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Jul. 22 2009 - 10:40 am | 124 views | 1 recommendation | 0 comments

A (not so) extreme self: Dean Karnazes

Karnazes at the NYC Marathon - his 50th consecutive 26.2 miler

Karnazes at the NYC Marathon - his 50th consecutive 26.2 miler

When he’s not running marathons at the South Pole or 135-mile races through Death Valley, Dean Karnazes is walking his kids to school. That, or squeezing in a 26.2-miler before breakfast.

Extreme? Hardly, if you ask the man himself. Karnazes, a talented runner in his teens, rediscovered his love for the sport – a fanatical love, perhaps – when he hit 30. Since then he’s finished dozens of endurance events (including a 350-mile jaunt in 80 hours and 44 minutes), written two books, and filmed 50:50:50, a documentary about running that many marathons in that many states in that few days. With every step, he’s also helped take endurance running from underground freak fetish to legitimate competitive sport. One that’s getting more and more coverage in mainstream media.

And Dean’s using that to his advantage: his latest endeavor has him off the trails and onto the California Senate floor, where he spoke in May about America’s obesity crisis. Thanks in part to Karnazes’ activism, the government launched an annual California Fitness Month to encourage physical activity and exercise. Fittingly enough, Karno will be the state’s “face of fitness” and plans to work closely with the initiative.

Of course, he’s also been making time for racing. Last year, Karnazes competed in the 4 Deserts Race: a series of runs through remote landscapes in China, Chile, Egypt and Antartica. Not only did he survive, but the 46-year-old dynamo also won the event. I had the chance to ask Karnazes about his training, his hopes for America’s health – and whether he is or isn’t, in fact, an Extreme Self.

In some ways, you’re a model for smart training:  clean eating, ice baths. But there’s the four-hour sleep routine, zero rest days and those 135-mile races in 120 degree heat. How do you explain your body’s ability to do what must make some experts cringe?

My friend Michelle Barton says that recovery is overrated, and I’d agree. And I think sleep is overrated too. I guess it’s my desire to throw convention out the window and not live by barriers like rest and recovery that can explain it. I think a lot of conventional “wisdom” isn’t true, especially with athletes training at a certain level. But I’m also not one to dispense advice. I just do what I do: listen to everyone, follow no one. All I want is for people to realize that their limitations are often self-imposed.

Your ancestry hails from the same Greek village as Phidippides, the first marathoner. Do you think genetics offers some explanation, as it’s been suggested for Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps?

I really discount that idea. I think people often look to create limitations to explain why they can’t do something – when they actually can. I’m an average – an extremely average – guy. I’m not special. If you’re passionate, if you love it, anyone can do what I do. But you’ve got to love it, train hard, pay your dues.

On the run, greeting young fans

On the run, greeting young fans

You’ve got two kids and a wife – along with a time-consuming commitment to running. What’s a typical day-in-the-life for you right now?

I try to get in a marathon distance before breakfast, cook and take the kids to school, and then fit in a faster tempo run later in the afternoon. Then I hang out with my family. I really don’t socialize. I don’t see movies, go to bars, any of that. Something’s gotta go, and that’s what does.

Running – at least at shorter distances – has a certain “cult” vibe. You’re either a “runner” or you aren’t. Does the endurance running community have a similar vibe and close-knit feeling, or are you all loners?

The community has definitely opened up in the two decades that I’ve been involved, but it’s still largely a group of misfits and free thinkers and introverts. It takes a different sort of person to want to do this. There’s a rigid discipline that doesn’t make for good Christmas parties. People are more cautious. It’s a different mindset.

You mention in your book that your sport has brought your family together. But you’ve also risked your life for events. How do you reconcile that with your responsibilities to your kids and wife?

I used to definitely struggle and ponder that. I admit that I live for the edge, I thrive on it. But I don’t think you can find the true edge until you step over it – and there’s inherent risk in that. In my mind now, I guess I explain it by saying that this is my job. I quit my day job a few years ago, so running is literally how I put together a living. Certain jobs have certain risks, and this is mine.

You filmed a documentary to raise awareness about childhood obesity, and now you’re taking the issue to Congress. What changes do you want to see?

If people were to embrace physical activity as a priority, the way they do other things, we would inherently be a better society, collectively. I think we’d all be happier. I very much believe in America, but we’re losing our competitive edge because health care costs are crippling us – and so many of these costs are related to weight. It’s preventible, and being healthy is the most valuable asset you have.

I’ve also noticed, in traveling the country and around the world, this growing disparity in health. It’s like the digital divide manifested into wellness. Where’s average? You’re either dangerously obese or you’re running marathons. Health is becoming so polarized.

I just have to ask. Any idea of your lifetime mileage thus far?

Coming up on 100,000 miles. I’ve run anywhere from 40 to 300 miles a week, since I was 30. So that’s about what it all adds up to.


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    About Me

    I'm a full-time heath & science writer at Sphere and a contributing editor at True/Slant. I also contribute military health news to Danger Room at Wired.com, and have recently written for Marie Claire, World Politics Review and Next American City.

    My first foray into journalism came in middle school - at a French-speaking plaid-kilt-wearing educational institute somewhere in the Canadian tundra. It was there that I decided to start my own newspaper, to disseminate my sarcasm and attitude problem among my peers. We lasted three issues.

    From there I started to freelance, and when I became a medium-sized fish in a small Canadian lake, I decided to move to New York, and become a spore in a vast journalistic ocean. The adventure continues.

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