What Dean Karnazes hallucinates during a 3-day run and 6 other stories from the ultramarathon man

December 10, 2014                 6m read time
April Kilcrease

On the night of ZOZI Guru Dean Karnazes’ 30th birthday, he felt a powerful urge to run. So, at 11 p.m., after an evening of downing tequila shots with his buddies, he impulsively hit the road. Never mind that he hadn’t run in more than a decade, he was determined to complete a mile for every year of his life. It was a grueling journey, but it set him, quite literally, on a new path. 

Now, some twenty years later, the ultramarathon runner has gone on to complete a string of seemingly superhuman challenges. He’s run 350 miles without stopping or sleeping for three nights. He’s run through extreme desert heat in Death Valley, the Gobi, and the Sahara, and he’s run through below freezing temperatures in Antarctica. Perhaps most impressively, he makes this all look fun.

Here, he discusses the pleasure of having pizza delivered on the trail, why we should all take a break from our devices, and what to do when a ghost asks you for water.

What drew you to endurance running?

To me, running is the most elemental physical exercise. There’s nothing purer than putting on a pair of shoes and hitting the trail. It literally puts you in touch with the planet. Your feet are contacting the ground. You feel the differences in temperature and humidity. You smell the unique scents in the air. All of it is front and center and very real. I think that’s why I like running ultramarathons—you get to see and experience so much. It’s one thing to look at Patagonia on Google Earth; it’s a far different thing to run a hundred miles along the tip of South America.

You make running sound like an epic adventure rather than a grind. Does being out on the trail help keep you curious about the world?

Absolutely. A lot of adult activities are basically confined to being an adult, but running is something that we can do from the time we can walk. The more childlike and curious I can be, the better.

Dean Karnazes running ZOZI

Dean Karnazes running



Studies have shown that as we get older we stop learning and start applying everything that we know to everyday situations. A way to break through that pattern is to experience new things. Be vulnerable. Be outside instead of in a car. Rely on other people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been running on a backcountry road in another country and someone has stopped and asked me if I needed a ride. It happens all the time. I tell them that I don’t need a ride, but sometimes ask them for food instead. (laughter)

So people offer you food and drink?

All the time. I don’t think I’ll ever live down the pizza story from my first book. I was out in a rural area of Northern California doing this 200-mile relay race. I was racing it solo, and I had a credit card and a cellphone with me. So I ordered a pizza. People think that’s the craziest story, but it seemed so logical at the time.

When I ran across the country a couple years ago, I probably had a dozen pizzas delivered to me. I’d come around some random corner in Iowa, and I’d see a pizza delivery guy standing there.

You’ve already run a marathon on every continent, and you plan to run a marathon in 196 countries in 2015. I imagine that running everywhere has led to some unique encounters.

I’ve seen so much goodness in people. I remember the first time I showed up in Tokyo, I went running downtown. I was so jet-lagged and so sleep deprived and no one runs in downtown Tokyo, but I went anyway. I came to a red light. There were no cars anywhere, but everyone was just standing there. So I thought, okay, go with custom. Then the light turned green and I started running across the street.

When you pass someone on the sidewalk, you naturally pass in the same direction you drive. I started out on the righthand side, right toward a wall of 40 people coming straight at me. Turns out that they drive on the left in Tokyo. I was moving my head side to side like, “Do I go left? Do I go right?” Then the most amazing thing happened. They all just stopped in their tracks and bowed to me. It was the most—I don’t even know how to describe it—it was such an honorable thing to do. They just wanted to yield to me and allow me to pass peacefully. I just stood there in shock for a moment. It was so startling. And then I went on accidentally running around the wrong way. Dumb American.

You’ve also been known to run alone for days on end. What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen while running in the middle of the night?

I tell you what—you go run for two or three days straight, and you’ll see all kinds of things. I guarantee it. I had some incredibly vivid hallucinations when I ran across Death Valley in the middle of summer. It was 114 degrees at three in the morning, and I was on this two-lane highway out in the desert. I hadn’t seen anyone for hours. All of a sudden, I see this old miner forty-niner with a gray beard and overhauls coming toward me. He held out a gold pan and said in a croaky voice, “Water. I need water.” I started to aspirate my water bottle into his pan, and then I heard the water sizzling on the ground. I reached out and grabbed his shoulder, but my hand went right through him.  

You’re so out of it when it’s happening that you don’t realize at first that it’s a hallucination.annotation You’re just captivated by it as though it’s really happening. Your mind makes no sense of the fact that the miner forty-niners died off hundreds of years ago. Then you suddenly realize, “Oh my god. It’s not real.”

You’re so out of it when it’s happening that you don’t realize at first that it’s a hallucination. You’re just captivated by it as though it’s really happening. Your mind makes no sense of the fact that the miner forty-niners died off hundreds of years ago. Then you suddenly realize, ‘Oh my god. It’s not real.’
— Dean Karnazes

Some people stay away from running because they’re worried about being alone with their thoughts. They think they’ll get bored.

Oh, yeah, running can be extremely boring. But running also allows you to control your mind. You can think about whatever you want. You can work through problems. You’re not getting bombarded with texts and tweets and ads and everything else. And frankly, I think more people could benefit from being bored. Let’s face it, our lives are so filled with stuff going on that there’s no opportunity to be bored. I think that’s a big loss. Being bored makes you more aware of yourself. A lot of us have lost a sense of self-awareness, because we’re just constantly engaged with our screens.

What do you tell people who look at you and say, “I could never do what you do,” but they want to get out there and start running?

To me, running represents great freedom. It’s a chance to unbridle yourself and just wander. You don’t have to do what I do, just pledge to be the best you that you can be. Don’t get stuck in that cycle of comparing yourself to others; it’s a death spiral. You’re never going to stack up to everyone. But you can stack up to yourself and live your life to its fullest. Remember, it’s not failure that stops people, it’s the fear of failure. Don’t be afraid to try. Dare boldly. Take chances. Step into the unknown. The only person who can tell you that you can’t is you. And you don’t have to listen.


Later on that trip, Karnazes saw dinosaurs marching across the desert.

April Kilcrease


April is the editor at ZOZI. Born in Germany, she grew up on three continents with a road-trip loving family. In her twenties, she was thrilled to discover that she could continue this semi-nomadic lifestyle as a journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and AFAR.

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