Behind Ultramarathon Man - Page 4
The Relay and Running for a Cause
I first heard of Dean Karnazes in October of 2000 while riding in a van packed with sweaty runners on a back road of Northern California’s wine country. Our van represented one of dozens of 12-person teams competing in The Relay, a 199-mile event to raise money for the cause of organ donation and transplants.
One of my teammates piped up, “There’s a guy doing the whole thing himself. He’s called Team Dean. Rumor has it he eats whole cheesecakes along the way.” 199 miles? It seemed unfathomable to me. But it was true. Dean Karnazes ran The Relay from Calistoga to Santa Cruz solo 10 times, starting in 1995 and most recently in 2009, refueling with unconventional food and drink purchased along the route: entire pumpkin pies, pizzas rolled up and held in his fist like a giant burrito and liters of Pedialyte.
He started running The Relay as redemption for DNF’ing at Badwater. Very few events longer than 100 miles existed back in the mid-1990s, he says, and, “I heard about this 200-mile relay race and thought, ‘Well, there’s a distance that’s farther.’ … ‘You gotta bounce back—you failed at 135.’”
In 2000, he dedicated his 199-mile effort to raising money and support for the family of a dying girl in need of a liver transplant. The story had a happy ending: She got the transplant and survived. Then the story repeated in the following several years: Dean dedicated the annual run to a hospitalized child, and that child miraculously got the transplant or treatment needed to recover. In 2003, he founded Karno Kids, a nonprofit foundation to support programs for youth health and fitness.
As he wrote in Ultramarathon Man, “That string of miraculous outcomes left me with an eerie sense of providence, as if it were somehow my calling to be involved. I’m not getting saccharine here, and believe me, I’d probably be running like a wildman no matter what, but thinking about my sister, and being able to help others, has given me a greater sense of purpose.”
Not content to keep running “just” the 199-mile relay solo, he started adding miles to the course, either before or after the finish line: a total of 262 miles in 2004, and then 350 miles in 2005, which raised thousands of dollars for a two-year-old girl in need of a heart transplant.
The Rise of “Ultramarathon Man”
Writing a book was on his “life list,” says Karnazes, something he wanted to do but didn’t expect to be of much consequence. As it turned out, the publication of Ultramarathon Man in 2005 fundamentally altered his life.
Photo by Corey Rich
The book shot up the bestseller list—it was the No. 7 sports book worldwide that year—and made Karnazes a star. Suddenly, he was everywhere—on numerous magazine covers and TV shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and Today. Readers ate up the book’s comic details, such as his account of cramping to near rigor mortis after a race and projectile vomiting all over the steering wheel of his Lexus. And they gained motivation from his retelling of the times he almost gave up but didn’t, such as when he staggered around Mile 80 during his first Western States due to night blindness and passed out on the trail.
But it’s more than athleticism and good storytelling that propelled Karnazes’ popularity and gave rise to the de facto “Ultramarathon Man” brand, which promotes everything from mattresses to elliptical bicycles. For that, credit is due to his well-honed business and marketing skills, relationships with sponsors and ability to connect with fans.
Before the book was published, Karnazes developed a close partnership with his primary sponsor, The North Face. He started out as a shoe tester in the late 1990s and signed a contract in 2002 as a sponsored athlete. During that period, he developed a company, Good Health Natural Products, where he was president until he left in 2008 to become a full-time runner, writer and motivational speaker.
As he was garnering media acclaim for his book, Karnazes and The North Face were busy planning Karnazes’ first mega-staged event, one that would have a far-reaching legacy: “The Endurance 50,” aka 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, which would kick off in September 2006.
A couple of months before Karnazes started the Endurance 50, he ran another Western States 100, won the Vermont 100 in 16:26 and completed another Badwater—all in a one-month period.
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.