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A Runner's High

Dean Karnazes shares excerpts from his new book


Excerpt from A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion by Dean Karnazes.
Published by HarperOne. Copyright © 2021 HarperCollins.


Lowering myself down the darkened riverside embankment and cautiously wading into the water, it was unnervingly cold and bracing. The American River was mostly fed by snowmelt from the higher elevations, and to the uninitiated, crossing it could be catastrophic. To those unlucky few, the Western States journey ended at this point when their muscles seized up upon exposure to the whirling, cold-water torrent.

Thankfully, some of us found the occasion just the opposite, renewing. I submerged fully in the chilly liquid, then jumped up and shook vigorously like a wet dog. “Brrr!”

It felt so good I did it again. Once sufficiently doused and thoroughly chilled, I began the crossing. A line was strung across the waterway for safety, and I held tight as I stepped farther into the depths, the waterline rising over my waist. I thought about other races and how Western States compared. To a runner at, say, the Boston Marathon the idea of forging a river midrace would seem preposterous, unimaginable. But here I was, 78 miles into a 100-mile footrace grasping a flimsy rope for dear life trying to avoid being swept downstream. If marathoning is a boxing match, ultramarathoning is a bare-knuckles bar brawl.

When I reached the far side of the river, I marched up the sandy embankment in my soaking wet shoes and socks and continued onward. Many veterans say Western States begins once you’ve crossed the river. I’d now done so. The race was on.

Unexpectedly, waiting on the shoreline stood my son Nicholas. “What are you doing here?” I was startled to see him; this was not something we’d planned.

“Thought I’d check on you, to see if everything’s okay.”

“That’s nice, but how did you get here?”

“I walked down from Green Gate.”

“You realize you’re gonna have to run back.”

“They told me most people hike this section.”

“Most people do, though I might crawl.”

“Still not feeling it?”

“Nicholas, there are good races and there are bad races. Let’s just say this is not a good race.”

He smirked.

“Dad, you’re running 100 miles. To most people that says enough.”

His perspective was healthy. Sometimes when you’re so close to something your viewpoint distorts. Fast or slow, everyone out here was running 100 miles. Enough said.

We started hiking the roughly 2 miles up to Green Gate and what had been told to Nicholas was indeed truthful, most people do hike this section, principally because it’s nearly straight uphill the entire way. You could run, but you probably wouldn’t get there much faster, and you’d almost certainly expend more energy. Until you can sniff the barbecue pits at the finish line, conservation of energy is always a factor during an ultramarathon.

“How’s everything?” I asked Nicholas as we hiked along.

“It’s nuts what you guys do.”

“Does it seem different now than when you were a kid?”

“When I was young, I thought everyone did this stuff. Now I see it for what it is.”


“I could use other words.”

This induced a chuckle. We continued power hiking up the steep incline, Nicholas and I, the stars beaming brilliantly in the never-ending cosmos. And in that brief moment our hearts beat as one, and I felt a paternal connection to Nicholas in a way I hadn’t since he was a young boy.

“Thank you for being here,” I said to him.

He didn’t answer; didn’t have to. He felt it, too.

There is a threshold in which words and thoughts cannot cross, a place of deeper awareness and meaning. Such instances are rare, profound, and precious. We continued hiking into the darkness, the two of us, all sense of time and place vanished, just two souls drifting along together in the night.

The Green Gate aid station is remote and accessible only by foot; thus there were fewer people here than at other aid stations. My pacer, Kim Gaylord, was waiting for me. Tan and fit, with long, flowing dark hair, Kim was like a locomotive. We ran together often, and when she put it in gear there was no stopping her.

I said hello to Kim and exchanged pleasantries with some of the aid station volunteers. Good people, these, out here at all hours of the day and night providing support to runners, some of who were barely coherent. Honestly, I wasn’t that much better off myself, though not as bad as another runner who was bundled in blankets on a cot fast asleep. Or passed out. The difference between the two during an ultramarathon can be difficult to discern.

During the aid station transition Nicholas had refilled my bottles, one with Heed and one with Perpetuem. He was working behind the scenes, and I’d hardly noticed his absence.

“Here, Dad,” he said, handing my bottles back to me. “Stay fueled.”

There was an intimate, publike feel to the Green Gate aid station, and it would have been easy to relax and stay awhile. Of course, that would be a terminal mistake. The clock was ticking and only so much time remained for me to reach the finish line before the hourglass emptied. I was 80 miles in and had thankfully crossed the river. Now came the hard part…

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