Friday, March 31, 2006

Karnazes finds challenges

Karnazes finds challenges, pizza on open roadBy RANDY B. YOUNG, CORRESPONDENT
Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes has taken the road less traveled -- usually for hundreds of miles at a time.
But the legs that have carried him across the scorching desert of Death Valley, up and down mountains and around the South Pole truly went the extra mile last Thursday. Karnazes paid a brief visit to dozens of members of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Pacers Running Club that remained after practice at UNC's Belk Track for the guest speaker's arrival.
These young athletes didn't care that Karnazes had gone on a six-mile run with supporters that morning or that he set off on a five-miler with enthusiasts from UNC's Student Union that afternoon. They didn't care that he is what Men's Fitness magazine called America's fittest man, or that he has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. Most of the Pacers don't stay up that late. And few of them will read Karnazes' best-selling book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
They were more interested in his stories about falling asleep while running. They ate up the lesson on how to devour pizza in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a tidy 262-mile ultramarathon. ("I told the delivery man to roll it up like a big tortilla," Karnazes told the Pacers.)
Practice for the Pacers began with a visit and motivational speech by Chapel Hill's own John Hinton, who at age 43 had been training for the Masters Indoor National Championships.
Missing a world masters record by just two seconds earlier in the season, Hinton earned a Masters Indoor National Championship in Boston this past weekend. His 4:16.23 mile bested all competitors, including those in younger masters brackets, earning him the enviable claim of being the fastest master-class miler in the country. Additionally, Hinton placed second in the 800-meter run with a time of 1:56.36.
After their workouts, the Pacers were treated to the short speech by the 42-year-old Karnazes, who has been running "ultra" races (distances greater than 26.2-mile marathons) since his 30th birthday.
"I was in a bar with some friends," Karnazes told National Public Radio, "it was about 11 o'clock at night, and I think I had a midlife crisis. I excused myself, walked out of the bar, put on some gardening shoes because I didn't have running shoes at the time, and I ran off into the night. I decided to go out and run 30 miles on my 30th birthday, and I lived to tell the tale."
Karnazes has been running ever since. He has run 350 continuous miles, foregoing sleep for three nights, according to his Web site
"He's run across Death Valley in 126-degree temperatures, and he's run a marathon to the South Pole in negative-40 degrees. On seven different occasions, he's run a 200-mile relay race solo, racing alongside teams of 12.
"Dean is a 10-time Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Silver Buckle winner," the site says, "and he is the 2004 champion of the Badwater Ultramarathon, which bills itself as the 'World's Toughest Footrace.'"
Despite the fact that running with Karnazes is what the New York Times compared to "setting up one's easel next to Monet or Picasso." Karnazes does not possess blazing speed. Avid runners had no problem keeping up with the acclaimed athlete on Thursday.
"It depends on the terrain," he said, "but usually I'm averaging between seven- and 10-minute miles. It depends on the heat, the terrain, the climb...."
In addition to the running, the San Francisco resident swam across the San Francisco Bay, scaled Half Dome in Yosemite and surfed the enormous waves off the coast of Hawaii.
A married father of two (Alexandria, 10, and Nicholas, 7), Karnazes works as executive director for Healtheon, managing the health food business' on-line presence. He is actively involved in the development of The North Face running footwear and outdoor apparel. He estimates that training takes an additional 15 to 20 hours a week.
"I'm not just running 20 miles every day," Karnazes said in a radio broadcast transcribed for ""
"I might run 10 miles one day, five miles the next," he added, "and then I might run all night and run 50 or 60 miles. Often, I run (overnight) up to Napa Valley to a spa up there where my family likes to meet me. They drive up from San Francisco the next morning."
For non-ultramarathoners, such a regimen begs the question: "Why?"
"To me, life is about struggle," Karnazes told FHM Magazine. "If I'm not pushing myself, then I'm not happy."
Karnazes warned against confusing comfort and happiness.
"People think if we had every comfort available ... we'd be happy," he said. "I think there's a lot of miserable people out there, and one of the reasons is that there's no struggle."
Karnazes said conquering the pain he feels during longer races is a mental battle.
"(During a 262-mile race), I once touched the tip of my nose, and even that hurt," he said. "But then, I'd think, 'If you quit, that's going to be even more unbearable.'
"After the long runs, I feel bad for a week," he told FHM, "but after two days, this mental euphoria takes over. The pain's still there, but I get this runner's high, which I imagine is like heroin, although I've never tried heroin."
That analogy illuminates one of the criticisms of Karnazes' running -- that it comes dangerously close to addiction. Fueling his obsession is the constant attention paid by a curious public and a hungry media.
Karnazes has graced television shows and networks ranging from CNN to ESPN, and he has also been virtually universal on magazines and newspapers, including: TIME and Newsweek, Gentleman's Quarterly and National Geographic.
"He's a dream," said Katie Ramage, who manages Karnazes' sponsoring North Face's athlete team. "He's smart. He's driven. He's photogenic. We have a category called media darling, and he gets the highest ranking."
The fact that the six-pack-abbed, Adonis-of-endurance has become emblematic of adventure and ultra athletics is not surprising to anyone, but neither is the notion that ubiquity makes for a clear and visible target.
For example, many endurance fans balk at the notion that the ultra world needs a designated spokesperson. Racers joke about Karnazes leaving a mirror at the midway aid stations. After watching Karnazes' interview with David Letterman, one blogger tagged Karnazes as "just another self-promoting huckster."
Karnazes has heard the critics, and he has responded by noting that he has never claimed to be an authority on ultrarunning or even a very good ultrarunner. He points out that his runs have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for leukemia and organ donation, and it has increased the sport's visibility.
As Karnazes continues to ride the crest of the rising popularity of ultrarunning and its emergence into the American zeitgeist, many argue that the ultra community is not in need of any more promotion.
"I find it comical that people are saying you're giving away the Garden of Eden," Karnazes told Outside Magazine. "I can see that about a fishing hole or a secret surfing break, but there's a lot of open road in this country."
Perhaps the biggest critique of Karnazes deals with the misconception that he runs further than anyone else. Ultrarunners point out that others' feats surpass Karnazes'. Yiannis Kouros, for example, is alleged to hold every record from 100 miles to 1,000 miles, from 200K races to 1,600K and from one day to 10 days. The claims of both runners are clouded by myriad questions concerning what constitutes "non-stop" running and what pace literally constitutes running at all.
Whether or not the media cares whether Karnazes is or is not the world's best ultrarunner (though he's clearly a front-runner) may be answered in the relative disregard of female ultrarunner Pam Reed from magazine covers and the talk-show circuit.
Shannon Farar Griefer sees Karnazes' impact as a windfall profit for ultrarunning.
"This sport needs to be a little more mainstream," the double Badwater 292-mile finisher said, "as opposed to (being seen as) so extreme and underground and hidden."
Finally, some wonder about the pressures Karnazes' undertakings put on his family.
While Karnazes acknowledges that running takes him away a good deal, he emphasizes that much of his running is at night to prioritize waking time with his wife and children. Still, he concedes that it can be a challenge that rivals juggling pizza on a lonely dark road, but with dire consequences.
"Finishing one 262-mile run felt like being in a train accident," he told FHM Magazine. "I was destroyed. But it was my son's 7th birthday, so after I finished the event, he said, 'Dad, look, I have tickets to the boardwalk!' So I rallied to celebrate his birthday."
After speaking with the Pacers, Karnazes mused at how he missed his own children when away running or promoting his book. While both of Karnazes' children are running enthusiasts, he said that he is cautious in making sure they don't feel forced into the sport.
"I didn't push running on them," he said, "because I was afraid of the backlash. But they also see how passionate I am about it, and kids listen to their parents. People don't think that they do, but they do. They're smart.
"My daughter's in Girls on the Run," he said, "and I'm on the executive board. She's just had a great experience, but both of my kids love to run."
Karnazes gives the same message to his own children as he does to any group of young athletes regarding running.
"As long as they're happy," he said, "(running is fine) -- if the kids are happy, and they're enjoying it, and they're doing if for themselves. With Girls on the Run, the kids love the celebration ... and the footwear, and they love to immerse themselves in it. My kids just really enjoy the athletic experience, and I encourage that."
Karnazes said such a message might also relate to any athletic endeavor.
"I tell kids, most of all, to have fun -- most of all to enjoy it," he said. "If it's running you love or even if it's some other activity, find out what it is that you love so much that you look forward to it."
While Karnazes participates in a variety of athletic endurance challenges, he's sticking with running in the immediate future by focusing his training on the North Face Endurance 50. Beginning in September, he will attempt to run 50 marathons in the 50 states on 50 consecutive days.
After the current book promotional tour, Karnazes said he'll allow himself a good period of hibernation before tackling that challenge.
"Yeah, I'll 'go dark,' if you will," he said, "and I'll just focus on my training."
While challenges continue to emerge along Karnazes' road less traveled, he said he has no plans to succumb to begin "acting his age" any time soon.
"My joints look like an 18-year-old's," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "The doctors said, 'Oh, you're a runner, and you're just going to (eventually) have to give it up.' But then they got back the x-rays and told me, 'Well, you have the joints of an 18-year-old.'"
But if Karnazes conquered his midlife crisis at age 30 by running 30 miles through the night, what will he do when he actually reaches his mid-life?
"Well, I'm 42 now, but when I hit 40 two years ago, I started going backwards," he said as he left UNC's Belk Track. "My life's an out-and-back."
And while Karnazes may actually catch some shut-eye along that journey, the young Pacers Running Club participants who listened to the ultrarunner speak came away with their eyes and ears wide open. Inspired by both John Hinton and Dean Karnazes, these youngsters should be motivated in the long run.

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