Dean Karnazes’ Run Across America

Dean Karnazes is expected to go farther than he ever has before. At the end of last month, he set off on a nearly 3,000-mile run across the United States, starting at Disneyland in Anaheim and looking to finish in New York in about 75 days.

On Friday, he’d put in 266 miles and was running through Arizona:

The plan is to do 40 to 50 miles a day, throw in about a dozen 5K races along the way so others can run with him, and also present motivational talks to help inspire sedentary children to get moving. “LIVE! with Regis and Kelly” is following his progress and helping to promote the cause, Action for Healthy Kids.

Now, before some folks get their running shorts all in a bunch, let me say that I’m aware of the criticisms of Dean Karnazes as a tireless self-promoter.

True, he has a history of making the absolute most of his accomplishments. I gave him a hard time about this, myself, after he came out with his first book, Ultramarathon Man. My beef? I objected to the title. “Ultramarathon Man” was an honorific previously put to Yiannis Kouros, who was then and still remains the most accomplished ultrarunner alive. (I’ll defend this fact to anyone who wants to get into a debate about it. If you’re unconvinced, just take a look at his stats and we can avoid a tussle.) At any rate, henceforth, Dean Karnazes will be known as the Ultramarathon Man, owing mostly to impressive marketing.

His p.r. people also made much of his 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. With all the hoopla, some of the public came to think it was an unprecedented feat. It wasn’t. Sam Thompson had done it before to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And let me make the math plain: that’s 26.2 miles day, for a total of 1,310 miles. Nice work, but there are plenty of other runners out there going more impressive distances, and they’re raising money for great causes, too. So Dean isn’t the ultimate ultrarunner, or even the greatest fundraiser of the bunch. But he was the first to really break out.

I used to think that Dean Karnazes’s hype undercut his integrity as an athlete and sullied the sport, but nowadays, I take a less self-righteous view. This is due, in part, to having had a chance to talk with Dean about the marketing machine, understand how little control he has over what gets printed about him, and sympathize with (envy) how he manages to get his books noticed and what he’s able to do for his sponsors and causes.

Makes me wonder how much of the grumbling is just sour grapes.

Truth is that I’m getting slammed, too, by a few people who think that writing and promoting a book of my own—as well as seeking Dean’s endorsement for the back cover—puts me in the same class of commercial athlete, and I’ve hardly even gotten started yet. My take right now: If I’m half as successful as Dean Karnazes at getting my book into the hands of readers, I’ll be incredibly grateful. And if we can use these books and appearances and whatnot as a way to be ambassadors for our sport, to elevate it, so much the better. I’ll do my best to bring some dignity to the task. As Dean mentioned to me in an email the other day, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

So enough about that.

Will Dean Karnazes finish or flame out?

This ain’t no Sunday picnic. It’s more than twice the mileage Dean Karnazes did with his 50/50/50 and 50 percent more days running. He’s doing something fewer than 150 others have done. I reviewed the statistics on John Wallace III’s site (where you can also see who else is currently running or walking across the country, and there are many), which shows that, among runners who’ve completed a trans-American crossing, there are

  • 144 people who’ve averaged 40 to 50 miles a day,
  • 6 of us who’ve done between 50 and 60 (I’m at the top of that group), and
  • 3 who’ve averaged 60 to 66 miles a day.

So I wish him courteous traffic, soft surfaces to run on, pleasant weather, and plenty of sleep, all of which eluded me most of the time during my transcon in 2008. He does already have a lot going for him, which may propel him to a respectable finish:

  • He’s not injury prone (in fact, he’s never had a serious injury).
  • He has a good support group.
  • He’s young yet. In my estimation, at 48 years old, he’s hanging out in the higher altitudes of the aging hill. My peak was between 40 and 44; by 46 I was starting to feel some changes. By 50, I was perceptably aging, taking longer to recover and starting to slow down. Bottom line: it’s good that he’s doing it right now.
  • His mileage is reasonable. Yes, the average person would have a hard time doing 40 miles a day, but most experienced athletes agree that solid runners can pull this off without a lot of trouble. Once you get to 50 or more miles a day, you weed out the men from the boys. If you get to 60 miles (100 km) you jump up to world-class, and there are just a handful of people who can do this.
  • He has valid experience. He’s won the Badwater 135 and placed well at the Western States 100. The mental and physical toughness he’s demonstrated will serve him well.

As I write this, I’m thinking about what state Dean’s in, both physically and mentally. After a week of over-40-mile days, he’s getting to the point where he’s feeling the yuck of it. The first few days are fine, but then you experience the cumulative effects, get the inkling that you’re screwing yourself into the ground. For at least the next week, Dean Karnazes will be feeling the hurt as his body adjusts to the reality of what he’s asking it to do.

The secret to surviving this is rest. If I got less than 4 hours a night when I was running across the U.S., it was problematic: I got delirious, slowed down, broke down. As long as Dean can maintain a regular sleep schedule and get what he needs (which may be more or less than I did), then he’ll be able to continue. Not only does he need the time off his feet, but he also needs to close his eyes and shut down, not just for physical recovery but for the mental break, too.

That’s because his mind is adjusting to this new normal, as well. I can remember thinking, Okay, this is my life now. That thought would have eaten me alive if I had fought it, so I just tried to settle down and accept it. No doubt Dean is experiencing much the same thing.

I found that the first 1,000 miles were all about adjustment, with my mind wrestling to accept my fate, and my body morphing into a running machine. The second thousand miles were all about settling in, but then the next hurdle was at the 2,000-miles mark, when I realized I had another effing thousand miles to go. Getting to the finish is almost entirely mental after that point, barring serious injury.

Ultimately, what will determine if Dean is successful is whether he’s able to offset the inevitable tightening of his muscles and the soft tissue injuries and potential stress fractures caused by pounding the pavement for such a long distance. Physical therapy will be key, so I hope he’s got professionals with him who know what they’re doing.

No doubt: this experience will prove Dean Karnazes out. If he’s successful in reaching the finish, then I’ll be first in line to say he’s lived up to the title of his book.

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