Tag Archives: Badwater

“Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner” by Dean Karnazes

You’re supposed to be a bit snobbish about Dean Karnazes. According to ‘Born to Run’ and sites such as LetsRun.com (other running forums are available), ‘real’ ultra-runners see him as too self-promoting, too keen to blow his own trumpet about his achievements, many of which are not unique.

His critics argue that he doesn’t even enter proper races anymore, taking on self-declared ‘challenges’ instead, such as running 50 marathons in 50 days across 50 states, or seeing how many miles he could run in 3 days non-stop (300). They suggest he’s not a proper racer, but instead is just very good at marketing himself, something the purists say is against the low-key ethos of the sport.

Well balls to that. I’d rather spend 300 pages in Dean’s wacky life than Scott ‘Eat and Run’ Jurek’s. And it certainly is a weird life. He didn’t start running properly as an adult until his 30th birthday, when he got tanked up on cervezas and decided to run 30 miles. In the middle of the night. In tennis shoes.

‘Ultramarathon Man’ describes his subsequent journey into running, his training for ultras such as the Western States 100, and the logistical problems of getting pizza delivered to you in the middle of a midnight run. Some of the best sections discuss his attempts at Badwater, a 135-mile race so hot that participants’ shoes can melt mid-run. When he first attempted it, Karnazes collapsed halfway through, and narrowly avoided being revived in a coffin of ice water. The following year he came back and won the event. After that he decided to become the first man to run to the South Pole. And so on.

All of this might sound like a nauseating list of one man’s superhuman achievements, but Karnazes is affable company and happy to talk about the times when things go wrong, such as the time he chundered all over his new company car following a 50-mile race. It’s quite refreshing to read a running book where the narrator doesn’t have much in the way of internal demons – he just really likes going for a run.

He might not compete much anymore, but then he is 50. There is also some evidence that he actually IS superhuman – as mentioned in a Guardian profile last year, tests have shown that he never reaches his lactate threshold, and therefore can run without ever getting muscle fatigue. Plus (full disclosure here) I met him at the NYC marathon last year and he was a very nice man indeed.

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“Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” by Scott Jurek

It won’t take a reader of this book long to realise that Scott Jurek is not a normal person. Or a normal runner, for that matter. Jurek is one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time, having won umpteen races of 100miles+, including the suicidal-sounding Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in temperatures of 40 degrees plus?!) and the Spartathlon in Greece (152 miles). This is a man who can unleash 7-minute mile-ing at the 90-mile mark of a race. And all this while living on a strict vegan diet.

Having become famous off the back of “Born to Run”, Scott has clearly been encouraged to cash in on his fame. Part memoir, part race report, part training guide, part recipe book – “Eat and Run” is a curious mix, but an enjoyable tour through Jurek’s life nevertheless.

The memoir takes you through Scott’s tough early upbringing in Minnesota, his difficult relationship with his dad and his love for his MS-suffering mum. We learn about his cross-country skiing schooldays, and his first forays into long-distance running. He gets married, takes up veganism and conquers the ultramarathon world. After a while, the unanswered questions start stacking up:

– What has happened to his brother and sister? They’re not even mentioned when their mother dies.

– Why does he fall out with his best friend towards the end of the book? Scott makes it sound like he’s somewhat baffled by it, but you get the feeling there’s more to it than that.

– And how on earth does Scott hold down ANY kind of personal relationship doing the kind of training he has to do? I struggle to maintain run/work/life balance when training for a mere marathon. What was his first wife doing for all those years?

Scott’s an amiable presence throughout the book, but the questions like the ones above mean you can’t help getting the impression that sometimes he can be a bit of a…well…dick. There’s a comment later in the book about overtaking a fellow runner suffering from hypernatremia that had me gasping at its callousness.

It’s the discussions about food and veganism where the book really comes into its own. (Disclaimer: I’m not a vegan, although I would call myself a ‘friend of vegetarianism’. I’ve been a pescatarian at times in my life, and often do fortnightly vegetarian streaks…although pork and pork accessories always lure me back). Jurek is a passionate vegan, and highlights how a runner can function perfectly well on a plant-based diet. I have to say, it does seems to involve a lot of beans, which makes me fear for his fellow down-wind runners. And what the hell is “nutritional yeast”? I’m sure I’ve got that growing in my trainers.

He claims it has made him healthier, faster, and quicker to recover, and I believe him. However, it seems to be almost as much of a full-time vocation as ultramarathon running. He mills his own flour, travels miles to health-food markets, and involves a lot of experimentation. I really enjoyed reading these sections, as he talks about his successes (the joy of discovering avocados) and failures (a flask of olive oil does not make for good in-run hydration). And I loved his (serious) reason for giving up a short-lived attempt at a raw food diet (it was taking too long to chew).

So while I don’t think Jurek’s diet is for me, there are certainly things we can all take away from his thoughts on food. His recipes for chocolate adzuki bars and smokey refried beans are already on my “to cook” list.

Overall, this is a breezy, thought-provoking read, and Jurek will inspire you in one way or another. I can’t help thinking the man has a dark or selfish side that gets glossed over, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

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