Ever wonder what it’s like to run for 3 days straight with no sleep and no stopping? That’s exactly what world-famous ultra runner Dean Karnazes did from October 12-15 in 2005 across Northern California, setting a world record for the longest distance run without stopping.
In total, Karnazes covered 350 miles in 80 hours and 44 minutes without taking any naps or stopping to eat (although he did eat plenty while he ran, but did it while moving). His accomplishment is proof of what you can do when you test the limits of the human body.
While Karnazes has been dubbed an aberration as an athlete, his achievements have inspired ultra runners everywhere to experiment with new forms of human endurance.
The Toll Ultra Running Takes on the Body
This incredible human feat made headlines across the world, as no one had done anything like it. While many endurance athletes had run much farther (for instance, the 3,100-mile “Self-Transcendence” race completed by Suprabha Beckjord), no one had sacrificed sleep, naps, and breaks for self-care purposes the way Karnazes had.
Over the 350 miles, Karnazes ran from San Francisco to Bodega Bay, and finished up on the Stanford University track, where he ran the last 50 miles. He was unable to complete the last stretch on the roads, because he was so tired that he kept swerving in and out of traffic. Fortunately, he had a support crew tailing him the entire time in an RV, so he had access to food, hydration, and medical care as needed.
By the time he completed his 350-mile running journey without stopping, Karnazes was dehydrated, struggling to stay on his feet, and delirious. When he was finished, he passed out and was immediately hypothermic.
He had lost four toenails, had blisters on his heels and toes, and said he felt “dissociated from his body”. It took weeks to recover, as expected when you break a record for the longest distance run without stopping.
In general, ultra coaches recommend 2 weeks off, or 2 weeks of light, active recovery following an ultramarathon. The body has just gone through intense muscle damage and oxidative stress, which means it needs time to repair, rebuild, and refuel.
Returning immediately to training could result in injury, overtraining symptoms, and a decline in performance. After about 2 weeks, you can return to easy miles and start building your base again for your next training cycle.
How do Ultra Runners Fuel for Running?
In total, Karnazes consumed 40,000 calories over the 3.3 days. When the body is constantly using energy and being depleted of key nutrients, it can eat just about anything and metabolize it quickly. It was reported that Karnazes ate entire pizzas and cheesecakes during his run, folding the pizza like a burrito so he could eat it easily while moving.
Today, Karnazes follows a paleo diet and states that sardines are his go-to fuel when ultra running. However, he won’t say no to high-calorie, high-fat foods during his races when his body needs them most.
The biggest mistake you can make when preparing for an ultramarathon is not fueling or hydrating enough. To avoid GI distress, it’s recommended that you evenly space your calories and small amounts often, rather than large portions every few hours. For example, consuming 50-60 calories every 20 minutes allows your body to have a steady stream of calories entering the body.
What Macronutrients Are Important?
Carbohydrates are critical when racing, and there are plenty of gels, bars, gummies, and sports drinks that provide carbs, sugar, and electrolytes to keep you fueled. However, relying solely on gels and chews isn’t enough–the body needs solid foods that include some fiber, protein, and fat to balance out the intake of carbohydrates.
Tip: Foods such as cookies, fruit, nuts, and sandwiches are easy to carry and won’t upset the stomach. Before races, Karnazes starts with a base of 3,200 calories, so that he’s not trying to play catch up while running. Eating large portions the night before and waking up early enough for a large breakfast will keep your body sustained.
Not only does proper fueling keep you energized, it helps with the numerous physiological stresses your body endures, such as dehydration, muscle damage, oxidative stress, and substrate depletion. According to a study done by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, poorly managed fueling can result in hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition where sodium levels in the blood are dangerously low.
Taking nutrition and hydration seriously while covering extreme distances without stopping could save your life.
What Type of Gear Do Ultra Runners Need?
When you’re covering long distances on unpredictable terrain, it’s important to have the right gear to reduce risk of injury, improve safety, and keep the body as comfortable as possible. Fortunately, there’s a huge market for ultra running gear with advanced technology and apparel.
Top ultra running gear includes:
- Proper footwear, such as high-cushion running shoes or trail shoes with high traction for technical maneuvers
- GPS watch to monitor pace and distance
- Moisture-wicking (non-cotton) apparel to keep your body dry as you sweat
- Hydration vests that hold pouches of water
- Headlamps or chest lamps for night running
- A variety of clothing options for different weather, including waterproof jackets, insulated vests, thermal tights, gloves, and hats
- Blister padding, such as Moleskin or Superskin
- Athletic tape for injury prevention and support
Easing Into Longer Distances
While Dean Karnazes is probably an anomaly when it comes to ultra running, anyone can become a runner and transition to ultra running over time. Building your base as a runner means starting out with relatively low mileage, and increasing about 10% in distance per week. This allows your body to build endurance while reducing risk of injury.
What is the longest distance run without stopping? Well, right now it’s 350 miles, but Karnazes says he thinks he can go 500 miles. Now that he’s pushed the limits for what the human body can accomplish, perhaps someone else will attempt to break his record.