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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 5 of 5

"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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