The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The Ultra Marathon Man

The Ultra Marathon Man

Dean Karnazes takes his pizza to go.

Around 2 a.m. most of us are either fast asleep or wishing we were. At that ungodly hour, ultra marathoner Dan Karnazes is likely running from his San Francisco home to Calistoga, munching on Round Table pizza and maybe even a whole cheesecake. In his new book Ultra Marathon Man, Confessions of an All-Night Runner (Jeremy M. Tarcher, 2005), Karnazes explains his insatiable appetite for ultra marathons—runs of over 26.2 miles (though Karnazes prefers those in the 100-mile range). A cross-country standout in high school, Karnazes abandoned the sport in college to become a party animal. He later earned his MBA and is now president of a San Francisco health food company. But old habits die hard. On his 30th birthday Karnazes had a few too many drinks and decided to run it off—immediately. The all-night journey sobered him up and rekindled his interest in long-distance running. Since then Karnazes, 42, has won prestigious events such as last year’s 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley in 125-degree temperatures. Although Karnazes has a standing policy of doing interviews while running, I chose to quiz him over the phone in my bathrobe.

Paul Kilduff: Did you go running last night?

Dean Karnazes: Oh yeah. I went over the Golden Gate Bridge and it was kind of raining. And I went up the Marin Headlands and came on back and cooked dinner for the family.

PK: What about your 2 a.m. runs up to Calistoga?

DK: I usually reserve those for the weekends. What I love to do is tuck the kids in on Friday night, read to them in bed, and then at about 8 p.m. set a course for Calistoga. I get there usually about nine, ten in the morning on Saturday.

PK: Do you ever get hassled by the police when you’re out running in the middle of the night?

DK: It’s just the opposite. You have personal encounters with people in a very enlightening sort of way. You run into the 7-11 in Petaluma at three in the morning and the guy behind the counter is primarily concerned about not being robbed at that time of night. I come in, in running gear, and I connect on a different level. They immediately smile and it cuts through all the B.S.

PK: I’m fascinated by the logistics of running and eating an entire pizza, a cheesecake, and some coffee at the same time. How do you do it?

DK: I’ve learned a couple of things over the years. I’ve learned that pepperoni just doesn’t work. It’s too spicy. So you get the thin crust Hawaiian and you roll it into a log like a burrito and it’s pretty easy to manage. I mean it’s gruesome but it’s over pretty quickly and it’s not too bad.

PK: Do you always eat on the run?

DK: You absolutely need to eat. I usually run with a hydration pack and some finger food—Power Bars and stuff like that. When I run to Calistoga, I know where to get off the trail and access a liquor store if I’m really bonking and need something. I basically follow a “see food diet” when I’m out there: I see food and I eat it.

PK: I know about your healthy diet when you’re not running. Are these training runs just an excuse to eat junk food?

DK: The dilemma with eating natural foods is that they are not processed, not refined. All of the natural fibers are left in the food. During a 200-mile run, I consumed 28,000 calories in 46 hours, but I burned about 34,000 calories. And 28,000 calories of natural food would bloat a rhinoceros. That would be so much bulk you could never consume that much. The food I eat when I’m doing these races is highly refined, highly processed so you’re not getting any fiber. You’re just getting basically calories.

PK: Some of your fellow ultra marathoners have accused you of ruining the mystique of the sport. Like now everybody’s going to take it up. Do you see that happening?

DK: I can’t see people rushing out and signing up for 100-mile foot races across the country. If I can encourage America to get off the couch and start exercising, to make physical activity a priority in their lives, than I think I’ve fulfilled my mission.

PK: You write about Americans being too comfortable. Should we all strive for the physical pain you endure in an ultra marathon?

DK: There’s a quote in [the book] by Dostoyevsky that says suffering is the origin of consciousness. The gist of what I’m saying is that there’s no struggle left in our lives. It all comes easy. We can go anywhere and get anything, anytime. I’m physically challenging myself to the point of breakdown, but it could be an intellectual challenge. It’s constantly taking on new challenges, struggling for a goal. If you’re a basket weaver, go out and be the best darn basket weaver on the planet if that’s where your passion is.

PK: Sports Illustrated Women named you one of the “Ten Sexiest Men in Sports.” How does it feel to be designated a stud muffin?

DK: I think it’s hilarious because I’m happily married. I’m a father. But the other thing is, there are a lot of ultra marathoners that are kind of skinny and gaunt and they don’t look so healthy because their approach is one-sided. All they do is run. I do other outdoor activities. I really value health and physical excellence. I’m a little bit bulkier than most runners.

PK: That’s what all that Round Table pizza will do for you. Burning Man is later this month, how about running from San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert naked to mark the 20th anniversary of the event?

DK: I ran around the world naked already. There’s a picture in the book of me standing naked in front of a little pole. I ran a marathon to the South Pole and one of these other runners said that if we run around that pole we’re circumnavigating the globe at its smallest circumference, at minus 40 degrees. So, I’ve already circumnavigated the globe naked. I don’t know if it can get much better than that.

Suggestions? E-mail Paul Kilduff at

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