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The Ultramarathon Man

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Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man

In this article I interview Dean Karnazes the Ultramarathon Man!

We talk:

Let’s begin:

Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days

Michael Frank: You’re known as the “Ultramarathon Man” for a lot of reasons. What are some of your greatest achievements as an Ultramarathon runner?

Dean Karnazes: I’ve taken my running in a different direction than most. Not only have I done some of the most grueling foot races on earth, for instance, there’s a race called the Badwater Ultramarathon which is 135 miles across Death Valley in the middle of summer where temperatures routinely exceed 50 degrees. I’ve run that race now 10 times. I’ve also raced and competed all over the world including all seven continents twice. But beyond that I’ve done things like running 50 marathons in all 50 of the United States in 50 consecutive days.

Running to the South Pole

Michael Frank: I understand you’ve also run a marathon to the South Pole

Dean Karnazes: Yeah, so I’ve ran across Death Valley the hottest place on earth in the middle of the summer, and I’ve also run a marathon to the South Pole. It was supposed to be an annual event and there was supposed to be 40-50 runners that were at this event, but only three of us ended up making it to the starting line. The event was so dangerous that it’s never been done again.

Running on a treadmill for 24 hours straight

Michael Frank: And you ran for 24 hours straight on a treadmill?

Dean Karnazes: Yeah I ran for 24 hours continuously on a treadmill on a two story platform suspended in the middle of Times Square with all of these plasma screens filming me from various angles as I was running.

Michael Frank: What was the distance that you ran in those 24 hours?

Dean Karnazes: I think I ran 140 miles without moving forward an inch. I mean I basically stood in the same place for 24 hours.

Running 350 Miles nonstop

Michael Frank: I think of all of your achievements, for me as a non-runner, the one that seems the most impressive and ridiculous is when you ran 350 miles nonstop!

Dean Karnazes: (Laughs) It’s both of those things! I think you said it absolutely perfectly. Yeah, I think that’s somewhere around 560 kilometers and that was over three nights of running with no sleep.

You know the human body is so remarkable and I think if we can just get out of the way of our own perceived limitations, we can do just about anything, and to think that someone can run for 81 hours continuous, even when I say this now it boggles my mind. Like how can someone do this? But that’s exactly what I did. I just set off on a course, I had the route, and I just executed. I just kept running until I got to the finish line.

Sleep running

Dean Karnazes: And as you can imagine when you’re running for that long strange things happen. I mean I found myself on the third night running in the middle of the road and I realized I was sleep-running. I was so exhausted that I was falling asleep while I was running, but I was just continued to run. I was willing my body to keep going. I didn’t fall over or anything. I just kind of unfortunately meandered in the middle of the road, which can be kind of dangerous, but I was sleep running, and I think the most odd thing about the episode of sleep running, is that when I woke up from this cat nap on the run, I felt refreshed. It was almost as though my body had to shut down, but once it shut down for just 10 to 15 seconds, it rebooted and I had new energy to keep going.

Hallucinations

Michael Frank: And I understand you were hallucinating during the third day of the 350 mile run?

Dean Karnazes: Yeah. I had some very vivid hallucinations. When you push your body to such extremes it can hallucinate all kinds of things. I mean, mailboxes take on shapes of animals or people, cars that are miles off in the distance, the headlights appear like snake eyes right in front of your face and then you start swatting at this snake that’s right in front of your face and you realize it’s lights that are miles and miles away.

Michael Frank: Is that a scary sensation? Or are you just so out of it that you just deal with it in the moment?

Dean Karnazes: You’re so out of it that it just happens. You don’t even really process it. It just happens and then later you reflect back and realize, oh, that was kind of a bizarre episode.

Breaking point

Michael Frank: How far into that 350 mile run was your body saying this is enough, we’ve had enough, just stop?

Dean Karnazes: Well you go through ups and downs. There are high points and low points. I would say by mile 100 your body’s saying, okay, this is getting serious. By mile 200, you’re pretty beat up and at that point, a lot of the time your body’s saying stop. I mean, you’re overriding your natural instincts to stop purely with mental discipline.

But if you can push through that kind of wall if you will, you come out the other side and the pain goes away and all of a sudden you feel like, wow, I can keep going forever! I feel like Hercules! I could run forever! But then about ten or fifteen kilometers down the road, you go through that same cycle again where you are in so much pain, that you’re having to will your body in every way you can just to keep going.

Is 350 Miles the limit?

Michael Frank: I feel guilty about asking this question, but I’m just super curious and really want to know:

When you ran the 350 miles, how many more miles do you think you had in you? Do you think you had hit your absolute limit? Or do you think you could’ve gone further if pushed? Where do you think you were in terms of your absolute limit?

Dean Karnazes: How close I was to the edge it’s hard to say. Once I thought that the ultimate distance a human could run was 500 miles continuously.

However, after running 350 miles I’ve revised that, and said maybe a human can run for 500 miles, but I’m not that human. You know when I finished running that 350 miles and I got to the finish line it was about ten o’clock at night and there were people filming me and interviewing me and this and that, and so I’m standing there talking to people and having photos taken and interviewing and as I look around I realize that everyone is wearing thick puffy warm jackets, and I had built up so much internal body heat that I was running without a shirt on. I was running just in shorts and then it hit me in an instant “I think I’m cold” and within five seconds I went into hypothermia. My teeth were chattering, I couldn’t talk to anyone, and so they put me on the ground in a sleeping bag. And all that was exposed to the elements was my mouth and my nose. And I remember saying “I’m hungry! I’m hungry! I need food! Someone feed me!” And someone started spooning Hummus into my mouth. And that’s all I remember. And all of a sudden it was about 9am the next day.

Recovery

Michael Frank: How long did it take for your body to fully recover? Not just the hypothermia, but the wear and tear on your body? Were you limping around for a week? How did you feel?

Dean Karnazes: I mean it’s hard to describe this unless you’ve been through it, but your muscles are sore, your joints are sore, but talk about a runner’s high, you’re kind of in a parallel universe. I mean you’re having some profound thoughts and you’re really present mentally, so even though your body is physically wrecked, your head space is very clear. It’s actually quite enjoyable. It’s as though your body has been so overwhelmed with pain that it’s just created all these endorphins that are stored up within you.

But to your question, I think it was four or five weeks before I was fully kind of back to being myself, sleeping regularly, being able to work out just as hard as I had prior to the run.

Dean’s hardest race: The Atacama Crossing

Michael Frank: So you’ve run 350 miles consecutively, you’ve run 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states, you’ve run a marathon to the South Pole, you’ve ran on a treadmill for 24 hours, you’ve ran right across the world. Of all of your challenges, what do you consider to be the hardest thing that you’ve done?

Dean Karnazes: Well one time I did a race across the Atacama desert. And if you’re not familiar with the Atacama desert, it’s in South America at the base of the Andes mountains, it’s the driest place on earth.

And for six days I ran in this race where you are self-supported. So you had to carry everything you needed in a pack for six days and all you were allotted were three liters of water. That was it. Other than that, you’re sleeping on the ground and it was getting up to 44 degrees Celsius/111 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and it was below freezing at night. So it’s very hot during the day, very cold at night. You’re sleeping on the ground, you’re not showering, and you’re schlepping everything you’ve got in a backpack. Your shoulders are burdened, your back is chafing, everything is put through tremendous stress. I think that was probably my toughest race: The Atacama Crossing

Emotions at the end of an Ultramarathon

Michael Frank: How do you feel at the end? Is it just a tremendous sense of pride, whilst simultaneously being glad it’s done?

Dean Karnazes: You know, it’s funny, it’s a hodgepodge of emotions when you finish a race like this. Part of you is glad it’s done. But I’ve done so many of these, that I’ve realized that it’s really the journey that is the experience. It’s not reaching the finish line. I mean, you want to reach the finish line and that’s your ultimate goal, but there’s almost a certain sense of disappointment once you get there. There’s relief, but it’s kind of a let down. For me it’s always like wow, that was a great experience. What’s next?

Dean’s favorite places in the world to run

Michael Frank: You mentioned that you’ve run on all seven continents twice. Do you have a favorite place that you like to run? For a newbie like me that has never run a marathon, or for someone who is looking to run their first marathon, do you have any places that you’d recommend if time and money wasn’t an issue?

Dean Karnazes: Oh, there’s so many great places I could recommend. They say it’s always best in your own backyard and I live in California on the West Coast, and there’s a place here called the Big Sur coast line and there’s a marathon called the Big Sur Marathon that runs on this road right along the coastline. You Auzzies have some spectacular coastlines that are very unique and Australia is certainly one of my favorite places to run.

Namibia in West Africa is an amazing place and you’re not going to see other runners there, but you will see a lot of wild animals. It’s a unique experience.

Patagonia in Chile is an incredible place.

The Dolomites in Northern Italy I would recommend for great running. They have what they call huts, but they’re more like a very plush lodging. In Italy you’re running out in the middle of these mountains and for some reason that night you get great food and fine wine!

The Canadian Rockies I really like.

Greece, you know I’m 100% Greek, so the running in Greece is spectacular and it’s the birthplace of the marathon. So if you can run the Athens classic marathon that’s a good one.

Big city marathons vs scenic marathons

Michael Frank: Do you have a preference for scenic outdoor locations like say Namibia, Africa for example vs a big city like New York? Or do you not mind so long as you’re always getting variety and different places to run?

Dean Karnazes: I think you hit the nail on the head and I think anyone who’s a runner can relate to this. You know running is a great way to explore. I’ve learned so many cities, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney etc. I could just go on and on, by just running in them. When I fly into a place, I just put on a hydration pack, throw my credit card and cell phone in there, and go for a run. You can run hard when you want to run hard, stop and grab a Latte if you want to grab a cup of coffee, walk, take photos, just explore. And it’s such a great way to tour. A lot of runners that’s how we relate to places, and when we talk about cities, we see things you just don’t see in a car or on the tour bus and it’s all from running.

How often do you run a marathon?

Michael Frank: How often do you run a marathon? Once or twice a week?

Dean Karnazes: As far as training goes it’s once or twice a week if not further than a marathon. But as far as an organized official race, I would say it’s probably once every other week I’m running a marathon or further. I mean that’s kind of my life now. I’m just on the road constantly. If I told you where I’ve been in the last four weeks you’d be amazed. But I’m somewhere almost every weekend to run.

Michael Frank: Where have you been the last couple weeks?

Dean Karnazes: Well I was in Greece in a couple of different places on the mainland and on the island of Santorini for a race. From there I flew to Chile for a race in Santiago. I’m leaving on Saturday for a race in Puerto Rico. Next weekend I’m flying to Las Vegas to do the Las Vegas rock’n’roll marathon. The weekend after that I’m running a 50 mile race here in the San Francisco Bay area, which is part of our north face endurance challenge series. I could go on and on and on.

Bears, Rattlesnakes, Scorpions, Tarantulas

Michael Frank: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve seen while running?

Dean Karnazes: I’ve had encounters with bears in the mountains here in California. I’ve had many encounters with snakes.

Michael Frank: What have you done in those encounters?

Dean Karnazes: Bears are scary. And if you startle a bear, there’s one or two things that can happen: Their first inclination is to get outta there, but if they can’t get out of there, they’ll turn on you. Thankfully all of the bears I’ve encountered have had exit routes and they’ve taken those exit routes. But to watch a bear go crashing through the foliage and literally just leveling trees with their head, you just know that you would not stand a chance if that thing decided it was going to go the other way toward you.

The one time I got really freaked out with snakes was when I was running across America from Los Angeles to New York City. I was in the deep south somewhere near Louisiana and I was running through the bayou. It’s kind of a swampy area. And there were a lot of branches hanging down. I remember hitting a branch with my arm and thinking, wow, that branch was really malleable and rubbery. And I turned back and it was actually a snake that was hanging down from a tree!

And that race I was telling you about the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, what happens at night is that all the reptiles come out onto the road because they’re warm blooded and the hot asphalt retains the heat. So just as you’re running in the middle of the night, you’ve got a torch on your head, but there’s no streetlights out there. I mean it’s pitch black. You see Rattlesnakes on the road, Scorpions, and you see Tarantula’s and they freak me out because although they’re slow moving, they can jump 10-15 feet from any position on the road.

What do you think about when you’re running?

Michael Frank: What do you focus on or think about when you’re running? Do you think about the future or do you just stay focused on the present moment?

Dean Karnazes: When I go running I just turn everything off and I let my mind wander a lot of times. If I have issues, sometimes I try to work through those issues. A lot of times runners can relate to this, you set out on a run with a bunch of problems and when you get back to the door they’re either so minimal that the problems don’t exist, or you’ve now found solutions to those problems that are very workable. So running is just a great way to get into your own head space and I don’t think many people get that these days.

I tend to not think about anything but being in the here and now in the present moment of time. I don’t think about the future. I don’t reflect on the past. I don’t think about how many kilometers I’ve got left to go. I don’t think about anything except taking my next step to the best of my ability and it’s almost like a zen like state you get in. I just say take your next step to the best of your ability. Now take your next step to the best of your ability. And you put the blinders on completely to anything else. If you can put yourself in that place where you’re just thinking about your next step, and your next step, you can push through almost anything I’m convinced of that.

Dealing with boredom

Michael Frank: Do you ever get bored? Or are you so focused on the here and now in the present moment that you don’t get bored?

Dean Karnazes: Let’s face it: Running can be really boring. I’m not going to deny that. But what I do is I love to read and write. And when you’re training for eight or nine hours a day, when do you have time to do all this? Well I have probably have 500 audiobooks on my playlist, so I listen to audio books when I run and it’s just a great way to combine running with staying current on my reading.

Dean’s average and fastest marathon times

Michael Frank: I know that you run for distance, not for speed, but what is your average marathon running speed, and what’s your fastest marathon speed? I did some googling this morning and it said that the average time in 2016 for men in the US was 4:22:07 (9:59 minutes per mile pace)

Dean Karnazes: I’m about an hour faster than average, so I’m typically around three to three and a half hours for a marathon. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower because when you compare say the New York City marathon with the Chicago Marathon, they’re vastly different races and the elevation profile and the challenges you face are different with each. So you know, your speed’s going to be necessarily faster or slower.

I’ve run a couple of marathons in sub three hours which is decent, but it’s not world class by any stretch of the imagination. And I think that even if I trained just to run a marathon, which I’ve never done, I’ve never dedicated my training just to run a marathon, I don’t think I could get much faster than maybe two hours and 30 minutes. I think that’d be the absolute fastest I could run a marathon. You know they’re trying to break two hours right now for a marathon, so I’m not competitive at that distance at by any stretch.

Stretching

Michael Frank: What is your stretching routine like before you run a marathon?

Dean Karnazes: (Laughs) I don’t stretch. I’m sorry to admit it, but I’m just not into stretching. I’ve never stretched before a race.

Michael Frank: Are you still somewhat flexible because of all of the running you do?

Dean Karnazes: Yes. I do Bikram Yoga (Hot Yoga) a couple times a week, and I go into a studio where the temperature is 35-40 degrees and I stretch for an hour and a half. So I’m stretching doing that. But I’m pretty pliable for a runner.

Michael Frank: But in terms of the marathon, you just kind of warm up slowly as you get into it?

Dean Karnazes: That’s exactly right. It doesn’t take that long to warm up once you start running

Eating and drinking whilst running

Michael Frank: How often do you eat and drink during an ultramarathon?

Dean Karnazes: I’m drinking constantly. I carry a handheld water bottle with me, or I run with a hydration pack that has a special bladder in the back with a little tube that comes out that I can just sip. So I’m constantly hydrating either with electrolyte replenishment fluid, or just plain water, and I’m trying to consume about 300-400 calories an hour and that’s quite a bit of food. I typically like nut butter, which is a very concentrated source of calories, so hazelnut butter or cashew nut butter, and it’s in a squeeze pouch so you can just squeeze it into the side of your mouth as you’re running. You really do everything as you run. If the weather turns wet I just put on a raincoat for a stretch. Other than that I don’t stop or slow.

Bathroom breaks

Michael Frank: When you’re running that distance 100+ miles, I have to ask, how do you go to the bathroom?

Dean Karnazes: Well when you go number one it helps to be a male. So you pull the little guy out the side of your shorts and you kind of waddle, imagine a penguin, you kind of point your feet outward, and you turn sideways and you waddle. I’m kind of expert at it actually, I get nothing on my shoes, not even a drip.

If you have to go number two, I either stop at a bush, or what I’ve learned, and this is funny, is that McDonald’s has the cleanest restrooms of any fast food establishment. I would never eat the food, but they have really clean bathrooms.

Running shoes

Michael Frank: Do you vary the shoes that you wear, or do you have a particular type of style or brand that you like to wear?

Dean Karnazes: Well, I’ve got to preface that by saying that I’m sponsored by the North Face and they make trail running shoes. Now as far as road running shoes, I can wear anything, I can wear wooden clogs, and that’s part of the problem with me trying to recommend shoes for people is that I have no issues. My biomechanics are so aligned that I really don’t have problems with any shoes I wear. With that said I probably have 10 different brands of shoes that I rotate through and just experiment and people always ask me what kind of shoes should I get? So I like to be versed in different footwear manufacturers so I can give some honest advice.

Michael Frank: Do you have any general recommendations for beginners and newbies as to what kind of running shoes to get?

Dean Karnazes: The best pair of running shoes is the pair that fits YOU the best. So I would say go to a specialty running store. Not a general sporting goods store, but someplace that specializes in running and have a knowledgeable staff member get you into a pair of shoes that fits you well, and I think that’s a really good thing to do when you’re just starting out because one, you’ll be a lot more comfortable when you run and you will inevitably have fewer injuries and two, if you invest all this money into a good pair of running shoes it’s not going to be cheap, so you’re going to feel very guilty if you don’t actually put them to use. If they’re just sitting there idle in your closet, you’re going to feel a lot of guilt. So I think that’s also a motivator.

Cross-training

Michael Frank: Do you cross-train and do other forms of exercise like cycling or swimming or weights?

Dean Karnazes: I do a lot of cross-training primarily with bodyweight. So I do a lot of what they call HIIT Training: High Intensity Interval Training and I have a routine that’s about 12-14 minutes long of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, chair dips, and burpees. I do cycles of these throughout the course of the day.

Never sit down

Dean Karnazes: The other thing I never do is I never sit down. I haven’t sat down for probably the last 10 years. I have my entire office setup at standing level and I do all my writing and all my emails and everything while I’m standing up, kind of bouncing around on my toes and I think that’s a good exercise. I think just standing all day and kind of bouncing on your toes really helps condition your feet and all of those little micro muscles in your legs and calf’s. So that’s what I do throughout the course of the day. I’m constantly moving. I view training as life and life as training.

Michael Frank: Do you eat standing up?

Dean Karnazes: I do. Well, if I go to a restaurant or something like that I don’t, but when I’m at home my kids always laugh at me as I’m standing at the counter eating, but I feel like I’m doing my body justice. I feel like I digest the food better. I don’t get as bloated.

Michael Frank: Have you managed to convert your family to the standing way of life?

Dean Karnazes: (Laughs) No, they think I’m crazy.

Diet

Michael Frank: What is your diet like? What do you eat?

Dean Karnazes: My diet has gone full circle. I used to eat a lot of junk food. I’ll be the first to admit it. I used to think that a calorie’s a calorie and I’m burning thousands of calories so I’ll just get calories however I can. But now I’m much more conscientious as to how I get those calories. So I follow a combination of a Paleo Diet, a Ketogenic diet, a high fat, high protein diet, and I don’t eat any food that’s processed or refined, so nothing that has to go through a machine before you can eat it. And that includes most grains. You can’t just pick an oat from the field and stick it in your mouth and eat it. It’s gotta be refined and processed. The same with wheat, barley. I don’t need any bread, rice, or pasta.

I probably consume about 3,500 to 4,500 calories on a daily basis, and I also do periodic, intermittent fasting. I like intermittent fasting. I think it helps with balancing your hormones, and I think it’s a good thing. It also teaches you a lot about self-discipline.

Running advice: Wicking fabrics

Michael Frank: Beyond being consistent and getting the right pair of running shoes for you, are there any other tips you would give to beginner to advanced runners?

Dean Karnazes: Yeah, along with good shoes I would take a comfortable running kit. So make sure that when you go to a running store that you get a pair of legitimate running shorts and they don’t have to be short shorts, there are a lot of different styles of running shorts, it’s more about what the materials are made of, and it’s the same with your jersey. These are not cotton materials. If you run in the wrong type of jersey you’re going to get very hot and overheated and you’re going to get very sweaty. These new technical fabrics wick moisture away from your body and just being comfortable when you’re running is half the battle, because if you’re running and you’re hot and you’re drenched in sweat and your jerseys is just soaking wet, that can lead to your nipples chaffing and a whole list of other things that are not so pleasant whereas if you’ve got good wicking fabric on, you’re going to be dry and comfortable.

Why you should run a marathon

Michael Frank: Any final thoughts or words of wisdom you’d like to share?

Dean Karnazes: I think the only thing I’d like to say is that I’m sure a lot of your listeners and readers are thinking, wow, this is just a crazy runner and that could never be me. I could never run a marathon, and I want to challenge you on that notion. I think that anyone can run a marathon and I think that everyone should run a marathon, and the reason I say that is there’s three things I say about the marathon. It will challenge you, it will crush you, and it will change you. So in those 26 miles/42 kilometers, you’ll learn more about yourself then you ever have in your previous lifetime. The person crossing the finish line will be different than the one that was standing at the starting line. And again, if you’re sitting here listening to this thinking, that could never be me. It could be you. It really could. I’ve seen it happen over and over again and it could happen to you. So go for it!

Michael Frank: Thanks for joining me Dean!

Dean Karnazes: Thanks for having me on and good luck on that marathon!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man

TIME magazine named Dean Karnazes as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World.” Men’s Fitness hailed him as one of the fittest men on the planet. An internationally recognized endurance athlete and NY Times bestselling author, Dean has pushed his body and mind to inconceivable limits. Among his many accomplishments, he has run 350 continuous miles, foregoing sleep for three nights. He’s run across Death Valley in 120 degree temperatures, and he’s run a marathon to the South Pole in negative 40 degrees. On ten different occasions, he’s run a 200-mile relay race solo, racing alongside teams of twelve.

His most recent endeavor was running 50 marathons, in all 50 US states, in 50 consecutive days, finishing with the NYC Marathon, which he ran in three hours flat.

Dean and his incredible adventures have been featured on 60 Minutes, The Late Show with David Letterman, CBS News, CNN, ESPN, The Howard Stern Show, NPR’s Morning Edition, the BBC, and many others. He has appeared on the cover of Runner’s World and Outside, and been featured in TIME, Newsweek, People, GQ, The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Washington Post, Men’s Journal, Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and the London Telegraph, to mention a few. He is a monthly columnist for Men’s Health, the largest Men’s publication in the world.

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