Trail Runner’s Book Review: A Runner’s High by Dean Karnazes

A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion, by Dean Karnazes. HarperCollins, 2021. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

Known as the Ultramarathon Man, with a book of the same title, Dean Karnazes presents himself as a larger-than-life runner, unafraid to take on publicity stunt challenges worthy of the famous showman and marketing genius, P.T. Barnum. Just for starters, he ran 50 marathons in fifty states in fifty days (Ultramarathon Man) and recreated Philippides’ original 253 mile run from Athens to Sparta fueled only on foods available to ancient Greeks (Road to Sparta). Cover art work for these books depict him as a muscled Greek god on a mission. For this reason, while his exploits are indeed valid and truly legendary, many runners, while admiring his abilities, question his self-promotion.

But the tone changes and becomes more introspective in A Runner’s High. The cover art depicts a smaller body, overshadowed by the requisite neon green title and an endless bluish moonscape-straight road to infinity. (If you want to sell books, these two colors have proven most eye-catching). Plus, Dean is now wearing a shirt and not displaying his swoon-worthy Greek physique. Within, we learn the truth for his seeming self-promotion. For Karnazes delights in running for the sheer joy of it, the open possibilities for endless adventure and the opportunity to test his limits. He admits that his Badwater 135 Mile win is the only one he truly went after and really only cared about placing in the top ten in Western States for the guaranteed lottery bypass. In the world of competitive running, he is more of a free spirit and seems to truly believe that he stands little chance or even desire to compete for the top spots.

Dean Karnazes

That much said, his is the world of Ultramarathon Man, where monetary rewards pale in comparison to a Boston or New York City marathon win. Dropping his 9-5 routine to pursue his real interests, he knows that in order to support his family he would need to visibly attract sponsors, catching the interest of the general public, both runners and non-runners alike. Who wouldn’t want to run all night with a guaranteed pizza delivery somewhere on the open road? And while it sounds like an ideal life, in this revelation we learn the effort behind these goals. Dean needs to do the training, keep his adventures before the public’s eye, write books and scores of articles, launch public speaking engagements. But that is what is apparent on the surface. He also needs to court sponsors, keep loyal partners satisfied, and engage in all the dealings necessary to keep his business (himself) afloat.

At this time of life, as his children are growing up before his eyes, he wonders, “Did I do my best?” “Did I spend enough time with my family?” “Was I too engaged in my career?” Sometimes it seems relentless with no escape. A good deal of this book is taken up with a hoped for redemption at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, where, with a previous DNF, he is forced to enter the lottery system as an ordinary mortal. We learn that it is tougher to score one of the 369 coveted spots than to get admitted to Harvard! Relegated to wait list status, Dean vacillates between the need to prepare for the race and the more likely possibility that he won’t get in. Sound familiar? The motivation of a race calendar is indeed a powerful one as we have all learned during the age of COVID-19.

But what I enjoy most is the interaction between Dean and his father and mother. At 80-something, Dean’s Dad is an indispensable crew partner and great entertainment at the pit stops while other crew members are awaiting their five minutes of action and purpose. At Western States, Dean learns that, “Despite being in top shape for my age, I was still my age,” a fact of life that will inevitably greet us all at the finish line. He speaks for everyone when he realizes that “…reaching the finish is not the ultimate prize, it’s the story that’s lived along the way.”

A Runner's High