As ultramarathon runners go, Dean Karnazes could probably outrun them all. Nilufer Atik finds out how
In most endurance races there inevitably comes a point when an athlete feels he or she can go no further. Known as hitting the wall, or the “bonk”, it occurs when glycogen stores in the liver and muscles drop so low that each step, pedal or swim stroke requires gargantuan effort. We’ve all been there. All except Dean Karnazes that is.
Considered one of the world’s finest ultramarathon runners, this 52-year-old superman would probably fly right through a wall if he ever came across one, no matter how thick the brick was (or how low his glycogen stores were). The outstanding athlete is considered a legend in the world of endurance sports, not only because he possesses an uncanny ability to cover distances most of us would tire of driving but because he’s done so under some of the severest conditions imaginable.
His accomplishments include a 135-mile race across treacherous desert land in the lowest, driest and hottest part of North America known as Death Valley and a 350-mile continuous run with no sleep for three days. Karnazes has also completed a marathon to the South Pole in minus 40 degrees C, a journey he describes as “like trying to find your footing in a tub of Styrofoam pellets” in his best-selling book Run.
A die-hard thrill-seeker for more than two decades, he has pushed his body and mind to inconceivable limits, yet he never, ever seems to get tired. Even on his off days he’s on.
“I’m in a constant state of training,” explains Karnazes. “On a good day I like to bang out a marathon before breakfast. I never sit down. My entire office is set up at waist-level and I do all my writing and emailing while standing up and bouncing around on my toes.”
His home office, from where he works as a consultant in the health food business, also houses pull-up and dip bars as well as a TRX® suspension trainer, on which he completes an “ass-kicking” circuit daily, before going for a second, shorter ten-mile fast run in the afternoon.
Also a competitive surfer and windsurfer, his gruelling training regime would leave most fitness junkies permanently suffering from DOMS (delayed on-set of muscle soreness). But Karnazes has never experienced any muscle burn or cramps. He didn’t even get sore legs after completing the marathon to the South Pole in 2002 – a torturous feat that would kill the limbs of many long-distance runners.
“At a certain level of intensity, I do feel like I can go a long way without tiring,” he explains. “No matter how hard I push, my muscles never seize up. That’s kind of a nice thing if I plan to run a long way.”
Despite covering thousands of miles to date, Karnazes has also never suffered a stress fracture, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or any stiffness.
“I never stretch either,” he admits.
In fact, the only thing that ever does force Karnazes to rest is his biological need for sleep. And even that he can do on the move. In his first book Ultramarathon Man, Karnazes recalls one moment during the 19-mile Providian Relay in California when the only shut-eye he got was drifting off two thirds along the way. He was woken by a car horn behind him.
“I’ve experienced a few bouts of ‘sleep running’, where I sleep while in motion. I just will myself to keep going.”
Most experienced long-distance runners will only be forced to a standstill due to injury or because they’ve gone well beyond their lactate threshold (or hit the wall), and simply can’t move any more – their bodies no longer able to convert the lactate they produce back into energy, resulting in acidity overload in their muscles.
Even Olympians have this limit. So how does Karnazes, who has run further than any other human being in recorded history, seem to bypass this natural mechanism and keep going beyond the bounds of ordinary human capability? Is he superhuman as some of his fans believe?
Well, kind of. In an attempt to discover why his muscles never tire, Karnazes underwent a lactate threshold test at a human performance centre in Aspen, Colorado, in 2013. Sports scientists analysed his body’s ability to maintain normal lactic acid levels for extended durations. His results were off the charts.
“They said they’d never seen anything like it before,” Karnazes explains. “As one researcher put it, it meant that I was ‘built to run forever’.”
This astounding difference in Karnazes’ lactate clearing abilities is probably genetic, and he believes, partly down to the fact that he has extremely low body fat (it’s currently at four percent, way below the average for an athletic man his age), a high alkaline diet and low exposure to environmental toxins.
The fact that his physique is that of a finely tuned machine undoubtedly helps though. Not only does Karnazes train rigorously every day, he also follows a monk-like food plan, comprising tofu, soy yogurt, salads, fruits and vegetables and organic wild Alaskan salmon.
He used to ingest around 2,800 calories of junk food to maintain his energy levels during long runs and was famed for receiving takeaway deliveries en route. But that, he promises, has now all changed.
“Basically, my current diet consists of only foods directly sourced from the earth without processing or refinement,” he swears. “It wasn’t always that way. I used to eat loads of fast food and will never live down the time that I ordered a large pizza delivered to me while out on a long run. But people can change, and I’m a prime example.”
“Over the years I’ve gone from eating junk food to eating only real food. That means nothing from a can or a bag, or anything in a wrapper; just simple natural and organic foods and lean meat and seafood. Lots of seafood, and plenty of seaweed, too!”
The rest of his extraordinary ability, he puts down to an added helping of willpower.
“The mental challenge of running great distances is every bit as vexing as the physical element,” Karnazes explains. “Mastering one’s mind and being able to overcome adversity and pain requires discipline and a certain stubborn doggedness. For me, I turn inward when the going gets tough and I try to be present in the now, tuning out everything except the current
moment in time. I just try to be my best at that instant and not be distracted by anything else. It’s almost a Zen-like state.”
The father-of-two even views the boredom of continuous running as a test of perseverance, saying he “welcomes the fight”, no matter how dire his circumstances appear.
One example was when he completed 50 marathons, in all 50 US states, in 50 consecutive days in 2006. Ironically, he says the hardest part of this experience was knowing what to do with himself on day 51. “I felt lost and hopeless.” So he decided to finish by running home from New York to San Francisco!
“The 50 marathons tested me in ways that I’ve never been tested before. And I learned a great deal about myself in the process,” he recalls. “Although it was a tremendous physical accomplishment, ultimately the journey was within.”
“Running these ultra-distances can be a real physical and mental roller coaster ride.” For him the ride began 22 years ago, at a birthday party. While Karnazes had been a passionate runner at high school, he’d abandoned the sport when his beloved sister Pary, was killed in a car accident just before her 18th birthday. He decided to focus on building a stable career and having a family. But after a few years of corporate life, he was bored.
Then on the night of his 30th birthday in August 1992, something of an epiphany happened. Drunk and feeling low, Karnazes left the party early and decided to walk home. When he got there, he spotted a battered old pair of running shoes sat on the porch. Gripped by a powerful urge to run once more, he undressed down to his boxer shorts and vest, slipped the trainers on and hit the open road for the first time in almost ten years.
Thirty miles later, he came to a stop. His running mojo was back.
“All my senses just came alive, I knew something big was happening.”
Karnazes continued to run regularly until he stumbled upon two Army Rangers doing sprint drills one day. Intrigued, he asked them what they were training for – their reply The Western States 100 ultramarathon.
Keen to push himself, Karnazes decided to step up his training and enter. It was the beginning of a long love affair with ultra-running. Since then Karnazes has raced and competed on all seven continents.
Among his many accomplishments is taking part in a 200-mile relay solo. He raced alongside teams of twelve.
In 2005 he ran 350 miles straight without sleep. He did it in just 81 hours and 44 minutes, averaging 13-minute miles. He says finishing that race was: “As close to an out-of-body experience as I’ve ever had.”
He has staggered, crawled and vomited during some races and has suffered such huge blisters he’s had to plug them with superglue. But he won’t stop. Off-season, Karnazes runs around 70 miles a week. When preparing for a big event, this distance is ramped up to around 120 miles.
The bionic athlete refuses to let his training interfere with family time though – he survives on just four hours sleep a night to fit everything in. Sometimes, he’ll run throughout the night, making sure he’s back home to have breakfast with his family the next morning.
Many of Karnazes’ runs are organised as fundraisers for charities like Action for Healthy Kids and he has raised over a million pounds so far. But despite approaching his mid-fifties, he has no plans to hang up his trainers just yet.
Ever seeking a greater challenge than the last, the running addict now plans to embark upon a global expedition to complete a marathon in every country of the world in a year.
“There are 204 countries and I’m working with the US State Department and UN to get all the necessary passports and permits to be able to do this,” he says. “As you can imagine, the planning and logistics are every bit as complex and difficult as the running itself will be. But I’ve always told my kids to dream big, so I guess I’d better set a good example.”
Ask what drives him and he’ll give you a simple, if self-deprecating answer: “I’m not inherently talented. I’m not the brightest guy either. Really, the only thing I have is endurance, and I feel like the one thing I can offer the world is to run for great distances.”
Published January 2016.