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Ultra Nippon – A Week in Japan With The Ultramarathon Man

He has an inhuman ability to conquer the extreme. He can run for days without stopping or sleep. Is it Superman? Perhaps Ultraman? No, it’s Ultramarathon Man—also known as Dean Karnazes. Yet beneath his rugged persona is an ordinary guy who happens to be doing extraordinary things.

Ultramarathon: An ultramarathon is any running event longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometers (26.21875 miles). The most common distances run are 50 and 100 miles (or kilometers). Other distances include double marathons, 24-hour runs, or multi-day races of 1,000 miles or more. (From Wikipedia, July 2007)

Dean Karnazes has inspired people in America and abroad with his amazing athletic achievements and has helped put the word “ultramarathon” into the public lexicon. As a The North Face-sponsored athlete, Dean was recently invited to Japan to participate in the inaugural The North Face 50K Endurance Race in Hakone, and I had the opportunity to spend a week with him.

Before his arrival, I read his best-selling book, surfed his Website and flipped through various articles about him. He had completed many prestigious 100-mile races and recently ran 50 marathons in 50 states over 50 consecutive days! Amazing.

He ran 135 miles across Death Valley in California while temperatures soared above 50˚C (120˚F) then merely completed a marathon—in the South Pole! – where temperatures dropped below 40˚C.

While personal challenge is a great motivator, helping others while running is something Dean has deeply embraced. He is a motivational speaker and has completed many runs for charity, such as the event where he ran 200 miles non-stop to raise money for a liver transplant operation needed by a little girl with cancer. The little girl’s photo he carried with him during the run kept him going.

Newsweek, GQ, Men’s Journal and People are just a few of the major magazines in which he has recently been featured. TIME even ranked him as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People” in 2007 and he recently graced the cover of Outside Magazine. Not to mention some entertaining interviews on The Late Show with David Letterman, Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brian.

It is not every day you get to hang out with “The Ultramarathon Man,” but I was more curious than awed. What was Dean really like?

Fueling up in Tokyo
In his book “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner,” one of the most infamous scenes takes place during a 199-mile non-stop relay race (Dean ran the entire race by himself while other teams changed runners every five miles) when, running along the dark highway in the middle of the night, he pulled out his cell phone and put in an order for a large pizza (plus cheesecake and coffee) and convinced the manager to have it delivered to an intersection along the way where he promptly wolfed it all down while running.

When Dean runs, he allows himself to eat junk food, and plenty of it, in order to get the calories he needs to continue running long distances. However, in his daily life, he is an extremely healthy eater. His diet mainly consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish.

He avoids meat and dairy products and doesn’t eat white sugar or any processed foods such as rice, bread or pasta. No sandwiches, no sushi (just sashimi), salad but no dressing, and curry, but without rice. This, we quickly found, was a bit tricky when ordering a meal in Japan and, if not outright refused, it often entailed a lot of explaining and many conversations such as this…

“I’d like to order just the curry—without rice please.”
“Without rice?!?” (Waiter looks horrified.)
“Without rice.”
“Are you sure…?”
“Yes, I’m sure – curry without rice. Just a bowl of curry, please.”
[Long pause.]
“Okay.” [Longer pause.] “Is there anything else I can bring you?”

Dean’s thinking is human beings aren’t made to digest processed foods and, while eating them may not necessarily be harmful, he believes there is little nutritional value gained from eating these types of foods. Since he doesn’t get his carbohydrates from the usual sources such as pasta and rice, he relies on a heavy intake of fruits to get the carbs he needs to stay active. He politely asks if we could stop by the nearby fruit market so he can stock up.

As we entered Tokyu’s basement food section in Shibuya, our senses were simultaneously bombarded by the high-pitched shouts from the food court staff, the smell of freshly grilled eel and chicken skewers, the beautiful displays of delicate desserts and colorful bento boxes and, of course, people everywhere.

When we finally located the fruit area, we were shocked at the ¥10,000 melons, ¥5,000 for a very small box of cherries and ¥40,000 for a bunch of grapes. These were the crème de la crème of gourmet fruits; however, lucky for us, there were some regular-priced fruits as well. “Look at the size of these apples! They’re huge!” exclaimed Dean. In Japan, the apples are indeed enormous.

I was reminded of when I first came to Japan from Canada and found Japanese apples were literally double the size of a typical North American Granny Smith’s apples.

“And these carrots!” Yes, the scrawny little North American carrots look like pencils compared to the Japanese sumo-sized carrots. Dean picked out a few items and went home carrying a small bag with more than ¥5,000 worth of food. Maybe Shibuya isn’t the best place to shop for fruit.

Endurance Training Tokyo-style
Along with a very healthy diet, Dean maintains his fitness and endurance by mountain biking, windsurfing, surfing, climbing and, of course, running. When he isn’t participating in a big race of some sort, Dean trains every weekend by running a marathon (42 km.) just for fun. The events he prefers are mind-blowingly long endurance races such as 100-mile ultramarathons as well as multi-day endurance runs.

In fact, the week prior to coming to Japan, he had just completed an endurance run in Australia where he ran 580 km. in six days. Although he hadn’t fully recovered yet, and apparently had a few sore muscles, Dean was looking forward to the “short” 50 km. Hakone trail race. Was there anything that could actually tire out this seemingly indefatigable human?

During his busy week in Japan, Dean wasn’t able to squeeze in any mid-week runs. He did however, have the chance to experience a different type of endurance training: life in Tokyo.

Like anyone coming to Japan for the first time, he was amazed at the sight of Hachiko crossing in Shibuya. The lights change, and hundreds of people walk in every direction. The lights change again and then it’s cars, taxis, buses and trucks whizzing by. It’s hectic, vibrant and actually kind of fun…especially from the peacefulness of inside your hotel.

However, Dean had to leave the sanctuary of the hotel and descend into the crowds below. Shibuya, Harajuku, Omotesando and then over to Ueno and Kamiyacho. Jam-packed trains, the complex labyrinth of train stations, multiple train transfers, crowded streets, music blaring from loudspeakers, the glaring neon signs and all the people. After about the third day, it finally did him in.

“I’m so tired. I’d like to go back to the hotel early to get some rest,” admitted the Ultramarathon Man.

The Great Communicator
Dean readily admits he is not necessarily the fastest runner. But he is one of the toughest. After spending the week with him however, it was easy to see he possesses other qualities contributing to his success. He is a great communicator, he is patient and possesses a good sense of humor.

Dean was able to communicate with the Japanese people he met, not necessarily through words, but through expressions; his smile, his friendliness and his down-to-earth demeanor. He showed respect and patience during all the receptions and store events and tried his best to listen and understand what was being said to him, even if it was all in Japanese.

He laughed and kindly obliged when curious girls (and sometimes guys) asked to touch his muscular calves. In Kamakura at Zeni Arai Ben Ten (銭洗弁天) he showed his hosts how to really make big bucks. Rather than the usual ¥100 coin, he whipped out a hundred dollar bill and washed it. (It’s said that your money will double if you wash it in the sacred waters at Ugafuku Shrine (宇賀福神社)). Later, he pulled out two one-hundred dollar bills and cheerfully exclaimed, ”Hey, look guys, it really worked!”

Sometimes the most effective form of communication is achieved not through words but attitude, and this is probably why so many people have been drawn to him. Dean’s accomplishments as an ultra-runner are impressive but after having met Dean in person and spending a week with him, I was most impressed not by the ultra endurance athlete who appears on covers of magazines all over the world, but Dean the person. I can honestly say I genuinely like the guy, as those who had the opportunity to meet him.

And, as he mentioned to me many times, what he enjoyed most about Japan was the people. With a title such as the Ultramarathon Man, you would expect him to be stoic, intense and serious, but Dean seems to get motivation from the people around him.

Perhaps it’s this “human-ness” that gives him the energy to push just a bit further than anybody else, accomplishing the inhuman feats of endurance that have inspired so many people and touched so many lives.


Occupation: Endurance Athlete, Author
Age: 45
Family: Wife (Julie) and two children (Nicholas, Alexandria)
Home: San Francisco, California
Height: 5’8″
Weight: 156 lbs.
Body Fat: 4%
Resting Heart Rate: 39 bpm *bpm = beats per minute
Running Heart Rate: 150 bpm
Favorite Food: Anything Greek
Favorite Book: “Endurance,” by Alfred Lausing
Favorite Music: Alternative rock, college music, reggae
Greatest Fear: Growing up
His Book: “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner” is a national best-seller and has been translated into 12 languages, although it is not yet available in Japanese.
His Web site: www.ultramarathonman.com

Career Highlights

– Winner, Dead President’s Ultra, 2007
– Completed 50 marathons, 50 states, 50 days, then ran 1,300 miles from New York City to St. Louis as a cool down, 2006
– Winner, Vermont Trail 100, 2006
– Winner, Badwater Ultramarathon: The World’s Toughest Footrace, 2004
– Winner, Arabian Stallion Award, Angel’s Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run, 2003
– Winner, Outdoor World Championships, 2000
– Eleven-time Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Silver Buckle holder
– Ran 350 continuous miles
– Six-time finisher of the Saturn Relay ultra division (199 miles non-stop solo)
– First and only person to run a marathon to the South Pole in running shoes.
– Competed in more than 100 extreme endurance events around the globe
– Member of the American Ultrarunning Team representing the USA at the 2005 World Championships

Ultrarunning in Japan

In Japan, running is extremely popular, and the number of people pounding the pavement (and trails) has grown exponentially in recent years. Although not as popular as your regular marathon, ultra running has picked up steam with the number of “ultras” (ultra running races) in Japan on the rise. Here are a few:

2007 History Road Tango 100K Ultramarathon
Next Race: Sept. 16

Challenge Fuji Five Lakes 72K / 100K / 112K
チャレンジ富士五湖 72km/100km/112km
Next Race: April 2008

Hoshi no Sato Yatsugatake Nobeyama Kogen 100K Ultramarathon
星の郷八ヶ岳野辺山高原100km ウルトラマラソン
Next Race: May 2008

Saroma Lake 100K Ultramarathon
Next Race: June 2008

Trail & Mountain
Japan Mountain Endurance Race (Hasegawa Tsuneo Cup) 72km
Next Race: Oct. 20 – 21

The North Face Endurance OSJ Hakone 50K
ザ・ノース・フェイス エンデュランスラン OSJハコネ50K
Next Race: May 2008
www.goldwin.co.jp/thenorthface (Hakone 50K Endurance Race)

Kita-Tanzawa 12-Hour Mountain Endurance Race 43.86 km.
北丹沢12時間山岳耐久レース 43.86km
Next Race: July 2008

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