The Real Dean: Going Long With Dean Karnazes

Photo: Chad Riley

“I can have this reckless view that I’m immortal.”

In July you finished another Badwater 135-mile ultra race through Death Valley, placing 12th overall. How did it go?

This was my 10th go at Badwater and my ninth finish. I DNF’d the first time I tried it. I literally blacked out. By the way, at Badwater, DNF stands for Did Nothing Fatal.

My goal has always been to finish Badwater 10 times, so this year I went into it without much training. I said to my crew, “Let me run at a slow plod. Don’t let me get ahead of myself. No hero antics; I just want to finish. If I can finish under 30 hours that’s great but if my body is not there then let’s just slow it down and get to the finish line.” [Karnazes finished in 27 hours, 57 minutes and 50 seconds.] I was just going to rely on past experience and fitness, not let my heart rate get too high and motor through it knowing it wouldn’t be a fast motor.

This was the first time I ever enjoyed Badwater. Usually I’ll tell myself, “I know I said I wanted to do 10 of these, but I didn’t know what I was thinking and I’m never coming back here.” But this year I actually enjoyed it.

What about those times you don’t enjoy it? When everything feels horrible?

I try to intellectualize it all. A low means this: “I’m destroyed.’ The finish line is 80 or 100 miles a way and you’re not sure you can run another 20 feet. It’s demoralizing. You think, ‘Please dear God where’s the next mile marker?” What I try and do then is get granular about it. I’m literally thinking only about my next foot strike and how I’m going to make that my best effort. I offer this advice to marathoners. When you’re at mile 18 or 19 and cooked don’t get trapped into looking for the next mile marker. Don’t look for it. It’s a Zen thing. Just blank out everything around you except the foot strike you’re working on and just go.

I once watched Western States from the big aid station at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing at Mile 78. There were lawn chairs with blankets set out and it seemed as if half of the runners who decided to sit down ended up dropping out of the race right there. I noticed pacers trying to talk their runners out of sitting down at all.

There’s a saying in ultramarathoning, “Beware the Chair.” This especially applies to Badwater. I said to my crew before Badwater, “Two things I don’t want you to bring: a chair and an umbrella.” A lot of runners bring these things so they can take a break and sit in the shade. But I know for me as soon as I get comfortable I’m in trouble. I ask my crew to keep me in a constant state of misery.

When I ran across America there were a lot of miserable stretches, but Kansas was the worst. It was supposed to be a break after crossing the Rockies. The course was going to be flat and I was expecting a prevalent tailwind. But a storm came in. For six days I ran into a 15 mph wind and often amid a sleety rain. Snow will bounce off you, but the sleet got into every seam. My feet were never dry. And there was this constant fog so I only had 20 feet of visibility. I freezing and miserable, running into this white cloud for 10 to 12 hours a day for six days. I was losing my mind. My crew would stop ahead of me every mile. They’d open the car door and I could feel all the heat and warmth in the car and the aroma of hot chocolate. It was too much. I told them to start driving ahead 10 miles for every crew stop. They asked me, “Is that what you really want?” and I said, “Nooooo, but every time you open that door I just want to crawl in start drinking hot chocolate.”

What does it take to get you to drop out of a race?

I have policy that unless I’m going to do some sort of permanent harm I won’t drop out of a race. I’ve run hundreds of races and only dropped out of a handful of them. I know there are elites who drop out if they’re just having a bad day, and I get it; there are a lot of pros and cons to this—like saving your legs for another race—but my policy is to finish unless I’m going to get hurt.

I’ve failed at the Leadville Trail 100. I remember I was at mile 80, feeling great and thinking I had a shot at finishing top five. It felt as if I had a lot of gas in the tank. At mile 85 I couldn’t see straight. Next thing I know the medics put me on a cot and were asking me how many fingers they were holding up. I couldn’t articulate to them he was holding up three fingers. I thought, “What’s this joker up to?” Then he said, “Get this guy in a car and down to Denver. He has high-altitude cerebral edema.” I can have this reckless view that I’m immortal. That taught me about precaution.

The extremes of ultrarunning clearly appeals to some because of the spiritual dimension that apparently is involved when one pushes so hard. But it seems as if part of the appeal for you is also the science and precision that can be applied to running.

Endurance is my thing. I love reading about obscure studies that might relate to a runner. I have a file cabinet full of clipping and studies and I like to set them side by side and try and triangulate the data points.

I doubt there are many ultrarunners that intellectualize the sport the way I do. For example, I did the Boston Marathon this past spring and I noticed we had a four to five mile-per-hour tailwind. Well, you don’t notice that, but because you’re moving at the same speed as the wind; you don’t get the cooling effect you ordinarily would—even if the air was simply still. In effect you’re running in a vacuum. I heard so many people say, “God, it was unbearably hot.” This was part of the reason why.

A lot of things happen to you at Badwater. This year we had a 25 mph headwind. This is why it’s called Furnace Creek. Your eyeballs can dry out. You can also fry your soft palate—the reflective UV radiation from the road bounces up and hits you in the mouth and under the nose. You’ll see these poor guys that can’t eat or drink. I suggest to others to chew gum to help keep your mouth closed while you run and put sun block on the bottom of your nose. Every little misery there compounds itself.

So you turned 50 this past August. How did you celebrate?

I went for a long run culminating at the top of Mount Tamalpais to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Then the kids made me dinner. It was a good day.

This interview originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.

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About The Author:

T.J. Murphy is a contributing writer for Competitor magazine and author of, “Inside the Box.” 

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