If it doesn't come easy, if it doesn't require extraordinary effort, you're not pushing hard enough: It's supposed to hurt like hell. -- Dean Karnazes' middle school track coach, as recounted in Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner
Karnazes' memoir of his life as an endurance runner likely won't make you want to start running 50 or 100 miles at a time. As he says, "in a pure sense of the word, running is not 'fun.''" Yet Ultramarathon Man will inspire you to push your body, your spirit and your determination to higher levels and greater challenges.
After all, if he can run a marathon in the South Pole and attempt 135 miles through Death Valley in the summer, we can run a 5K or even a regular marathon, right?
Karnazes does not glamourize endurance running in Ultramarathon Man. He does not shy away from divulging details about the aches, the pains, the blisters and the delirium that sets in after dozens of miles of running nonstop. He understands that he is of a different breed. For him, sitting around makes him feel stressed. Relaxation and peace comes when he is running alone in the middle of the night for "training" runs that are the equivalent to a marathon - nothing but his legs and his mental focus to push him through.
If you are a fitness devotee of any sort, you get this. Others might not understand why you love the burning legs that come in a cycling class or why you love "beating yourself up" in a bootcamp. But this is at the core of what Karnazes does. It is at the core of what I do as a fitness trainer and instructor. It's the endorphins, the victory of pushing harder and faster than the last time. It is the personal "win."
A successful middle school and high school track runner, Karnazes had a bad experience with a new coach and stopped running for 15 years. During that time he graduated from college, got married and started climbing the corporate ladder - all the while never getting over the emptiness he felt inside after the death of his sister and best friend, who was killed in a car accident at age 18.
His running resumes the night of his 30th birthday dinner, when he has an epiphany of sorts: To be alive again, he needs to run again. So, after a 15-year "rest and recovery," he sets out on an unplanned 30-mile run from his San Francisco home. He is wearing silk knee-high dress socks, an old pair of sneakers, jockey briefs, and an undershirt. Yes, he looks crazy. And yes, the run is physically miserable. By the time he finishes the next morning at dawn, his feet are so swollen and covered in blood blisters, he can barely get the sneakers off.His muscles ache, and will feel this way for weeks.
Yet, he feels more alive than ever: In the course of a single night I had been transformed from a drunken yuppie fool into a reborn athlete. During a period of great emptiness in my life, I turned to running for strength. I heard the calling, and I went to the light.
He progresses from marathons to 50-mile races to 100-mile races and then to crazy feats like, "Hey let's be the first group to run a marathon in the North Pole!" Like I said, Karnazes' brand of fitness is not for everyone.
But I took away so many valuable lessons and nuggets of inspiration from this book, and I recommend this to everyone - from couch potato to weekend warrior to endurance athlete.
Here, a few of my favorite takeways:
1. Go Far, and then Further: Karnazes is an endorphin junkie. When he finishes one seemingly impossible physical feat, he moves on to the next and ups the ante. If it could be done, I wanted to do it. Because I needed to know how far I could go. I love that. A few weeks ago a boot camp student asked, "Have you made boot camp harder these past couple of times? It's kicking my butt!" Answer: Yes, because you're getting stronger and I know we can push a little harder to get even stronger. The next week, he marveled at how much of "a beast" he felt like in a Saturday boot camp, pounding out pushups "like it was nothing." We don't get stronger by plateauing. We get stronger by upping the ante, even just a little bit at a time.
2. Fuel to Move, Fuel to Perform: Karnazes eats extremely clean pretty much all the time. Salmon 4-5 times a week, organic vegetables and fruits, complex grains and carbohydrates, and salads topped with just olive oil and vinegar. But when he is actually running an endurance event, he calculates exactly what his body needs to push through all of those hours. For him, that means more than 25,000 calories. Yes, you read correctly. And because he needs densely packed calories and sugar and carbs, his eat-as-I-run menu is an eye-popping one that includes 8 Power Bars, a full pizza (he has mastered the art of running while holding a pizza box), 3 burritos, 2 cinnamon buns, a full cheesecake, 5 chocolate chip cookies, 3 donuts and a large chocolate malt. Holy cow, right? But the key lesson here is that he only eats like that during an endurance race. The rest of the time he eats caveman clean. He fuels himself to move, and he moves often. Result: His body fat is 5 percent.
3. Don't forget strength training and cross training: You know the look of an endurance runner who does little except run. They look lanky, thin, and while their hearts are strong as an ox, they don't have a lot of upper body muscle tone or strength. Karnazes is admittedly more muscular and "built" than typical endurance runners. This bulk keeps him from being faster than he is, but he doesn't mind. He wants the strength to be able to do the other outdoor sports he loves, including windsurfing, mountain biking and surfing. He credits this cross training with the fact that he has never suffered a running injury. He also spends time in the gym, and even when he can't get there he has a daily strength regimen using the most effective resistance there is - his own body weight:
- 4 sets of 50 pushups, once in the morning and again at night
- 4 sets of 90 sit-ups, once in the morning and again at night
4. Failure happens. Enjoy the journey. And try again: Karnazes does not make it through the 135-mile Death Valley run known as "The World's Toughest Footrace." At mile 72, with 63 miles to go, his body shuts down. He vomits every time he tries to eat, his internal body temperature is all out of whack, and he collapse on the side of the road. But Karnazes sees the silver lining: Yes I had failed - but it had actually been a spectacular failure, gloriously disintegrating every aspect of my body and soul until I literally fell over in the dirt...I'd loved every second of it.
Karnazes is a total Badass. His journey inspires. Run, Dean, Run!
Coming Wednesday: "Triggering" recovery and muscle release for endurance athletes and weekend warriors.