The Man Behind Ultramarathon Man - Page 3
The First 30
Karnazes has traveled an incredibly long way—literally, in terms of miles run on all seven continents, and, metaphorically, in terms of his personal evolution—since a fateful night in 1992, when serendipitous circumstances turned him into an ultrarunner.
“What really got me going was bad tequila. I had a midlife crisis on my 30th birthday in a bar in San Francisco,” Karnazes explained to a crowd at a book signing a few months ago. In his memoir, he details how he got seriously loaded for the first time in years, and was hit on by an attractive woman. He loved Julie, whom he fell for back in high school—“not just some fleeting high-school infatuation, but genuine, head-over-heels love,” he wrote in Ultramarathon Man.
On the verge of being unfaithful and knowing he’d regret it, he made an excuse to use the restroom, escaped through a back door and made it home. He stood on his porch and just felt like running—something he hadn’t done since high school, when he ran track and cross country in his Southern California hometown of San Clemente. He found some tennis shoes, took off his pants and jogged south in his silk underwear.
On that nighttime run, he grieved the loss of his younger sister, Pary, who was killed in a car crash 10 years earlier on the eve of her 18th birthday, when Dean was an undergraduate at Cal Poly. Her death had devastated his close-knit, Greek family and prompted Dean to quit partying, earn an MBA and fast track a career in the marketing department of a health-care company.
He also faced the fact his job didn’t entirely satisfy him. “I had grown accustomed to the upscale lifestyle, the bonuses, the hefty options packages,” he wrote. “But I couldn’t ignore the nagging sense that something was missing. I needed a sense of purpose and clarity—and perhaps adventure.”
That night he ran 30 miles, ending up in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay. How could he run so far on untrained legs? “It’s amazing what you can do when you’re drunk,” he says. “I was intoxicated … and then I wasn’t, and then it started to hurt like hell. But I made it 30 miles and shocked myself.”
By the following year he had become an ultrarunning fanatic and entered his first 50-miler. When he heard about Western States, he told himself, “‘You gotta try to get yourself to that level.’ It wasn’t a desire to do well competitively. It was just, ‘Can you make it?’” He trained and, in 1994, finished Western States in 21:01.
The next year, he attempted Badwater and passed out at mile 72. “It was a complete devastation not to finish,” he says. He went back to complete it in 1996 and entered a period of participating in extreme sports, including mountain-bike and adventure races. He also kept windsurfing, a sport at which he competed at a pro level during and after college.
In that first decade as a serious athlete, though, he was like everyone else at the starting line, an unknown shoehorning his training in between managing a career and starting a family.