Friday, December 21, 2007

The Perfect Human

The Perfect Human
Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 days. He does 200 miles just for
fun. He'll race in 120-degree heat. 12 secrets to his success.
By Joshua DavisPage 1 of 2 next »

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started with beer and moved on to tequila shots at a bar near his home
in San Francisco. Now, after midnight, an attractive young woman – not
his wife – was hitting on him. This was not the life he'd imagined for
himself. He was a corporate hack desperately running the rat race. The
company had just bought him a new Lexus. He wanted to vomit. Karnazes
resisted the urge and, instead, slipped out the bar's back door and
walked the few blocks to his house. On the back porch, he found an old
pair of sneakers. He stripped down to his T-shirt and underwear, laced
up the shoes, and started running. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

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He sobered up in Daly City, about 15 miles south. It was nearly four
in the morning. The air was cool, slightly damp from the fog, and
Karnazes was in a residential neighborhood, burping tequila, with no
pants on. He felt ridiculous, but it brought a smile to his face. He
hadn't had this much fun in a long time. So he decided to keep running.

When the sun came up, Karnazes was trotting south along Route 1,
heading toward Santa Cruz. He had covered 30 miles. In the process,
he'd had a blinding realization: There were untapped reservoirs within
him. It was like a religious conversion. He had been born again as a
long-distance runner. More than anything else now, he wanted to find
out how far he could go. But at that exact moment, what he really
needed to do was stop. He called his wife from a pay phone, and an
hour later she found him in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. He passed
out in the car on the way home.

That was August 1992. Over the next 14 years, Karnazes challenged
almost every known endurance running limit. He covered 350 miles
without sleeping. (It took more than three days.) He ran the first and
only marathon to the South Pole (finishing second), and a few months
ago, at age 44, he completed 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days, one
in each of the 50 states. (The last one was in New York City. After
that, he decided to run home to San Francisco.) Karnazes'
transformation from a tequila-sodden party animal into an
international symbol of human achievement is as educational as it is
inspirational. Here's his advice for pushing athletic performance from
the unthinkable to the untouchable.

Finding the right challenge is the first challenge. "Any goal worth
achieving involves an element of risk," Karnazes says in his
autobiography, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
Risk, yes, and creativity too. For instance, looking for the ultimate
endurance running challenge, in 1995 Karnazes entered a 199-mile relay
race – by himself. He competed against eight teams of 12 and finished

One of the biggest annoyances in long-distance running is lace
management. After banging out 50 miles, it can be hard to squat or
even bend over long enough to tie your shoes. The North Face recently
responded to Karnazes' complaints and came out with the $130 M Endurus
XCR Boa. Its laceless upper is enmeshed in thin steel cables that
connect to a tension dial at the back. A simple turn cinches the shoe
onto the foot. No more slowing down to fiddle with laces.

In 1995, Karnazes ran his first Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile
trek that starts in Death Valley, California, in the middle of summer
and finishes at the Mt. Whitney Portals, 8,360 feet above sea level.
After running 72 miles in 120-degree heat, Karnazes collapsed on the
side of the road suffering from hallucinations, diarrhea, and nausea.
He had pushed himself to the point of death to find out whether he was
strong enough to survive. He was. Though he didn't finish the race
that year, Karnazes came back the next and placed 10th. He won it on
his fifth attempt, in 2004. "Somewhere along the line, we seem to have
confused comfort with happiness," he says.

You wouldn't believe the stuff Karnazes consumes on a run. He carries
a cell phone and regularly orders an extra-large Hawaiian pizza. The
delivery car waits for him at an intersection, and when he gets there
he grabs the pie and rams the whole thing down his gullet on the go.
The trick: Roll it up for easy scarfing. He'll chase the pizza with
cheesecake, cinnamon buns, chocolate éclairs, and all-natural cookies.
The high-fat pig-out fuels Karnazes' long jaunts, which can burn more
than 9,000 calories a day. What he needs is massive amounts of energy,
and fat contains roughly twice as many calories per gram as
carbohydrates. Hence, pizza and éclairs. When he's not in the midst of
some record-breaking exploit, Karnazes maintains a monkish diet,
eating grilled salmon five nights a week. He strictly avoids processed
sugars and fried foods – no cookies or doughnuts. He even tries to
steer clear of too much fruit because it contains a lot of sugar. He
believes this approach – which nutritionists call a slow-carb diet –
has reshaped him, lowering his body fat and building lean muscle. It
also makes him look forward to running a race, because he can eat
whatever he wants.

Karnazes has a wife and two kids, and he worked a 9-to-5 job for the
first eight years of his quest to transcend his own limits. Finding
four hours for a 30-mile run during the day was next to impossible.
The solution: sleep less. "Forgoing sleep is the only way I've figured
out how to fit it all in," he says, noting that running in the dark
can be soothing. Plus, there's less traffic to contend with. He now
gets about four hours of shut-eye a night. Before he started running,
however, he was just a regular guy who got a regular eight. As he
started to run more, he found that he could sleep less. The National
Sleep Foundation reports that exercise does lead to more restful
sleep, and Karnazes takes this idea to the extreme. "The human body,"
he says, "is capable of extraordinary feats."

"The human body has limitations," Karnazes says. "The human spirit is
boundless." Your mind, in other words, is your most important muscle.
As a running buddy told him: "Life is not a journey to the grave with
the intention to arrive safely in a pretty and well-preserved body,
but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out,
and loudly proclaiming: Wow!! What a ride!"

Karnazes wears a souped-up Timex that monitors his speed, distance,
calories burned, and elevation, all of which is critical for deciding
when to order the next pizza while in the midst of a 200-mile trek.
Besides letting him order a pie on the run, his cell phone uses
specialized GPS software to broadcast his location to the Internet for
all to see. It's fun to follow his icon rolling across the digital
landscape, but it's also useful when Karnazes disappears into the
night. If he ever pushes himself too hard and collapses, his people
can locate him. And fans would know something was wrong if his signal
landed on top of a hospital icon.

Story Tools

Story Images
Click thumbnails for full-size image:

Rants + Raves
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Fetish: Technolust.
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If something goes wrong – and it inevitably will – it's usually with
Karnazes' feet. In races and on training runs, he has battled giant,
foot-devouring blisters. A surprisingly effective treatment: Krazy
Glue. Pop the blister, slather the wound with the super-adhesive, and
voilà – your foot is ready to take a beating again. The glue acts as a
kind of indestructible second skin and has helped Karnazes finish
competitions he wouldn't have otherwise. (Officially, Krazy Glue
recommends avoiding all contact with skin.)

If you're going to explore the boundaries of human endurance, you'll
have to learn to adapt to more and more pain. To prepare for the
searing heat of the Badwater race, Karnazes went on 30-mile jogs
wearing a ski parka over a wool sweater. He trained himself to urinate
while running. He got so he could go out and run a marathon on any
given day – no mileage buildup or tapering required. This training
made the extreme seem ordinary and made the impossible seem the next
logical step. Eventually, when he grew accustomed to the pain, it
stopped hurting. "There is magic in misery," he says.

Before he became Superman, Karnazes was the Clark Kent of the PR
world: a humdrum marketing executive at a pharmaceutical company. But
in the past three years, he's published a memoir, nabbed a sponsorship
from the North Face, appeared on Late Show With David Letterman, and
gotten himself on the cover of a handful of magazines. The book and
the North Face contract generate enough money to support his family,
and the high profile translates into maximum motivation: Failure is
scarier when the family income is on the line.

Fifty-six miles into his first Western States Endurance Run – one of
the oldest 100-mile races in the country – Karnazes found himself
alone entering a canyon at twilight. It was tough going – the trek
boasts a total elevation change of 38,000 feet. With 44 miles to go,
his spirit was flagging, but he found a way to make it seem
conquerable: He remembered the next checkpoint would leave only a
marathon and two 10Ks left to go. He knew he could run each leg, and
that helped him achieve the whole.

Forget tequila. Karnazes has given up hard drinking. His big vice
these days: chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Contributing editor Joshua Davis (jd@...) wrote about
Lonelygirl15 in issue 14.12.

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