Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Difference between a 50-Miler and 100-Miler is WAY More than 50 Miles...and Some Thoughts on Dean Karnazes

Although I'm not a Dean Karnazes fan by any stretch, last night I read a few excerpts from his forthcoming book, Run!, in the latest issue of Runner's World.

First of all, let me share some thoughts on Dean. I admire his ability to run great distances. I respect his many top-10 finishes at the Western States 100 and his wins at both the Badwater Ultramarathon and Vermont 100. I admire his charitable pursuits and passion for helping kids through his foundation. And, I really admire how he's successfully marketed himself and built a brand. That last compliment may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it's not. I truly admire Dean's effectiveness in promoting himself in such a way that running now pays the bills. Few of us who work for a living and run on the side (our true passion) wouldn't give anything to have Dean's "job" and, oh by the way, his North Face sponsorship. For years, I've been nagging myself to write a book because Dean has clearly shown that you can make a living through running and telling great stories. Here in Colorado, the stage is set for me to tell captivating stories. I just need to get off my arse and give it a go! So there's a lot about Dean that I do admire.

Now for what I don't admire about Dean. I don't admire the fact that he never paid homage to the sport of ultrarunning in his first book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of An All Night Runner. The net result of this is that you now have legions of Dean fans who think he's the first and only guy to run super-long distances. No where in his book does Dean talk about the great ones, like Yiannis Kouros or Ted Corbitt, or the roots of going long. He kind of made it seem as though he IS ultrarunning. In truth, he's the first ultrarunner to have ever really crossed over into the mainstream. But he's not the first ultrarunner, and he surely isn't the last, and he certainly isn't an all-time great in terms of results. He's not in the same league or even close to the same league as Kouros, Corbitt, Scott Jurek, Eric Clifton, Stu Mittleman, Bernd Heinrich, Ann Trason et al.

There are some great ultrarunners out there who could have huge brands except for the fact that they either choose not to effectively market themselves or they don't know how. Meanwhile, Dean is the best-known ultrarunner in the world--and this irks the hell out of many an old-school ultrarunner.

I also don't think Dean is particularly humble, though he loves to come across as Mr. Everyman. Dean seems to enjoy telling people his body fat percentage. And he can be a little condescending.

As for his new book, Dean does get one thing right. According to the excerpt in Runner's World, he says that a 100-miler isn't twice as hard as a 50-miler; it's more like 3 or 4 times harder. I agree. In my view, there are four distinct stages of a 100-miler.
  • Miles 1-30: Getting warmed up and finding your groove. This isn't so bad!
  • Miles 31-60: Damn, this is getting hard. And you still have a ton of miles in front of you.
  • Miles 61-90: Lots of DNFs in this stage. For me, this is when the race really begins.
  • Miles 91-100: You'd think this late in the race a finish is in the bag. But really it's gut-check time. How badly do you want it?
I have a friend who says that nothing good happens after 50 miles. True in many respects.

What happens after 60 miles is hard to put into words. For most of us, you have to dig deeper than you ever have in your whole life. You are stripped down to nothing more than your soul. Everyone on the course is hurting when they reach this point in the race. Look into the eyes of a 100-mile runner late in a race and you'll see what I'm talking about. Those who finish are the ones who either avoided serious injury or found it deep within themselves to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. It's really a matter of refusing to quit.

I've been in different situations after 60 miles. At the Mohican 100 in 2009, late in the race I was killing the hills and eventually took and kept the lead with nothing but fire in my eyes. The previous year, I endured a blown-up knee and massive diarrhea. At the Leadville 100 after mile 80, I was on a death march. In 2008, I paced a friend who was winning his 100 but had a medical condition after 80 miles. He recovered and regrouped and still managed to finish first overall. I've see 100s from different viewpoints--blown up-knees, altitude sickness, a wicked case of the trots, an electrolyte imbalance, a near-nirvana state, you name it.

If 100s were easy, everyone would do them.

Yeah, Dean got it right.


  1. 100-50 = 50.

    Just kidding.

    So how does one train for that - given nearly no one trains for a distance of a single run for 60 miles or more and hence never hits those conditions in training?

  2. Dean is God and don't you forget it.

  3. George: In my humble opinion, training for a 100 comes down to tons of volume and lots of time on the course so you know it well. I need to hit 100+ miles/week to develop the necessary strength to do better than just survive the distance. I've also noticed that I have the best results in a 100 when I've done speed work and hills. As I learned the hard way at Leadville, I also think you need to develop a diet that will work at that specific event. And, the big challenge is arriving at the start healthy. You should try a 100 one of these days!