1. You don’t run with Dean Karnazes. You run with Dean and everyone who knows him.
2. Dean is a regular guy handling regular things such as stress, obligations and responsibilities. Unlike most regular guys, however, he also happens to have the unnatural gift of irregular durability.
From the start, I knew this would be a mix of running and socializing. I first met Dean at dinner on Monday night, which happened to coincide with his 48th birthday. Even as he sat and ate, several people stopped by to say hi, tell him they’ve read his books or let him know how impressed they were by his endurance exploits. Dean met each person with genuine enthusiasm, asking them about their own running and giving praise for participating in this grueling event.
After a surprisingly restful night in tent city, I filled up at breakfast and met Dean about five minutes before the start of our stage. We stayed at the back and came across the start line dead last, sticking to the strategy of starting slow and tapering off that we had discussed the night before. It took only half a mile before the first person started to chat up Dean while running backward and snapping photos. By the time we finished, I estimated that I would be in about 50 photos as “that other guy” running with Dean.
Throughout the day, the same scenario from the previous night’s dinner would play out time and time again: a runner would see us, start talking, wish Dean a happy birthday and maybe snap a photo or two. Dean’s response was similar with each encounter. He enthusiastically answered everyone’s questions, questions the other runners about their own running, offered encouragement and returned every compliment with one of his own. When I asked him if answering the same questions and hearing the same compliments over and over ever got old, he emphatically answered, “No!”
As we ran along, I had some questions of my own for the man they call Karno.
“Do you ever wake up and say, ‘not today’?” I asked him. “Sometimes, but by midday the coffee’s kicked in and I get out there,” he replied.
When I asked him if he had any travel tips, he responded, “I am all about compression.”
He shared stories with me throughout the day, such as how he was introduced to Barack Obama during his 48-hour treadmill run for ABC in 2008. I learned that we share a common interest in food chemistry, and Dean admitted experimenting with his own trail foods, sometimes with disastrous consequences. He also told me about the journalist who asked him, “How long is your marathon today?” and the other who wondered, “Will this be your longest marathon?”
On the trail, other runners asked me if I felt intimidated to be running with Dean. Having read both of his books, I knew that while Dean can be incredibly competitive this was just an event for him–not a race. I have no doubt that at any point he could have dropped me, but that wasn’t the point. TransRockies is the perfect event for a guy like Dean, who can hang out in the back of the pack while having fun and inspiring other runners.
Throughout the day we talked about his daily life and I got the sense he felt a tremendous amount of pressure. He is on the board of multiple organizations, tries to grow the sport of ultrarunning, consults for several nutrition companies, helps design products for The North Face, and travels to races and events constantly. All of those obligations have forced Dean to take a step back from competition.
“I had my time and I think I did a lot for the sport,” he said. “When The North Face signed me I was the only endurance athlete, they now have a team of thirty. I want guys to be able to make a living doing what they love.”
His loyalty seems to inspire his insane schedule. For example, after his 48-hour treadmill run he immediately boarded a plane for Lisbon, as he was running and hosting the Lisbon Marathon the next day. “I could never just pull a Madonna and not do it,” he explained.
Just before Mile 20 on Tuesday I reached for my chocolate-covered espresso beans, a fueling technique I learned from reading Dean’s book. I could see he was happy that I was using his tricks. I offered him some beans, which he took.
We finished the day in the middle of the pack–tired, but happy. Nearly five hours had gone by since we started, but it only felt like two. For Dean Karnazes, being an UltraMarathon man is not about running–it’s a way of life.
A.J. Johnson is an athlete, coach and freelance writer based in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. He has raced everything from marathons and Ironman triathlons to mountain biking competitions and 12-hour skiing events. You can follow his endurance adventures at www.theoutsideathlete.com.