Behind Ultramarathon Man
How Dean Karnazes became the biggest celebrity in ultrarunning, and where he's running next
Photo by Corey Rich
Dean Karnazes does not sit still. America’s most famous ultrarunner ran up to meet me in a park near his home in Ross, a quaint and affluent town north of San Francisco, and politely declined to sit at my side on a bench.
“That’s OK, I’m good,” he said with a big grin that cut across his long, square-jawed face. Then he started doing squats and calf stretches.
His smile revealed tiny, barely visible white hooks on a couple of teeth, which are part of his concealed orthodontia, odd for someone his age—he turned 49 last August. His wife, Julie, a dentist, installed them after his 75-day, nearly 3000-mile run from Los Angeles to New York dubbed the “Run Across America,” that he completed last spring.
Long stretches of his 40- to 50-mile daily runs were along a narrow highway shoulder with big rigs repeatedly zooming by and honking. “I was clenching my teeth and literally made them crooked, and my jaw started hurting,” he explained.
Karnazes wore running shorts, a singlet emblazoned with his main sponsor, The North Face, and a backpack to carry stuff, since he literally runs errands around town. The stretching movements on his 5'9" frame made his veins pop and muscles flex in heightened definition under his tan, taut and seemingly hairless skin.
Our plan was to do an interview while running up some fire trails on the east side of Mount Tamalpais. He said he didn’t mind holding my voice recorder while we ran because he is accustomed to dictating into a recorder during long runs. That’s how he produced the first drafts of his 2005 blockbuster memoir—Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner—and his two follow-ups: 2008’s 50/50, about lessons learned while running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days; and his 2011 release, Run! 26.2 Stories of Blister and Bliss, a collection of humorous and reflective short stories that explore his relationship to running and to the people close to him.
It’s hard not to feel intimidated by the prospect of running with Dean Karnazes. The New York Times wrote that running with him is “like setting up one’s easel next to Monet or Picasso.” This is a guy who has over 66,000 Facebook fans, who in 2007 made Time magazine’s list of “Top 100 Most Influential People” and who once stayed awake for three days to run 350 miles nonstop. A guy whose next big project is to run a marathon in all 204 countries around the world in a year.
But Karnazes set a comfortable, conversational pace, and his form looked relaxed and balanced as we ran up a sidewalk in the leafy neighborhood. In fact, his whole persona seemed easygoing and regular—not exactly ordinary, because most runners aren’t so fit and photogenic, but not particularly special, either.