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Dean Karnazes: the man who can run for ever (theguardian.com)
76 points by pg 1368 days ago | hide | past | web | 52 comments | favorite

"but in his entire life he has never experienced any form of muscle burn or cramp"

Having read his book "Ultramarathon man" recently. I grabbed it and here are some quotes:

"My legs throbbing and cramped" ... "Then without warning the quadriceps and calf muscles of both muscles seized in wicked cramps" ... "The cramps were still so severe that..."

I'm gonna stop there, but ctrl-f finds at least 10 more references.

Really shows how far these pseudo-journalists go for a story. The rest of the portrayal of him being some super human is also completely in opposition with his biography.

As is typical, he is portrayed as being a genetic freak, someone capable of things nobody else ever could aspire to.

It actually takes away from him. The reality is that many, many people WOULD be capable, if they displayed the level of dedication that he does.

Many, many people are and do it all the time right now, every day. There was a video where Scott Jurek talked candidly about Dean a while ago - it was great. The site took it down (or the site is down?) but in a nutshell, Jurek was very super critical of Dean because Dean for goes around like the ambassador and greatest ever athlete in ultrarunning when he's never been one of the top 10. Dean's a pretty great athlete - there's no question about that. But he's only a fraction of the god that he thinks he is or that the media empire he's built around himself makes him out to be.

(for background: Scott Jurek is definitely one of the top ultrarunners of the current generation)

"...when he's never been one of the top 10."

Not correct. He has won the Badwater 135 Mile and the Vermont 100 Mile ultras, and has come in fourth place in the Western States 100 Mile (iirc).

Jurek has a more impressive record than Karno as an ultra runner, and a history of being negative about not being as well known as Karno. Karno is a great runner who also wrote a great book and got a lot of people to read it and has a history of being positive and encouraging about everyone running.

Edited to add references:

First place at Badwater 135 Mile, 2004: http://www.badwater.com/results/index.html

First place at Vermont 100 Mile, 2006: http://vermont100.com/html/2006_results.html

Fourth place at Western States 100 Mile, 2003: http://www.wser.org/results/2003-results/

Athletes are generally not ranked on the performance in individual events. Aka after wimbledon the #1 men's tennis player is rarely the guy that just won. Simply because individual events are to random and often based around who shows up, what the weather was like etc.

PS: http://xkcd.com/852/

Dean has a background in marketing - and has been a very good self-promoter.

His athletic accomplishments are pretty awesome but you're right - Jurek and others make up the elite of the sport.

Yes, I'm a big fan of Jurek. He is featured very prominently in the book "Born To Run".

Then you should definitely check out his book "Eat and Run". http://www.amazon.com/Eat-Run-Unlikely-Ultramarathon-Greatne...

There are some people who are genetic freaks though. Could you ever hope to spontaneously come up with brilliant mathematical theorems like Ramanujan did?

Yeah, his quote is "at a certain level of intensity," but the author interprets it as "It is your body's way of telling you when to stop – but Karnazes never receives such signals." D'oh.

Right. Also, what happens when he sprints, or can he only run at a single speed?

There are lots of people who can do what he does; I'm curious how and/or why he gets this kind of press or seems to be the more mainstream example.

Ray Zahab [1], Lizzy Hawker [2], Kilian Jornet, Anton Krupicka and countless other well known (in running circles) and lesser known people (your neighbor) have run just as long or longer and often faster...

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Zahab

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10087146/Lizzy-...

In the wired article he gives some advice:

"10. PROMOTE THE HELL OUT OF YOURSELF 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."

- http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.01/ultraman.html

Its interesting that he is sponsored by tNF, but doesn't seem to run their prime Ultra races, UTMF, UTMB... Perhaps he does San Fran?

> I'm curious how and/or why he gets this kind of press

Because he tries for it. Some people (most of us like/love him) in the ultra community curse him for this, but this has enabled him to go on all sorts of adventures & inspire others to run. Not a bad thing.

A 'Matthew Effect' in media attention.


He markets himself very aggressively, which I think is pretty good.

Last year he did the run across America with Regis and whoever he is with now. He has written a few books and is always at ultraraces...he was the starter for the most recent Ultramarahon that I did.

Agree. Kilian Jornet is the most impressive runner imho (Kilimandjaro record, Mont-Blanc ...). But Karnazes clever use of storytelling makes him an attractive subject for the media.

I've done a few long endurance events, though never at elite level. That article left me confused.

Aren't most people doing ultra endurance sports performing well below their lactate threshold? As such, its not our lactate threshold that tends to stop us 'going forever'. Once our LT is above a certain point, our limiting factor will something else, such as muscle endurance.

If his unique feature is that he doesn't have a lactate threshold, wouldn't that mean he'd be an ideal sprinter, or middle distance, because he'd be able to go all-out without cramping, rather than an ideal endurance athlete?

I think that is nonsense because everyone has a Lactate Threshold. His may just be at a faster pace then most ultra runners.

Regarding your last comment: Anything under approximately 10 mile race pace is under your lactate threshold pace (LT). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactate_threshold

LT pace means you are in a steady state. The lactate your are creating is being eliminated at the same rate. The further beneath that pace you go the shorter you will be able to maintain it. I would describe going well under LT pace as a feeling of "heaviness" in your legs as lactic acid builds up in your blood stream.

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprint_(running) Human physiology dictates that a runner's near-top speed cannot be maintained for more than 30–35 seconds due to the accumulation of lactic acid in muscles.[4]

The article's description of lacate threshold ("[the point where] your body is no longer able to convert the lactate as rapidly as it is being produced") would be the one I'd use but it doesn't square with the test, which appears to be measuring the point where he begins to rely on the anerobic system. It makes sense that they would want to test for that, since Karnazes isn't particularly fast, but he can run quite a long time, so testing where his anerobic system begins would be more interesting. If they'd wanted to find the point where Karnazes' body could no longer clear the lactate it was producing, they'd be able to find it.

They mention testing his aerobic capacity, but I think they are referring to his maximal aerobic capacity (VO2-max).

>> If his unique feature is that he doesn't have a lactate threshold, wouldn't that mean he'd be an ideal sprinter

They never said he was fast

If you can sprint slowly for 1600m, you will do pretty well.

"sprint slowly"

I must not understand what sprinting is.

No. You will lose the 100m, 200m and 400m events, and then you will keep running for another 1000m+ for no reason.

Reading about ultrarunners is quite fascinating. The angle of the story which is that Dean Karnazes has some kind of magical DNA which lets him do these things effortlessly definitely seems like a misrepresentation.

These guys are amazing athletes but they experience fear and doubt just like everyone else, and don't run these distances effortlessly. Imagine the discipline required to push yourself to your limits for hours or days at a time.

That it is such a taxing endeavor both physically and mentally is what makes it all the more incredible. One of my favorite stories about ultrarunners is the time Scott Jurek ran the Badwater Ultramarathon for the first time.

There were a bunch of reasons it was objectively a terrible idea. Half way through he collapsed vomited and seriously considered giving up. He managed to keep going though and made up a ton of time in the second half of the race and ended up winning and set a course record despite being behind at the half way point: http://www.seattlepi.com/sports/article/Seattle-man-amazes-e...

You reminded me of Cliff Young [0] who won an ultramarathon (544 miles) at the age of 61 in 1983 by not sleeping... it's a tortoise vs hare story tale come true.

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_Young_(athlete)

While cool, the article left me wanting more science. It suggests that a highly alkaline diet might be related to his performance?! Low body fat? A significant difference in gene expression due to childhood activity?

All of those are topics that I'd love to read about, but the article is very light on details.

The article sent me searching for real science. He's a phenom but if he doesn't get tired why isn't he an Olympian?

Because he's 51?

How about in his 30s then?

That article is one big landmine for people without the scientific background.

Genetics can give you the propensity for a natural advantage but you express your genes differently depending on your environment and your lifestyle.

Years of training will improve both your enzymes and mitochondria

I also thought the lactate buildup comes from anaerobic exercise, which is not what any long-range runner relies on anyway.

(I wonder how you replenish electrolytes, not to mention energy storage, on a multi-day run without eventually getting stomach cramps and other GI issues? From the picture, he already has very little body fat)

> That article is one big landmine for people without the scientific background.

I would have said quagmire, but yes.

My takeaway from the article is I need to research more about mitochondrial health, which has long been suspected to be a key attribute of great athletes.

I love this guy. I can't vouch for his moral character, but I do know that reading his book launched me into a running frenzy that changed my life. I've been running 2-3x/week since, and don't plan on stopping.

You see a lot of articles with Dean in them that make him out to be some sort of human anomaly. In all fairness, he's had some great achievements, but he's far from an elite ultramarathoner. Most people can run the distances that he does with the right training. If there was a real "ultramarathon man" it's probably Yiannis Kouros. He holds almost every record over 24 hours. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiannis_Kouros

"I've run through three nights without sleep and the third night of sleepless running was a bit psychotic. I actually experienced bouts of 'sleep running', where I was falling asleep while in motion, and I just willed myself to keep going."

That sounds quite dangerous. Not only mentally, but I'd be concerned of a sudden lapse of physical control and smashing my skull onto the pavement. Then again, I'd never have to worry about that because I don't have that level of extreme determination. Very impressive.

I've experienced sleep running while in the military during training exercises. In one they kept us going for a week on minimal sleep (four hours of "rest" out of every twenty-four). On day four I fell asleep while running in formation at night and woke up 5 or so hours later as I was being roused for my guard rotation.

My "battle buddy" said I didn't behave any differently than usual, just quiet. All told, I blacked out for about a half-hour. My experience wasn't uncommon, I'd say about 10% of us experienced something similar during that particular exercise. The human body is an amazing machine.

Yes, its dangerous. I once did a 400+k bike ride, and after ~350k (18 hours after starting) I fell asleep for just a couple of seconds. Waking up halfway across the road (middle of the night - no traffic) was quite the eye opener. Had I leaned the other way I would have ended up in the ditch.. I was very alert for the remaining few hours, and never felt the need to do another such ride.

Of course, running has less risks than biking. But still, falling while running could have real bad consequences.

Odd things can happen if you drive your brain out of gamut, but I'm not very worried about that. The motor parts of the brain don't seem to do 'sleep', so much; they get disconnected using a master switch, but not immediately, so your falling reflexes should stick around.

I'm one of the few that REALLY liked the movie Unbreakable.

This guy reminds me of that movie.

And if so, then I am his Mr. Glass. I pretty much hit my threshold for running when I finish tying my running shoes' laces.

Reminds me a bit of Diane Van Deren, who became an ultra-runner after having brain surgery that disrupted her ability to judge the passing of time: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2011/apr/05/in-r...

>Next, they performed a lactate threshold test. They said the test would take 15 minutes, tops. Finally, after an hour, they stopped the test. They said they'd never seen anything like this before."

I'm not a biologist, but that seems like a bad reason to stop. He cleared an hour on the test. Why not maintain the test for several hours? Four times the theoretical maximum is not "forever"...

This article seems highly sensational. I'd like to see more science behind this.

Fascinating story. Of course the Wired version of the story is a little more sensational. There he does the 30 miles for his 30th birthday drunk in his skivvies.


Karno's first book changed my life. After reading the first couple chapters, I had to put it down to go outside and go running that minute. I was soon doing marathons and ultramarathons, and I am still setting new personal records. To put his book into three words: determination equals fun.

My favourite ultrarunner is Yiannis Kouros. Look him up. He uses Greek epics to motivate him when he's running. His attitude boils down to: mind over matter. No genetic freak or such bullshit. Willpower and love.

Could he do something like 20,000 pushups in a row as well?

This guy is a candidate for Stan Lee's Superhumans. That's an honest-to-goodness mutant power right there.

EDIT: I see he's already been on that show.

Shouldn't it be forever and not for ever?

"for ever" is consistent with British English usage. It's a UK site.

Edited to add: Sure it's on the "US" section of the Guardian but they don't appear to change any other spellings to match US English.

What the urss failed to accomplish with highly studied hormones and drugs, California managed by accident with all the pollution in the air and water

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