Australia

We learn who we are by moving our bodies, says ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes

Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes is used to running eight or nine hours alone with just his thoughts in nature — but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he felt lonely.

For the original “Ultramarathon Man”, known for running 50 marathons in 50 US states in 50 days, the feeling came as a shock.

“I’d never in my whole life been lonely. I’m a strong introvert,” Karnazes tells ABC RN’s Sporty.

But when the opportunity to run with others was taken away, he longed for it. Long-laid plans were put on ice. Races were cancelled.

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Undeterred and always looking for the next challenge, Karnazes laced up his shoes, packed supplies and ran the picturesque route of the cancelled Miwok 100K trail race through California alone.

“It was a somewhat of a haunting experience,” he says.

Usually, there’d be aid stations along the route, with volunteers cheering and helping refill his pack with food and drink. But not this time.

“All I saw were ghosts when I got to those spots.”

The 58-year-old admits it wasn’t his fastest time and there were “some tears along the way”, but he “got the job done”.

“I always preach to people, if you are in an emotionally bad place, a run can lift your spirits. I mean motion stirs emotion.

“So ironically, I’m kind of drinking my own medicine. I’m using running as therapy to get through the pandemic.”

Getting to know yourself

In a typical week, the Californian, who has been named both one of the most influential and fittest people in the world by Time magazine and Men’s Fitness respectively, clocks up between 112 and 193 kilometres.

“Running is such a simple act but it’s profound,” he says. “I think that running adds tremendous value to your life because it teaches you so many important lessons.”

The endurance veteran believes we learn who we are through moving our bodies.

Karnazes has raced on all seven continents not once, but twice.(

Supplied: Allen & Unwin

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He didn’t always think that. 

As a teen in 1986, he watched his father Nick run Los Angeles’ first marathon and thought he looked like “a mess” afterwards. He remembers wondering, “Why would anyone want to put themselves through something like that?” 

He quickly reassessed his position as he watched his father change after the race.

“I was amazed at it because I thought this is something that almost broke the man, but he somehow made it and when he came out the other side, he was like an improved version of himself.”

Stepping it up

Karnazes completed his first ultramarathon in 1993 and has gone onto achieve some staggering milestones since then.

Known for pushing his body to its limits, he’s run 563.2 continuous kilometres in 80 hours and 44 hours without stopping for sleep, won countless races including the 217 kilometre Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley during summer’s searing heat, and raced on all seven continents not once but twice.

He is also credited with popularising the sport after writing Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner in 2005.

He notes the sport has become “more sophisticated” with “more professional” athletes, and while he is a little slower these days, he still enjoys the great outdoors.

Dean Karnazes stands in front of a wall of his medals.
In a sport where prizes are usually a belt buckle, Dean Karnazes has found a way to make a living.(

Supplied: Allen & Unwin

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“I’ve now run over 300 marathons, and these are a format that probably a lot of [people] can relate to. It’s on a road typically in a city like New York or Boston but the magic is nature.

“I think that running on a trail through the wilderness for 160 kilometres is such a transformative experience. It’s less about racing and it’s more about the experience.”

That experience includes witnessing the full 24-hour cycle of the earth — sunrise, the midday sun, sunset, the moon rising and first light again the next day — as he runs through the night.

During competitive races, sometimes the nearest runner can be within sight or hours away.

“[Ultra marathon running is] still very much a grassroots event. When you compare an ultramarathon to a marathon or half marathon or a 5K, it’s only 1 or 2 per cent of the overall runners that ever attempt an ultramarathon.”

Those who win ultramarathons typically receive a belt buckle as a prize. So Karnazes has instead made a living by writing books on the sport, including his latest A Runner’s High, and giving corporate keynote speeches.

“You’re not going to put food on the table and feed the kids with lots of belt buckles. I kind of approached it from a business sensibility and said, ‘how are you going to pay the bills?’ … Two-and-a-half decades later, I’m still living the best life ever.”

Older and wiser — and still running

Karnazes will hit the road on Saturday as part of the US four-person relay team running from Broken Hill to Bryon Bay in the 1,000 Miles to Light. The race aims to raise awareness and funds for youth mental health support organisation, ReachOut Australia.

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The 1,609.3 kilometre relay, dreamed up by long-distance runner Pat Farmer, will see an Australian team and an American team tackle the route in 5 kilometre stretches over 10 days.

Karnazes plans to start his run slowly and wait for his body to adjust after a “horribly disruptive” two-week stint in hotel quarantine.

“Not only was it difficult to keep moving in a small hotel room, the food was not my normal athlete diet. It was far from my ideal prior to a big event, but such are the times we’re living in,” he says.

“It’s hard to anticipate what to expect, but ultramarathoning teaches you to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. I’ll just take things one day at a time and be the best that I can be in the moment.”

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