Ultra Marathon Man

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

Karnazes and his family live in a five-bedroom Victorian with the austere, partially furnished look of a home where the parents are waiting until their kids are out of the bull-in-a-china-shop stage before they decorate. There are no trophies or framed photos of Karnazes crossing finish lines -- at least not downstairs where the family receives company.

"I try to keep my running from cutting into my family life," says Karnazes.

That's probably a good idea, says sports psychologist Dahlkoetter.

Karnazes balances his running with his wife 
Julie, daughter Alexandria, and son 
Paolo Vescia
Karnazes balances his running with his wife Julie, daughter Alexandria, and son Nicholas.
Jim Vernon helps keep Karnazes going 
during tough races.
Paolo Vescia
Jim Vernon helps keep Karnazes going during tough races.

"A lot of people get into ultras as a couple," she says. "But if one gets into ultras and the other one doesn't, it can pull people apart because it takes up so much time. It becomes the type of thing only ultrarunners can understand, and you see people getting divorced."

Karnazes' wife Julie doesn't run unless, as Karnazes jokes, "someone's chasing her." A petite, put-together blonde with a successful San Francisco dental practice, she met Karnazes when they were high school freshmen in San Clemente, where both grew up. Karnazes' feats of endurance don't strike Julie as anything extraordinary; that's all she's ever seen him do.

"I never thought to ask him that," Julie says, perplexed, when questioned about how her mate is able to push through pain and mental blocks to finish his long runs. "I guess I just always assume he'll succeed -- I've never in my life seen him fail at anything physical."

One recent Saturday, the family was expected at a wedding in Healdsburg, about 70 miles away. Karnazes got home from work the Friday before, said goodbye to Julie and the kids, ran all night, and met them in the morning at a Healdsburg hotel, where he showered and then sauntered over to the wedding. "The kids I don't think know much different," says Karnazes. "They go to sleep, wake up, get in the car. They're driving into town; there's Dad running into town."

"We spray him down with our spray bottles!" says his daughter, Alexandria.

Sometimes, however, Karnazes' balancing act takes its toll. "The not sleeping can be bothersome for me," admits Julie. "You reach for someone, and they're not there." Before and during the Providian Relay, for instance, Karnazes goes without sleep for four days. "He's up the Thursday [night] before, getting ready," says his wife. "He's maybe putting his head down for a few minutes, and he's maybe closing his eyes, but he can't fall asleep. He's like a racehorse: He just wants to start running it."

A clue to Karnazes' athletic drive can be found in his father, Nick, a retired real estate appraiser who, at age 67, runs half-marathons. The senior Karnazes' constant mode of expression is that of a coach freaking out on the sidelines during a winning play.

"He hustles a lot and he works really hard," enthuses Nick Karnazes about his son during a phone interview from San Clemente. "Two and a half years ago, we had 9/11, terrible tragedy, where terrorists flew airplanes into buildings -- you're aware of that? And someone decided they were going to run with the American flag across the United States. Somehow they got ahold of Dean Karnazes. They wanted him to run an 18-mile leg in Joshua Tree. He called me. He said, 'Dad, what are you doing Wednesday?' I said, 'You tell me.' We get in the camper van towards Arizona. He hands me the flag. I run three miles. He runs, I run. Then we sleep under the stars and, in 45 minutes, we see 17 shooting stars. 'If you got a sleeping bag, wear it out, like you wear out a pair of shoes,' I tell the kids."

When Dean Karnazes was a boy, his family viewed couch potato-itis as a cardinal sin. His mother, Fran, a junior high school English teacher, once found her husband sitting down to watch a golf game on television and inquired how much a round of golf cost to play. When Nick answered, "$18," she went to her purse and tossed him a $20 bill. "I'd rather have you out there playing," she said. "I care about your health." He followed her advice.

Dean's younger brother, Craig, became a professional volleyball player before settling down as a stockbroker. But Dean pleased his father to no end by taking things to greater and greater extremes.

At age 11, Dean -- then known by his Greek given name, Constantine -- spontaneously decided to bike to his grandmother's house, 37 miles away. Later, when his then-slightly-chunky frame cost him a spot on a local youth-league football team, his mom says, he put himself on a strict diet.

"In junior high, he started going shopping with me, and started analyzing the ingredients on the package," remembers Fran. In high school, he surfed and ran marathons. "He worked at the San Clemente Inn, where a heart specialist would bring people who had heart attacks in for a one-week nutrition and exercise program. Dean would copy the recipes down and bring them to me to cook."

Hoping to learn how to create "the perfect food for athletes," Karnazes majored in food science technology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. By the time he'd completed his master's degree, he had hung up his running shoes and thrown his considerable energy into professional windsurfing.

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