The Perfect Human
Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 days. He does 200 miles just for fun. He'll race in 120-degree heat. 12 secrets to his success.
By Joshua Davis
Reprinted with permission of Wired Magazine.
DEAN KARNAZES WAS SLOBBERING DRUNK. IT WAS HIS 30TH BIRTHDAY and he'd started with beer and moved on to tequila shots at a bar near his home in San Francisco. Now, after midnight, an attractive young woman who was not his wife was hitting on him. This was not the life he'd imagined for himself. He was a corporate hack, desperately running the rat race. The company had just bought him a new Lexus. He wanted to vomit.
Karnazes resisted the urge and, instead, slipped out the bar's backdoor and walked the few blocks to his house. On the back porch, he found an old pair of sneakers. He stripped down to his T-shirt and underwear, laced up the shoes, and started running. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He sobered up in Daly City, about 15 miles south. It was nearly four in the morning. The air was cool, slightly damp from the fog, and Karnazes was in a residential neighborhood, burping tequila, with no pants on. He felt ridiculous, but it brought a smile to his face. He hadn't had this much fun in a long time.
So he decided to keep running. When the sun came up, Karnazes was trotting south along Route 1, heading toward Santa Cruz. He had covered 30 miles. In the process, he'd had a blinding
realization: There were untapped reservoirs within him. It was like a religious conversion. He had been born again as a long-distance runner. More than anything else now, he wanted to find out how far he could go. But at that exact moment, what he really needed to do was stop. He called his wife from a pay phone, and an hour later she found him in the parking lot of a 7-11. He passed out in the car on the way home.
That was August 1992. Over the next 14 years, Karnazes challenged almost every known endurance running limit. He covered 350 miles without sleeping. (It took more than three days.) He ran the first and only marathon at the South Pole (finishing second), and in late 2006, at age 44, he completed 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days, one in each of the 50 states. (The last one was in New York City. After that, he decided to run home to San Francisco). Karnazes' transformation from a tequila-sodden party animal into an international symbol of human achievement is as educational as it is inspirational.
Here's his advice for pushing athletic performance from the unthinkable to the untouchable.
1. Be Audacious
Finding the right challenge is the first challenge. "Any goal worth achieving involves an element of risk," Karnazes says in his autobiography, ULTRAMARATHON MAN: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. Risk, yes, and creativity too. For instance, looking for the ultimate endurance running challenge, in 1995 Karnazes entered a 199-mile relay race all by himself. He competed against eight teams of 12 and finished eighth.
2. Go Laceless
One of the biggest annoyances in long-distance running is lace management. After banging out 50 miles, it can be hard to squat or even bend over long enough to tie your shoes. The North Face recently responded to Karnazes' complaints and came out with the $130 M Endurus XCR Boa. Its laceless upper is enmeshed in thin steel cables that connect to a tension dial at the back. A simple turn cinches the shoe onto the foot. No more slowing down to fiddle with laces.
3. Flirt With Disaster
In 1995, Karnazes ran his first Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile trek that starts in Death Valley, California, in the middle of summer and finishes at the Mt. Whitney Portals, 8,360 feet above sea level. After running 72 miles in 120-degree heat, Karnazes collapsed on the side of the road suffering from hallucinations, diarrhea, and nausea. He had pushed himself to the point of death to find out whether he was strong enough to survive. He was. Though he didn't finish the race that year, Karnazes came back the next and placed 10th. He won it on his fifth attempt, in 2004. "Somewhere along the line, we seem to have confused comfort with happiness," he says.
4. Eat Junk And Lots Of It
You wouldn't believe the stuff Karnazes consumes on a run. He carries a cell phone and regularly orders an extra-large Hawaiian pizza. The delivery car waits for him at an intersection, and when he gets there he grabs the pie and rams the whole thing down his gullet on the go. The trick: Roll it up for easy scarfing. He'll chase the pizza with cheesecake, cinnamon buns, chocolate Ãuclairs, and all-natural cookies. The high-fat pig-out fuels Karnazes' long jaunts, which can burn more than 9,000 calories a day. What he needs is massive amounts of energy, and fat contains roughly twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates. Hence, pizza and Ãuclairs. When he's not in the midst of some record-breaking exploit, Karnazes maintains a monkish diet, eating grilled salmon five nights a week. He strictly avoids processed sugars and fried foods and no cookies or doughnuts. He even tries to steer clear of too much fruit because it contains a lot of sugar. He believes this approach which nutritionists call a slow-carb diet has reshaped him, lowering his body fat and building lean muscle. It also makes him look forward to running a race, because he can eat whatever he wants.
5. Cut Back On Sleep
Karnazes has a wife and two kids, and he worked a 9-to-5 job for the first eight years of his quest to transcend his own limits. Finding four hours for a 30-mile run during the day was next to impossible. The solution: sleep less. "Forgoing sleep is the only way I've figured out how to fit it all in," he says, noting that running in the dark can be soothing. Plus, there's less traffic to contend with. He now gets about four hours of shut-eye a night. Before he started running, however, he was just a normal guy who got a regular eight. As he started to run more, he found that he could sleep less. The National Sleep Foundation reports that exercise does lead to more restful sleep, and Karnazes takes this idea to the extreme. "The human body," he says, "is capable of extraordinary feats."
6. Show Your Body Who's Boss
"The human body has limitations," Karnazes says. "The human spirit is boundless." Your mind, in other words, is your most important muscle. As a running buddy told him: "Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention to arrive safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: Wow!
What a ride!"
7. Get A Cool Watch
Karnazes wears a souped-up Timex that monitors his speed, distance, calories burned, and elevation, all of which is critical for deciding when to order the next pizza while in the midst of a 200-mile trek. Besides letting him order a pie on the run, his cell phone uses specialized GPS software to broadcast his location to the Internet for all to see. It's fun to follow his icon rolling
across the digital landscape, but it's also useful when Karnazes disappears into the night. If he ever pushes himself too hard and collapses, his people can locate him. And fans would know something was wrong if his signal landed on top of a hospital icon.
8. Learn To Love Krazy Glue
If something goes wrong, and it inevitably will, it's usually with Karnazes' feet. In races and on training runs, he has battled giant, foot-devouring blisters. A surprisingly effective treatment: Krazy Glue. Pop the blister, slather the wound with the super-adhesive, and voila, your foot is ready to take a beating again. The glue acts as a kind of indestructible second skin and has helped Karnazes finish competitions he wouldn't have otherwise. (Officially, Krazy Glue recommends avoiding all contact with skin).
9. Get Used To It
If you're going to explore the boundaries of human endurance, you'll have to learn to adapt to more and more pain. To prepare for the searing heat of the Badwater race, Karnazes went on 30-mile jogs wearing a ski parka over a wool sweater. He trained himself to urinate while running. He got so he could go out and run a marathon on any given day no mileage buildup or tapering required. This training made the extreme seem ordinary and made the impossible seem the next logical step. Eventually, when he grew accustomed to the pain, it stopped hurting. "There is magic in misery," he says.
10. Promote The Hell Out Of Yourself
Before he became Superman, Karnazes was the Clark Kent of the PR world: a humdrum marketing executive at a pharmaceutical company. But in the past three years, he's published a memoir, nabbed a sponsorship from The North Face, appeared on ALate Show With David Letterman@, and gotten himself on the cover of a handful of magazines. The book and The North Face contract generate enough money to support his family, and the high profile translates into maximum motivation: Failure is scarier when the family income is on the line.
11. Break It Down
Fifty-six miles into his first Western States Endurance Run, one of the oldest 100-mile races in the country, Karnazes found himself alone entering a canyon at twilight. It was tough going as the trek boasts a total elevation change of 38,000 feet. With 44 miles to go, his spirit was flagging, but he found a way to make it seem conquerable: He remembered the next checkpoint would leave only a marathon and two 10Ks left to go. He knew he could run each leg, and that helped him achieve the whole.
12. Avoid Kryptonite
Forget tequila. Karnazes has given up hard drinking. His big vice these days is chocolate-covered espresso beans.
Contributing editor Joshua Davis
Copyright 1993-2007 The Conda Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.