner are starting a healthy snack foods company. They recently put the finishing touches on what they hope will be the crown jewel of their product line: a low-carb, fat-free "Cheetos-type product." To fit it all in, Karnazes sleeps only four to six hours a night.

"Dean," I ask during an interview, "are you human?"

"I'm human," he says. "I have every other weakness that every other human has, if not more. It's just, I push myself to the level that I've broken down some mental barriers about what a human can do, physically."

Long-distance running is probably as old as the human race. The ancient Greeks ran footraces of various distances and created the marathon. It's based on the journey of a messenger who is said to have run 26.2 miles, to Athens from the city of Marathon, to deliver news of a battle. He reputedly dropped dead afterward.

Long runs were also popular with Native Americans, both as sport and as a means of communicating between villages. After all, you don't need any high-tech equipment and, with regular practice, more people than you'd think can become capable of jogging great distances. To this day the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon region run up to 100 miles at a time on mountain paths. They wear sandals made of old tires and their diet -- unlike the abstemious regimens of modern Western athletes -- consists mostly of corn and copious amounts of strong homemade corn liquor called tesguino.

Multiday walking and running races became a fad in Victorian England. They were eclipsed in popularity by the marathon, introduced in 1896 during the modern revival of the Olympic Games in Athens. In 1921, a now well-attended 50-mile road race called the Comrades Marathon was launched between the South African cities of Durban and Pietermartizburg.

But it wasn't until 1974, when Gordon Ainsleigh's horse fell ill before an annual 100-mile equestrian race in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, that ultrarunning took off as a sport. While his opponents rode, Ainsleigh, an American, ran on foot from Squaw Valley to the town of Auburn. He followed a treacherous route that wove among snowy mountain peaks and through hot box canyons, giving birth to what's known today as the Western States Endurance Run.

The Western States was the first trail footrace of great distance, and it sparked a movement that has steadily grown in popularity. Today, there are ultramarathons all over the world -- from Marin County to Mongolia -- and hundreds of thousands of participants of all ages, both women and men. Karnazes has run the Western States eight times; his best finish was fourth place last year.

JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a Stanford sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge, says those attracted to ultras are often loners who don't accept other people's views on the limits of human endurance. "They see body aches and pains -- adversity -- as a way to explore their inner potential," she says. "It can almost be like a Zen kind of thing or a trance -- being out there doing something repetitive for long periods of time."

A runner's biochemistry changes in dramatic ways as he runs longer and longer distances. The body is forced to consume fuel and oxygen much more efficiently. A well-trained endurance runner has much stronger heart muscles and a heart rate about 43 percent lower than a sedentary person's. A runner's cardiac output -- the volume of blood pushed through his circulatory system -- jumps by 75 percent, delivering more oxygen to his muscles. Due to an expansion of cellular energy producers called mitochondria, the amount of oxygen absorbed into his tissues rises by up to 50 percent. Distance runners also shed a larger proportion of body fat, making them more able to pound their feet against the pavement for long periods without damaging their joints.

As an ultrarunner continues to train, he develops more capillaries, bringing still more oxygen to his muscles. His level of metabolic enzymes -- proteins that break down carbohydrates and fats -- more than doubles. And his body builds up more tolerance to lactic acid, an exercise byproduct that causes muscle soreness. That means he can run faster and harder without experiencing muscle cramps.

According to Dahlkoetter, ultrarunners tend to be neurotic about their diets, and Karnazes is no exception. He eats no refined sugar and very few carbohydrates -- except during his races, when he gorges on anything from Big Macs to entire pumpkin pies to replace the calories he burns. "I'm a lightweight now," he says. "When I drink one beer I'm buzzed."

He runs between 85 and 120 miles a week. Either he runs at 4 a.m., before taking his 9-year-old daughter Alexandria to school, or after he puts her and his 6-year-old son Nicholas to bed at night. On weekends, he often runs from his home in lower Pacific Heights across the Golden Gate Bridge, up to the top of Mount Tamalpais, down to Stinson Beach, and back home again -- a distance of 43 miles.

Terry Hunt, Karnazes' business partner, recently scheduled a brainstorming meeting for them at a Menlo Park tennis club. Both men's families were invited, so their wives could meet and their kids could swim in the pool. When Hunt called the morning of the get-together to make sure Karnazes had directions, Dean's wife, Julie, informed Hunt that her husband had left the house four hours ago -- on foot. Running on roads and trails -- "Like a gazelle!" marvels Hunt -- Karnazes arrived at the club right on time. "It didn't even look like he'd been running," says Hunt. "He wasn't sweating." His partner proceeded to swim laps in the pool with his son riding on his back.

In a sport whose participants are plagued with knee and foot injuries, Karnazes says he's never been hurt, never even pulled a muscle. He seemingly improves with age; last year, he had his best year yet, with his impressive showing at the Western States and his near-win in the Badwater Ultramarathon.

Karnazes' amazing ability can be attributed in part to his perfectly even footfalls. When walking and running, most people either pronate, which means they land on the insides of their feet, or supinate, which means they land on the outsides of their feet, says Dr. David Hannaford, a San Francisco podiatrist who has treated many ultrarunners and knows Karnazes. Under the repetitive stress of ultra-distance running, an off-center footfall can produce pain if not corrected by the right shoes or by molded plastic inserts called orthotics. But Karnazes, says Hannaford, has what's known as a "true foot strike." That is, his foot lands evenly on the ground, making him less prone to injury.

"Dean is pretty lucky," says Hannaford. "He's a natural athlete."

Most runners are gaunt and scrawny, streamlined for speed. But Karnazes, partly thanks to good genes and partly because he does other sports like surfing and mountain biking, has a muscular upper body and big, powerful calves.

Dr. Jeff Shapiro, a Bay Area physician and race director of the Providian Relay, has studied the biomechanics of running and developed a technique for ascending hills more efficiently. It involves leaning forward from the ankle, which reduces knee stress and makes you less tired while climbing. After teaching his technique to hundreds of runners with good results, Shapiro taught it to Karnazes, and got no results.

"I've gone over it with him three different times and expected him to try it once or twice," says Shapiro. "But his legs are so strong, it's almost as if he doesn't need it. We run up [Lyon Street] and I'm doing the technique and he's not, and he's way ahead of me. The only time I beat him up the hill was because he got a phone call."

Karnazes and his family live in a five-bedroom Victorian with the austere, partially furnished look of a home where the parents are waiting until their kids are out of the bull-in-a-china-shop stage before they decorate. There are no trophies or framed photos of Karnazes crossing finish lines -- at least not downstairs where the family receives company.

"I try to keep my running from cutting into my family life," says Karnazes.

That's probably a good idea, says sports psychologist Dahlkoetter.

"A lot of people get into ultras as a couple," she says. "But if one gets into ultras and the other one doesn't, it can pull people apart because it takes up so much time. It becomes the type of thing only ultrarunners can understand, and you see people getting divorced."

Karnazes' wife Julie doesn't run unless, as Karnazes jokes, "someone's chasing her." A petite, put-together blonde with a successful San Francisco dental practice, she met Karnazes when they were high school freshmen in San Clemente, where both grew up. Karnazes' feats of endurance don't strike Julie as anything extraordinary; that's all she's ever seen him do.

"I never thought to ask him that," Julie says, perplexed, when questioned about how her mate is able to push through pain and mental blocks to finish his long runs. "I guess I just always assume he'll succeed -- I've never in my life seen him fail at anything physical."

One recent Saturday, the family was expected at a wedding in Healdsburg, about 70 miles away. Karnazes got home from work the Friday before, said goodbye to Julie and the kids, ran all night, and met them in the morning at a Healdsburg hotel, where he showered and then sauntered over to the wedding. "The kids I don't think know much different," says Karnazes. "They go to sleep, wake up, get in the car. They're driving into town; there's Dad running into town."

"We spray him down with our spray bottles!" says his daughter, Alexandria.

Sometimes, however, Karnazes' balancing act takes its toll. "The not sleeping can be bothersome for me," admits Julie. "You reach for someone, and they're not there." Before and during the Providian Relay, for instance, Karnazes goes without sleep for four days. "He's up the Thursday [night] before, getting ready," says his wife. "He's maybe putting his head down for a few minutes, and he's maybe closing his eyes, but he can't fall asleep. He's like a racehorse: He just wants to start running it."

A clue to Karnazes' athletic drive can be found in his father, Nick, a retired real estate appraiser who, at age 67, runs half-marathons. The senior Karnazes' constant mode of expression is that of a coach freaking out on the sidelines during a winning play.

"He hustles a lot and he works really hard," enthuses Nick Karnazes about his son during a phone interview from San Clemente. "Two and a half years ago, we had 9/11, terrible tragedy, where terrorists flew airplanes into buildings -- you're aware of that? And someone decided they were going to run with the American flag across the United States. Somehow they got ahold of Dean Karnazes. They wanted him to run an 18-mile leg in Joshua Tree. He called me. He said, 'Dad, what are you doing Wednesday?' I said, 'You tell me.' We get in the camper van towards Arizona. He hands me the flag. I run three miles. He runs, I run. Then we sleep under the stars and, in 45 minutes, we see 17 shooting stars. 'If you got a sleeping bag, wear it out, like you wear out a pair of shoes,' I tell the kids."

When Dean Karnazes was a boy, his family viewed couch potato-itis as a cardinal sin. His mother, Fran, a junior high school English teacher, once found her husband sitting down to watch a golf game on television and inquired how much a round of golf cost to play. When Nick answered, "$18," she went to her purse and tossed him a $20 bill. "I'd rather have you out there playing," she said. "I care about your health." He followed her advice.

Dean's younger brother, Craig, became a professional volleyball player before settling down as a stockbroker. But Dean pleased his father to no end by taking things to greater and greater extremes.

At age 11, Dean -- then known by his Greek given name, Constantine -- spontaneously decided to bike to his grandmother's house, 37 miles away. Later, when his then-slightly-chunky frame cost him a spot on a local youth-league football team, his mom says, he put himself on a strict diet.

"In junior high, he started going shopping with me, and started analyzing the ingredients on the package," remembers Fran. In high school, he surfed and ran marathons. "He worked at the San Clemente Inn, where a heart specialist would bring people who had heart attacks in for a one-week nutrition and exercise program. Dean would copy the recipes down and bring them to me to cook."

Hoping to learn how to create "the perfect food for athletes," Karnazes majored in food science technology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. By the time he'd completed his master's degree, he had hung up his running shoes and thrown his considerable energy into professional windsurfing.

Karnazes was at the top of his game when, in 1991, Julie decided on dental school in the Bay Area and the two moved to San Francisco. When he wasn't working as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Karnazes was windsurfing extreme surf breaks like Maverick's. He traveled to surf spots in Mexico and Fiji so remote that he had to backpack or boat in to them, says his friend Topher Gaylord, who describes Karnazes as being in "the forefront of windsurfing exploration." Three times he landed on the cover of windsurfing magazines.

But something was missing. His friends threw him a 30th birthday party at the now-defunct Paragon bar in the Marina and, as the evening wore on, Karnazes fell into a funk.

"I was getting old -- bones are creaking, that kind of thing," he says. While his friends polished off another round of beers, and Julie went home to bed, the answer to Karnazes' problems suddenly came to him. He would run 30 miles. "I thought a physical accomplishment on that scale would make me feel whole again," he says.

Julie got a call from her husband the next morning. "I'm at the 7-Eleven. Can you pick me up?" he asked.

"The 7-Eleven on Geary?"

"No. Half Moon Bay."

Though Karnazes' feet were a mass of blisters, he felt high. He'd caught the ultrarunning bug, and his life changed almost immediately. Two months later, Karnazes found out about the Western States; eight months after that, he ran it. Most of his non-runner friends began to drop out of his life, and he converted others -- like Gaylord -- to ultrarunning.

The first year Dr. Shapiro staged his relay race from Napa to Santa Cruz, to raise awareness for organ donation, he got a call from Karnazes.

"He says, 'Can I run it alone?'" says Shapiro. "My first thought was, he was a nut. I imagined myself, as the race physician, resuscitating Dean the whole way." But Karnazes made it.

Family and friends became his support crew as he signed up for more and more grueling races. When Karnazes first attempted the Badwater Ultramarathon in 1995, his mother, father, Julie, and Alexandria came out to backstop him. But the van they were driving to meet Karnazes in broke down, and he had to run without water for the first 17 miles of the race. Overcome with heat exhaustion, he had to drop out.

The next year Karnazes was back with only his die-hard father and a friend, Jim Vernon, in the support van. They kept him alive by driving ahead of him, spraying him down with water every quarter-mile, bathing his head in ice water, and feeding him Pedialyte, an electrolyte replacement for babies suffering from diarrhea. At times, Karnazes briefly fell asleep on his feet or hallucinated.

"One time I saw a miner, like an old forty-niner, standing on the road with this pan," he says. "I got closer and closer and it turned out to be a rock."

Nick becomes apoplectic with excitement when he crews for his son, leaping from the support van to run beside him before succumbing to exhaustion a mile later. Once he jumped out while the van was still in gear on a hill, giving Vernon -- sleeping in the back -- a rude awakening. Fortunately, Vernon woke up in time to crawl into the driver's seat and put on the brakes.

During the Providian Relay, in which he also crews for his son, Nick churns out page after page of notes, detailing the number of shoes Dean goes through, how many times he changes his socks, and every single thing he puts into his mouth. "It's totally insane," says Dean.

"Dean and Nick fight like Edith and Archie Bunker during these races," says Vernon. "I think it helps Dean keep his mind off the pain."

Those who've raced against him marvel that Karnazes can remain so cool all the time, barely looking like he's exerting any effort, even in 130-degree heat.

"You see these guys, at the end of a race like Western States, they're just a wreck. They've peed on themselves," Karnazes says. "I never pushed myself to that point. I'd rather retain some dignity."

It's like he's saving himself for something grander -- and he is.

"This is Dean's vehicle for self-exploration," says his friend Topher Gaylord. "In all of history, the human spirit has wanted to know what are the limits of the human body. If something you felt was impossible yesterday becomes possible today, then you've expanded your mind."

Karnazes lives to find out just how far he can go. In 2002, that thirst took him to the South Pole.

An adventurer named Doug Stoup came up with the idea to run a marathon to the South Pole, a feat never before attempted. Karnazes and five other runners -- four male, one female -- jumped at the opportunity.

The group flew to the desolate Patriot Hills base camp, 600 miles from their destination. Gale-force winds tore down from the South Pole; temperatures hovered between minus 40 and minus 35 degrees. After setting up a tent city, all but one of the runners took off again for a point 26 miles from the Pole, landed, and jogged off into the white wilderness.

But, says Karnazes, laughing, "It was pretty apparent when we got there that it was not meant to be." After a couple of hours, one of the men and the woman had made it only two miles. "It would have taken them, like, 24 hours to run a marathon and they would have frozen to death, literally," he says.

Those two decided to run only a half-marathon, 13 miles, while two others snowshoed the whole way. But Karnazes refused to take off his running shoes. After all, this was supposed to be a marathon to the South Pole. And Karnazes is nothing if not a purist.

"People have snowshoed to the South Pole, but no one has ever run there," he says. "Why do something that's already been done? The whole purpose of it was to run."

With skiing-style heating pads in his shoes, he slogged across the polar plateau in the 4-inch-deep snow. Before long, peering into nothing but whiteness, he began to feel as if he had vertigo -- the snow, the sky, the sun, everything was white. To help avert frostbite on his toes, he envisioned himself windsurfing somewhere tropical, his bare feet splashed with warm water. He had wrapped a scarf around his face, and wore a neoprene mouth guard to keep the material from freezing against his skin. But moisture from his respiration froze inside the protector, which was Velcroed behind his head, and the whole thing turned into a hard necklace of ice. Since the frozen mask would have been so difficult to remove, he didn't eat or drink, and soon began to feel weak.

But he doggedly kept on, his mind conjuring scenes of warmth amid the frigid environment. "On Sunday mornings at home, the kids get into Julie and my big California king bed," says Karnazes. "We lounge around playing chess and drinking coffee in the sun. I couldn't stop thinking about that." And eventually, Karnazes made it to the red-and-white barber pole that marks the world's southernmost point.

In last October's Providian Relay, Karnazes ran farther than he ever had in his life when he tacked an additional 27 miles onto the original 199. He'd been trying to go 300. Shapiro, the race director, had not been able to find any documentation of a human being running that far continuously, and Karnazes was determined to be the first. But, weaving from sleepiness and exhaustion into oncoming traffic, Karnazes had had to call it quits.

"The nagging question remains -- could I have gone farther?" Karnazes wrote later on the race Web site, vowing to try again this year.

In the meantime, Karnazes decided to run the Western States in the dead of winter -- another first. He'd been inspired by a letter written by a 19th-century prospector who had made nearly the exact same trip, but with disastrous results.

It was very cold and we buried ourselves in the snow to keep from freezing and lay there all night. ... At this time we did not know that our feet were frozen but several days after we got in we could not walk at all. ... On the 31st, Dr. Tibbetts ... amputated my feet ....

Equipped with avalanche probes and global positioning locators, Karnazes and a buddy planned to make the trip the weekend after New Year's, alternately running and snowshoeing. But a massive storm rolled through the Sierras and they were forced to reschedule.

Karnazes now plans to run a marathon on water, from Catalina to Manhattan Beach near Los Angeles, using a contraption called the Hydrobronc that looks like an inflatable hamster wheel. It was originally designed to rescue people who've fallen through the ice.

On a rainy day in December, I met Dean Karnazes at Crissy Field for a run. He pulled up in his red Honda Element and hopped out looking sharp in all the coolest runner gear -- mesh hat, wraparound shades, waterproof shell, shorts, and Gore-Tex sneakers.

Karnazes is an official "North Face Athlete" and often "wear tests" the sporting apparel company's gear; today he'd be checking out its new waterproof trail-running shoes. He also has modeled for North Face catalogs and starred in its television ads. The firm has even named a trail-running shoe after him, the "Karno."

I'd ridden my bike to Crissy and was soaked to the bone. "Your shell doesn't seem to be wicking," he noted with concern, using runner jargon for a fabric's ability to keep -- or move -- water away from the skin to the outside of a garment, so that it can evaporate. He offered to lend me his shell. But I was OK and we started toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Karnazes matched my plodding steps without a glimmer of impatience, though he usually knocks off a mile in a brisk six minutes, 30 seconds. His calves bulged and gleamed like oak banisters.

We crossed into Sausalito and, at Karnazes' suggestion, hung a left on Alexander Avenue, overlooking the bay. After turning onto a bike trail and running a few more miles, I told him I had to start back or he'd be carrying me. He happily obliged.

Back on Alexander Avenue, he looked down at Black Sands Beach off to our right. "I was running once and I saw a whale down there," he said. "So I ran down there and, sure enough, it was a beached whale. Then right when I got there, this big shark swum up and opened its jaws and took a huge bite out of the whale. It was amazing."

Earlier, Karnazes had theorized that his running addiction involved more than just an endorphin fix. "There's something about being unencumbered," he'd said. "To have nothing on you but your shoes and shorts. It's the primitive need of a human to be wild, in a sense."

As we got to the Golden Gate Bridge and headed back toward San Francisco, Karnazes looked forlornly at Highway 101 going north. "Don't you just want to keep going and run all the way to Nicasio right now?" he asked with a winning smile. "Can you understand why someone would want to do that? Don't you just want to go?"

I could see how badly he wanted to run another 40 miles, but there was no way I could make it. Later, I asked him what he would do when, one day far in the future, he was too old to run.

"It's naive and ridiculous, but I don't think I'm going to get old," said Karnazes. "If I was forced to stop running, I don't know what would happen. I would be miserable. I'd probably drive everybody around me crazy. What would I channel it into? I don't know. An intellectual pursuit versus a physical one? Potentially. But I don't think I'm as good at that, truthfully.

"I still feel like a teenager. I know it's irrational. But I honestly think I'm never not going to be able to run."

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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