Behind Ultramarathon Man - Page 2
Karnazes’ coach, Jason Koop of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, says that Karnazes actually is a very “normal” athlete physiologically: “He doesn’t have superhuman genetic capabilities of taking in a lot of oxygen or anything like that,” and at the lower intensities he runs many of his adventures, “he’s able to go and go and go. … He’s a normal guy in every sense of the word and just happens to be able to do extraordinary things.”
Early in our run, the conversation turned to the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, and I asked what he thought about the 2011 performances. He expressed awe and respect for the lead runners who finished under 16 hours. (Karnazes didn’t run Western States last year, though he has 11 sub-24-hour finishes there, with a best of 17:43 in 2003 when he placed fourth.) “How about that Kilian” he said of the race winner, Spaniard Kilian Jornet [See “Just Kilian,” December 2011, Issue 76]. “That kid was insane! What a great ambassador. I love everything he stands for.”
We hit the Phoenix Lake trailhead, a regular destination for Karnazes, and he mentioned he often does this run solo on weekdays at 4 a.m. “I fit running in when I can,” he said. Recently, between traveling, writing, parenting, speaking engagements and sponsor commitments, he’s been averaging about 80 miles a week. “When I’m in between events, like now, and just maintaining my base, I like it to be free flow.”
Then he asked if I would mind tacking on a couple of extra miles on a trail that would take us to the neighboring town of San Anselmo, where he opened the “U-Top It” frozen yogurt shop in early 2011. “I just need to go by the shop to stick my head in and let the employees know I love them,” he said.
“Of course,” I said, wanting more time together to hear about what motivates Karnazes to test the limits of endurance in places as unforgiving as the South Pole, where he nearly froze running a marathon in 2002, or as hellishly hot as Death Valley, California, where he finished the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon eight times and won it once.
Photo by Corey Rich
But I had to wonder, with everything else he has going on, why did he open a fro-yo shop? “Good question,” he said, laughing. “I never looked at it as a money-making thing, really. I wanted to invest in the community and bring some jobs in, but at the end of the day you still have to pay the mortgage.”
Over the course of our run and in subsequent conversations, he would reflect on how his goals have shifted over two decades as an ultrarunner and why he’s on a mission to change people’s lives by getting them to run. He would also open up about the criticism that his celebrity status has sparked. But for the first several miles, we kept the conversation light as he relished the climb up the mountain’s back side—“Isn’t this the best place in the world? It’s insane!”—and bantered about his two kids: Alexandria, 16, and Nicholas, 13.
Alexandria, Nicholas, Julie and his parents have crewed for him on numerous ultras over the years. The whole family would follow Dean in an RV dubbed “The Mother Ship.” When he did the Endurance 50 project in 2006—50 marathons, 50 states, 50 days—the kids traveled around the country while Julie and the grandparents home-schooled them on the road. “They used to love traveling to ultras, and then it was kind of, ‘I don’t know if I want to because my friend’s having a party,’” he said. “I don’t want them to be like, ‘Dad’s dragging us to another thing.’”
We reached a summit and paused, taking in a panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay. “Our house is on that hill over there,” he said, pointing. “When I run up to Tam, I bring this little safety mirror, and signal my kids, and they’re like, ‘Hey, Dad’s up there!’”