Thursday, June 08, 2006

Dean Karnazes: a widely disliked ultramarathon man

I belong to the ultrarunning list that is housed by the Dartmouth Listserve. The list is high volume, people of varying abilities post there, and passions run high.

One of the ways to arouse dander around there is to mention Dean Karnazes on the list. There seems to be a significant subset of the group that dislikes him.

Since I just read his book Ultramarathon Man, I decided to make some conjectures as to why he is so intensly disliked by some.

  • He is a publicity seeker and a self promoter.
That Mr. Karnazes seeks publicity and promotes himself is beyond question. In many circles this might not be considered a bad thing. But one of the things I've noticed about many ultrarunners (and walkers) is that they are humble.
  • The popular press gives him too much credit.
I think that this assertion is certainly true. Sure, Mr. Karnazes is an excellent athlete; in fact he is one of the better ultrarunners in the United States. For example he has won the brutal Badwater Ultramarathon. And one of the things he is known for is running 350 miles in 84 hours. Yes, that is impressive. But, Pam Reed has won Badwater multiple times, and Yannis Kouros has averaged faster than that for a 6 day race! For that matter, the winning time at the brutal Paris-Colmar 330 mile walk, even when the compulsary 5 hours of rest is factored in, is 66-70 hours. So, while he is good, there are others who are better.

To see what I am getting at, try this: how many 2:15 marathoners can you name? Yeah, 2:15 is very good, but there are others who are much better.

  • He has a buffed athletic body and shows it off. The rest of us, for the most part, don't look so hot by comparison.

Ok, judge for yourself.

Now, I'll put forth two conjectures which appear to contradict each other.
  • He is overly dramatic in his book and his stories; he makes us look like freaks.
There might be some truth to this. I'll admit this from the start: he is a champion athlete and I am not even close, hence he pushes himself harder than I push myself. Nevertheless, I have completed three one hundred mile footraces and have therefore worked through some pain.

So, in my opinion, he appears to put a bit too much drama in his race stories in his book. I have no reason to doubt the facutal details, but most of us merely step up and work through things with little fanfare expected.

  • He might popularize the ultramarathon too much; ultras might eventually start to look the way that current road marathons do.
I know that I sometimes think this. One of the appeal of ultramarathons (especially the very long ones) is that they are NOT very popular; they tend to attract people with certain attitudes. That used to be the case with road marathons.

But now-a-days, the larger road marathons, at least toward the back, seem to have become the hangout of very whiny people.

For example, check out the comments from the 2006 Mad City Marathon. Yes, they had a hot day, and it would have bummed me out to have the race cancelled (or cut short) while it was going on (the EMT's were swamped with sick runners due the extreme heat). But what got me were the comments about the aid stations. You had people complaining because the aid stations were TWO MILES APART?!?!

TWO MILES??? For anyone remotely in shape to run a marathon, you are talking 14-22 minutes apart. And if one is slower than that (as I often am when I am walking the whole thing), CARRY A FREAKING BOTTLE!!!!! It isn't as if you are going to be slowed down by it; not at that kind of pace anyway.

Anyway, you'd never hear people complaining about 2 miles being too long between aid stations at an ultra. And there is some anxiety that popular accounts such as this book might lead to the "penguinization" of our sport.

Many ultra types like being part of a small counter culture.


Anonymous dml said...


The whining comments for that marathon are amazing. That's why I'm pretty much done with road marathons. They've become a mass participation event, rather than an athletic competition.

When I ran my PR marathon (yes, in the old days of 1995), I finished 19th of 499 finishers. With the same time at the same race, I would have been 12th/662 in 2001 and 4th/543 (3 seconds from 3rd) in 2005.

These days, less than 1/3 of the participants in that race finish under four hours and only a handful finish under 3 hours.

I don't have the data available, but I bet that less than half the field was over 3:30 in the 1970s. The course record for men was set in 1973 and for women in 1983.

Marathons have become the equivalent of the aerobics boom of 20 years ago, I'm afraid.

I should probably add a disclaimer such as "not that there's anything wrong with that". I think it's much better that people get up and do something than doing nothing at all. But, when people demand water every two miles, better food, better medals, 9-hour courses, etc., what's the point? It's not a race anymore. It's a mass participation event where a clock happens to be running.

For the most part, I have very little in common with average marathon participant these days, other than being slow myself, so I have moved on.

I dream of someday going back and running another decent marathon, but ultras are simply way more fun for me these days.

6/09/2006 05:50:00 AM  
Blogger ollie said...

Yeah DML, I hear you.

Back in 1980, I ran my marathon PR which is 3:33 (and, let us say it is about 40 minutes slowe than DML's pr) and finished about 1000 out of 2000; that is I was the median runner.

In 2000, I ran 3:38 on a much easier course and got 99 out of 415. But in last year's Chicago marathon, my time would have gotten you 4200 out of 33,000!

At Lake Geneva in 2001, 3:40 got me 35 out of 167 (much more difficult course than Chicago).

So modern mega marathons for the majority of participants, are really "volksmarches" in which the vast majority of the participants throw in some jogging.

There IS nothing wrong with that; the problem is the whining that goes along with it.

I think that running clubs have some sort of blame in this. We try to get people out there, so we set up programs to help people finish, say, a 4 mile race. During the training sessions we set up a water stop and include CANDY?

This, for a FOUR MILE workout???

But if it gets more people off of the couch it is probably worth the effort, though it can lead to the bad side effects that we are seeing.

6/09/2006 06:21:00 AM  
Blogger Travis said...

I will say that is was the press coverage of Dean Karnazes that drew me to endurance sports. After hearing a radio interview on NPR and reading his book, it made me remember why I loved competition so much back in high school. It was not the struggle against the other team, it was the fight with me to keep going that satisfied my need.

I completed my first "ultra-marathon” Easter Weekend at McNaughton Park in Pekin, IL. I use quotes because it was the 30 miler, not a huge race, but for someone like myself who has only been running for a little under a year I will take it. The type of people that were running there, reguardless of distance (30,50, or 100), all had great attitudes. They were there for their own reasons, not to win, but to finish. I don’t see it as an issue that someone like Dean promotes himself. How many of us would LOVE to run for a living? Running road races and ultra's are never going to pay the bills, so he took his passion and made it consumable for everyday folks. Did I have some real down times on that 30 mile trail race? You're damn right I did. I was under trained for the terrain and my ITband was screaming from all the down hills. Would it have made a good chapter in a book? Not likely. The thing to keep in mind is that it was a book, telling a story. If he just wrote “the race was really hard and I was sore” what kind of picture is that painting for the everyday road runner? Also, there are other Ultra runners that are out there promoting too. Scott Jurek is on Dean Karnazes, 20+ time finisher of the WS100,Tim Twietmeyer, Diane Van Deren and several other athletes represent The North Face line and I know there more with other companies.

It will take A LOT for ultras to become mainstream races. Most people are just not willing to put the time in to prepare for such an event.

Now.. on to the whining. I fully agree that common road races are a pain. It has become a thing to say “I did that” as opposed to “I trained for that.” DML first comment summed it up rather nicely. Anyone that has put forth any amount of time to train for a marathon did not have someone out there handing them water every 2 miles and if they did, their spouse or friends are nicer then mine 

6/23/2006 08:08:00 AM  
Blogger ollie said...

Travis, thanks for your comments. Keep in mind that I don't dislike D. K. nor was this post intended to be negative toward him.

I was trying to figure out why he aroused so many strong emotions among so many in the ultramarathon world.

Personally, I find it amusing.

By the way, there is nothing easy about taking that first 30 miler. I remember after my first McNaughton (50K; in those days they tacked on 1 mile at the beginning), I went home and ruined my wife's white bathroom rug by puking on it. I was completely wiped out!

so good job on finishing that ultra and I hope to see you for the 50 miler next year.

6/23/2006 08:50:00 AM  
Blogger ollie said...

Travis: PS: I liked your blog; congratulations on your new baby.

And I admit that I am a bit envious of your build. ;-)

Good luck with your tri activities; I am going to help out at a local triathlon tomorrow (the Peoria Tri Club staffed one of the McNaughton aid stations and I want to return the favor)

6/23/2006 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Travis said...

thanks, I'm a very proud uncle. Also, I figure I put in a lot of time to be in shape, I might as well show off a little while I still have it. :)

I did not take your post as a slam on Dean. I thik the big piece of it is that ultra runners feel like he is "selling out" the sport. It's a very unique group of people that hold the sport dear to their hearts and don't want to see it become commercialized and hyped in the media. Some of the pureness is taken out of it and it is not longer "my sport" its everybody's sport. Then the same problems occur with the people trying the event then griping that there is not water every 2 miles :)

6/23/2006 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ben, aka BadBen said...

I liked this post. You put into words what many ultrarunners think about Dean, agree or not.

About whiny's not just them, it's any distance that involves PAVEMENT. That's one of the reasons why I only do trail runs and ultra trail runs; people don't expect to be coddled, and seem so much nicer to be around.

Happy trails,
Bad Ben

6/27/2006 01:04:00 PM  

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