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For some, one marathon just isn't enough

By Brian Blank
CNN
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LONG BRANCH, New Jersey (CNN) -- It's 45 degrees and windy, but the man sitting in the tent signing autographs is wearing a tank top and shorts.

He has a bandage on his right arm and massive half-moon quads, legs that have carried him nearly 1,300 miles in seven weeks.

Dean Karnazes is one day short of running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days -- and he's shocked -- not that he's run this far, but that more than 200 people have come to see him.

"I am just not freaking prepared for all this," he says as his handlers whisk him back to his hotel to get him ready for finishing his marathon trek in New York City on Sunday.

There is a party atmosphere along the Jersey shore. Two hundred-fifty long-distance runners have shown up to run with Karnazes, but not everyone has gotten his signature or a chance to talk with him. He has to rip himself away.

"I just want to go running; it's crazy," Karnazes exclaims. "No one's trained me how to deal with ... I mean, those poor people I feel like I couldn't walk away from. It's this whole other challenge.

"I just want to go run."

In a sport where people consider 30 miles a training run and count the number of toenails they've lost as badges of honor, Karnazes is a rock star. He is the Bono of ultramarathoning, a sport made up of races longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon.

It's a burgeoning pastime, helped along in recent years by Karnazes, whose book "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner" was a New York Times best-seller in 2005. And he's down to eight toenails after taking a nasty spill running through Atlanta, Georgia, on October 27.

There aren't many rules in ultramarathoning. It is the wild frontier of sport, and men and women like Karnazes define races at what appear to most to be excruciating distances.

So why would anyone do 50 marathons in 50 days or run 350 miles straight, forgoing sleep for three straight nights or race 135 miles through Death Valley, California, where athletes run on the white line to keep their shoes from melting?

The answer comes -- eventually.

He's won a few races but Karnazes will tell you he's not the best ultramarathoner. What makes him a star is that Karnazes sells the sport -- and himself. He's a family man, he's affable. He makes you believe this can be normal, and any of us could do it.

Death by treadmill -- almost

Chris Bergland lost two toenails running alongside Karnazes in 2004. His big ones popped off at the cuticle. The two were attempting to break the world record for the most distance run in 24 hours on a treadmill.

"I started peeing ketchup at mile 110," Bergland says. "I didn't know what that meant but my kidneys were shutting down."

With eight minutes to go Bergland collapsed. He got up and stumbled his way to the record -- 153.76 miles. Then he went straight to the hospital. He says the doctors were furious and he wasn't released for four days.

Now he is semiretired from the sport.

"I kind of got to a point with all the ultraracing where it became too much," he says. "I couldn't sustain that level of output. It just felt wrong to me. Knowing that I had the mental toughness to kill myself by treadmill, I was like, I don't need this anymore. I'd proven I could do it. I really wanted to come back to earth."

Putting in the number of hours needed to train for a race of 100-plus miles can tax even the most disciplined schedules.

Ultrarunner Sam Thompson, a teammate of Karnazes who completed his almost unnoticed 50 in 50 in 50 in August, gets help.

"With a fiancee it's easy -- it's kind of like a good pressure gauge," he says. "If I start to go off the deep end, she lets me know."

Thompson just turned 26, a relative baby. Endurance is supposed to build with age, but don't tell him that. Several years ago, just after finishing college, he ran the Appalachian Trail -- more than 2,000 miles -- alone.

"I drove my car to Atlanta, parked it, got a one-way ticket to Maine and ran back," he says.

Ninety-nine days later, Thompson was back in the South, fumbling for his keys and wondering what run to do next.

For Thompson, running superlong distances is freeing. He says if it stops being fun he won't do it anymore.

He says he'll keep ultrarunning as long as God and his body allow it. (Two of his toes don't even attempt to grow nails anymore.)

Each quest is personal

Karnazes' 50th marathon was New York's massive one Sunday, which he smoked in 3:00:36. So what happens on Day 51?

He's coy about answering.

"I think I'm going to go for a long run," he says, smiling. Who knows what "a long run" is to a man who thinks he might someday be able to run 500 miles straight.

"I think I'll go west. Do New York, go west and then see where things take me," he says.

When Bergland heard his good friend Karnazes might push past 50 days, he sat silent for a second. "But why?" he finally blurted out.

And there it is. The simple question with an unsatisfying answer. Unsatisfying because if a guy who can run 153 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours doesn't know why, who really can?

The answer seems to satisfy only the individual. Karnazes wants everybody to answer that for themselves.

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Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes talks to supporters and reporters Saturday, the day before the New York City marathon.

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