Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner
reviewed by John Medinger
First, a disclaimer: Dean Karnazes is a friend of mine. As veteran ultrarunners who live in the same metropolitan area, we have crossed paths many times over the years. Dean and I don't run together (he is much faster than me), so we don't share the bond that training partners often have, but we have always clicked as kindred spirits. I know his wife and kids. He has both run in and volunteered at races I have directed and I have contributed to charities he has promoted with his running.
When Dean told me in 2004 that he was writing a book, I thought it would be a vanity press first-person account, similar to earlier works by David Horton, Bob Holtel, and Bob Boeder. I have read and enjoyed each of these. I was very surprised to later learn that Penguin, a major publishing house, was his publisher. And now, I am absolutely stunned at the public reception, amount of publicity, and sales volume his book has garnered. At this writing in mid-April 2005, the book is entering its third consecutive week on the New York Times bestseller list. A book about ultrarunning on the New York Times bestseller list? Go figure.
Karnazes' book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner is a chronicle of his running career. He started as a talented but rebellious high school cross-country runner, quit running altogether as a young adult, and then experienced a running epiphany on his 30th birthday. He quickly progressed through bigger and bigger challenges and took on the Western States100 Mile four years later. Karnazes chronicles his first 50-mile, his first Western States and his first attempt at Badwater with an eye for detail and well-placed humor.
The book is not without flaws. He lapses into occasional hyperbole in recounting his exploits, and many of the one-liners will be familiar or even clichéd to veteran runners. Perhaps the most serious flaw is that he initially comes across in the book as overly egotistical. He crows about being "ripped like a prize fighter" and having "less than five percent body fat." Deeper into the book he becomes more self-effacing, but the initial impression remains. This is ultimately ironic because in real life Karnazes – while hardly lacking in self-confidence – is caring and genuine.
Many in the ultra crowd will be disappointed to find no detailed training regime, no description of how much speed work he does, what kind of cross-training he employs, how he tapers for races, or any other technical training information. Clearly, the book was written with the general public in mind, not the readers of UltraRunning magazine.
The book was written without a ghostwriter, and the writing itself is quite serviceable, surprisingly good for a first-time author. It may lack the poetic prose of a Stegner or the compelling narrative of a Krakauer, but make no mistake: Karnazes is a good storyteller. He makes you want to jump forward in the text to find out what happens, all while quoting Socrates, Dostoevsky, and Eddie Van Halen with equal aplomb.
The book really shines when Karnazes talks about what drives him. He brilliantly describes his passion for adventure, is candid about his desire to excel and his need to explore the outer limits of his body and will. He writes, "it wasn't acclaim I craved, but adventures that involved out-of-body experiences, intense pain, nights without sleep, and a supreme sense of accomplishment." He wonders out loud about whether he might be a little obsessive/compulsive and jokes about being "borderline psychotic." He accepts pain and suffering as part of the process, but notes "it gives me a heightened sense of being alive."
Although it is written more for the armchair athlete and weekend warrior, serious runners will find it an entertaining read that will bring back similar memories and experiences. lt was meant to inspire the reader, and readily accomplishes that goal. The book has brought a fair amount of attention to our often-overlooked sport. More importantly – paraphrasing the famous words of Gordy Ainsleigh – we can thank Dean for making the rest of us look normal.