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“Being able to run great distances was the one thing I could offer the world. Others might be faster, but I could go longer. My strongest quality is that I never give up.”  ~ULTRA MARATHON MAN, Dean Karnazes (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005, 2006)

“The human body is capable of amazing physical deeds. If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our internal fire, the possibilities are endless.”   ~ULTRA MARATHON MAN, Dean Karnazes (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005, 2006)

 Baby Steps into the Unknown

When I read about Dean Karnazes in Runner’s World and his quest to run longer and farther than anyone else, I thought it was other-worldly, nutty really. Interesting, but I couldn't relate to it. So when Jason England, a TSgt in the US Air Force, recommended Karnazes’ book, ULTRA MARATHON MAN: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, I was skeptical. But he hooked me with flattery. “His book has little to do with bodybuilding, but I thought of you constantly when reading it,” he wrote. “It all boils down to one word: passion. He has it (as you do), and like you, expertly conveys it via the written word.” Who could resist a pitch like that?

I was half right about Karnazes. He admits to being a little crazy. But he has a wonderful story--and an important message to which every lifetime bodybuilder can relate. He keeps on keeping on with almost superhuman determination.

Dean Karnazes was a good cross-country runner in high school, winning the championship (about 3 miles) in one of the toughest leagues in Southern California--as a freshman. The cross-country coach, who he admired greatly, told the nervous freshman: “Go out there and run to the best of your ability. Don’t run with your legs. Run with your heart.”  

“Even as a high school freshman, I got his meaning: the human body has limitations; the human spirit is boundless,” Karnazes writes. “The next few miles would influence the rest of my life.”

In spite of taking an elbow to the nose and running the last hundred feet covered in blood, he won. “The crowd was going wild…It was one of the proudest moments of my life…Nothing could replace the feeling of pride that came from physical accomplishment, feelings I carry to this day.”

A short time later, he had a falling out with the track coach (different than the cross-country coach) and walked off the field.

“I didn’t run again for fifteen years,” Karnazes tells the reader.

His return to running was a harbinger of incredible things to come.

All Night Runner Emerges

Karnazes had a midlife crisis of sorts on his thirtieth birthday. He was happily married and good at his job, but something was missing. “My fear is that I’ll wake up thirty years from now and be in the same place, only wrinkled and bald…and really fat. And bitter,” he told his very understanding wife.

After a night out with friends and a few too many drinks (and some mildly risqué details you’ll enjoy reading), he went into his garage, stripped down to his baggy shorts and undershirt, put on an old pair of sneakers (used for gardening) over his dress socks, tucked a $20 bill into his shoe—and started jogging south from his home in San Francisco.

“It was tough going,” he writes. “I hadn’t run any real distance in fifteen years. But I kept at it. That night I just knew I had to keep at it.”

He stopped three hours later exhausted and hungry, stuffed himself with food purchased with considerable ingenuity (and a little luck) at the drive-through window of a Taco Bell, and continued running.

After running for seven hours straight and covering thirty miles, he called his wife collect on a pay phone. “You mean you ran all night?” she asked in shock. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” he responded. “I’ve lost control of my leg muscles, and my feet are swollen stuck in my shoes. I’m standing here in my underwear. But other than that, I’m doing pretty well. Actually, I feel strangely alive.”

As you can imagine, that was the start of something big. “After half a lifetime, I’d been reborn,” Dean writes. “Most runners are able to keep a rational perspective on the devotion, and practice responsibly. I couldn’t, and became a fanatic.”

Like you, I had a pretty good idea what was to come, but it turns out to be grander than I imagined—and Dean Karnazes turns out to be a much better story teller than I expected.

I thought reading about a series of excruciating long runs would get old pretty fast, but I was wrong. Karnazes has a knack for including just the right amount of detail. He includes lots of fascinating blow-by-blow stuff about his first ultra-marathon, and then less as the runs get longer and more perilous, hitting only the main points in the final adventures.

I’ll provide a bare bones summary, and then let you enjoy reading more about the agony and ecstasy Karnazes experiences as he tests and then extends his limits over and over.  

Western States One Hundred 

My neighbor and friend Bryan Bowker earned the much coveted belt buckle presented to those who complete the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in 24 hours or less. So I’m familiar with the event. It’s considered by many to be the toughest endurance race in the world.

That’s where Dean Karnazes started testing his endurance capacity.

After reading Dean’s account of running the 50-mile qualifying event, and then struggling mightily to complete the event itself, my opinion of Bryan’s achievement has soared. I had no idea that the terrain and climate were so challenging. The 38,000-foot elevation change is like climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and back down—fifty-six times. “It crosses snow and ice fields, descends into murderously hot valleys, fords numerous bridgeless rivers, and offers little in the way of food, water, or medical support along the way.”

Karnazes completed the course in about 21 hours, but he was literally crawling on his hands and knees near the end. He devotes five chapters to telling about the obstacles encountered and how he willed himself forward, where any half rational person would’ve given up, over and over—and I loved every page of it. (You will too.)

“I was more capable than I imagined, better than I ever thought I could be,” Karnazes writes at the end of the account. “This realization was like stepping into another dimension.” Amazingly, he was just getting started.

Badwater, Antarctica and Team Dean 

His next challenge was the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile foot race across Death Valley in the middle of summer. Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. Temperatures can exceed 130 degrees, and the asphalt can exceed 200 degrees. “Not your ideal place for a jog,” Dean jokes.

He collapsed at 72 miles and awoke to hear his wife say, “The race is over, honey. You’re at a hotel.”

“But I didn’t finish, did I? How did I get here? Why did they take me away?

“Let’s see:” his wife responded patiently, “You were severely dehydrated, vomiting, slurring your words, and on the verge of heatstroke.”

“It was pure, unadulterated defeat,” Dean writes. “But what I came to realize on the drive home was that I’d loved every second of it.”

He returned the next summer, completed the race, and began looking for the next challenge.

He found it in Antarctica. He became the first and only person to finish a marathon at the South Pole, a feat many knowledgeable people considered impossible.

[Clarification: Irishman Richard Donovan finished 27 minutes before Karnazes, wearing snowshoes, and was declared the winner of the "snowshoe division." Karnazes, who wore running shoes, was declared winner of the "runners" division. (Also wearing snowshoes, Brent Weigner finished one minute behind Karnazes.) The decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court of British Columbia on the basis that the "divisions" were created after the fact. Donovan was awarded a default judgment against the race organizer, Adventure Network International, in the full amount of the 1st prize ($25,000), plus interest and legal fees. Ten weeks later, Donovan became the first person to run marathons at both the South and North Poles. For more details, see Sports Illustrated http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/siadventure/28/murphys_law/ and National Geographic http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0208/q_n_a.html

“It’s the most remote, most desolate place on the planet,” Dean relates. ”The air is bone dry, making Antarctica something like a huge desert—a frozen Sahara. Nothing lives here, neither animal nor plant. It was as close to being on the moon as you can get while still on planet Earth.”

Karnazes almost suffocated and froze to death. Once again, he simply refused to give up.

“What kept me going? Easy. I live for the adventure….The higher the risk, the grander the sense of satisfaction from accomplishing what you set out to do.”

He had literally accomplished the impossible, but nonetheless kept searching for something “even more intense.”

He found a 199-mile relay race where 12-person teams run three legs of roughly 5.5 miles.

You guessed it. He entered as a team of one.

The race director thought he was nuts. But after some negotiation, it was agreed that he would start a day before the others and run “all night two nights in a row,” finishing about the same time as the other teams.

The news of what he was attempting spread fast, and before long spectators and runners alike were cheering for Team Dean.

That helped, of course, but it wasn’t enough to keep him going for 200 miles.

Baby Steps Save the Day

As you would expect, there are highs and lows in two days of continuous running. Karnazes tells about many of both, but one in particular has relevance well beyond ultra-endurance events. At the half way point, nineteen hours and forty-four minutes into the race, he resolved to take the 100 miles ahead “one step at a time.” Seems obvious, I know, but an encounter with his wise and understanding wife, Julie, another 35 miles down the road shows the power of that simple pledge.  

 Julie pulled up alongside Dean in the darkness and asked, “How’s it going?”

“There have been high points, and there have been low points,” he answered. “This is not a high point.”

She jumped out of the vehicle and stated running with him. “What seems to be the matter?”

“Basically everything. I’m worked. Not sure how I’m going to cover another sixty-five miles.”

After a moment she said, “Don’t think of it like that. It’s too daunting. Remember What about Bob?”

She was referring to a movie they’d seen together. Carol and I saw it too. Bill Murray plays a sad sack patient being treated on the long road to recovery by a psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfuss. “Baby steps,” Julie said, as Dreyfuss had counseled Murray. “Just take baby steps. Set your goal as that street sign sixty-five feet ahead, not the finish line sixty-five miles ahead. Just get to the street sign.”

It worked over and over on the way to the finish line. For example, with 45 miles to go Dean fell asleep running and had to throw himself into the bushes to keep from getting run over by an oncoming car. He found himself too weak to move. He thought he was done, but wanted to at least preserve his dignity and stand up. ”If I can just rise to my feet, I’ll be satisfied,” he thought to himself. “Baby steps. Just stand up.”

After a struggle, he stood up. Encouraged, he set a new goal: If I can just reach that reflector [twenty feet up the road], I’ll be satisfied.”

“Baby steps…Baby steps,” he kept repeating to himself at each low point.

“Miraculously,” he covered the last mile in less than six minutes. “Standing proud at that finish line,” Karnazes relates triumphantly, “I oddly wasn’t even winded.”

Take Care of Today 

“If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself—expanding and learning as you go—you’re choosing a numb existence,” Karnazes writes near the end of the book. “You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”

Personally speaking, I’ve found this to be true in training and in life. Do the best you can today, and tomorrow almost always takes care of itself.

I was having a terrible time during my first semester in law school. I was at the bottom of the list of those to receive a passing grade on the first exam. I told my Dad I didn’t think I could do it, that I was thinking about dropping out. He said, “Fine. Try it a few more weeks, and if you still feel the same way, you can try something else.” Fortunately, I took his advice and kept trying. I got a passing grade on all my final exams the first year—and the first semester of the second year I ranked number one in my class. I remember almost floating home on a cloud after getting my grades. I was every bit as proud as Dean Karnazes standing at that finish line.

Take it from Dean Karnazes (and me): Baby steps will get you a long way down the road in just about everything you do.

[You’ll find Dean Karnazes’ ULTRA MARATHON MAN at your local bookstore or on Amazon.com.]     

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