Running’s Man of Steel

Some four miles or so into the Kauai Marathon on Sunday, I was running along, feeling good and enjoying the day. But I knew, as the miles passed, this euphoria couldn’t and wouldn’t last.

It was about then, came this question.

“What are you doing back here?”

I turned to my left, and there, passing me by, was Dean Karnazes.

I met Dean the day before during a three-mile fun run. But I knew about Dean Karnazes. If you’re a runner, there is much to know and much to respect.

The man is a machine, able to run hundreds of miles at a time. This is a guy who ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. This is a guy who once ran 350 miles without sleep. This is a guy who ran a 199-mile relay, alone. This is a guy who ran 3,000 miles across the United States in 2011, averaging some 40 to 50 miles a day.

He wrote “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner,” which became a huge hit.

He wrote “50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days.”

So, Saturday, after the fun run led by Dean, I interviewed him. He’s a great guy, very personable. And he’s not just interested in telling his story to promote his next project or book but genuinely focused on the people speaking to him. He meets and greets hundreds everywhere he goes. I doubted he would remember me.

He did.

The California man was smiling Sunday as he pulled up alongside me. He slowed his pace briefly, asked how I was doing, and explained he was 6 minutes late for the marathon start because roads were closed and he was detoured.

“I’m trying to catch up,” he said.

No problem. He did what he does very well. He ran.

After we chatted for a few seconds, he resumed his normal clip and gradually disappeared into the field of runners ahead.

He would finish in 3 hours, 30 minutes, winning our 50-54 age group. I followed in 3 hours, 43 minutes, finishing third in that same age group. My claim to fame, now, is when I got my picture taken with him during the awards ceremony.

Wow, I thought, “I was within 13 minutes of Dean Karnazes.” Perhaps he’s not that much better, faster, stronger than me. Perhaps I could be like Dean and run ultramarathons around the world. Perhaps I could run across the country.

Then, Monday arrived.

The day after running the Kauai Marathon, I was hobbling around like an old man who had just run 26.2 miles. Each step was a reminder of what I put my legs through.

 In those final miles, it really, really hurt. I would not be doing this again soon.

As for Dean Karnazes, who has run all five Kauai Marathons, well, he’s back at it. From here, he’s got more marathons, more ultras, more books and more adventures. He has more charitable work to do through “Karno’s Kids” that aims to help our youth improve their health.

Consider that, in mid-July, he ran the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon that goes from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif., in temperatures up to 130 degrees and finished in 32 hours, 27 minutes, 17 seconds.

That should be enough to put a man down or at least force him to watch TV.

Not Dean.

Three days later, he ran an ultramarathon in the Copper Canyon in Mexico, — a brutal place to run with steep climbs, sharp turns and quad-crushing descents.

“Brother, this was not a good deal,” Karnazes said Saturday, laughing.

“I thought I was ending up in the hospital.”

But he scrapped through it, he said, was still going strong, and planned to run the Kauai Marathon as “kind of a recovery fun run.”

“That’s my goal, this year to have more fun than any other year,” he said.

Karnazes said he loves the Kauai Marathon.

“The people on the course are unbelievable,” he said.

When someone speaks of a marathon as a “recovery fun run,” you know they’re from another planet.

And, like everyone who talks to Dean, I wanted to know, how does he do what he does? How does he run 50 marathons in 50 days without winding up in the hospital? How does he run across the country without, at some point, falling over from fatigue?

Dean, affable and open, was happy to answer.

“I don’t think there’s any magic formula,” he said. “I’m an athlete and I take it seriously.”

“The thing about me is I’m geared toward endurance.”

The 51-year-old doesn’t look it. At almost 5 feet 9 inches tall and 145 pounds, he’s lean, muscular and youthful. Energy flows from him. The man refuses to age, which makes people like myself jealous as heck.

“I don’t feel like I’m 51,” he said.

He’s meticulous about his diet, cross trains (surfing, mountain climbing, biking, swimming and rock climbing are among his hobbies) and never sits. He has written his books standing up. His office includes a workout area. Throughout the day, he does sets of pull-ups, pushups and sit-ups.

“I do everything I can to prepare myself as best as possible,” he said.

Karnazes has paid his dues, he says, and that gives him the mental toughness he needs to get through those physically demanding days. You see, he suffers some of the same physical anguish we humans do. He deals with it better than most.

Plus, he’s a believer in pushing the limits.

“I think the human body is capable of more than we even know,” he said.

When people hear he ran 50 marathon in 50 states in 50 days, they say, “No way. Impossible.”

For Karnazes, it was just another day at the office.

“I just got up every morning and tried my best, and 50 days later, it was done,” he said.

Now he’s on to bigger and better and yet more unbelievable things.

Next up for Karnazes is a plan to run a marathon in every country, 204, in one year. If plans pan out, if the passports, visas and permits come together, it will happen in 2015.

Karnazes, familiar with marketing campaigns, credits his sponsor, The North Face, and its slogan, “Never Stop Exploring,” for inspiration.

“I see it as I want to do the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “To me, it would be seeing the world.”

What better way than running.

Karnazes runs anywhere from 70 to 250 miles in a week, depending on races and events. He’s also working on a new book, historical fiction, on the retelling of what is considered the first marathon.

Pheidippides, according to the story that dates back to 490 BC, was an Athenian courier who was sent to Sparta to request help when the Persians landed at Marathon, Greece. He covered, it is said, 150 miles in two days.

On his final day, he ran from Marathon back to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon. His final words, it is said, were, “We have won.” Then, he died.

It’s the stuff of legends.

Karnazes, who is 100 percent Greek, is working with University of Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge on the book.

“He’s like a walking Wikipedia,” Karnazes said of Cartledge. “He’s so smart, it’s scary.”

Karnazes and his wife Julie have two teenage children, Alexandria, who just started college, and Nicholas, who ran a marathon at age 14 with his dad.

Both son and daughter have been to many of dad’s races and enjoy exercise, but neither, at least not yet, has been inclined to take on an ultra. And that’s fine by their father.

“I don’t push it on them. If they run, that’s great. If that’s not their thing, that’s fine with me, too. I want them to do what they love.”

That led to this question: Do you still love what you’re doing? The traveling, the running, the promotional events, writing books and seeing the world? Are you getting tired of pushing the pace?

He grins.

Let’s see. Traveling. Running. Seeing beautiful places like Kauai. Meeting friendly people. What’s not to like?

“The fire still burns. People say, ‘When are you going to stop?’ I say, ‘My finish line is a pine box,’” he said.

“If I wake up one morning and I hate it, I’ll stop doing it. But right now it’s fresh, it’s fun, it feels as good as it was when I first started.”

He chuckles a bit and shakes his head. There’s no denying it. Life is good.

“It’s pretty nice to do what you love,” he said.


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