Ultra-Marathoner Searches for the Breaking Point

A lot of people think of a marathon as the ultimate long distance race with its official distance of 26.2 miles. But that pales in comparison to a man who has run 350 miles — in one race — without stopping. Tom Goldman has a profile on Ultra-Marathoner Dean Karnazes.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Tomorrow's the Boston Marathon, and for thousands of runners just finishing the race is the completion of a lifelong goal. But for 43 year old Dean Karnazes, his first Boston Marathon is really just a warm-up.

Karnazes is this country's best known ultra-marathon runner. NPR's Tom Goldman caught up with him recently.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Here's a tip. If you ever go for a run with Dean Karnazes, make sure you agree up front on how many miles. Because if you leave it vague, there's no telling how far he'll go.

Last year, he ran 350 miles without stopping. That means eating, drinking, peeing, even falling asleep on the fly. This September, he'll try to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days.

Mr. DEAN KARNAZES (Ultra-Marathon Runner): I'm going to have the smoked salmon caeser. Can I get it just on plain lettuce though? No croutons or...

GOLDMAN: On this day, I'm safe. We're at lunch, and instead of trying to chase after Dean Karnazes, I'm able to sit and think up provocative questions like, Are you nuts? He laughs. The subject of his sanity comes up a lot, even at home.

Mr. KARNAZES: Yeah, it's funny. My son recently came to me and said, Daddy, what does ultra mean? Well, Nicholas, in Latin ultra means beyond. He said, oh, beyond what, Daddy? I said, well, you know, beyond normal. He said, oh, I thought crazy meant beyond normal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: In the world of long, long distance running, ultra means beyond the normal 26.2-mile marathon. Thirteen years ago, Dean Karnazes entered that ultra-marathon world in a Forrest Gump moment; actually, a drunk Forrest Gump moment. He was celebrating his 30th birthday in a bar near his San Francisco home when he walked outside and ran 30 miles.

The run sobered him up and rekindled a passion for running Karnazes once had as a kid. Since that night he hasn't stopped, not even to write last-year's best-selling book called Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. He wrote a lot of the book dictating into a recorder on runs like this one, at night, going across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mr. KARNAZES: For the first time this evening, hell, for the first time in years, I felt like this spot was precisely where I belonged. I was happy, entirely content.

GOLDMAN: Happiness as an ultra-marathoner has come at the most extreme times. The Badwater Ultramarathon is 135 miles across Death Valley on a scorching asphalt highway. The temperature climbs close to 120 degrees at two in the morning. In his book, Karnazes wrote about the 1995 Badwater.

Besides the rattlesnakes, he wrote, there were scorpions and big tarantulas to watch out for on the dark road. I plodded along recklessly, unable to remain mentally attentive. At four in the morning, along with the vomiting came severe diarrhea. At mile 72, Karnazes passed out. His support crew put him in a car and drove him to a hotel. At first, deeply disappointed, Karnazes ended up celebrating his failure.

Mr. KARNAZES: Everything surrounding it fascinated me. It was just the whole idea of, you know, being out in these elements that were otherworldly and running across them and experiencing, you know, what my body was going through and shutting down and not being able to make it, and it just enthralled me. It captivated my soul, yeah.

GOLDMAN: Although Karnazes runs, hobbles the day after these mammoth races to speed recovery, it often takes a month before he's back to normal. Karnazes is five-nine, 153 pounds. Amazingly, he's never had a running injury aside from losing a few toenails. He's told he has excellent biomechanics. His feet hit the ground perfectly when he runs.

His mission to explore the limits of physical endeavor continues in September in what Karnazes calls a family vacation run amuck. He'll pile into a motor home with his two young kids, wife, mom and dad, and attempt those 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

Mr. KARNAZES: How can the body accomplish that? I don't know. You know, it's a journey into the unknown. I mean, that's one thing I really like about it is that I don't know how the human body will respond. I mean, I'm gonna make every effort to be in the best shape I can when we start that first marathon.

GOLDMAN: But who knows, he says. It could be the most spectacular blowup of his career, and Dean Karnazes says it with a smile on his face. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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