Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss, by Dean Karnazes

There have been greater ultrarunners, but never has an endurance athlete come even remotely close to achieving the fame and fortune of Dean Karnazes.

His meteoric rise all started in 2005 with the release of a little memoir that Dean, in an awe-shucks kind of way, says he never envisioned as a New York Times Best Seller. But Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner sold big, catapulting the San Francisco working stiff, who until then lived in relative obscurity (except in the ultrarunning world) but had amassed an impressive record in races such as the Western States 100 and Badwater Ultramarathon, to worldwide fame. A fun read sprinkled with a fair amount of likable though somewhat nauseating immodesty (in the opening pages, he describes himself as "ripped like a prizefighter"), Ultramarathon Man told the personal story of the author's colorful entrance into super-distance running and amassed a legion of Dean followers, shining a bright light on a freakishly blood and guts sport that was quite happy to live in the darkness, thank you very much.

Just like that, Dean Karnazes became somewhat of a household name, and he followed up his first book with 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days -- and How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance!, which told the story of his infamous 50-marathons-in-50-days-in-50-states-challenge. Along the way, Dean, who is sponsored by The North Face and is a "yes-I-can" poster boy for fitness, garnered listing as one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People," attempted the 48-hour treadmill record, quit his day job to run full-time and motivate people, adopted children's health as his #1 cause and otherwise took his fame to unheard-of levels. This and more made many in the ultrarunning world feel uncomfortable, irritated and betrayed.

With his growing fame, Dean became a polarizing figure in a sport that had, nearly overnight, gone from underground to raging sensation. Many of the top races, such as the Western States 100, now sell out and are forced to offer lotteries as a result of so-called Dean-inspired yahoos flooding registrations. Many blame this boom on Dean, and it's no secret--or surprise--that Dean has as many haters as admirers. He was once wishfully viewed by many as a fad, but it's clear that Dean, like his idol, the late, great Jack Lalanne, is here to stay.

Well, Dean is back with a third book, Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss, published by Rodale Books (Rodale also publishes Runner's World magazine) that will once again land him on the best-sellers list, on "Letterman" and "Leno" and God-only-knows what else. Only this time Dean, who has clearly been hurt by the criticism of his own community, comes across as slightly more guarded than the guy with nothing to lose back in 2005. You see, Dean's hugely famous now. He views himself as a celebrity. As told in his book, people slam on their brakes when driving past Dean to meet the "Ultramarathon Man" himself. It's only folks like convenience store clerks who haven't a clue who he is, really. Again, this is all from the book!

Huge celebrities, like politicians, often get caught in a trap, which often leads to their own demise (think John Edwards). The trap is a perpetual concern about one's image and one's critics. This self-absorption, which I'm quite confident Dean would vehemently deny, is a close cousin of narcissism. And it often involves endless self-defenses. Indeed, Dean goes to great lengths to indirectly respond to his critics, shamelessly bolstering his defense with favorable testimony from his own family, which actually made me quite uncomfortable as the reader. I wanted to hear from Dean himself, not his family. He even goes so far as to publish soppy letters from adoring fans, really tugging at the heart-strings and setting a trap that, yes, I fell for (more on that below).

Like his first book, Run is a fun, thrilling, easy read full of profound reflections and stories of sophomoric antics, such as when Dean made an ass of himself (he admits this) in front of a US senator when jockeying for one last baby-back rib at a wedding reception. But this is Dean, for better or worse. And what hungry ultrarunner who'd just run 75 miles wouldn't throw elbows and shed blood for a juicy baby-back rib?

In Run, Dean goes into great detail in describing his relationship with his dad and his skinny-legged close friend, Topher Gaylord (a former North Face executive who now heads Mountain Hardwear). Stories of Dean and his dad, who crewed for him many times at Badwater, are heart-warming. Whereas stories of Dean and Topher are comical in a fraternity-house-full-of-beer-kegs-and-thirsty-party-boys sort of way. Dean tortured Topher like a little brother (the "vanduzzi" and toilet paper stories are Exhibits A and B), but over time the chicken-legged Topher evolved into a runner with the killer instrict. He finished Western States and eventually established himself as an accomplished endurance athlete and business executive who earned the respect and admiration of the "Ultramarathon Man" himself. I did very much enjoy the chapter authored by Topher--but, then again, I often enjoy just about any emotional, gripping retelling of a Western States finish.

Amid more than a few stories that go as deep as a shallow puddle (e.g., the rib and vanduzzi stories), Dean offers up some thoughtful reflections on the nature of ultrarunning, a sport that delivers both profound suffering and life-changing enlightenment...unless it kills you first. It is through the suffering, Dean says, that life is lived to its fullest. Amen to that!

On a personal note, I was quite intrigued by Dean's recounting of his multiple attempts at finishing the Leadville 100, which he calls "Dreadville." Only on the third attempt did Dean finish the "Race Across the Sky," having endured altitude sickness and other maladies that forced DNFs in previous years. Dean uses the Leadville stories to demonstrate that, yes, even he has failed...just as Michael Jordan, he says, sometimes came up short. Interesting admission and comparison.

Among the more enjoyable chapters are the sections devoted to Dean's 4 Deserts attempt, which culminated in an overall win. The multi-day 4 Deserts race series involves long, grueling efforts through the desolate Atacama desert, Gobi desert, Sahara desert and Antarctica. The stories are entertaining and captivating and, in my eyes, the most intriguing part of the book with the possible exception of Dean's reflections on his notorious 48-hour treadmill run in Manhattan--which was promoted by "Live with Regis & Kelly."

I have often been critical of Dean. And while there is much about Dean that rubs me the wrong way, there is much I also like and admire about him. Who among us wouldn't give our left arm for his North Face sponsorship, full-time running gig and millions he's earned as a best-selling author? (I wouldn't want his travel schedule, though.) When reading over some selected fan letters Dean published in Run, it dawned on me that disliking a man who has inspired thousands of people to be active and healthy really isn't a productive endeavor. How can one really dislike a man who has received a letter like this one from a Marine Corp Marathon aspirant:

"For the first time in my life I think I can accomplish a marathon, something I never dreamed possible. I've been a lawyer, founder of a successful law firm, recipient of many awards and honors, and benefactor of ungodly prosperity, but nothing is more important to me than finishing this marathon. You have had a profound influence on me, and I just wanted you to know."
Or how about this message from a troubled young fan who sat silently outside a Manhattan studio window while Dean--only a few feet away--ran for 48 hours on a treadmill:
"You are my hero. I am going home now. I am going to run again. Thank you."
These notes capture what's really going on in Dean's third book and what's really been going on since the release of his first memoir--appealing to so many people out there who are lost and searching for fulfillment, or maybe just inspiration and adventure. They find a cheerful, confident guide in Dean Karnazes. In this way, Dean has morphed into something of a motivational figure with legions of followers who credit the "Ultramarathon Man" himself for saving their life. Hey, it's in the letters.

Today, Dean is running across America to raise awareness of obesity--the #1 killer of Americans today regardless of what the experts say about cardiovascular disease, cancer and stroke. Good for Dean.

How can you hate a guy who's done all of that? I can't.

Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss , published by Rodale Books, is recommended.


  1. To quote... "Dean-inspired yahoos flooding registrations."

    Brilliant line... of course he isn't the only yahoo inciter these days...

    I don't read Dean's stuff and I don't plan to and if I were standing right in front of him I wouldn't even recognize him. That being said I appreciate your feedback and views on the book. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the in depth review, planning on checking it out. I think there is some lasting and definite value that Dean is creating whether folks like him or not. He seems passionate about helping others live healthier lifestyles and for that I have a ton of respect for him.