Dean Karnazes: Ultramarathon Man

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Karnazes, Dean. Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2006)

Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes (website, Wikipedia) was a promising fifteen-year-old cross-country runner until a squabble with his coach put him off running for the next decade and a half. On the night of his thirtieth birthday, Karnazes took off for an impromptu thirty-mile run. He writes about the event that "In the course of a single night I had been transformed from a drunken yuppie fool into a reborn athlete:"

Every devout runner has an awakening. We know the place, the time, and the reason we accepted running into our life. After half a lifetime, I'd been reborn. Most runners are able to keep a rational perspective on the devotion and practice responsibly. I couldn't, and became a fanatic. (pp. 64-65)

As the title of the book indicates, his fanaticism has taken the form of ultramarathon running--anything (and everything, it seems) longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon. (Karnazes also enjoys "windsurfing, mountain-biking, surfing, snowboarding, triathlons, adventure racing, and mountain climbing"--but more for fun than fanatacism.) Karnazes' first ultra experience was the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run (website, Wikipedia) in 1994--a race he went on to finish ten more times. This midrace insight is particularly interesting:

Covering 100 miles on foot was more than a lesson in survival, it was an education on the grace of living. Running is a solo sport, but it was no longer about me anymore; I became almost irrelevant. [...] The many supporters who'd provided encouragement and strength along the way didn't really care about me per se--hell, they didn't even know who I was. What they cared about was that a person had taken the time to train, and sacrifice, and dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of a dream. It was a powerful message; I was just the host. (pp. 155-156)

A spectacular DNF (Did Not Finish) at the even more grueling 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon (website, Wikipedia) in 1995 didn't break his spirit--Karnazes ran the race again, winning it in 2004. Another race that gets substantial attention in the book is the inaugural (and to this date, the only) South Pole Marathon, which Karnazes calls "perhaps the toughest physical challenge of my life. (p. 183) (He was the only participant to wear running shoes rather than snowshoes.)

Ultramarathon Man is framed by incidents from his first time running the 199-mile The Relay race--solo, of course, rather than as part of a 12-person team. This exchange with a mid-race pizza delivery driver made me chuckle:

"I can't believe it's humanly possible to run 30 miles," he gasped. "Are you like Carl Lewis or something?"
"Ah...yeah," I replied. "I'm like Carl Lewis, only slower." (p. 11)

Although Karnazes has a stronger reputation among ultrarunners as a marketer than as a runner, he didn't slight any other runners here except by omission. I've read slams against Karnazes that he's sexist as well as overly self-promoting, but I didn't see any evidence of that here--in fact, this passage stood out as complimentary toward his female competitors:

There are no "endurance groupies," as far as I can tell. The women in the sport are just as tough as the men. Sometimes tougher. They're more interested in getting to the finish line before me than getting my phone number. The few times I have been hit on, it's been for a PowerBar or some extra water. And if I didn't produce the desired request quickly, they were gone. No time for a man to slow them down. (pp. 212-213)

Self-aggrandizement aside--and this book is a biography, not a history of the sport--it's easy to see why Karnazes is an inspirational figure to many runners. Ultramarathon Man is a readable and enjoyable book, and the ultrarunning movement could do worse than have Karnazes as its best-known participant. If some of the more elite ultrarunners--such as Scott Jurek (website, Wikipedia)--would like to receive their due accolades from the general public, then they will have to play the media game as well as Karnazes does, and put pen to paper with as much determination as they put their feet to the road.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on April 26, 2010 2:14 PM.

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