Running a marathon was once something to brag about. It’s no longer so special. In 2003, a record 460,000 people completed one of this country’s many marathons. Last fall, 6,000 finished New York. And so those intent on proving themselves have moved beyond, to “ultras”- races of 50, 100, even 200 miles. The undisputed king of the ultras is Dean Karnazes (pronounced kar-NASS-iss), who has not only pushed the envelope but blasted it to bits.
“The way other people seek physical comfort and blissful well-being, I seek extremes,” writes Karnazes in his new book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner (Tarcher/Penguin, $19.95). “Why run 10 miles when you can run 100? Moderation bores me.”
Among his feats:
- Ran 262 miles nonstop, the equivalent of 10 marathons.
- Swam San Francisco Bay.
- Ran a marathon to the South Pole. (The air was so cold, minus 40 degrees, it froze his face mask so he couldn’t eat or drink.)
- Mountain-biked for 24 hours.
- Ran 146 miles across Death Valley in mid-summer to the top of Mount Whitney. (The 120-degree heat melted his sneakers.)
- Won the 2004 Badwater Ultramarathon, “the World’s Toughest Footrace,” covering 135 miles in 27 hours, 22 minutes.
- Ran 100 miles all night to the start of the Napa Valley Marathon, and then completed the race in 3:15.
- Competed in a 199-mile team-relay race – alone. At one point, he was so wiped out he couldn’t stand. He ran the last mile in under six minutes, then went to an amusement park with his kids.
Along the way, Karnazes has staggered, crawled and vomited. His blisters have been plugged with Super Glue. While running, he has eaten whole pizzas and cheesecakes. He has even fallen asleep. This fall, he plans to run 300 miles nonstop, roughly the distance from here to Pittsburgh. The other day, Karnazes, who lives in San Francisco, met me at the Art Museum, and naturally, we went for a run. Our trot along Kelly Drive was short (my recently broken foot is still tender), but Karnazes, barely breathing, was there to remind me that pain is just weakness leaving the body.
Unlike most runners, who tend to be ectomorphic beanpoles with narrow shoulders, spindly arms and sunken chests, Karnazes, 42, has the heroic physique of his classical Greek ancestors. At 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, he is a compact mesomorph, with muscular arms, a ripped torso, a vivid six-pack, and quads Michelangelo might have painted. Little wonder Sports Illustrated Women named him “one of the sexiest men in sports.” Some of this is genetic, but Karnazes also works at it. A competitive surfer and windsurfer, he does 200 push-ups, 50 pull-ups, and 400 sit-ups twice a day.
Off-season, Karnazes runs 50 to 70 miles a week. When prepping for a big endurance test, he’ll ramp up to 80 to 120 miles. He doesn’t let training infringe on family time (he has a daughter, 10, and a son, 7). So, after tucking his kids into bed on a Friday, he’ll run 75 miles through the night and meet his family the next morning in the Napa Valley for breakfast. Or he’ll rise early Saturday, run a marathon before breakfast, and another on Sunday.
He says he has never had an overuse injury. No stress fractures, shin splints, plantar fasciitis. Never a twinge of arthritis. Never any stiffness. (He must be bionic. I ran 50-mile races in my 20s and couldn’t walk for days.) More amazing: He doesn’t stretch. “I’ve tried it, but I just don’t see the benefit,” he says. He approvingly quotes Jack LaLanne: “Ever see a lion warm up?” He changes his shoes every 300 to 400 miles and rotates several pairs.
They are neutral in design, with no motion control. “I have good biomechanics,” he explains. He avoids sugar, sweets and processed foods (except during an ultra, when his fuel needs can be staggering, to wit: 28,000 calories). Instead, Karnazes, who owns a natural-foods business, eats plenty of tofu, soy yogurt, salad, fruits and vegetables. Several nights a week, he dines on salmon, “a miracle food.” His body fat is below 5 percent. His resting pulse: 40. His blood pressure: 105/60.
Many long-distance runners are running from something. For Karnazes, it was the death of his beloved sister in a car accident, as well as a life of yuppie emptiness. His book is seamed with philosophical gold and wise lessons (run with your heart, not your legs; when the distance seems impossible, take baby steps toward something just ahead).
“There is magic in misery,” Karnazes says. He agrees with Dostoyevsky: “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.”
“We’re most alive when we’re struggling,” Karnazes told me. “As a culture, we thought if we had every available comfort, we’d be happy. But instead of being comfortable, we’re fat, lazy and miserable.”
“Running has taught me that the pursuit of passion is more important than the passion itself,” he writes. “If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself, you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
– By Art Carey (Inquirer Columnist)
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