In past postings on this blog, whenever the subject of Dean Karnazes would come up, I’d usually simply just point out that the guy has been a bit of a lightning rod his whole career, but leave it at that. I would never divulge my feelings on the guy, and my opinion on his place in our sport. For instance, here is what I said about him — as well as his decision to run the entire Spartathlon this year on only figs and olives — in my preview for this year’s race:
“Shameless self-marketing/publicity stunt, or a neat way to draw more attention to the race from casual observers and maybe entice them to a healthier lifestyle? That’s the line Dean has made a career out of living on, and one that I have no interest in debating.”
Well, I actually DO want to give my opinion on Dean, because — honestly — the “Dean issue” should not be much of a debate at all…
2. The Typical Dean Vitriol.
The usual narrative that is recited by Dean’s naysayers goes something like this:
“It’s good we get attention for the sport, but sometimes I wonder what kind of attention is good for the sport. At times I think that some of the Dean attention can hurt athletes like myself and other individuals performing well. There are athletes like us doing all kinds of amazing things and somebody else is walking around and actually accepting these titles and awards. You wouldn’t see that in any other sport. I can’t think of a sport where this happens – maybe once in a while somebody a bit lower on the elite status might pop up there for doing something extraordinary.”
“I’m not saying it should be about me, there are runners like Nikki Kimball and Karl Meltzer, there are different distances, and those people deserve their shots too. This is a prime example of how a lot of media is working in this country these days, grabbing onto somebody who has a great publicity machine, great sponsors and media outlets. I would rather earn my titles and the recognition I deserve out on the race course. If you look at other sports, the guys that are finishing mid-pack on the PGA Tour or batting .500, they aren’t getting any publicity. Maybe once in a while they get a shot here and there. Generally, it’s the winners that are getting the attention. It’s just kind of odd that that’s happening in our sport often nowadays, where we’re just seeing one person stealing the show and winning awards. In other sports, that wouldn’t happen.”
The above quote, if you haven’t seen it already or guessed yet, was by Scott Jurek, who, by all accounts — including Dean’s — is a much more talented runner than Dean, yet has not enjoyed anywhere near Dean’s level of fame or fortune.
So is Scott right? Despite his clear misunderstanding of the game of baseball, he is generally correct that a pro athlete who is not at the very top of his or her sport does not receive the most attention. (A .500 hitter in the majors would get some tiny level of publicity, I’d imagine). :)
But Scott’s point is actually a boring one to me, as it misses the unique nature of our sport. You cannot really compare ultrarunning to baseball, golf, or any other “traditional” pro sport because ultrarunning is NOT really a “professional” sport at all, as one cannot make a living simply by winning races. The prize money just isn’t there. The richest purse of any ultra is the $10,000 that goes to the winner of the North Face 50 in San Francisco every December. And the very most prestigious races on the planet — Spartathlon, Western States, UTMB, Hardrock, Leadville, Badwater, etc. — have absolutely no prize money at all.
Ultrarunning is therefore only a “profession” for those who can manage to distinguish themselves as runners and as personalities in order to gain sponsors, a fan base, etc. And Dean has unquestionably done that better than anyone else in the sport’s history.
So for me, the larger — and much-more important — question is whether Dean’s popularity is good for the sport overall. The emphatic answer to that question is “yes.”
3. Why This Blog Exists, and (Likely) Why You Are Reading It.
(I’m willing to bet that at least 90% of you got into this sport — in no small part — because of this book.)
I first picked up Dean’s book in 2006/2007, when I was 29-30 years old, and smack-dab in the middle of racing marathons in the 2:40s and 2:50s. Before reading it, I had never even heard of ultramarathons, let alone Western States or Badwater. Rather, I was a 20-something year-old who was simply interested in living a fast, work-hard, play-hard lifestyle. I would work insane hours, then lift weights like crazy, then run like crazy, chase PRs at races, and then chase girls on the weekends.
Put more simply, I was a complete yuppie tool, to which my friends in Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Atlanta would easily attest:
(Halloween 2007 in 20-degree Minneapolis. Hard to imagine a more toolish and ridiculous costume than Rocky!)
At any rate, along with meeting Alex the next year, Dean’s book introduced a whole new world to me, and while I’m still surely a total goofball at times today, it’s safe to say that my days of dressing up as Rocky are behind me :)
(Alex, in 2008, doing her Soup Nazi impression. “Um, talk to the hand, dude. I don’t date clowns. No soup for you. Come back, one year.”)
I digress. My point here is that Dean’s book had a big impact on my life, and I’m guessing it did for the majority of people reading this article today as well.
4. Dean Invented Ultrarunning as a Pro Sport.
Going back to Jurek’s point, is it fair that Dean has become the national — and indeed, international — face of ultrarunning despite not being at the apex of our sport? (Note: it’s completely inaccurate and absurd to say that Dean is not a very accomplished ultrarunner. Complete Western States AND Badwater 10 times each, run Leadville, run Spartathlon, and then run 50 marathons in 50 days. After doing all of that, then maybe you can question him on his accomplishments…)
I think for all of us who are not on Jurek’s level, the “Dean question” is an easy one. He has introduced hundreds of thousands — if not more — to running. His overall impact on the nation’s health is likely immense.
Even for those at the very top of the sport, I just don’t see how they can rightfully criticize Dean, either. Before Dean came along, NO ONE made a living on just ultrarunning. In a very real sense, Dean invented the profession. He wrote a book, it took off beyond his wildest expectations, and the rest, really, is history.
Dean paved the way for others to make a living off of the sport, including Scott Jurek, who as most of you know, has basically followed Dean’s blueprint to success, by writing his own (very good) book, Eat and Run.
So the way I see it, there are only really two reasons one could be mad at Dean about his success. First — and I think the overwhelming majority of critics fall into this group — is the “why didn’t I think of that” reason. This group is simply driven by the very real human emotion of jealousy. “What makes Dean so special that he got to be the one who got famous?”
I think Dean would answer that by saying “nothing.” He’s just the first one to think of writing a book about our very unique sport. So getting mad at him is probably akin to being mad at Mark Zuckerberg or the guy who invented putting little umbrellas in fruity cocktails.
(If you don’t like Dean, you probably shouldn’t like this guy either).
The second group of critics are the ones represented by Jurek’s quote at the top of this article. They aren’t necessarily mad at Dean himself, but rather at the sport, and the fact that simply winning races is not enough to capture the nation’s attention and make a living. This is more a criticism of the system, but ultimately, a criticism that rings hollow.
This may be breaking news to some, but distance running — and ESPECIALLY ultrarunning — is simply not (and probably never will be) a spectator sport. With today’s generation and 2.4-second attention spans, the general public just is not interested in spending two hours watching a marathon live on TV, let alone spending 15 hours watching the Western States 100 play out. This is why Dean is probably not just the most famous ultrarunner in the U.S., but likely the most famous distance runner overall in our country. (I’d be willing to bet that more Americans have heard of Dean than Meb Keflezighi, this year’s Boston Marathon winner). I think the only distance runner in the U.S. that can rival Dean’s popularity today is Kara Goucher, who, like Dean, has not won ANY major races in her sport (the marathon), but, also like Dean, is camera-friendly and likeable:
Dean and his book just came along at the right time. He simply took advantage of an opportunity, which seems — to me, at least — as a quintessentially American thing to do. Combined with the fact that he seems like a genuinely-good guy, I just don’t see any legitimate legs for his critics to stand upon.
5. My Admitted Bias.
I am obviously not an objective commentator here. I’ve met Dean about 10 times, and two of those times were what I would call “substantial” meetings, during two of the hardest ultramarathons on the planet: first at last year’s Badwater, and again at this year’s Spartathlon. (The other meetings were at marathons or briefly at the beginning of other ultras).
In both “substantial” meetings, I ran with Dean for decent chunks of miles (5-10 miles at Badwater, and about 15-20 miles at Spartathlon). And in both races, he was completely down-to-earth, very positive and friendly, and was much more interested in talking about me than telling stories about himself. (Many of the most famous ultrarunners LOVE talking about themselves).
(Running some early miles with Dean at Badwater 2013).
In both races, I beat Dean by a few hours, and he was nothing but encouraging the whole time I talked with him. I came away from those experiences thinking that he is just a really good guy.
That sentiment was only reinforced recently when Dean went out of his way to reach out to me and send his congrats regarding the Spartathlon:
On Oct 3, 2014, at 3:13 PM, Dean Karnazes wrote:
Message for Dave:
I’m trying to leave a message for Dave to congratulate him on his Spartathlon race. I had the privilage of sharing a few footsteps alongside him and I greatly admire his unflinching grit and determination. Respect!
Thanks for passing this note along.
On 10/13/14, 3:07 PM, “Dave Krupski” <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Sorry — I just saw your email from a week ago. (For some reason, it never reached my inbox but went straight to the “junk” folder. Weird).
Anyway, thanks for the congrats; right back at you! That race was a bitch, wasn’t it?? :). I can’t imagine how the hell you got through that whole race without any caffeine, sugar, or other stimulant. I probably drank a case of Coke during that race!
See you “out there” soon enough I’m sure!
On Oct 15, 2014, at 1:40 PM, Dean Karnazes wrote:
You put it perfectly, that race was a bitch! There were elements of glory and elements of supreme misery and hideousness (like when a fleet of diesel trucks whizzed by inches away spewing exhaust directly into your nostrils).
Some caffeine would have been nice. For the final 70-miles I subsisted on sips of plain water only. Talk about a death shuffle!
You really pulled together a solid race. Watching your performance and the way you grunted through the tough patches was remarkable. You have a great fan in me Dave (you earned my respect).
Any thoughts on going back? I still have mixed emotions, but would like to attempt it eating something other than figs and olives!
Keep charging bro.
6. Thank You, Dean.
Obviously, Dean was very kind to reach out to me like that. But that doesn’t really make me special, as I have a LOT of friends that he goes out of his way to reach out to, connect with, and share common experiences. I think it really just speaks to his character.
Personally, I don’t think we could ask for a better global ambassador for our sport. Dean is unflinchingly-positive, even in the face of ever-present criticism. And I know a LOT of us owe our ultrarunning careers, at least in part, to Dean. I know I do.
So if you feel the same way I do, next time you see Dean “out there” at an ultra or marathon expo, say “thanks.” :)
7. Next Week on Coach’s Corner.
(“I feel the need, the need for speed . . . training!”)
See you all next week! Have a great week “out there” :)