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Learning valuable lessons a mile at a time

Think that you’re in shape? Maybe — but maybe not.
I’ve thought that my 40 miles of running every week with a 10-miler in the mix put me in pretty good shape.

Then there’s MBJ advertising director Karen Gilder. She’s looking forward to the San Francisco Marathon this July. That’s 26.2 miles of climbing up, down and around one of the country’s most hilly cities. It will be the third marathon that she’s run in the last few years.

But if you really want to find a runner in super shape, look no further than Dean Karnazes — one of the world’s toughest athletes.

You’ve probably caught coverage of Karnazes in the past few weeks. A wide range of media outlets have been talking with him as he travels the country promoting his recently-released book, “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.” He’s chatted with Letterman, been featured on “60 Minutes,” and had print coverage in a slew of magazines, as well as a piece in The New York Times.

Kirk Johnson, who wrote the story in the Times, tried to keep up with Karnazes during a trail run outside of Golden, Colorado. The interview took place on the fly: “The tape recorder that we ran with captured the cruel disparities of physical attainment: The reporter’s questions were punctuated by labored breathing that… sounded… like… this,” Johnson wrote. “Mr. Karnazes answered as though he was sitting on the couch. Hills were irrelevant, sweat apparently optional.”

In shape, indeed.

Pounding the pavement and the trails

So, what is ultra-running exactly? Technically, it’s running a distance longer than the 26.2 miles of the marathon. However, Karnazes, and other endurance athletes like him, stretch their runs and races to extreme distances.

In 2004, Karnazes won the Badwater Ultramarathon, which has been dubbed “The World’s Toughest Footrace.” Basically, it’s 135 miles from the floor of Death Valley — in the middle of the summer — up to the trail head of Mt. Whitney.

Back in 2000, he entered The Relay:

As the name would imply, The Relay is just that: a relay race. In my quest for the next adventure, I’d overlooked that central point. This 199-mile footrace starts in Calistoga and ends at the beach in Santa Cruz, the course being divided into thirty-six discrete legs of about 5.5. miles apiece. All members of each twelve-person team are responsible for running three of these legs at various points along the way…

Karnazes, of course, decided to make it a different kind of race.

I’d opted to run a slightly different race, attempting to tackle the entire 199 miles by myself. A team of one.

Along the way, he manages to consume some 27,934 calories, including an entire cheesecake, three large beef burritos and 80 bottles of Pedialyte. An appendix details each and every item, and it is an amazing list. Karnazes is quick to point out, though, that it’s not a recommended diet — unless you’re on the road running a couple hundred miles.

The first 100 miles

The most compelling account in “Ultramarathon Man” chronicles the first 100-miler Karnazes undertakes — the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Mile after mile of rugged terrain rolls by (well, crawls by at times, too) as he details the highs and lows of being on the trail, alone and trying to make it to the next aid station — and the finish line. Karnazes made it in 21 hours, one minute and 14 seconds, which placed him 15th overall.

And what did the race mean to him? “I was forever changed by the Western States experience,” he writes. “Everything took on new meaning. My demeanor grew more carefree, as if the important things in life had become clearer. My outlook became more expansive; my shortcomings less significant. Others were treated with greater compassion, increased tolerance, broader humility.”

Running from — or running to?

The big questions for Karnazes, as well as for any runner, really, is why? Why do you do it? What are you running from (or more positively, what are you running to), many ask those of us who run two miles or 200.

Here’s the answer from the Ultramarathon Man: “I run because long after my footprints fade away, maybe I will have inspired a few to reject the easy path, hit the trails, put one foot in front of the other, and come to the same conclusion I did: I run because it always takes me where I want to go.”
And that’s a valuable lesson for all of us, runners and non-runners alike.

More information about Dean Karnazes and his book are online at www.ultramarathonman.com.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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