Lessons of an All-Night Runner

Author:
Publish date:

If you’ve spent time in the running community, you’re no doubt familiar with the Bunyanesque exploits of the man nicknamed Karno. But on the off chance you haven’t heard his name, behold the legend of Dean Karnazes. As a kid in Los Angeles, he ran home from kindergarten so his mom wouldn’t have to pick him up. By age 12, he’d biked 40 miles to his grandparents’ house, hiked across the Grand Canyon and climbed Mount Whitney. Then in high school, he butted heads with his track coach—“I hated going in circles,” he recalls—quit the team and stopped running in general.

Flash-forward 15 years. After achieving his dream of a corporate job, a plush office and a company car, Karnazes wondered whether there might be more to life. In a move straight out of Forrest Gump (two years before the movie hit theaters), Karnazes ditched his own 30th birthday party and just … started … running. “I blame it all on bad tequila,” he says. “Around 11, I whaled out of the bar and started running off into the night. I ran for 10 hours. That night changed my life forever.”

Since that moment of clarity, this husband and father of two has, among other things, won California’s 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, the Sin City Dead Presidents Ultra Run, Chile’s 250-kilometer Atacama Crossing and the 4 Deserts race series. He has also run 350 miles without stopping (calling in a Hawaiian pizza delivery to stay fueled), marathoned to the South Pole, scored an ESPY for Best Outdoor Athlete, and landed on Time magazine’s 2006 “100 Most Influential People in the World.” That same year, he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days to raise awareness of — and money to fight — childhood obesity. He’s written a New York Times best-seller titled Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. And last week, with a hand tied behind his back, he beat the crap out of Chuck Norris.

OK, maybe one of those is a tall tale, but see what we mean by Bunyanesque? Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that, at 47, Karnazes is fitter than most men half his age — and shows no signs of slowing down. Which leaves mere mortals like this writer not only burning with jealousy but also wondering, simply, how? In his own words, Karno explains.

Embrace change ... slowly

When I started running, I was feeling miserable. I hated routine and conformity, going to the office at the same time every day. I wanted a life where I could kind of explore. That was the paradigm shift in my mind. But I only quit my day job a few years ago. I was a bit afraid to walk away from it all — you know, health benefits, a 401(k). It got challenging to maintain my training while working. So I totally respect people who juggle a job and a family with their training.

Image placeholder title

Enjoy your work, and it won't feel like work

Alternative sports don’t have the multimillion-dollar contracts of the major ones, so I end up being way busier now than when I had a cush job. You have to scramble to pull it all together. I’ve been on all seven continents twice in the past five years. My wife says, “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as you do.” But it feels like the greatest job in the world. I’m passionate about it. I love pushing the limits of human endurance. If you don’t like what you’re doing, training is a grunt. I live for it, love doing it, so it comes easy. My old job, I needed a toothpick to keep my eyelids open.

Live in the moment

Mental focus is really important. I do a race called the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. There’s a saying: “You do the first 50 with your legs and the second 50 with your mind.” When you’re facing something completely daunting, you can get caught up in the finish line, and it’s so far away it seems impossible. It can be very demoralizing. What I do is get in the moment. Don’t think about the 30 or 40 miles still left. Think about doing your best at that very second. Take the next step as best you can.

Play to your strengths

I will say that I have pretty good biomechanics. I don’t pronate or supinate. I have honest foot strikes — my foot hits and rolls. Also, I’m 100-percent Greek, and my dad swears our family is from the same village as Pheidippides. But I’m not bestowed with special gifts like Lance [Armstrong] with his heart or an extra-high VO2 max. Anyone can do what I’m doing. Don’t come up with excuses. People will say, “You’re ripped, you’re so lucky.” Come on. I’m lucky I’m not lying on the couch watching TV and eating chips.

Sign up for a workout

Image placeholder title

With my travel — I was on the road 250 days last year — my weekly mileage is variable. I run between 50 and 200 miles or more a week. If I have a free day, usually I’ll sign up for a marathon. You can find something in your area on any given weekend. Sign up for a 10K on the spur of the moment. It’s a great way to train. It forces you when you’re feeling too lazy to do it.

Eat like a caveman

My daily diet is a Neanderthal diet. Anything processed or fried I stay away from. For lean meats, I eat a ton of wild Pacific salmon. I really believe in the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. I eat a lot of Greek-style yogurt. There’s no added sugar, so it’s really tart, and a good source of whey protein. Also, lots of fresh fruit and veggies, and fat from avocado, nuts and olive oil. Since I started eating this way, my energy level is so much more consistent throughout the day.

Gear up to go the distance

On really long runs, I carry a North Face hydration pack, either the Gulper or a smaller one called the Thresher. I’ll bring lighting systems if I’m going all night, energy gels and a couple of Supreme Protein Raptor bars. Some gels give you a real spike in blood pressure, while bars can be slower acting. The Raptor has gel on the inside with quick-acting carbs combined with an exterior of slower, more complex carbs — plus branched-chain amino acids, beta-alanine and whey protein, which helps with recovery. I also bring a couple of bucks, a credit card and a cell phone. I’ve got Round Table Pizza on auto dial.

Keep challenging yourself

I want to run a marathon in every country on earth (there are nearly 200) within a one-year period, for a cause like clean water, a huge issue worldwide. I think it’d be a unique opportunity for the world to unite, for once. Here’s a guy who’s kind of naive, doing something ridiculous but also fantastic. I’d invite other runners to join me.

Draw strength from others

No matter how far I’ve wandered, my dad has just been there for me. He’s really my hero. Having family support is critical. My wife’s not a big runner, but we’ve got a great relationship. I think it would actually be worse if she were a runner. I’ve run in every imaginable climate and condition, but I’m most proud of running nine miles with my son on his ninth birthday. Both my kids run. I’ve never pushed it on them. I just want them to do what they love. My slogan is: Listen to everyone, follow no one. Set your own path.

Fitting In Fitness

To keep his whole body going strong through a packed schedule, Dean Karnazes squeezes his workouts in where he can. This twice-daily regimen is the key. “I have a pull-up bar in my home office, but I even had one at my old office,” Karnazes says. “Despite the funny looks I got, between e-mails and conference calls, I would cycle through this routine that a Navy SEAL buddy gave me. You will definitely feel it.” He performs the full-body blast once in the morning and once in the evening — doing three sets of the entire circuit. Relying exclusively on bodyweight moves, it demands a lot of your stabilizer muscles, takes about 45 minutes and can be done virtually anywhere.

  • PUSH-UPS
    Begin the workout by performing 20 traditional push-ups. Follow that with 10 close-grip push-ups. Then do 10 with your hands and feet spread wide. Finish with 10 standing push-ups — keeping your legs straight, bend at the ankles and waist, and place your hands a bit past shoulder-width apart on the floor so that your upper body is angled downward. The motion itself is essentially an upside-down shoulder press.
  • SIT-UPS
    Perform 25 quarter leg-ups — keep your legs straight and lift them a quarter of the way to 90 degrees while simultaneously lifting your shoulders off the floor. Then do 25 full crunches. Finally, do 25 quarter sit-ups — hold your legs straight, a quarter of the way to 90 degrees, place your hands behind your ears, and lift your shoulders off the floor.
  • PULL-UPS AND DIPS
    On the first set, do 15 traditional pull-ups. On the second set, do 15 behind-the-neck pull-ups. On the third set, do 15 chin-ups. For each set, follow those moves with 25 dips using a chair, desk or other sturdy object.