Personal Record: Dissing Dean

By May 29, 2010April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the May 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

I have often spoken about the kindness and generosity of runners. Indeed, I wrote a book whose premise is that the most important thing running has done for me is to give me access to a great and good community.

Now I come not to praise runners, but to bury them.

I have never met Dean Karnazes. My biggest complaint about him is that he’s a lazy writer, too often grabbing cliches instead of doing the hard work of reaching for crisp, fresh expression for his thoughts. He’s a mid-packer of a memoirist, but he is a good runner. And not a bad ambassador for our sport.

Dean took a bizarre, niche activity that normal humans don’t understand (any ultrarunner could rattle off the stock responses you get when you tell a stranger that you like to run farther than 26.2 miles) and made it comprehensible to a huge New York Times-reading audience. After his book, Ultramarathon Man, came out in 2005, he hit the road — running and talking, making appearances. He has raised more than one million dollars for kids’ charities and continues to encourage thousands of people to get off the couch and go for a run. He made doing ultras seem a little less nutty.

Dean has brought attention to something I care a lot about. I respect him for that, and hope someday to have the chance to tell him so. (Just as I’d like to tell him to lay off the cliches.)

At the Western States 100-miler last year, I spent a bunch of hours hanging around at aid stations with my Running Times colleague Adam Chase, who seems to cover his ripped torso only when it is required by law, sports a visor, and says that people refer to him as “Mini Dean.” He says it’s the hairline, but it’s more than that. He is a dead ringer for the Ultramarathon Man. And so Adam and I got to hear the whispers: Look, it’s Dean! He dropped out!

Here’s the thing: People said this with mean-spirited glee.

As much adoration and enthusiasm as Dean generates among recreational runners, he inspires even more animus from those who take themselves and their running seriously.

At Western States (and indeed, on many running message boards) mid-pack ultrarunners have nothing good to say about someone who could kick their butts without breathing hard. They sneer and smirk and recoil at a man they’ve never met, never spoken with. Faster people — those who know and compete against him — tend to be more gracious and say he’s a sweet and earnest guy, a mensch. But there’s something going on when someone inspires such a vicious reaction.

Why the mean-girl bitchiness toward the man who is, inarguably, the most famous runner in America? Is it because he’s become a celebrity? His buff , unrunner-like bod has shimmered from the cover of many glossy magazines. He’s been on national TV! He’s friends with Lance!

Our endeavor — especially the ultrarunning subspecialty — is supposed to be amateur-based, and unlike other sports where players can rake in millions for sitting on the sidelines, we pride ourselves on being participants not spectators, and somehow more pure, i.e., not commercial. There’s no money in running, everyone says. Except Dean seems to be raising it by the bucketload.

So why begrudge him this? Is it because runners are the kids who weren’t athletic enough to make the sports teams in high school, were never the prom kings, never got to date the cheerleaders? Do people hate Dean because he could, if he wanted to, date a cheerleader?

Not everyone dislikes Dean. Many have told me how thrilled they were to run with him for all or part of a marathon. And I don’t hate him. I am, however, frankly jealous. I would kill for a tenth of his readership.

He’s made it his work to market himself; it’s a hard job, one I wouldn’t want. But when people like many-time Western States winner Scott Jurek (I don’t know him either) say nasty things about Dean, it makes our whole sport look pissy. No one hates Scott Jurek. He’s a vegan, for Pete’s sake. But no one is going to use his scrawny figure to sell magazines or pay him to give business advice. So why is he bothering to dis Dean?

There are complaints that Karno exaggerates his achievements. He’s an excellent athlete, but perhaps not as good as many others. He’s just been more successful at getting recognized. I can understand dismissing Paris Hilton for not doing anything. But Dean has done plenty. And the media has made much of what he’s done. Why do we begrudge him success? (By the way, I’ve heard all the arguments against him — this is a rhetorical question.)

If Dean makes big bucks from running it takes nothing away from me. I can’t muster the energy to trash those who are more successful than I, or who get more attention, or who have different goals or values. There are people who say nasty things about me. And about you. Many of us learn to stop doing this on the playground. Runners: Grow up.