Dean Karnazes reflects on injury and recovery
Dean Karnazes was powering through a flatish section of the brutal North Face Endurance Challenge Series 100-mile race in Chile. How tough was it? Try a 30 percent finisher rate.
Karnazes, of course, has finished all sorts of endurance feats. But last October, outside of Santiago on a darkened trail, a confluence of seemingly innocuous factors would take down Ultramarathon Man and put a DNF by his name.
Before the North Face race, Karnazes had been “globetrotting.” He ran the Sparthalon in Greece and race directed his half-marathon race, the Navarino challenge. Perhaps due to his hectic schedule, he overlooked charging his backup headlamp battery as he readied his gear for the race in Chile.
“As I was running through the night, my primary headlamp went out,” he recalls, saying he was planning to borrow a headlamp at the aid station that was just ahead. “It started dimming, so when I put on my backup headlamp, there was nothing there. It was close to dawn, so there was a little bit of light.” But not enough. A small rock — one of those that Kanrazes has run past countless times — tripped him up.
Small rock, big landing
“I kicked this rock that I didn't see because the trail wasn't very lit up,” he says. “I just went flying. The flying part was terrific — the landing wasn't so graceful.”
On the side of the trail, Karnazes landed on a larger rock, which ultimately led to the first significant injury of his inspiring running career. He made it to the next aid station. By this time, daylight was able to provide enough light for the trail.
But the damage was done.
“I tried to keep running, but the pain was too much,” says Karnazes, who made it the next 8 miles to the next aid station. “The medics looked at me and said, ‘We need to have this X-rayed. You look like you screwed yourself up.’ It was pretty bruised, and obviously not something minor.”
At the hospital, Karnazes learned the extent of his injuries: a cracked rib, broken toe and torn intercostal muscles, the muscles between your ribs.
“If I laughed, if I sneezed, if I coughed, oh man, the pain,” he says, noting he was discharged after about four hours. “Especially if I breathed in deeply, the pain was something else.”
Due to the nature of his injuries, there was little that the medical staff could do to treat the injuries. They just had to heal on their own. So Karnazes packed up and flew home the next day.
“I was so squirmy on the flight, because it hurt to try to recline,” he recalls. “I don't know if it was the
air pressure in the plane, or in the cabin, or just being idle. But I know one thing I learned. The biggest lesson that I took away from this is that I'm a wimp. I don't like being injured.”
'I can deal with pain'
The fall and injury were similar to another race that Karnazes was able to finish.
“To be honest, I've done this once before,” he says. “Now that I reflect back on it, I did it once before on a multi-day race called the Trans Rockies. I did the same thing on my other side, and it was the same darn thing. I kicked a rock, went flying, but I landed on my left side, not my right side.”
In both cases, recovery was quick. After the Chile injury, it only took Karnazes three or four days to start running again. “It didn’t stop my running. It just hurts, and I can deal with pain.”
Fortunately, if there is ever a good time for such an injury, this was it. Karnazes’ race calendar had wound down. Family time at the holidays was about to pick up. Still he had to grapple with the emotional side of returning from injury.
Psychologically, when you do something like that, you're more pensive on your next race. “Maybe that's not a bad thing. I think it's when you get sloppy that shit happens. I'm just a little more cautious now about running on trails, about really paying attention."
It’s a valuable lesson for other trail runners. Keep your eyes on a swivel. Be aware that even if you don't see something on the trail, that doesn't mean that there's not a leaf covering a root, or a rock
at a funny angle. And have your backup batteries charged.
‘Be the best beast’
Karnazes is thankful that he’s had so few issues, given the extraordinary number of miles he has put in. He is careful to point out that he has not suffered an overuse injury.
“To a trail runner, falling happens. I haven't fallen that much, so I guess I've just been maybe a little bit more astute, and kept my guard up,” he says. “As far as overuse injuries, I can be more precise on what has helped me avoid overuse injuries, and I think that's a combination of rigorous cross training and a very disciplined diet.”
Karnazes credits his fitness and longevity by focusing everything he does on making healthy choices.
“I view myself as trying to be the best me that I can be,” he says. “The best animal that I can be, and how is that possible to achieve that? To do that, you need to look at your life through the lens of an athlete, of being the best beast you can be. So, everything you do in your life has to revolve around proactive measures to be this best beast, and that means — your diet, your cross training, your sleep.
“It also means your interpersonal relationships. If you don't have strong interpersonal relationships, it's hard to be your full self.”
As we talked, Karnazes walked around with a wireless headset on. When he writes his books, responds to email and handles other work, he’s at his standing desk. He does three or four sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) each day.
“I just view life as training” he says. “Everything I do is kind of training my body. In between calls or emails, if I'm starting to kinda feel a lack of motivation, I'll just force myself to bang out a set of this HIIT training, and I've also made it a personal policy that if something is fewer than five miles away from my house, I run.”
After all, Karnazes has been without a car for about a decade.
“It's easier now, with Lyft, and Uber, which never used to really exist when I first started this,” he says. “Now I just have to plan my day around, ‘Wow, OK, I've got an appointment that's four miles away. So now I’ve gotta carve out an eight-mile run in my day.
Learning from Karnazes
While Karnazes’ advice to everyday runners is simple — “take a 360 degree approach to everything you do to make yourself a better athlete, and filter that through, ‘Is this gonna help me perform as an athlete?’”
As a runner who has inspired countless others to begin their own running journeys, Karnazes proudly points out his creation — the North Face Endurance Challenge Series. The two-day running festival offers options from 5K to 50 miles.
“The whole idea was to get people challenging themselves,” he says. “With all these different distances, you can keep challenging yourself. If you ran a 5K, try the 10K. If you tried the 10K, go for a half marathon. This is the 12th year of doing this event, and it's grown every year, so I'm really proud of what we've accomplished. Both through the growth, and how many people we've brought into trail running.”
As ultra marathons grow more popular, Karnazes is eager to have more people do trail races of any distance. “I call it this road to trail conversion. People want to get off the road and get out on the trails. That's really an accelerating trend, and that's something I'm really working to grow.”
For road runners, taking that first step onto the trails can be life-changing. Just watch out for the small rocks. They can bring down even the strongest trail runners.