Ultra Marathon Man

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

But, says Karnazes, laughing, "It was pretty apparent when we got there that it was not meant to be." After a couple of hours, one of the men and the woman had made it only two miles. "It would have taken them, like, 24 hours to run a marathon and they would have frozen to death, literally," he says.

Those two decided to run only a half-marathon, 13 miles, while two others snowshoed the whole way. But Karnazes refused to take off his running shoes. After all, this was supposed to be a marathonto the South Pole. And Karnazes is nothing if not a purist.

"People have snowshoed to the South Pole, but no one has ever run there," he says. "Why do something that's already been done? The whole purpose of it was to run."

Karnazes: First to run to the South Pole.
Photograph courtesy of Dean Karnazes
Karnazes: First to run to the South Pole.
Running 26 miles in the whiteness of 
Antarctica, Karnazes felt like he had vertigo.
Photograph courtesy of Dean Karnazes
Running 26 miles in the whiteness of Antarctica, Karnazes felt like he had vertigo.

With skiing-style heating pads in his shoes, he slogged across the polar plateau in the 4-inch-deep snow. Before long, peering into nothing but whiteness, he began to feel as if he had vertigo -- the snow, the sky, the sun, everything was white. To help avert frostbite on his toes, he envisioned himself windsurfing somewhere tropical, his bare feet splashed with warm water. He had wrapped a scarf around his face, and wore a neoprene mouth guard to keep the material from freezing against his skin. But moisture from his respiration froze inside the protector, which was Velcroed behind his head, and the whole thing turned into a hard necklace of ice. Since the frozen mask would have been so difficult to remove, he didn't eat or drink, and soon began to feel weak.

But he doggedly kept on, his mind conjuring scenes of warmth amid the frigid environment. "On Sunday mornings at home, the kids get into Julie and my big California king bed," says Karnazes. "We lounge around playing chess and drinking coffee in the sun. I couldn't stop thinking about that." And eventually, Karnazes made it to the red-and-white barber pole that marks the world's southernmost point.

In last October's Providian Relay, Karnazes ran farther than he ever had in his life when he tacked an additional 27 miles onto the original 199. He'd been trying to go 300. Shapiro, the race director, had not been able to find any documentation of a human being running that far continuously, and Karnazes was determined to be the first. But, weaving from sleepiness and exhaustion into oncoming traffic, Karnazes had had to call it quits.

"The nagging question remains -- could I have gone farther?" Karnazes wrote later on the race Web site, vowing to try again this year.

In the meantime, Karnazes decided to run the Western States in the dead of winter -- another first. He'd been inspired by a letter written by a 19th-century prospector who had made nearly the exact same trip, but with disastrous results.

It was very cold and we buried ourselves in the snow to keep from freezing and lay there all night. ... At this time we did not know that our feet were frozen but several days after we got in we could not walk at all. ... On the 31st, Dr. Tibbetts ... amputated my feet ....

Equipped with avalanche probes and global positioning locators, Karnazes and a buddy planned to make the trip the weekend after New Year's, alternately running and snowshoeing. But a massive storm rolled through the Sierras and they were forced to reschedule.

Karnazes now plans to run a marathon on water, from Catalina to Manhattan Beach near Los Angeles, using a contraption called the Hydrobronc that looks like an inflatable hamster wheel. It was originally designed to rescue people who've fallen through the ice.

On a rainy day in December, I met Dean Karnazes at Crissy Field for a run. He pulled up in his red Honda Element and hopped out looking sharp in all the coolest runner gear -- mesh hat, wraparound shades, waterproof shell, shorts, and Gore-Tex sneakers.

Karnazes is an official "North Face Athlete" and often "wear tests" the sporting apparel company's gear; today he'd be checking out its new waterproof trail-running shoes. He also has modeled for North Face catalogs and starred in its television ads. The firm has even named a trail-running shoe after him, the "Karno."

I'd ridden my bike to Crissy and was soaked to the bone. "Your shell doesn't seem to be wicking," he noted with concern, using runner jargon for a fabric's ability to keep -- or move -- water away from the skin to the outside of a garment, so that it can evaporate. He offered to lend me his shell. But I was OK and we started toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Karnazes matched my plodding steps without a glimmer of impatience, though he usually knocks off a mile in a brisk six minutes, 30 seconds. His calves bulged and gleamed like oak banisters.

We crossed into Sausalito and, at Karnazes' suggestion, hung a left on Alexander Avenue, overlooking the bay. After turning onto a bike trail and running a few more miles, I told him I had to start back or he'd be carrying me. He happily obliged.

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