On the run in Death Valley
If you think running 26 miles in next month's London marathon sounds tough, how about 135 miles? Through Death Valley. In summer. Mark MacKenzie meets a man who always takes the long way home
Sunday 26 March 2006
Despite being one of the world's leading distance runners, Dean Karna-zes has never rubbed shoulders with the likes of Paula Radcliffe. And when the world's élite athletes float round the Cutty Sark in next month's London Marathon, the 42-year-old Californian will not be among them.
The reason is simple and, quite possibly, all the more impressive for it; for Dean Karnazes, the conventional marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards is, quite frankly, a warm-up.
Karnazes first ran the distance made famous by Phidippides when he was just 14, whereupon he promptly gave up distance running altogether. But then, on the evening of his 30th birthday, suddenly struck by intimations of his own athletic mortality, he laced a pair of running shoes and in what he describes as "an utterly compulsive mom-ent", headed into the night.
On the wide tar roads on the fringes of San Francisco, and with absolutely no preparation, he ran 30 miles, one for each of his advancing years. Not that he had exactly idled away his youth. A high school surfing champion, he had spent weekends rock climbing and mountain biking, even finding the time to represent the US as an international windsurfer. That birthday burn, however, not only changed Karnazes's life but would eventually play a part in redefining the levels of endurance of which the human athlete is capable.
Today, Karnazes is one of the world's leading exponents of the little-known sport of ultra-marathon running. Unlike the numerous 26-mile city marathons that take place around the world, "ultras" are distinguished by both their unusual terrain, typically deserts and mountains, and quite monumental mileage; anything between 50 and 150 miles.
"A broad definition of an ultra-marathon," explains Karnazes, "is anything over the standard 26 miles, 385 yards. Thereafter, comparing like for like is pretty pointless: in some races you have to climb 10,000ft in altitude, in others 30,000ft; some have day stages, others are non-stop."
Karnazes's birthday run led to his entry into the 1994 Western States Endurance Run (WSER), the renowned long-distance trail race that takes place between California's Squaw Valley and Auburn every June. Merely to qualify, competitors must be able to cover 50 miles in nine hours. And so, when around 350 athletes hit the mountain paths on race day, it might seem a trifle generous to extend the cut-off point by a further hour. Until you realise the race distance is double that of qualifying - 100 miles.
"The spirit of ultra races means that victory is defined simply as finishing," explains Karnazes. Those hardy souls that do complete the WSER within the 10 hours are awarded the prestigious Silver Buckle. Karnazes has 10, one for every year he has entered.
In the US, it is estimated that around 15,000 recreational athletes regularly take part in ultra-marathons, and worldwide, Karnazes puts the figure at 100,000 and rising rapidly. Among the better-known events is the Comrades in South Africa. The 56-mile race takes place between Durban and Pietermaritzburg every June, and such is the desire to complete the course within the allotted 12 hours that scenes at the finish are often desperate. And next month sees the 21st Marathon des Sables,a seven-day stage race across 150 sun-baked miles of the Moroccan Sahara.
The best ultra-distance athletes, explains Karnazes, are blessed with certain physiological advantages: "I'm pretty slow but my biomechanics are good." He is referring to his perfectly neutral "foot strike", a natural running style that means no undue strain is placed on his joints. As a result, Karnazes has experienced none of the various repetitive-strain injuries that can afflict runners covering a fraction of his distances. That he came to the sport relatively advanced in years is also a feature common among competitors. Age wearies not the ultra runner, as the ability to cope with discomfort and, as the miles add up, increasing pain requires what is perhaps best described as a pragmatic maturity.
"Between 26 and 100 miles you begin to experience both physical and psychological breakdown, and you manage it the best you can," says Karnazes. "A human being isn't capable of running 100 miles without some damage.
"The physical breakdown manifests itself as fatigue; every part of your body hurts. Your feet blister, particularly if it's hot. There are certain things you can do, such as using anti-friction wax inside your socks, but once the skin bubbles up you have to lance it and wind duct tape around the wound. Then it's a question of pain management." Another key factor in minimising the effects of long-term fatigue, says Karnazes, is continually replenishing the body's fluid levels to maintain salts and electrolytes.
In a standard marathon, the debilitating fatigue known as "the wall" (essen-tially when the body is running low on glycogen) hits most non-élite competitors around the 20-mile mark. Thankfully, it occurs just the once, and can be "broken through". In ultra-distance running the same applies, up to point; the wall can be broken, but has a nasty habit of rebuilding itself.
"I usually hit the first wall at about mile 50," says Karnazes, "and then another between miles 90 and 100. It happens about every 40 to 50 miles thereafter, and each time with increasing intensity."
Karnazes's day job is as the president of an organic health food company, and training must be fitted in around work. "Ramping up for an event, I get up at 4am four mornings a week and run for a few hours and then try and get in an hour in the evening." His success is beginning to reap commercial benefits, including various endorsements, and Karnazes hopes these will soon allow him to pursue his ultra-distance ambitions full time. One deal involves testing running shoes for a well-known adventure clothing company: he is the public face, or rather the well-muscled legs, of The North Face.
Karnazes is currently on tour promoting Ultra-Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, his first book. While it is fair to say that distance running has been served by more illustrious scribes - from Homer to Alan Sillitoe - the potentially mind-altering effects of miles on the road have long appealed to writers and artists. In the later stages of ultra-marathons runners often talk about a zen-like calm descending.
"On the Western States run," explains Karnazes, "you run the first 50 miles with your legs and the next 50 with your mind. I've fallen asleep on a number of occas-ions. Once, I woke up running down the middle of the road; the movement becomes automatic, you just switch to autopilot."
Perhaps the most disconcerting side-effect to befall ultra-distance athletes is the one experienced by Karnazes two years ago, during the race universally acknowledged as the toughest of them all. The Badwater Ultramarathon is a single-stage race of 135 miles run across California's Death Valley in July - the height of summer. Daytime temperatures regularly push 130C and, according to Karnazes, "hallucinations are all part of the experience.
"-During the 2004 race, I saw a 49er, an old miner, crossing the road with a gold pan in his hand. He was mumbling, 'Water, water'. I emptied my bottle into his gold pan and heard the water sizzle on the asphalt. There was no one there.
"The heat is other-worldly. You have to run on the white lines because the asphalt is too hot and the sun is so intense I wear a UV-proof suit. I've known it be 104C at 2am." In the 2004 race Karnazes consumed nine gallons of liquid and 30,000 calories of food. Despite a herculean appetite, his body-weight dropped by five pounds before he passed the post in first place in 27hr 22min. Rather than claiming victory, he says he merely "survived the fastest". To manage the mental pressure, Karnazes uses a technique he calls "babysteps": "get to the next telegraph pole, the next bend in the road."
For those serious about making the step up from a conventional to an ultra marathon, Karnazes has this advice: "Start with a 50km race and see how you feel. Everyone will have different strengths and weaknesses, but everybody needs to try to run for up to seven hours to test their endurance, so don't worry about your speed. If you're stepping up to a 100-miler, you need to do at least one all-night run; it's a different league again."
Later this year Karnazes will make a return to the traditional marathon distance but, as ever, he will be taking the long view, running 50 consecutive marathons in 50 US states over 50 consecutive days. "There's a running challenge, for sure," he says, "but the main problem will be the logistics."
For all his competitive success, it is outside the crucible of competition that Karnazes is redefining the limits of physical endurance, even by his own superhuman standards. In 1995, he ran non-stop from California's Napa Valley to Santa Cruz. There was, for the record, a race taking place, a 12-person team event known simply as "the relay". Karnazes ran the 200-mile race distance solo.
In 2003, he covered 226 miles, again in northern California, again non-stop. A year later, he increased that to 262 miles, or 10 consecutive marathons. And then, last year, the big one, a 350-mile, non-stop loop of San Francisco's Bay area, a feat which took an incredible 80 hours and 44 minutes. "You only stop to change your shoes but otherwise I pee, drink and eat while I run," says Karnazes. "If you're running for three days straight you can't just eat energy snacks, so I eat pizza. I carry a phone and a credit card. I tell the deliv-ery guy where I'm going to be in 20 minutes and he meets me on the corner."
Dean Karnazes's book, 'Ultra-Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner', is available through amazon.co.uk. For information on The North Face range of products: thenorthface.com
Lace up for a long haul
Comrades, South Africa, 16 June
Covering 56 miles, the race alternates between an uphill course one year and a downhill the next. Details: comrades.com
Marathon des Sables, Morocco, 7-16 April
Run over 151 miles of the Sahara desert; when temperatures reach 120C the average "running" speed can drop to 3kph. Details: saharamarathon.co.uk
Western States Endurance Run, California, 24 June The original 100-miler. Details: ws100.com
Badwater Ultra-marathon, 24-26 June "It's pretty intense," says Dean Karnazes of the 135-mile yomp through California's Death Valley, "but it's definitely a race that most runners can build towards."
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