The incredible running man crosses America

The Philadelphia Inquirer

May 9, 2011

By Art Carey

When Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, I marveled at what I considered the ultimate endurance test and thought he’d finally reached the limit of what’s humanly possible.

Silly me. By now it should be obvious that Karnazes (pronounced kar-NASS-us) specializes in smashing limits and accomplishing the seemingly impossible. To wit: running 350 continuous miles; running across Death Valley in 120-degree heat; running a marathon to the South Pole in minus-40-degree cold; winning the world’s toughest footrace, the Badwater Ultramarathon.

Now consider his latest feat -- running across America. The man with the titanium joints began on Feb. 25 at Disneyland in Southern California. Barring the unforeseen, he’ll complete his epic journey Tuesday in New York City when he trots onto the set of Live With Regis and Kelly (9 a.m., ABC6), which has been following his progress.

By then, Karnazes (a.k.a. “Karno”) will have run nearly 3,000 miles in 75 days. On each of those days, he covered 40 to 50 miles, the equivalent of nearly two marathons. For a local comparison, imagine running the eight-mile river-drive loop six times in one day. Now imagine doing that for 75 consecutive days.

In my 20s, I ran several 50-milers. The day after, I was so sore I couldn’t walk, and it took weeks for my body to recover fully. To run that distance day after day for 2-1/2 months is phenomenal. By the way, Karno is 48 years old, and he doesn't stretch.

Last Thursday, I jogged briefly with Karno when he stopped in Philadelphia to lead a 5K run that began and ended at Memorial Hall, home of the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park. The run attracted about 350 participants and was one of a dozen such events that have punctuated Karno’s cross-country tour, whose higher purpose is to raise money for Action for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit volunteer network that is fighting childhood obesity and poor nutrition.

Thursday was Day 70 of Karno’s transcontinental adventure. Before the 5K, he had already run about 10 miles. Afterward, he was planning to run 30 or so more, which would place him near Trenton when he quit for the day.

“The best runner is the one who is having the most fun,” he told the crowd at the Please Touch Museum. “It doesn’t matter if you finish first or last. We all cross the same finish line.”

I’ve met Karno before and have run with him a couple of times. He’s a paradoxical fellow: an introvert with a congenial personality. He’s also not built like a typical long-distance runner. He’s more mesomorph than ectomorph, with muscular arms and a well-developed torso, the result of cross-training with such sports as windsurfing.

When I saw him Thursday, nearly 3,000 miles of nonstop “road work” had taken its toll. He was slight, narrow of shoulder, beyond lean. On his website, Karno, 5-foot-8, lists his weight as 156 pounds. He now weighs 145. “He’s cannibalizing his muscles for fuel,” explained Jason Koop, his trainer and coach, even though he consumes 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, including a nightly meal of wild Pacific salmon (“I’m a big advocate of Omega 3 fatty acids,” Karno said).

The trip has been punishing, Karno admitted. Achilles tendinitis plagued him in the Southwest. “There were times when I was completely broken down, when I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to get out of bed and run 40 to 50 miles, there’s no way I can even walk right now.’”

The weather was erratic, unseasonably hot and brutally cold. As he crossed the Arizona desert in early March, the temperature was in the 100s. Once Karno climbed the continental divide, he assumed it would be all downhill. Then came the Ozarks and the Appalachian “hills” of Western Pennsylvania.

“Not only were those mountains steeper and tougher than I anticipated,” Karno said, “but the heat and humidity were almost unbearable.”

As he ran through Philadelphia, in the virtual homestretch, Karnazes was free of injury and feeling stronger than ever.

“When I was training for this, I really conditioned my core, especially my back muscles, so I could rely on them to propel me when my legs lost their thrust.”

The key to Karno's success?

“An absolutely indomitable will and strong joints,” said Koop, his coach.

“The human body is remarkably resilient,” Karno said. “If there’s a trick, it’s having the mental fortitude to get up every morning and say to myself, ‘Today I’m going to lay it on the line. If I break, I break.’

“One thing I’ve learned is to embrace failure, to regard it as a learning experience. Only by pushing yourself to failure do you know how far you can go.”