by Greer Hitch
It started—as many life-altering things do—with bad tequila. A night at the bar, a bit of a mid-life crisis, and Dean Karnazes went from your run-of-the-mill businessman to an endurance-running phenomenon. He waddled out of a bar on his 30th birthday at 11 p.m. and decided to run 30 miles. He hadn’t run a single mile in ten years. He ran from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay and got there by sunrise. Instead of patching up his blistered, bloody feet and chalking it all up to a fluke—a minor pause for rational thinking—Dean Karnazes ran with it—literally.Since that fateful night, his passion has landed him on the cover of Runner's World and Outside Magazines, on the couch of David Letterman and Howard Stern, and in countless newspapers including The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post, just to name a few.
Today, Karnazes does exactly what he wants to: "I've now devoted my life to what I love—the outdoors." Amen to that. He quit his day job, helped The North Face design a one-of-a-kind running shoe, and wrote a national bestseller, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. Dean spends his days promoting his book, raising money for charities, and well… running. And biking and windsurfing and hanging out with his kids—not too shabby.
His running accomplishments read like that of a man trying to discover the limits of the human body through intense torture: he won the Badwater Ultramarathon—a 135-mile race with over 8,000 feet of elevation gain, he completed a marathon at the South Pole in normal running shoes, and he ran nonstop for four straight days to finish 350 miles. The list goes on. After testing his body's limits (and never really finding one), Dean has devised a new challenge. On September 17th, Karnazas began his quest to complete 50 marathons over 50 consecutive days in all 50 states. Perhaps this guy should have laid off the tequila—and perhaps not.
Dean Karnazas won the Badwater Ultramarathon in 2004. It is a 135-mile trek from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA. Temperatures often reach 130F.
"Running 350 miles was a little psychotic," Karnazes says. "It was the toughest physical challenge I've ever done. Running 50 marathons, it's not the same kind of challenge." What he really means is that compared to an 80-hour and 44-minute, 350-mile slog, running 26.2 miles in one sitting is like a quick jaunt around the block. For a little more perspective: most people hit the wall in a marathon around mile 20; Dean usually hits the wall around mile 250. His typical day includes a marathon before breakfast. Yes, that's right, "before breakfast."
And while Karnazes talks to people who are inspired by him, reporters, and sponsors all day, he swears he's one of the most introverted people alive. "I'm a runner and a writer, two of the most solo pursuits out there," Karnazes says. "It kills me to be 'on' all the time. I usually feel like I'm going to vomit before I get up in front of people."
So to get a little "Dean time," Karnazes goes out when others don’t. "I love to get up around three or three thirty in the morning and just take my credit card and some supplies and go running and explore," Karnazes says. Once, he was at his parents’ house in San Clemente and had to go speak at the San Diego Rock n' Roll Marathon. He wanted to recharge his battery, so he ran there—about 70 miles. Running for Dean is like yoga, meditation, or napping for everyone else. The smell of fresh air, the wind in his lungs, and a long open road offer more clarity to him than any meditation, naptime, or movie ever could. He runs to relax, unwind, and chill out—kind of a contradiction. This seems to be a theme in Karnazes' life, as he makes his career around the publicity of extremely solitary pursuits.
With the Endurance 50, he's taking a step toward being more social. Sponsored by The North Face, he'll make his way through each state by running both actual marathons and race re-creations. Anyone can sign up and run a re-creation with Dean at a comfortable four-and-a-half to five-hour marathon pace (10:30- to 11:00-minute miles). "I'll be able to touch people on a different level and connect on a different level," says Karnazes.
Will he run a marathon before any of his 50 marathons? Who knows? But, whatever happens during his cross-country jaunt, it will be a test of his mental stamina, as it's clear Dean Karnazes' body is a machine that will run no matter the circumstances—even after a few bad tequilas.