On August 10, 2010 I had the opportunity to interview the Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes, by telephone from his home in San Francisco. Karnazes has written the New York Times’ best selling book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner and, 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days. He has also competed in thousands of ultramarathon races and has even run up to 350 miles in 80 hours without stopping. Never one to slow down or to stop dreaming up his next challenge, Karnazes has many upcoming adventures and has a new book hitting shelves next spring.
Karnazes will be running the TransRockies Race in Colorado August 22 – August 27. The 6-day 113 mile trail run climbs over mountain peaks and reaches elevations of 12,500 feet. I am lucky enough to be able to run with Karnazes as my partner for Stage One/Day One of the race, which is 20.4 miles. Gore-Tex will be my host.
I have to ask, did you run this morning?
DK: (laughs) Of course.
How far did you go?
DK: A quick ten miles. Then I’ll go out for another ten miles this afternoon. I’ll run up a 2,500 foot hill.
I didn’t know there were any hills in San Francisco! (being sarcastic here)
DK: (laughs) Just a few.
How many miles do you average per week?
DK: My mileage ranges from 50-60 miles per week on up to 200 miles sometimes. It varies a lot because I travel so much. Last year I was on the road for 250 days.
There will be many runners reading this interview who are struggling to get through running 40-60 miles per week during training. They get burned out. Do you ever get sick of running?
DK: I love to run and I have some tips to keep it fresh and novel. I rarely use the same route twice. That keeps things new. It’s better to listen to your body than to your watch or your training schedule. Rules are meant to be broken. If you are feeling good, go faster than your recommended pace. Have fun with it. Go out for an eight hour run. Don’t worry about pace. Bring cash or a credit card. Pick a new and unchartered area with the goal to just be out there moving. Interact with people along the way. If you see a Starbucks and want a latte, stop for one. Make it about the experience. I always say, “Listen to everyone, follow no one.”
About how many pairs of running/trail shoes do you own?
DK: I go through 25-30 pairs a year. Multiply that by 20 years….
What personality changes, if any, have you noticed in yourself since you’ve been running?
DK: You know, the lessons of running translate into the lessons of life. I notice that I’ve mellowed my perspective. There’s a saying for ultra runners “when you’re feeling really good at the end of a race you start reeling in people.” Some days you are the fish and some days you are the fisherman. Running really teaches you humility.
You are really well known for all of your accomplishments and amazing feats as an ultra runner. What are YOU proudest of?
DK: I’ve raced on all seven continents at least twice. I’ve probably run thousands of races. But the single race that I’m most proud is a 10K. Yes, a 10K. I ran it with my daughter on her 10th birthday.
Do you have any pre-race rituals?
DK: No, not really. A lot of people get nervous before a race. I am always nervous before the start of a race. It helps me to say to myself to try my very best. That is my commitment. No matter how bad it gets, I will try my hardest. I put the blinders on and try to be the best me I can be that day. With running you can’t cheat yourself or take any short cuts. You have to pay your dues. There are moments where you are struggling and you need to look internally.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you on a run?
DK: I was going to run this little race called the Badwater Ultramarathon. I would just be taking a jog through Death Valley (laughs). I had this brainiac idea to make a toga-like/kilt outfit. It would go over my knees and protect me and let the air flow. My wife, who is kind of an amateur seamstress, bought some UV protective fabric and sewed up this skirt. While I was running, it started to fall apart. Disintegrating. I kept spinning it around to the front to cover all the major body parts, but it kept getting smaller and smaller until it was a swatch. Pretty soon people were driving by cheering me on. I thought, ‘What great support!’ They were really cheering because my ass was hanging out! I don’t think I’ve told that story before.
Ever have G.I. issues on runs like the rest of us?
DK: Yes, I get those things. I just don’t see them as problems. If you run for over 80 hours at a time you’re going to have to go. I carry toilet paper in my running pack. McDonalds is the best food chain on earth. I don’t eat the food, but they have the cleanest bathrooms.
Let’s talk about this third book you’re writing. Can you give us a teaser?
DK: I just submitted it with Rodale [Publishing]. It’s called, “RUN! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss.” They are short adventure stories about running marathons on all seven continents. Most of the stories are by me, but some are from guest contributors. It comes out next spring.
I know you’ve talked about a goal of running a marathon in every country in a year’s time. That’s 270 countries times 26.2 miles. I did the math for you: 7,074 miles! Are you still working on making this happen?
DK: This is absolutely something I am working on. I love the idea from the standpoint of - how can we possibly pull this off? It is daunting in every way.
I’ve heard you say that “the best thing you can do as a runner is choose your parents.” Were your parents runners?
DK: Yes, my dad’s a marathoner. He used to do sprint distances and then started marathoning. My mom is an endurance animal. She does three day events like the Susan G. Komen three day walk.
DK: I personally think it’s tragic. As much as I love to compete, that’s the dark side of competition. I love the ultramarathon because no matter if you are first or last, you get the same thing: a belt buckle. And, you get the self gratification of knowing what you accomplished.
Could you beat Pheidippides [first known marathoner] in a foot race?
DK: (laughs). If it meant dying at the end.
Now for some rapid fire questions. Answer in three seconds or so:
Three things in your refrigerator:
DK: Greek yogurt, lettuce, coconut water
M&Ms or Reeses:
DK: Neither. I’ve changed. No more junk food. I’ve gone clean.
Brand of toilet paper?
DK: (laughs). I can’t remember the name. Something flowery, velvety and soft.
DK: That’s easy. Chocolate covered espresso beans.
Alcohol, yes or no?
DK: Yes, a glass of red wine periodically. It’s great for recovery.
What’s on your nightstand?
DK: The book, “The Four Hour Work Week” by my friend Timothy Ferriss. He’s a runner too.
What shows do you Tivo?
DK: I don’t even have a Tivo. I don’t watch TV. Maybe the news every once in awhile. What am I missing?
Me: Just the Bachelorette!
Ipod, yes or no?
DK: Yes. I use an iPod for about ¼ of my runs. I also love to read, but don’t have much time, so I listen to lots of books on my iPod
Baklava or ice cream?
DK: Baklava of course!! I’m Greek!
Now, we’re off to the hills to run some mountains! See you there, Dean. And thanks for your time.
PS: I did use some of your question suggestions. Thanks to Jamoosh for the M&Ms vs. Reeses question, M.J. for her question about how Dean’s personality might have changed with running, Trailmomma for her question about pre- race rituals and, G. Schleuse for her question about what accomplishment Dean is most proud of. I loved all the insightful questions, but just couldn’t use them all.