Drafting Dean: Interview Outtakes

To interview ultrarunner Dean Karnazes for our January cover story, “This Life Goes to 11,” managing editor Katie Arnold joined him for a “short run.” Four hours later, she’d completed her first marathon. Here, read extended excerpts from their conversation.

Dean Karnazes    

Dean Karnazes

Dean Karnazes

ON CHANGING YOUR LIFE

Outside: I know you just ran a marathon and want to get back to the bus to relax, so I'll jump right in. The theme of our story is how to take your life from a seven to a ten. How did you decide to do that for yourself? Karnazes: I made the commitment to turn my passion into my vocation. I'd always thought if I start making my life what I love, I might hate it. I might not enjoy it as much for some reason. I think that was an excuse more than anything else, because now that I've decided to do exactly what I love to do, it's been the most rewarding, fulfilling experience of my life.

I thought "I love to run, I love endurance, I love nothing more than to run through the mountains for 100 miles. How can you make a living doing that? And even if you could, you'd probably end of hating it because it would become your work." But it hasn't happened that way at all.

When did that moment come for you, when you decided to take it up a level?I didn't really have a five-year plan. I had a dream. So what I kind of did was just say: "If I could script my perfect life, what would it look like?"

It would be spending a lot of time with my family and my kids, doing what I love, which is exploring the limits of human endurance, pushing the envelope and being in the shape of my life, and dedicating myself wholeheartedly to my craft.

How was I going to make a living doing that? [laughs] I had no idea, no idea at all. The thing that inspired me the most was when my book was published. I'd always wanted to write a book. It was on my life to-do list. I thought "ok, it's not a very good book and if I can convince ten of my buddies to buy this book, I'll be lucky." All of a sudden it was on the New York Times list and a national bestseller, and I'm getting hundreds of emails saying "this is just incredible what you do." I thought, "I owe it to myself and to the people that have supported me to take it to the next level, to move that seven to a ten."

Where on that number scale are you now?Fifteen. I'm living a dream. And I've never lost sight of that.

ON THE ENDURANCE 50

Is there a morning of this Endurance 50 run when you wake up and just don't feel like running?There's not a moment I can really make myself go to sleep because I'm having such a ball. I can't sleep at night. I don't want to sleep. I just want this to keep going. It's so good.

Any doubts about getting to the 50th marathon in New York?I'm living in the moment. Every morning I'm waking up and putting one foot in front of the other. So far it feels good. Maybe I'll get to 45 and it'll hurt so bad I can't move, but so far, I'm encouraged by what I've seen. And I'm gonna try my hardest tomorrow again. You can't be afraid to fail, and that's hard, but unless you fail, you never push hard enough, so I think if you look at successful people, and happy people, they fail a lot because they're constantly trying to go further and expand.

Has this been harder or easier than your past efforts?From a physical standpoint, it's still a little bit—I shouldn't say this—but it's still a little bit easier. But the demanding thing is everything layered on top of it. I'm loitering around at the finish for hours, talking to people and signing things, and for me that's as difficult as running a marathon in a lot of ways.

You're making it real to the people who are running with you. You know, all along, I didn't want this to be about me. I wanted it to be about uniting people and inclusion. It's about inspiring people to see how hard they can push themselves, and how to do their best.

ON APPLYING HIS PHILOSOPHY TO ANYONE'S LIFE

How does someone take your model and apply it to their own life?If you're a basket weaver, that's fine. Be the best darn basket weaver there is. Throw yourself wholeheartedly at your craft. Immerse yourself in what you love, and you'll find fulfillment. We all have different passions. Running isn't everyone's bag.

Does it have to be painful to be fulfilling? Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we'd be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we're so comfortable we're miserable. There's no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I've found is that I'm never more alive than when I'm pushing and I'm in pain, and I'm struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there's a magic.

So would you recommend ultrarunning to a normal person? I think ultrarunning is symbolic of life in so many ways. You realize that nothing comes easy, the things that are free in life are really not that rewarding. Things that you really dedicate and train for have the greatest reward, and I think that ultrarunning teaches you that. Running 100 miles is a huge commitment. There's no way to fake your way through a 100-mile run. You have to pay your dues. You have to commit, and when you see these people cross the line, it's a huge achievement in their lives.

ON KICKING BACK

What do you do when you really want to indulge? If suffering is your high, do you ever just relax or spoil yourself? Indulging to me is going for an all-night run. I don't even have a desire to pig out on bad food because I just know it makes me feel so bad. When I'm racing, I need calories. If you eat natural organic food with all the fiber and bulk, you fill up before you get enough calories. So when you're on these long runs, you need processed refined foods. The last run I did I burned 40,000 calories when I ran 350 miles.

Any guilty pleasures? Things that actually feel good?I used to love to go windsurfing all day, to mountain-bike, to surf. And I felt guilty because my kids are at home and I should be with my family. So now I run 20 miles in the am, come home, fix breakfast, take them to school, go windsurfing, go surfing. It's my life. I pick them up from school. That's my indulgence.

ON PAIN AND PRESSURE

You seem really adaptable to stress. What are your techniques for handling pressure? One thing I've never done and hopefully never will is take myself too seriously. [Laughs] Shoot me if I do. I think that helps reduce stress right out of the gate. The other thing that I've done is being wiling to give up control. You can't control everything, especially when you go into a 200-mile run. At the starting line, you're thinking, "Geez, this is so daunting, how am I gonna get to the finish?" My commitment is to do my best, to always try my hardest, and even when I fail, and I have certainly failed, I don't feel like I'm a failure because I've given it my all. I know I struggled and tried my best, so I think that in turn takes out a lot of stress.

ON BEING OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE

Be honest. Do you consider yourself obsessive compulsive? [Laughs] I would say yeah, to a level. I've been passionate about the things I do, and when I do something, I really throw myself at it wholeheartedly. It's been pretty much a constant.

Has it ever become a problem for you? I've been able to luckily channel it into primarily outdoor activities but I have friends who are cut from the same mold who have not found outlets that are quite so healthy…alcohol abuse, drug abuse.

ON CROSS-TRAINING

How does cross-training benefit you? It's important to prevent burnout because it gives me a good alternative if I really don't feel like running but I want to get outside. Mountain-biking to me is a good alternative. I've got a couple different loops I do in the Marin headlands. One I love to do is a two-hour loop. There's a little bit of singletrack but it's primarily fairly open, graded fire road. It's pretty easy to lose yourself; it's not real technical.

You have a lot of muscle mass, which isn't necessarily typical for a runner. Is that your natural body type or is it a result of your training regimen? It's a by-product of sports I do. Windsurfing is like doing lat pulls for three hours. There's just no way around it. It's solid upper body training. Surfing, you're paddling or diving under waves. It's not necessarily good for running, but it's good for recovery and it's good for the long, long runs of more than 100 miles. Having a strong upper body, or muscle mass, allows you to recover faster because your muscles take a lot of the load off your joints so your joints don't get so beat up.

During a normal week, when you're at home and not running a marathon every day, what's your routine with weights and cross-training? I probably cross-train three to four days a week, on top of running. I definitely do doubles. I get up at 4:00 a.m. and like to run 20 to 25 miles before making breakfast and taking the kids to school. And I do a routine of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, and I'll do that in between email and writing chapters in my book, so I'll just work that in. This might sound funny, but I don't sit at a desk. It would drive me crazy. So have this stand that my laptop sits on—it's about at waist level—and I use that when I'm on the phone, when I'm doing e-mails. I stand at my desk. I don't sit. And then if someone wants to have a meeting with me, it's a walking meeting. A lot of times we'll run or go for a jog for an hour. The meetings on the fly are much more effective. We get a lot more done, we don't get off track as much, and we come up with more creative ideas.

What else have you retrofitted to accommodate your addiction to movement? [Laughs] I have a pull-up bar in my office and a sit-up mat, so if I've got ten minutes and I've got a little writer's block or something, I'll do a quick set of sit-ups and push-ups.

And what's a quick set? I've got a routine of 50 push-ups. It's 20 military style, ten closed-hand (make a triangle with your fingers), ten arms and legs spread, and ten where you actually are standing up and you put your hand down by your feet and do a push-up standing. It's the navy seal routine. My buddy's a navy seal and he showed it to me.

Do you do special sit-ups? Yeah, I do 25 quarter leg-ups (bring your legs a quarter of way up and your back a quarter way up, lift shoulder blades off the ground, like a rigid board) followed by 25 crunches and then 25 quarter sit-ups (with your legs, knees up, feet straight, only move your shoulders and upper body). This basically works your lower stomach muscles all the way to your upper abs. And my routine of pull-ups: 12 regular pull-ups, 12 pull-ups where you hold a bar behind your head, 12 chin-ups, then grab the bar in reverse. So I'll do that routine, four sets in the morning and four sets in the evening. And I'm slipping that in-between calls and emails and all that stuff.

ON FOCUS AND NUTRITION

How focused are you when you're running? For me if I've got an hour and I've had a hectic day, running is a really great way to clear my head and to work through issues because you're kind of on your own and you can think clearly. There's not a lot of stimulus coming at you. There's not a lot of noise. When I run I really do some of my best thinking.

Are you on a permanent runner's high? That's a good way to look at it. I almost feel that way. It's a combination of indulging in what I love, but it's also my diet. I noticed that when I cut all refined sugars and largely cut processed foods out of my diet. I try to eat organically. I don't eat any artificial ingredients or colors or sweeteners. I think that diet plays a big, big role in my mood.

So at home on a normal day, you don't eat blizzards for dessert? No, I don't. It just makes me feel so bad. I don't even crave it. I really don't take in any refined sugar at all. It was hard, I've got to admit. It took about a good month for me to wean myself from sugar. And you crave it. But once you get over the hump, if you can push through it, you feel so much better. Your energy level is so much more consistent, that you don't miss it. When I have a craving now, it's usually for something savory. Like a piece of grilled salmon. It's really not for sweet anymore.

When did you make that switch?About a year after I started running I really started tuning into my diet. In the last decade, I've been on a really good diet. You don't get the highs and lows, you just feel like you're constantly at a pretty high level of energy.

Does that help you get by on four hours of sleep? My average night sleep is about four hours. I absolutely believe that diet is huge in that, and learning to sleep that little was also about a month's process. It was really, really tough. I used to set my alarm and force myself to wake up, and I'd be groggy. But what I've found is that now, those four hours of sleep are a really good, solid four hours, where I used to have seven or eight before, and a lot of that was restless stirring around. Now when I sleep for four hours, it's very restorative sleep.

Are these things that you'd recommend for recreational runners who want to perform better? A recreational person, a weekend warrior, could benefit from it. I think that just with the way I shifted my diet to a 40-30-30 program (40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat) and everything from whole grain, carbohydrates, and good fats (olive oil), that shift alone helped me reduce my overall body fat and feel better.

ON WHETHER OR NOT TO HAVE A PERSONAL COACH

What's your taking on having a personal coach? My motto is to listen to everyone, follow no one. We each respond to things differently. There's no one cookie-cutter mold that's going to work for everyone. I think the best thing we can do is be open-minded, try things, talk to as many people as you can to see what can work for you. I hadn't trained with a coach prior to working with Chris Carmichael (at the beginning of 2006), and it's really been an enjoyable experience. I think I was doing pretty good before Chris, but he's helped me in a lot of ways to bring in fresh eyes, a different perspective. Not everything he's tried has worked, but some of the things are different ideas I never would have thought of before, and in that regard I think a coach is very beneficial.

ON COMPETITION

In your book, you talk about being competitive not with other people, but with yourself. Is that really how you live? It's very much how I feel. You can't compare yourself to other people. You'll always come up short. I think you're always gonna be your own toughest critic. There's no fooling yourself. What I've learned is that shortcuts just don't pay off in running or in life. If it comes easy, it's not worth having. One thing that ultra distance running seems to do is…if you take short cuts you pay the price. Not only do you pay the price in performance, but when you're out at mile 80 and you're ready to give up, in the back of your mind, you're thinking, "man I compromised on my training. I should have done those extra ten miles. And I know I didn't." Or you're saying in the back of your mind, "man I paid my dues, I laid out my training, I didn't compromise, I ran those extra ten miles, I can do this." So not taking shortcuts has been both a performance and psychological advantage.

What about ego? Where does that fit in? Do you need a pretty healthy ego to power through 100-200 miles? I would say that ego gets in your way. It's exemplified in looking at some of the women in the sport who are amazing and routinely beat men. Head to head, women can win outright. I think what you find with men a lot of times is that they go out so hard, especially young runners who are strong. They will hammer through the first 50 or 60 miles of a 100-mile race, and then at mile 70 or 80, they're in a stretcher, and then a woman will come along at a steady pace with no ego concern and pass right by. Ego is really a hindrance.

But you obviously need to have the self-confidence, or conviction, that you can do it. I think that's a belief more than anything else. A belief in yourself that you can do it. I believe that's a learned trait. And that's what I think the symbolism of ultra endurance running is, that you prove to yourself you can do things you never thought you could. If someone had said to me, before I started doing this, you're going to go out and run 100 miles through the mountains, I would have said, "No, a human being can't do that, let alone me." And then when you actually achieve that, it teaches you that you're better than you think you are and you can go further than you think you can.

What about mental tactics to get to the finish line in a particularly challenging race? There's a technique I use that I just call "baby steps," for lack of a better term. The first time I ran 200 miles, there was a point at mile 165 where I could not get off the curb. I'd run for about 40 hours straight, and I sat down for the first time and I couldn't get up, and I thought, "there' s no way I'm going to make this 200 miles. I can't even stand up, let alone run another 35 miles." But what I did, I just shifted my paradigm. I told myself, "Don't think about 35 miles in front of you. It's too daunting. Just focus on standing up." So I struggled and struggled and I finally just stood up and I celebrated the accomplishment. I kind of pumped my fist. And then I said, "ok you stood up, now get to the stop sign down the road. Don't even think about the 35 miles, just make it to the stop sign and be satisfied." So I got to the stop sign, so I said, "ok just get to the lamppost 100 feet up the road, don't think about what's left in front of you." And I did that over and over again and at the end of ten hours, I'd run 35 miles. So I just take baby steps. Break larger daunting tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces.

ON BLISTERS

Technical question. Blisters, do you pop them or not? I have blisters right now, I have two of them, and it's because I ran in the rain in wet socks, back in Arizona. But they're on the mend.

So you don't pop them? Well, one I did. Here's a trick for blister popping: There's a butterfly needle, a very small needle like a pin with a hole in there, so when you lance your blister, all the pus drains out of the hole.

Can you make a blanket statement about popping or not? I would say the general rule, don't pop unless you have to pop. If it's protruding so much that it's painful, then I'd say definitely pop it. But if it's close to your skin and it's not being exacerbated when you put your shoe on, I'd say try to ride it out. The best way to treat a blister is not to get one in the first place. I put Bodyglide on my feet. That works. And I have other friends that use talcum powder—anything to keep your foot dry. I don't like talcum powder. It cakes for me too much, but some people use it.

ON TRAINING WITH MUSIC

Do you train with an iPod? I do, I use an iPod once in a while, and I like it—maybe only 20 percent of the time for running. A lot of time I'm running on trails and I want to clear my head and I don't want any noise. I want to enjoy nature and think things through. The other thing I do a whole lot of is I have a digital voice recorder and I do a lot of writing when I'm running.

What do you listen to? A whole variety: 80s punk rock, Euro house music, chemical brothers, Lou Reed, a whole smattering of stuff.

ON HIS WILDEST EXPERIENCE ON THE ROAD

What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you while running? I was running not long ago in Marin and it was about 2:00 a.m., and I'm always cautious around that time of night because the bars in California let out at 2:00 a.m. People are on the backcountry roads out there because they don't want to be on the main thoroughfares because they're doing something they shouldn't be doing. And this car comes barreling down the road right for me, which I'm used to. This car keeps coming right at me, so I flash—I've got a reflective vest on, headlamp, a handheld light—I flash the light in their windshield. They kept coming right for me and they nearly ran me over. It was so close. They whizzed by, and I gave them the fist. I was kind of mad. And then they hit the brakes.

Oh no. Yeah, and they threw it into reverse, right next to me. And I thought, "Oh my god, I'm dead. There's nowhere to go. I've met my destiny." And then this woman jumps out of the car, manic, and starts rifling around the passenger seat. I'm paralyzed with terror, thinking, "Is it a gun? Is it a knife?" And then she pulls out a copy of my book. And she looks at me and says, "You're him...you're the ultra-marathon guy. I thought I recognized you. You've got to sign my book!" I'm trembling with a pen in my hand…and she says, "Thank you, thank you!" And she throws it back in her car and drives off.

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