Dean Karnazes would have loved the conversation I overheard while leaving his group run at the North Face Shop in Brookfield Monday night.
A woman in a fashionable running outfit answered a gentleman’s query about her new-found passion for the sport by explaining it was helping her through a separation. It was better – she noted from experience – than alcohol.
Just moments earlier, Karnazes told me meeting people and inspiring them was the true payoff for his work as the most famous ultramarathon runner in the world. It’s worth more than millions, he said.
He may have both, as the man who motivated the masses to try an ultra, largely through his book, “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner.” That too, has an alcohol undertone at its start; solace and inspiration throughout.
For the group of 50 gathered in the parking lot before the run, Karnazes related the familiar story: while celebrating his 30th birthday with friends in the financial industry, Karnazes decided to run away from his unhappiness and his life, literally. As the story goes, he ran 30 miles through the night, in his underwear and an old pair of shoes.
“Stay away from bad Tequila when you’re turning 30 in a bar,” he said, one of the many nuggets of wisdom he shared.
Karnazes didn’t stop running when the booze cleared. He kept going through nine Badwater Ultras (arguably the toughest in the world), a couple runs across the country and his highly publicized 50-marathons-in-50-days jaunt in 2006.
Today, in between his own races, the 50-year-old barnstorms the world promoting the sport, the North Face Endurance Challenge, and himself.
His stop to sign books, posters and shoes in the suburban shopping mall off Moorland Rd. was sandwiched between similar events in Madison and Chicago.
Despite the travel schedule, he jogged along with a huge smile, a deep tan, an impressive physique, sincerity and genuine caring.
“Inspiration is a two-way street,” he said, after the line for autographs had cleared. “I get inspired meeting such great people. They’re not groupies, they’re good, authentic people I would like to hang out with anyway.”
They’re his people: high school runners, ultra veterans and 5K survivors, all with the sweat to prove they ran with Dean Karnazes.
The ultra marathon world’s rock star paid special attention to the youngest of the group, Jacob Odrzywolski, whose long hair and youthful bounce would be familiar to many who have chased the 12-year-old in local races up to and beyond a half marathon.
“It was really fun,” Ordzywolski said, of his time alongside Karnazes. “I learned a lot about the races he did. One time, he was doing a race in Antarctica, and there were penguins behind him, watching, and he picked one of them up.”
The young version of Karnazes also latched onto he older man’s calling, relating that he enjoys racing because of the places he goes and the people he meets.
For many of those who ran in the 100-degree heat, meeting Karnazes was the equivalent of meeting a hero.
“He’s an idol. He’s amazing,” said Amy Zembroski, a local librarian and 30-year running veteran.
Others likened the experience to tossing a football with Aaron Rodgers or shooting hoops with Lebron James.
This is the runner every runner wants to be.
“It’s amazing just watching him run, and how much he loves it,” said Mike Guth, 42. “I saw him in the North Face Challenge, it was effortless, like a deer going through the woods.”
Those who met Karnazes and ran with him stride-for-stride, broke down that bigger-than-life barrier.
Bradley Meilinger, a recent Marquette High School grad, left the store wowed to find that Karnazes was “down to earth, a cool normal guy,” who does crazy things.
His remarks, too, would have been a reward for Karnazes’ time and travel.
As he put it: “There’s no higher calling than to hear someone say, ‘you inspired me, you changed my life.’”