Down and Out with Dean Karnazes
By Alix Shutello
It’s not every day someone randomly leaves a bar, runs 30 miles, and then qualifies for the Western States 100 after being drained to the bone in a 50-miler he just so happened to run. And while Dean Karnazes is known as the guy who ran 50 marathons in 50 days, he’s not just a marathoner; he is a seasoned ultra marathoner who has competed in some of the top endurance challenges around the world. This year, as he prepares for the Spartan Race World Championships, Karnazes took some time to give us insight into his training, racing, family and business life.
He left the bar and his buddies promptly at 11 p.m. and, like Forest Gump, just started running. He ran 30 miles through the night, even though he hadn’t run in a decade. Something drove him out of that bar and onto the roads; and it was then, on that night, that Karnazes’s life changed forever.
“After stumbling through the night running 30 miles, I thought that a 26.2-mile marathon was the longest running event that existed,” Karnazes said. “But then I learned about a 50-mile race. That sounded crazy to me, so I had to try it!”
The race, the Gibson Ranch 50, took a lot out of Karnazes. At the finish line, he saw some guys high-fiving each other in congratulations on qualifying.
“Qualifying for what?” Karnazes asked. They explained that they’d finished the 50-miler within the cutoff time to qualify for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Karnazes was shocked at the thought of running 100 miles. “I thought it was impossible,” he said. “How could a human possibly run 100 miles non- stop, let alone along a mountainous trail through the Sierra Nevada?”
The competitors told Karnazes he had qualified, too. “The thought of running 100 miles on a rugged trail through the mountains was the most daunting challenge I had ever heard of—so I signed up,” Karnazes said.
After successfully completing the Western States 100, Karnazes ran the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon—a 135-mile race through Death Valley coined, “The World’s Toughest Footrace.” From there, Karnazes graduated to a 200-mile 12-person relay race; only he ran it solo.
“It just got worse from there,” Karnazes said.
His next endeavor was to run 262 miles, or 10 marathons back-to-back as a fundraiser for a little boy awaiting a liver transplant. From there he graduated to 350 miles in three days of continuous running. He participated in 48 hours on a treadmill (as a fundraiser), followed by the event which made him famous: 50 marathons, in all 50 U.S. states, in 50 consecutive days, followed by a 3,000+ mile jaunt from Los Angeles to New York City.
Then came running across the Atacama in Chile, the Gobi Desert in Central Asia, the Sahara and Antarctica—just to name just a few of the places in which Karnazes has run and competed.
Karnazes’s sponsor, The North Face, has this terrific motto: “Never Stop Exploring”—a motto Karnazes lives by.
Karnazes is dedicated to living a full, healthy life, and realizes that there really is no balance other than what he can control in terms of diet and exercise.
“People sometimes ask me how I strike a balance in my life with family, work and training. If I said there was balance in my life, I would be lying. There’s no balance whatsoever. Things are frenetic, fast-paced and frequently disjointed; more akin to managed chaos than balance. But it all seems to work, and it’s a helluva lot of fun! I sleep only about four or five hours a night, so that’s beneficial for fitting everything in.”
When it comes to fitness, Karnazes does control his environment.
“I believe in total body conditioning as a way to build endurance and avoid injury. Along with running 80-120 miles per week, I’m cross-training by surfing, rock climbing and stand-up paddleboarding.”
Karnazes has a gym in his office that consists of a floor mat and a pull-up/dip/push-up bar. Throughout the day, he’ll cycle in sets of these exercises. He’ll typically do five-six complete sets each day, incorporating core and upper body strength exercises to help maintain proper running posture when the miles and exhaustion add up.
“Having an all-around strong body is critical for added stamina and injury prevention,” Karnazes said.
Aside from full body conditioning, diet and work environment are critical to his daily regimen and dedication to good health.
“I never sit. Sitting is the new smoking,” Karnazes added. “My entire office is set up at waist level, and I do all of my writing, emailing and phone calls while standing up. I feel much more energetic and alive when I’m on my feet all day as opposed to sitting on my rump.”
Running, to me, is the ultimate freedom. To keep things fresh and exciting, I sometimes don’t wear a watch when I run.
Karnazes’s diet is also extremely regimented. He has eliminated all refined and processed foods completely—no wheat, rice, oats or other grains, which can cause inflammation and joint pain. “I’ve also been eating cold-water fish all my life, principally wild Pacific salmon (which traditionally have lower mercury levels than fish from other areas), as omega-3 fatty acids are very beneficial for joint health.”
Karnazes describes his diet as a hybrid between Paleo, Raw and Mediterranean, and this, he’s found, is what works best for him. “I always counsel people to ‘Listen to everyone; follow no one.’ We’re all an experiment of one, and I encourage people to try new things to find what works best for them.”
A RUNNER’S PHILOSOPHY
It takes a certain mental fortitude to train and compete at the level Karnazes does. At the core, Karnazes is simply just enamored by running.
“Running, to me, is the ultimate freedom. To keep things fresh and exciting, I sometimes don’t wear a watch when I run. Instead, I just go for a run. It might be a short run, or it might be a long run (sometimes overnight). If you’re always wearing a watch and super-focused on racing, it gets a bit stale and can lead to burnout. Sometimes I train and race hard; other times I just hit the trails and enjoy myself, running simply for the pure joy of running,” he said.
“I love doing what I do. When people ask me if I’ll keep running forever, I tell them my finish line is a pine box. That said, if one day I wake up and no longer love running, then I’ll do something else. But right now the fire burns brightly, so I’ll keep on keeping on.”
KARNAZES’S RACING ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND FUTURE ENDEAVORS
Karnazes planned to run a few dozen marathons and ultramarathons in 2013, including his 10th Badwater, which had been a goal of his. Later this year, he’ll be competing in the Spartan Race World Championships.
To date, Karnazes has racked up a dozen Western States finishes and 10 Badwater finishes. Will he ever do those races again? He imagines so—but he also likes doing new things, such as self-supported multi-day races. “I won the 4 Deserts Challenge a few years back, and I really enjoyed the experience. I’ve also done 24-hour mountain bike races, tri- athlons, adventure races, long-distance paddleboard races, Muddy Buddies, and a few other ultra endurance events.”
To say Karnazes is accomplished is an understatement. With The North Face as his sponsor, they develop a competition schedule in late fall for the following year. Outside of that, if he’s in a place where there’s a marathon or an ultra nearby, he’ll sign up and do it as a training run. Karnazes explains, “I’m an ‘opportunistic racer’.”