Ultra Marathon Man

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

Karnazes was at the top of his game when, in 1991, Julie decided on dental school in the Bay Area and the two moved to San Francisco. When he wasn't working as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Karnazes was windsurfing extreme surf breaks like Maverick's. He traveled to surf spots in Mexico and Fiji so remote that he had to backpack or boat in to them, says his friend Topher Gaylord, who describes Karnazes as being in "the forefront of windsurfing exploration." Three times he landed on the cover of windsurfing magazines.

But something was missing. His friends threw him a 30th birthday party at the now-defunct Paragon bar in the Marina and, as the evening wore on, Karnazes fell into a funk.

"I was getting old -- bones are creaking, that kind of thing," he says. While his friends polished off another round of beers, and Julie went home to bed, the answer to Karnazes' problems suddenly came to him. He would run 30 miles. "I thought a physical accomplishment on that scale would make me feel whole again," he says.

Karnazes' partner, Terry Hunt, with their 
low-carb cheese puffs.
Paolo Vescia
Karnazes' partner, Terry Hunt, with their low-carb cheese puffs.

Julie got a call from her husband the next morning. "I'm at the 7-Eleven. Can you pick me up?" he asked.

"The 7-Eleven on Geary?"

"No. Half Moon Bay."

Though Karnazes' feet were a mass of blisters, he felt high. He'd caught the ultrarunning bug, and his life changed almost immediately. Two months later, Karnazes found out about the Western States; eight months after that, he ran it. Most of his non-runner friends began to drop out of his life, and he converted others -- like Gaylord -- to ultrarunning.

The first year Dr. Shapiro staged his relay race from Napa to Santa Cruz, to raise awareness for organ donation, he got a call from Karnazes.

"He says, 'Can I run it alone?'" says Shapiro. "My first thought was, he was a nut. I imagined myself, as the race physician, resuscitating Dean the whole way." But Karnazes made it.

Family and friends became his support crew as he signed up for more and more grueling races. When Karnazes first attempted the Badwater Ultramarathon in 1995, his mother, father, Julie, and Alexandria came out to backstop him. But the van they were driving to meet Karnazes in broke down, and he had to run without water for the first 17 miles of the race. Overcome with heat exhaustion, he had to drop out.

The next year Karnazes was back with only his die-hard father and a friend, Jim Vernon, in the support van. They kept him alive by driving ahead of him, spraying him down with water every quarter-mile, bathing his head in ice water, and feeding him Pedialyte, an electrolyte replacement for babies suffering from diarrhea. At times, Karnazes briefly fell asleep on his feet or hallucinated.

"One time I saw a miner, like an old forty-niner, standing on the road with this pan," he says. "I got closer and closer and it turned out to be a rock."

Nick becomes apoplectic with excitement when he crews for his son, leaping from the support van to run beside him before succumbing to exhaustion a mile later. Once he jumped out while the van was still in gear on a hill, giving Vernon -- sleeping in the back -- a rude awakening. Fortunately, Vernon woke up in time to crawl into the driver's seat and put on the brakes.

During the Providian Relay, in which he also crews for his son, Nick churns out page after page of notes, detailing the number of shoes Dean goes through, how many times he changes his socks, and every single thing he puts into his mouth. "It's totally insane," says Dean.

"Dean and Nick fight like Edith and Archie Bunker during these races," says Vernon. "I think it helps Dean keep his mind off the pain."

Those who've raced against him marvel that Karnazes can remain so cool all the time, barely looking like he's exerting any effort, even in 130-degree heat.

"You see these guys, at the end of a race like Western States, they're just a wreck. They've peed on themselves," Karnazes says. "I never pushed myself to that point. I'd rather retain some dignity."

It's like he's saving himself for something grander -- and he is.

"This is Dean's vehicle for self-exploration," says his friend Topher Gaylord. "In all of history, the human spirit has wanted to know what are the limits of the human body. If something you felt was impossible yesterday becomes possible today, then you've expanded your mind."

Karnazes lives to find out just how far he can go. In 2002, that thirst took him to the South Pole.

An adventurer named Doug Stoup came up with the idea to run a marathon to the South Pole, a feat never before attempted. Karnazes and five other runners -- four male, one female -- jumped at the opportunity.

The group flew to the desolate Patriot Hills base camp, 600 miles from their destination. Gale-force winds tore down from the South Pole; temperatures hovered between minus 40 and minus 35 degrees. After setting up a tent city, all but one of the runners took off again for a point 26 miles from the Pole, landed, and jogged off into the white wilderness.

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