The Real Dean: Going Long With Dean Karnazes

Photo: Chad Riley

“I’m a pretty sensitive guy.”

The ultrarunning community existed as more of a quiet, underground culture before you began attracting all of this attention. And you’ve been attacked by some—the suggestion being that you’re a publicity seeker. What has been your response to this?

First, it shocked me. I’m a pretty sensitive guy. But I think everyone is entitled to an opinion. There have been certain criticisms I’ve agreed with. But what has bothered me are people making statements about me without even having met me. I think I’ve been painted as something I’m not. My dad said if I ever had a problem with someone the right thing to do is to tell them about it face to face. It’s the honorable thing to do. I don’t think some of this is honorable. They’re saying things about me without having met me. They’re not saying it to my face. There’s someone on the listserves with the handle Toe Jam that disses me a lot, saying that I’m a showboat and that I must have a pretty good publicist. Publicist? You mean me? If I get an e-mail asking me to do an interview I’m respectful and give the interview. But I’m not some sort of marketing machine. I don’t send out press releases. I think I’ve been misrepresented. And some who do meet me will come around full circle and say, “What you’re really about and what I thought you were about are two different things.”

Runners are competitive folks. I think some might feel slighted they haven’t got more recognition. I think they have a point. In running you won’t necessarily get noticed just for turning in good performances. And so some don’t have much of a presence—even when it comes to marathoners in the running world. At an expo I’ll have a line around the corner and someone like Scott Jurek will be at a different booth and will be alone. I think that’s tragic. An injustice. In my worldview the guys who are winning races should be recognized.

I think the true measure of a champion is how they use their notoriety. Rod Dixon is a great example. He won the New York City Marathon and was an Olympian and he’s become a great role model and is using his celebrity to help kids. [Ed. note: Dixon started a children’s running program that is now integrated in schools and races around the U.S. and New Zealand.]

One of the memorable images from “Ultramarathon Man” is how while on a long run you would use your cell phone to call a pizza joint and have a pizza delivered to you up the road—Hawaiian-style with extra cheese. But your approach to eating and overall health has changed, hasn’t it?

I now believe when you start running you are investing in changing your entire life paradigm. You’re an athlete now. You should pay attention to your diet, your sleep patterns. Alcohol consumption should be scaled back.

Yes, you can see this in my first book. My diet was crap during my first years as an ultra runner. I once kept a food log of everything I ate over the course of a 200-mile run and I just ate garbage. Over the course of 20 years I’ve refined my diet. I feel a lot more energized and healthy. I don’t get the huge spikes and drops of energy I used to. I moved to what’s now being called the Paleo diet. I didn’t know it was called that. But what it means to me is avoiding processed or packaged foods. I still eat meat. I like wild salmon—if I can get it raw that’s the best. I don’t eat cooked foods—nothing above 120 degrees. I don’t eat rice or wheat or any grains because they all have to be processed to eat them. You can’t just pick up a piece of wheat and eat it. It has to be processed and milled. Jack LaLanne once said, “If man made it, don’t eat it.” But the one thing I do still eat is organic Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is unprocessed and includes all the fat. Nothing added and nothing taken away. For breakfast I’ll have Greek yogurt, berries and maybe some sliced almonds. [Editor’s note: Karnazes acknowledges that a strict Paleo diet excludes dairy products, including Greek yogurt.] That kind of diet is what I’ve gravitated to over the last two decades. And I feel a lot better.

In addition to running in races such as Western States 100 and the Badwater Ultramarathon, you’ve pulled off feats such as running across the country, running 350 miles straight, running 212 miles on a treadmill in 48 hours and running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. How are you in one piece? What’s your secret to durability?

I think total body training is essential, at least for what I do. That said, I’m definitely bulkier that the average runner. Compare me and Scott Jurek: he’s more svelte. The truth is extra muscle slows you down. Look at the Tour de France riders. They call it ‘man-orexia.’ They have massive legs but no upper body weight. The more muscle the more weight to push around. There’s more muscle that the heart has to service with blood. It makes your heart work harder.

Muscle can slow you down, but for me I feel building strength has been essential to injury prevention and overall health. Knock on wood—I’ve never been injured. Running 150-175 miles per week is a lot for any runner. When I ran across American, for 10 weeks in a row I was running more than 300 miles per week without any injuries and without a sick day. I had a couple of blood blisters. But that was the extent of it.

I do a lot of cross-training. And one thing I rarely do is what I’m doing right now: sitting down. I never sit. I have a standing desk in my home office. I have a pull-bar and a dip bar and do a Navy SEAL fitness routine of push-ups, pull-ups, dips and sit-ups. I do six cycles per day. I’ll be in between emails and whenever I’m starting to bonk I’ll pop out a set. Just that body resistance work keeps you pretty tuned. I think for injury prevention, it’s critical to have that extra bulk.

I just ran Badwater. I was traveling a lot this year and my base was only 35 to 55 miles of running per week. My longest training run had been running a marathon. I just didn’t have time to train. But I was able to finish Badwater without an injury and the strength work is the reason why.

The first thing I do when I walk into a hotel is find the gym and if they don’t have a gym I start looking for a handhold where I can do my pull-ups. Sometimes if a shower curtain rod is sturdy enough I’ll do them there.

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