Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Dean Karnazes

There have been faster ultrarunners, but never has an endurance athlete (not named Lance Armstrong) come even remotely close to achieving the fame, fortune and "cross-over" appeal of Dean Karnazes.

Courtesy of Dean Karnazes

Dean's meteoric rise started in 2005 with the release of a memoir he never envisioned as a New York Times best-seller. But Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner sold big, catapulting the self-described "bored" San Francisco working stiff, who had already achieved notable success as a runner, to unprecedented worldwide fame. In Ultramarathon Man, Dean shared the personal story of his colorful entrance into super-distance running. Garnering a legion of inspired Dean followers, the book shined a bright light on a freakishly blood and guts sport that, until that time, had largely existed in the shadows.

Just like that, Dean became somewhat of a household name, following up his memoir with 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days -- and How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance!, which chronicled his 50 marathons/50 days/50 states challenge dubbed the Endurance Challenge. Along the way, Dean, who is sponsored by The North Face and is a "yes-I-can" poster boy for fitness, landed on Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" list, attempted the 48-hour treadmill record, won both the Badwater Ultramarathon and Vermont 100, founded his own charity (Karno Kids), quit his day job to run full-time and motivate people, adopted children's health as his #1 cause, and otherwise took his celebrity to unheard-of levels.

Courtesy of Dean Karnazes

With his growing fame, Dean became a polarizing figure in a sport that, nearly overnight, had gone from underground to exposure in places like airport bookstores. All of a sudden, many men in their thirties, after years of neglecting their health, felt inspired and saw a way to a better place in life. As some claim, many of the top races, such as the Western States 100, started selling out and had to hold lotteries because so-called Dean followers flooded registrations. Once viewed by many as a fad, it's clear that Dean, like his idol, the late, great Jack Lalanne, is here to stay.

Last year, Dean released his third book, Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss, that once again landed him on the best-sellers list, as well as seats on Letterman and Leno (he'd already visited with Regis and Kelly). Only this time, Dean, who had clearly been hurt by the criticism of his own community, came across as slightly more guarded than the guy with nothing to lose back in 2005.

Today, the 49 year-old Karnazes, who lives in San Francisco with his family, is a vocal champion of healthy living and works hard to raise money for childhood obesity. He's run across the country to bring attention to this vitally important issue and is now planning a feat that is, to say the least, logistically daunting (more on that below). In just a few weeks, he'll attempt his tenth finish at the Badwater Ultramarathon.

A final note. Some people think Dean is insulated from "the rest of us," that he has high-paid PR types hovering around him to manage his "brand." I sensed none of that from the man. In fact, less than a day after e-mailing him via Facebook to request an interview, Dean personally responded to my inquiry and said yes, of course he'd answer my questions. Though he is famous, Dean's just like the rest of us--he loves running and he enjoys spreading the joy of putting one foot in front of the other.

WH: Dean, thank you for coming on The Running Man for this interview. It's an honor and I appreciate your time. Let's get right down to it, and I'd like to start off with an issue that's near and dear to both of our hearts. Today, about a third of kids and two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Through efforts like your 50-marathon challenge and trans-continental run, you’ve worked hard to combat obesity, especially among children. Coaching people on the need to choose the right foods and stay active is one thing, but winning over their hearts and minds and actually changing behaviors is another challenge altogether. Are we moving the needle on the obesity epidemic?

DK: I think we are chipping away at the problem. The level of awareness is higher now than ever. However, as you pointed out, getting people to actually change their behavior is the hard part. Programs like “Couch to 5K” are helping. Running or walking a 5K is something most people find approachable, no matter how badly they’ve let their health slip. Baby steps, I like to say.

Courtesy of Dean Karnazes

WH: In a recent podcast interview with Endurance Planet, you said too many runners just run and don’t cross-train, which can help prevent injury and burnout. As someone who’s recently implemented fast-walking into the mix, I’m eager to learn what kinds of cross-training you suggest for runners.

DK: Specifically, upper-body and core strength are important for injury prevention. You don’t need to go to the gym. Doing sets of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups will do the trick. Also, as runners, most of us spend the majority of our time moving forward in a straight line. Consequently, the muscles deployed during lateral movement are underdeveloped. Conditioning these muscles will help, too.

WH: Your first book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, was a national best-seller and inspired thousands to start running. But it still seemed to irk some old-schoolers who felt you came off a tad bit immodest. Yet those who know you best say you’re a humble, self-effacing guy. If you had a “do-over,” would you change anything about that first book?

DK: When I wrote that book, I thought that I’d be lucky if ten people bought it (mostly family, at a discount). When the book landed on the NY Times bestseller list I was shocked. Had I known the book would be so successful, I probably would have approached things differently. Hindsight’s always 20/20. I’m sorry if I came off as immodest to some old-schoolers--that was certainly not my intention. I’m not a very boastful person by nature. In fact, like many runners, I’m a severe introvert and don’t like being in the spotlight. It makes me feel uncomfortable.

Courtesy of Dean Karnazes

WH: You’ve accomplished a lot in life. You’ve won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon and Vermont 100. Four times you’ve finished in the top 10 at the Western States 100. You’re easily one of the top multi-day racers. You’re among the first—or maybe the first—to actually make a living as an ultrarunner, thanks to three best-selling books. And you’ve given back through your foundation and other charitable endeavors. How do you handle the criticism you still get from the few who question your credentials and motivations?

DK: No matter what you do, some people will always find fault in it. It’s a harsh reality I’ve had to learn. That said, I’ve received tens of thousands of letters from individuals across the globe telling me how much I’ve inspired them to start running and to become more physically active. Enduring the criticism of a few is worth it when you consider the upside. My father always told me that if you have a problem with someone, at least have the decency to tell them directly. I’ve never had a single person tell me to my face that they have a problem with me. When I read criticism online by someone who hides behind the moniker, “toe jam,” I try to keep it in perspective. Frederick Douglass may have said it best: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence."

WH: Recently, you announced your plans to run a marathon in every nation in the world within a one-year period. By my count, that’s something like 200 nations. What’s motivated you to tackle such a daunting and logistically difficult challenge?

DK: One of my main sponsors, The North Face, has this terrific saying: “Never Stop Exploring.” I love the spirit of exploration more than anything else. The challenge of running a marathon in every country of the world in the span of one year ignites my passion. I think the world could use something like this right now. There are so many things that divide us and tear us apart. Running unites people. Regardless of race, creed, religion or socioeconomic status, we can all run. It’s something we humans share together. There is power in focusing on what we have in common rather than on what separates us. That’s a major part of the reason I want to undertake this endeavor.

Courtesy of Dean Karnazes

WH: How do you battle through a dark moment in a race, or in a training run?

DK: I try to stay in the moment. I try to be present and to not get ahead of myself. Many times a low point comes as a result of suffering and thinking about how much more suffering is still ahead. I try to remain in the moment and just put one foot in front of the other to the best of my ability and not to think about anything else except for each individual forward stride.

WH: One night, while out drinking with friends on your thirtieth birthday, you had a “midlife crisis,” left the bar, and ran 30 miles on a whim despite the fact that you hadn’t run in years. What was going on in your life that led to the events of that fateful night?

DK: Boredom. I thought that if I went through college and then business school and was then able to land a cush corporate job, I would find happiness. Instead, I found drudgery. I didn’t like being in the corporate world. It just wasn’t me. So I ran away from it all (quite literally).

WH: How do your motivations today differ from your motivations when you got into ultrarunning in the mid-1990s?

DK: They’re the same, really. I’ve never been highly competitive with anyone but myself. Sure, I enjoy competition, but I don’t live for it. Too many of my friends that were zealous racers burned out on the sport. To me, I just love running. That might be at a race like the Badwater Ultramarathon, or it might be running across the country. The passion is there either way. All my trophies and medals are stashed away in boxes in my garage--they really don’t mean that much to me. I just love to run.

WH: I can certainly appreciate that! A lot of elite ultrarunners today feel they should be paid like professional athletes since they’re the fastest among us. Yet this has always been a sport in which even the best worked day jobs. For example, Tim Twietmeyer (one of my ultrarunning heroes) won Western States five times while holding down a full-time gig at Hewlett Packard and having family responsibilities. Do you think ultrarunning will—or should—get to a level where elites are well-paid?

DK: I think if people can make a living doing what they love to do, it’s a good thing. That said, one of the greatest elements of ultrarunning is that no matter where you cross that finish line, first or last, everyone gets the same belt buckle. There’s a sense of shared struggle, and that’s part of the magic of our sport. I’d hate to see prize money and big salaries change that dynamic.

WH: What is it about ultrarunning that fascinates people so much?

DK: Ultrarunning is a step into the unknown. It’s an exploration into the potential of self. There is a deep human yearning to be the best you that you can be. Ultrarunning is symbolic of testing how far one is capable of going.

WH: Do you ever miss your life before fame?

DK: Sometimes, but I can always go for a long run in the wilderness to regain my soul. I have been blessed by meeting some of the most inspiring people imaginable, and for that I will remain forever grateful. The modest fame I’ve achieved has been worth it because of the people I’ve met along the way.

WH: How do you want to be remembered?

DK: Wow, that’s a heavy question. I guess I’d like to be remembered as a simple guy who followed his own path and tried to always do his best. In the end, I’m just a runner. I’m no one special. I'm just a humble guy who loves life and loves to run.

WH: Dean, this has been an honor. Thank you for the opportunity to interview you. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors! Is there anything you’d like to add for our readers?

DK: The honor’s all mine. Thanks for having me. Maybe I’ll end with a quote from my first book, that seems fitting: “Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up!”

Best wishes to you and all who are reading this interview.


  1. LOL @ the 'toe jam' comment...

  2. Excellent interview, Wyatt. I've read all three of Dean's books and found them motivating (not motivating enough to run 100 miles, but I did complete my first marathon two weeks ago).

  3. Cool! Fun interview, and good questions.

    I'm surprised to hear that some took Dean's tone in Ultramarathon Man to be boastful, because I didn't get that at all. In fact, I had the opposite reaction. ?

    And it's a great book with general interest, not just for runners, which is probably why it sold so well.

    Whatever, I think you need to surround yourself with positive things in life, and just gradually weed out people and things that are negative. Keep an open mind, and you learn things.

  4. Great interview Wyatt. In 2006, after Dean did the 50/50 marathon tour, he decided to "run home" and ran back to SF from NYC. When he was coming through WV, I ran 20-miles with him in the rain with his dad crewing us. I was impressed by him -- not his athletic prowess, but by his normalcy. Yes, Dean is famous, but he's just like any other one of us runners (wife, kids, responsibility, etc). I found none of the qualities tossed around by his naysayer to be true. He's a good dude.

  5. I ran my first marathon because of Dean and his book (2006) and have run 39 marathons and ultramarathons since then. When I got to run with Dean in 2006 and got to talk to him, I also found him to be just a great person. When I went on to run my first ultramarathon, I dropped him an email and he responded right back.

  6. Great interview! I think Dean is the MAN. I've also read all his books. Ultramarathon Man gave some great motivation as I was training for my first.

  7. Thanks for the interview – well done. I always find Dean such an inspiration. His passion for running is infectious I particularly liked his phrase “an exploration into the potential of self.”

  8. Thanks so much for this Wyatt. Karno got me started in ultra racing and I think he deserves credit (not criticism) for what he has done for the sport and the cause of health. I think those that criticize him are just jealous that he gets to make a living doing what he loves.

    Great questions, great responses, and a great all around interview.


  9. Dean is a very inspiring individual, even to a humble, slow runner as myself. I have read a couple of his books and appreciate reading his experiences.