Catching Up With Karno

The ultramarathon man promises we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

It’s been five years since Dean Karnazes suddenly became one of the most famous runners in the world with the publication of his bestselling memoir, Ultramarathon Man. It’s been four years since he made more waves by running 50 marathons in 50 days, one in each American state. So what’s Karno been up to lately? I called him up and asked.

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Matt Fitzgerald: The Badwater Ultramarathon starts Monday. I understand you’ll be skipping it this year.

Dean Karnazes: Believe it or not, I’m really going to miss it. I was planning on doing it this year. My goal is to get 10 Western States buckles and 10 Badwater buckles. I’ve got 11 Western States buckles and I’ve only got eight Badwater buckles, so I’ve got a couple more to go.

Well, you’ve have plenty more opportunities.

Don’t remind me!

You seem to have developed a routine of doing a mixture of familiar events and races that are new for you each year. Is that by design?

I think it comes down to I’m not very good at saying no. I get these great invitations to travel to different events across the world. So I try to do a number of my favorite staples, if you will, like Western States and Badwater, as often as I can, while still participating in some of these new challenges.

Now, a lot of people are probably wondering what your next big adventure is going to be. What do you have up your sleeve?

I’m working on two things. Next spring, I’m looking at running cross-country entirely on trails. A lot of people don’t realize there’s this continuous footpath called the American Discovery Trail that goes from the West Coast to the East Coast, and literally the whole thing is on a trail. I want to finish in New York City, so I’ll use a lot of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy network as well, which is old railway that’s been converted into trail systems. So it will be the first time anyone has done a cross-country run completely on trails.

How long will that take you?

I think it will take 75 to 90 days, because it’s a little bit longer route and it’s more technical than running on the roads. From a logistical angle it’s more challenging because there are some sections such as crossing the Rockies where you can’t get a lot of support.

I think symbolically it’s kind of unique that in this day and age such a thing is possible–at least in theory! I think that’s pretty amazing.

And the other adventure you’re planning?

In 2012 I’m planning on running a marathon in every country of the world in one year. It will start in November and finish with the New York City Marathon in 2013. The United Nations recognizes 204 independent nations, so that’s 204 marathons.

That’s going to top all.

If I live through Afghanistan and North Korea and get out of there I think it will be good.

So, I have to ask: Why? I’m sure there’s more than one reason, but what’s the number one reason you would attempt something like that?

I think it’s a hybrid of, one, can it be done? Taking on this challenge that is pushing the outer limits of my capabilities, both in the physical realm as well as intellectually—coordinating, getting approval, and the political aspect; there’s that whole element of the challenge as well. The scope of trying to fund it and so forth, to me it’s more of an expedition, so that’s challenging.

But above all I really think the world could use something like this. I don’t know, it may be the naïve viewpoint of a runner, but you see the power in running to unite people and bring people together. There’s so much in this world that divides us and separates us, and running is something that brings us together in a really unique and powerful way. To me the magic of this will be having other runners from across the globe in their native countries joining me in this show of unity and solidarity.

Running pays no attention to race, religion, creed, socioeconomic level—it’s a great unifier.

Are you still learning about running? Is there something in the past year that you’ve learned as a runner that you could share?

You know, I’ve learned a lot about cross-training techniques to strengthen the micro muscles and supporting structures to prevent injury. It stemmed from a game of tennis I played with an old buddy of mine who was a collegiate tennis player. He’s a much better tennis player than I am but I’m in much better shape than him. It went five sets—kind of a grudge match between his finesse and style and my caveman endurance. And I was worked for a week after that. My glutes hurt and certain areas in my lower legs hurt so bad and I thought, as great a shape as I’m in, my fitness is not well rounded. I recruited a lot of these micro muscles, because there’s a lot of lateral movement and bending, that I never use when I run.

So I’ve created a routine of bodyweight resistance training with stationary standing leg-ups and one-legged deep squats on a stair with just my forefoot supported. It engages not only the muscles and ligaments in your upper and lower leg but also your foot muscles. I’ve incorporated a lot of this stuff and I’ve found that, as far as stiffness and soreness after a long run, and recovery, it really helps.

I’ve also seen you zooming around on what looks like an elliptical trainer on wheels.

Yes — like you, I subscribe to the hard-easy principle. I find that I can do two really good, hard back-to-back days, one running and one on the ElliptiGO. The ElliptiGO so closely emulates the running motion, but it’s zero impact. I used to cross-train on a bike a lot, but now I’m a total convert to this ElliptiGO.

Here you are, an ultrarunner, and you’ve won an ESPY Award, been on David Letterman’s show, had a New York Times bestseller, and been named the 27th most influential person in the world by TIME magazine. Have you gotten used to fame yet?

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. I just view myself as a runner and I don’t think I’m any different from any other runner out there. It’s just bizarre for me to be walking through an airport like in Buenos Aires and people will come up to me in some foreign airport and want my autograph. It’s the most bizarre thing to me. I’ll never get used to that.

A lot of people like to play the game of naming the living person they would most like to meet. You’ve had the opportunity to meet all kinds of famous people. Have you actually met the person you’d most like to meet?

Gosh, through running I’ve made connections that I never would have dreamed of. I met Barack Obama, prior to when he was President—he was in the primaries against Hillary then. I met John McCain at Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona. He fired the starting gun and we spent like five minutes together. Certainly Letterman and some of those other shows—Conan O’Brien. What a cool guy. Howard Stern. Howard’s actually a big-time runner. I was kind of surprised. I thought he’d be like this potbellied burnout and he was in super good shape.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about this new Chicken Soup book. What’s that all about?

The Chicken Soup people came to me. I certainly knew the series. Behind the Bible it’s the second bestselling book of all time. I think they’ve sold 500 million copies of the Chicken Soup series worldwide. I know how inspirational it is to people.

I think there are really two elements to getting people motivated. One is the prescription—telling people how to do it, like your books. Just a road map; people need that. And the other thing that people need is that spark of inspiration to get them doing what they need to do. I think the Chicken Soup book really fills in that other part of it. It’s a book that appeals to hardcore runners as well as everyday runners. Some of the stories in there are incredibly inspirational for people. That’s why I really wanted to get behind the Chicken Soup book.

[sgi:MattFitzgerald]

Check out Matt’s new book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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