Meet the man who falls asleep running

Dean Karnazes once ran three days and three nights with no rest, earning himself the name "Ultramarathonman"; Photo courtesy of Quarterly
Dean Karnazes once ran three days and three nights with no rest, earning himself the name “Ultramarathonman.” Photo courtesy of Quarterly
Dean Karnazes once fell asleep running. Other accomplishments include running to the South Pole in -25C temperatures, running 50 marathons in 50 days, and running for 30 miles straight after not training for 15 years.

And through it all, his muscles never tire. No, really, at a testing center in Colorado, researchers performed a lactate threshold test (a test used to determine how well you can clear lactate from your blood and convert it back to energy—once you reach your threshold, you’re body is producing more lactate than it can clear, making running extremely uncomfortable) on Karnazes and expected him to be done in 15 minutes. After an hour, they had to stop the test.

Yep, here’s a man who never receives the message from his brain that he is tired—a man who can run for three days straight and bash the competition in some of the most grueling races in the world yet still has the energy to crack a few jokes during our interview. Super human? Or just super in love with a sport that sees most of us passing out on the couch after a 5-mile day? We’re still not sure, but we do know one thing: If we’re going to take running advice from anyone, it’s this guy.

Hey Dean! Tell us—as a runner, did your parents have a hard time catching you when you were a kid?

My parents had a hard time finding me when I was a kid, let alone catching me. I was prone to wandering, sometimes for days on end. Let’s just say the parental reins in our household were loose.

What’s the longest continuous run you’ve finish to date? The farthest? I once ran 350 miles, three nights without rest. On the third sleepless night, I found myself running down the middle of the road. Knowing better, I meandered back over to the shoulder. Then it happened again. I woke up running down the middle of the road and I realized that I was sleep running. That was kind of freaky. Regarding the farthest I’ve run, I once ran 3,000-plus miles from Los Angeles to New York City. Seventy-five days of nonstop running, 40 to 50 miles per day. Needless to say, I took a plane back home to the West Coast.

Dean's body has the amazing ability to run for days without tiring; Photo courtesy of Quarterly
Dean Karnazes’ body has the amazing ability to run for days without tiring. Photo courtesy of Quarterly
How do you get through such physical tests like that (not to mention the sleep deprivation)?

You try to just put one foot in front of the other to the best of your ability. You try not to think about how much is still left to go because it can be demoralizing. Instead, you focus on the here and now and try to do your best at that present moment of time. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present!

What about the mental fatigue—how do you battle boredom?

You go into a Zen-like state. When you reach this place, the pain and fatigue can all but disappear. Then, five minutes later, you might be lying on the pavement barely able to move. Running these ultra-distances can be a real roller coaster ride.

You’ve got to have a killer playlist … what do you listen to while you run?

Actually, I listen to more audio books than music. I’ve probably got 300 to 400 audio books on my playlist. When I ran across America I listened to more than twenty books, mostly nonfiction. My mom’s an English teacher and she always used to tell me that fiction is the work of the devil.

When they asked George Mallory why he wanted to climb Everest, he said “because it’s there.” What’s your response when people ask the obvious question: Why?

Because I can.

What’s your best advice for newbie runners?

Start from the ground up. Invest in a good pair of running shoes. This will accomplish a couple things: First, you’ll be a lot more comfortable. Second, you’ll feel really guilty having these expensive shoes sitting idle in the closet if you don’t put them to good use.

Dean is a curator for Quarterly, and includes some of his favorite running gear and gadgets in the subscription box; Photo courtesy of Quarterly
Dean Karnazes is a curator for Quarterly, and includes some of his favorite running gear and gadgets in the subscription box. Photo courtesy of Quarterly
You’re a curator for Quarterly, so you created a box full of gear and gadgets to help other runners—what products are always in your car or your running kit?

I’m never without some lip balm. Protecting my lips from the elements is critical since I spend so much time outdoors. Some good quality earbuds are also nice given the number of books I listen to on the run. Photochromatic eyewear that automatically adjusts to different light conditions allows me to run throughout the day or night, and a good headlamp for night running is key. As for what’s in my car, not much. I don’t own one—I just run everywhere instead.

If there’s one running item we haven’t heard of yet that we should run out and buy, what is it?

Fitbit is coming out with a new product that will blow your mind. I could tell you what it is, but then I’d have to kill you. Sorry, I’ve sworn to secrecy so you’ll have to wait a couple months. But I promise you it will be worth it, and you might even see it in a future Quarterly Box!

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