There is a scene in Dean Karnazes’ new book A Runner’s High when the reader suddenly feels like the world is caving in. The scene describes a waking nightmare that Dean has when he contemplates not finishing a race that he has spent so long thinking about and working towards.
In the horrible scene, Dean imagines how his son, Nicholas, will respond if his Dad drops out of the race. The scenario that Dean imagines is full of anger, indignation and frustration on the part of Dean’s son and his wife.
Reading this passage in the book gives the reader a sliver of an insight into the inner workings of the mind of a man whose exploits have captured the imagination of thousands if not millions of runners around the world, launching so many runners onto the roads and trails. Since the publication of Dean’s first book – Ultramarathon Man – in 2005, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. But talking to Dean on a video call, his energy and enthusiasm remain as bright and sparkling as ever.
So I start at the beginning, with Ultramarathon Man. Because what is obvious is that Dean’s writing has come a long way since that first book. Dean has evolved into a master storyteller which is clear from the first words in this book, which describe a nasty moment during a brutal race;
“I’m lying catawampus splayed ass-to-the-dirt in the trail – one leg tweaked improbably beneath me – staring up at the afternoon sky seeing sparkles of light flickering before me like circling fireflies and wondering what the hell just happened.”
So why did Dean start the book with this?
“Well, the thing that I have learned over the years,” Dean explains “is that choosing a race that went well is not a great story. A difficult race is much more relatable.”
And that answer goes to the heart of what makes this book so special; there is an intimacy, openness and rawness to the story that really takes the reader behind the scenes and into the mindset of a very human person doing extraordinary things.
The first person we meet in the book is Dean’s Dad. Karnazes senior is clearly a big character and it is lovely to see how Dean recoils with embarrassment when his Dad greets him loudly, in public, with “Hey, it’s Ultramarathon Man!” But there is clearly a deep bond of love between the two of them. As Dean explains;
“I come from a really close family. My Greek background means that I have very strong family ties” says Dean “and my Mum and Dad have always featured prominently in my life. After all, no ultra runner is an island – we all need people around us who can support us. My family do that for me.”
Of course it is not just Dean’s Dad who is there to support him. Dean writes about his wife, Julie, who has supported him throughout his transformation from desk jockey to full time global running superstar;
“Julie has always been so enthusiastic and supportive” says Dean “although I think now she is getting a bit tired of a life spent chasing around after me. And that is humbling because Julie doesn’t put me on a pedestal.”
Alongside his Dad, one of the key characters in the book is Dean’s son Nicholas. Through the book we see a fascinating axis between three generations of Karnazes men – Dean’s father, Dean himself and Nicholas – and I’m curious to know how Nicholas felt to be included in the book;
“I didn’t really explain to Nicholas the extent to which he’d be featured” Dean confesses “so he was pretty blown away when he read the book – which he did from cover to cover in a couple of days.”
Another person who features in the book is Dean’s sister, Pary, who passed away 30 years ago when she was 18 years old. It is clear from the passage in the book where Dean and his Dad talk about Pary, that her loss is keenly felt. Asking Dean about this he says;
“Pary and I were best friends growing up. She was two years younger than me and when she passed I went through all the stages of bereavement. But after a while I decided the best way to honour her memory was by living to my utmost. And she is there in every run I do.”
Of course, the other element of A Runner’s High is the running. The story of the book charts Dean’s pursuit of a place at the impossible-to-get-into Western States 100 Miler. A place that Dean hopes to secure as a form of redemption following his last outing on the trails of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, where he DNF’d – one of the few times that Dean has not finished what he set out to do.
In the book, Dean muses about a few different subjects. One is the rise in the interest in ultra marathons and attendant participant numbers. Not so much a problem at Western States where the total number of runners is capped at 369. But in other cases, ultra running has exploded;
“I’m conflicted by the rise in popularity of ultra marathon running” Dean says “I mean I know what it is like to turn up at a well organised event and the vibe you get there. But I also love the small, grungy events with 75 entrants and support from local volunteers.
“The thing is, I sometimes wish I could protect the sport I love, but it is a wild beast now. I guess I love the fact that for so long ultra running has been about experience rather than times and positions. But perhaps the sport is changing a bit now and that will lead to a more corporate feel to events.”
In 2009 when Dean last raced Western States, he says he was almost suffering from racing burn-out. When the going got tough, he found a justification to quit the race. And he knows he’d been in tougher situations – but always managed to power through. That was not to be in ’09. Watching the live stream of the race a couple of years later, Dean realized that he did not want the Western States chapter of his running career to end the way it did. So he decided to go back for redemption.
Whilst on the surface, the story in A Runner’s High is the return to Western States, the real narrative is about family and friendship. From the tragic loss of his sister three decades ago; to discovering a bond with his son, Nicholas, that he thought might not be there; through the love of his wife who supports him and keeps him grounded; and to the love of his father – it seems as though Dean goes through a literal journey over 100 miles in the mountains that would not be possible without the lifelong journey he has taken with the people he loves and who obviously love him.