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Sarah Lavender Smith Tuesday, 24 April 2012 08:54 TWEET COMMENTS 2

Behind Ultramarathon Man - Page 7

Karnazes told me the project had a “very organic” genesis: “My family and I had grown closer through running, so I thought, wow, let’s adventure across this country and do something extraordinary.”

Recognizing the logistical challenges—staging marathons on weekdays on certified-distance courses, gaining permits and closing roads, getting the crew from one state to another in 24 hours, providing aid for Karnazes and the runners who ran with him—The North Face hired Hawkeye, a marketing and strategic-planning firm based in Dallas.

The Endurance 50 was a success, and Karnazes capped it off by running 3:00:30 at the New York City Marathon on his final day. Filmmaker JB Benna captured the journey in his film UltraMarathon Man, and Competitor magazine named Karnazes “Runner of the Year.” The project gave rise to the popular North Face Endurance Challenge Series the following year, which by 2011 had grown to two-day events in six cities, featuring distances from 5K to 50M mostly on trails and a $10,000 prize at its year-end championship, the most in U.S. trail running.

What barely made it in the mainstream press, though, was the fact that another ultrarunner—Sam Thompson, then 26, originally from Mississippi, now living in Seattle—was nearly finished with his own 50-50-50 run when Karnazes started The Endurance 50. Actually, Thompson ran 51 marathons in 50 days in all states, squeezing in an extra marathon in Washington D.C. He had embarked on the project to raise awareness for the Gulf Coast communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

I asked Thompson if he got the idea from Karnazes and if he timed his project to be the first. He said, no, that the concept occurred to him while he was running the Appalachian Trail, crossing states from Maine to Georgia, a couple of years prior. “I wasn’t aware of [Karnazes’] plan until I was a week or so into mine,” said Thompson. “I’m not one to say disparaging things. He did it his way, and I did it mine. I feel mine was a very pure way of doing it. … There’s a lot of confusion over who did it first, but at the end of the day, I don’t care.”

Says Karnazes, “I never said I was the first to do it, because I’m not. … There were never any hard feelings on my behalf and never any strategic positioning to try to outsmart his position.”  

Nonetheless, Thompson gained support and sympathy from ultrarunners who admired his low-key, low-budget approach in contrast to the hoopla surrounding Karnazes, and who were annoyed at the general misperception that Karnazes was the first and only runner to do 50-50-50. The impression that Karnazes didn’t do enough to credit Thompson for being the first kindled a backlash and tarnished his reputation among many observers.

“Dean, Dean the Media Machine”
According to longtime ultrarunner Rich Limacher, 61, of Matteson, Illinois, “I and others call him ‘Dean, Dean the Media Machine.’ … It’s when his marketing machine tries to trump everything truly great that the true champions have done, that’s when we who are serious about the sport’s integrity get our feathers all ruffled.”


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