Every runner’s story starts somewhere. A New Year’s Resolution. A bet taken too far, or in Dean Karnazes’s case – ‘bad tequila’.
The first time I ever heard of ultra-distance running as something more than an underground cult was in an interview that the Telegraph magazine did with him in 2005 when his first book Ultramarathon Man came out. It took a couple of years before I did anything about it, but my life as an ultra-distance runner, it is defined as before and after this moment.
I did not dare ask how many miles he has run since that book came out, but last week Karnazes was in the UK promoting his third book, Run! I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview him on stage for an event with the Serpentine Running Club.
By the time we caught up with him for a five-mile run around Hyde Park he had already taken two journalists, including Evan Davis, through their paces, and had rather sheepishly confessed to his publisher that he had damaged the door frame to his hotel room by doing pull ups. In the five years since the Telegraph interview he has lost the bulk of his upper body and the miles pound beneath the skin of his massively oversized calves, and he is more wiry, more compact, more clearly carved as an ultra-distance runner than I thought even he would be. He is also incredibly gracious. Runners love to tell their own stories – particularly the gruesome ones – and both round Hyde Park and at the event, his fans were queuing up as much to hear first hand what Dean had to say, as to ask his opinion of what they had been through.
To give some context, we opened the event talking about James Adams and his epic run across America since Karno had finished a similar crossing six weeks before. What was James going through right now? What could he expect in 50 days time when he was still running? ‘Hell’ was all he said. James had posted a particularly downbeat post the day before. 150 people inhaled at once.
The questions covered everything from what Karno ate (almond butter is a favourite) to his training routine (marathons at 4am), to what his plans for the future are – a marathon in each country of the world in one calendar year). But where Karno is different from the rest (and he really does think that anyone could do what he does) is his honesty. (The best bits of Run! are where he talks about failure). And the last question was simply – what had happened to all the friends he had before he started running. There was no dramatic pause. He said very simply – ‘I have no social life.’ The message was clear – discipline and dedication are paramount. That is the price you pay for the experiences he has had, the adventures that most of us with only read about.
When I said my goodbyes it was gone 9pm and the queue of people lined up to get their book signed was still 50 metres long and he greeted each fan like a long-lost friend, while his wife did the same to those who were patiently waiting. This is why Karnazes has become the ambassador for a sport that has long been hidden in the long grass, and he is an inspiration to us all.