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Ultra Marathon Man 

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

Wednesday, Jan 14 2004

Page 4 of 5

"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.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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