Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, By Dean Karnazes, Penguin, 288 pp., illustrated, $19.95
Dean Karnazes doesn't think he's insane. He has run 226.2 miles nonstop, and judging from his memoir, ''Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner," he hasn't yet reached the end of his personal journey. Karnazes's memoir is a portrait of an amateur athlete driven to pursuits that most people could not imagine. His feats leave one marveling at his mental and physical toughness and the obstacles he overcomes.
Karnazes has collected a lot of laurels, including winning the 2004 Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif., a punishing 135 miles in 120-degree temperatures, and being probably the first person to eat an entire pizza while running. He is also known for being part of a warring group of athletes who ran to the South Pole.
Endurance running and extreme sports seemed like they would inevitably attract Karnazes. He grew up an ordinary kid who flirted with track and cross country during his youth in California. But his athletic days ended there. Like many amateur distance runners on the road today, the ones you see out during blizzard conditions or on boiling summer days, he returned to running late in life. He had just turned 30 and had begun to ask himself the type of questions that the approach of middle age tends to raise, such as, ''Is the daily grind of work and home all there is to life?" Running then became his escape from the ennui of corporate culture.
It's difficult to say that Karnazes's story is inspiring, since his accomplishments seem so superhuman. He was among six athletes who traveled to Antarctica to run a marathon to the South Pole. He finished in 9 hours and 18 minutes in the most savage weather a runner could imagine. ''Any goal worth achieving involves an element of risk," he writes. ''Running a marathon to the bottom of the earth was clearly an extreme case, but the higher the risk, the grander the sense of satisfaction from accomplishing what you set out to do. We did it and lived."
Living vs. dying is an overarching theme of ''Ultramarathon Man." Karnazes lost his sister in an automobile accident when they were both teenagers. Soon after the accident his father took up distance running. And when Karnazes has his own midlife crisis, he also flees to running, ''transformed from a drunken yuppie fool into a reborn athlete." It may appear that his death-defying stunts taunt life itself, and test the limits of his own humanity. Karnazes writes: ''For an ultra-elite group of athletes, however, a single marathon is child's play. The challenges those individuals seek are beyond comprehension, bordering on psychotic. They participate in endeavors so physically demanding that some have perished in the act."
The first long race Karnazes runs is the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. The race involves an elevation change of 38,000 feet, which, Karnazes writes, is the equivalent of running the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill 56 times. In addition, the race ''crosses snow and ice fields [and] descends into murderously hot valleys." Karnazes takes the reader along for the run, and it is truly an exhibition of unadulterated courage and mental and physical stamina. His account is insightful and compelling, and will convey to readers the joys and frustrations of extreme endurance running. However, it takes up more than half the book, leaving Karnazes to touch only briefly on the races that follow. Karnazes is a truly gifted athlete, and his memoir is a good read for runners looking for something to push them back on the road and anyone who likes to read about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.