Ultra Marathon Man

Even among long-distance runners, S.F.'s Dean Karnazes is a phenom

JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a Stanford sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge, says those attracted to ultras are often loners who don't accept other people's views on the limits of human endurance. "They see body aches and pains -- adversity -- as a way to explore their inner potential," she says. "It can almost be like a Zen kind of thing or a trance -- being out there doing something repetitive for long periods of time."

A runner's biochemistry changes in dramatic ways as he runs longer and longer distances. The body is forced to consume fuel and oxygen much more efficiently. A well-trained endurance runner has much stronger heart muscles and a heart rate about 43 percent lower than a sedentary person's. A runner's cardiac output -- the volume of blood pushed through his circulatory system -- jumps by 75 percent, delivering more oxygen to his muscles. Due to an expansion of cellular energy producers called mitochondria, the amount of oxygen absorbed into his tissues rises by up to 50 percent. Distance runners also shed a larger proportion of body fat, making them more able to pound their feet against the pavement for long periods without damaging their joints.

As an ultrarunner continues to train, he develops more capillaries, bringing still more oxygen to his muscles. His level of metabolic enzymes -- proteins that break down carbohydrates and fats -- more than doubles. And his body builds up more tolerance to lactic acid, an exercise byproduct that causes muscle soreness. That means he can run faster and harder without experiencing muscle cramps.

Karnazes runs in Death Valley, looking like 
a beekeeper in his protective suit.
Photograph courtesy of Dean Karnazes
Karnazes runs in Death Valley, looking like a beekeeper in his protective suit.
Karnazes crosses a stream in the Western 
States race.
Photograph courtesy of Dean Karnazes
Karnazes crosses a stream in the Western States race.

According to Dahlkoetter, ultrarunners tend to be neurotic about their diets, and Karnazes is no exception. He eats no refined sugar and very few carbohydrates -- except during his races, when he gorges on anything from Big Macs to entire pumpkin pies to replace the calories he burns. "I'm a lightweight now," he says. "When I drink one beer I'm buzzed."

He runs between 85 and 120 miles a week. Either he runs at 4 a.m., before taking his 9-year-old daughter Alexandria to school, or after he puts her and his 6-year-old son Nicholas to bed at night. On weekends, he often runs from his home in lower Pacific Heights across the Golden Gate Bridge, up to the top of Mount Tamalpais, down to Stinson Beach, and back home again -- a distance of 43 miles.

Terry Hunt, Karnazes' business partner, recently scheduled a brainstorming meeting for them at a Menlo Park tennis club. Both men's families were invited, so their wives could meet and their kids could swim in the pool. When Hunt called the morning of the get-together to make sure Karnazes had directions, Dean's wife, Julie, informed Hunt that her husband had left the house four hours ago -- on foot. Running on roads and trails -- "Like a gazelle!" marvels Hunt -- Karnazes arrived at the club right on time. "It didn't even look like he'd been running," says Hunt. "He wasn't sweating." His partner proceeded to swim laps in the pool with his son riding on his back.

In a sport whose participants are plagued with knee and foot injuries, Karnazes says he's never been hurt, never even pulled a muscle. He seemingly improves with age; last year, he had his best year yet, with his impressive showing at the Western States and his near-win in the Badwater Ultramarathon.

Karnazes' amazing ability can be attributed in part to his perfectly even footfalls. When walking and running, most people either pronate, which means they land on the insides of their feet, or supinate, which means they land on the outsides of their feet, says Dr. David Hannaford, a San Francisco podiatrist who has treated many ultrarunners and knows Karnazes. Under the repetitive stress of ultra-distance running, an off-center footfall can produce pain if not corrected by the right shoes or by molded plastic inserts called orthotics. But Karnazes, says Hannaford, has what's known as a "true foot strike." That is, his foot lands evenly on the ground, making him less prone to injury.

"Dean is pretty lucky," says Hannaford. "He's a natural athlete."

Most runners are gaunt and scrawny, streamlined for speed. But Karnazes, partly thanks to good genes and partly because he does other sports like surfing and mountain biking, has a muscular upper body and big, powerful calves.

Dr. Jeff Shapiro, a Bay Area physician and race director of the Providian Relay, has studied the biomechanics of running and developed a technique for ascending hills more efficiently. It involves leaning forward from the ankle, which reduces knee stress and makes you less tired while climbing. After teaching his technique to hundreds of runners with good results, Shapiro taught it to Karnazes, and got no results.

"I've gone over it with him three different times and expected him to try it once or twice," says Shapiro. "But his legs are so strong, it's almost as if he doesn't need it. We run up [Lyon Street] and I'm doing the technique and he's not, and he's way ahead of me. The only time I beat him up the hill was because he got a phone call."

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