How Far Can You Run?

It's probably further than you think - here's how to find out

Posted: 8 September 2006
by Jane Hoskyn

Dean Karnazes on a typically epic training run

What is Dean Karnazes made of? When the US ultra-marathoner announced his plan to run 50 marathons through 50 American states in 50 days, people thought he was either superhuman or insane. Mainly the latter. "Mad... 50 marathons??!! He must be..." said RW member Dark Vader of Karnazes, in the title of his forum thread. "Mad," agreed Brizo. And when we rang sports physician Dr Patrick Milroy, his first comment was: "Mad."

But just as Karnazes was announcing his own plans, his fellow American Sam Thompson was reaching the end of his own feat of endurance – running 51 marathons in 50 days. So maybe it's not such a rare (or crazy) talent, after all? Forty-three-year-old Karnazes, who embarks on the North Face Endurance 50 on September 17, is first to admit that he's not unusual. "I really don't consider myself to be gifted in any sort of way," he says. "I just really love to run." He claims that, with
a reasonable level of fitness and the right mental attitude, we’d all be surprised by how far we can run.

Patrick Milroy agrees that mental attitude is the key to making the leap from the odd half-marathon to ultra long-distance running. "Someone who runs 50 marathons in 50 days is not superhuman physically, but he does have a very unusually strong attitude," he says. "The big factor stopping most of us going out and running a marathon day after day would be thinking: Oh, do I have to do this again? Most of us simply would not be able to face it psychologically."

"The mind can be extraordinarily powerful," says sports psychologist Dr Jill Owen. "With the right mindset, most runners can far exceed their expectations. When you're 'psyched up' your levels of adrenaline increase, making your body ready for action. It's the fight or flight response – your tolerance for pain, physical strength and stamina all improve. When you’re in this mindset, the average runner can be capable of major achievements."

Each to her own So how "major" can these achievements be, exactly? Assuming your mind is in it, and you’re marathon-fit, can you psych yourself to run 50 miles, 100 miles... or 50 marathons in 50 days?

The answer is a little disappointing. "It varies from person to person," says chartered physiologist Sammy Margo. "There’s no defined limit to what the average person, or marathon-fit athlete, can run. It’s just not possible to say ‘this is the number of miles a human being can run until they crash, or break their bones’.

"We know that it’s astounding what the body can tolerate, but the actual ceiling is very much an individual thing. You can find out a lot about someone’s endurance from a VO2 max test, but there are obvious limitations: first, you can’t force someone to run on a treadmill until they literally break down, and also it’s not usually reaching your cardiovascular limit that makes you have to stop running after a certain distance."

The thing that makes fit long-distance runners stop, says Sammy, is pain and discomfort. "You might never have run more than 10K because you get terrible knee pain. It’s very typical that marathon runners have the cardiovascular fitness to run further, but it’s the pain that stops them."

Body type and genetics are another – frequently controversial – factor in determining how far you can run. "It’s no coincidence that very successful long-distance runners are often Kenyan, with huge natural lung capacity and slender bodies," says Sammy Margo. "It’s not racist to say that, it’s just an example of how your natural build can make a difference to your endurance."

How to find your limit The good news is that even if genetics aren’t on your side, there are ways to extend your individual threshold. "The main factor is consistent training," says Sammy. "There’s lots of research showing that consistency is the main underpinning issue in how far you can run. Quality of training is also a big factor. With the right training, someone in a wheelchair can be trained to stand and to run, and a marathon runner can be trained to do 50 marathons."

Dean Karnazes, who runs up to 150 miles a week in training, and whose "long training runs" have included the Western States 100-miler and the Badwater 135 in Death Valley, certainly seems to have the training under control. His epic preparation will have contributed to physical changes such as strengthening his heart muscles and increasing his cardiac output, and his slow pace – an average 4:45-hour marathon pace during the Endurance 50 – will allow his body to recover as he goes along.

Add the right mental attitude, says Jill Owen, and you have a winning recipe for reaching your full endurance potential. "When you’re trying to find your own ceiling, you need to be able to cope with the frustration involved. If your first attempts at running long distances are over-ambitious, you have to be patient at coping with the setbacks and improving specific areas of your running.

"For example this may involve treatment for injury, or strength work on a particular muscle group. Sometimes people reduce their ceiling by showing extreme dedication in some areas, such as their running training, but neglecting others such as diet.

"Being resilient in the face of disappointment, having the creativity to think of ways of overcoming problems and being prepared to try different options are all qualities that raise a person's potential. Fifty marathons in 50 days would seem like a particularly exceptional achievement, but with the right preparation, patience and attitude, most people can run much further than they’d expect."

But exactly how far, no-one can say.

Don't overdo it

All the experts we spoke to agreed on one thing: "can do" doesn’t necessarily mean "should do". If you’re in pain, that’s your body’s way of telling you to stop and recover. "Ninety-nine point nine per cent of runners would be ill-advised to run 50 marathons in 50 days," says Patrick Milroy. "There are risks of chronic damage to your body by doing this sort of thing. Chronic stress fractures would be the main risk, and damage to your muscles. The body was designed to run long distances, but not to this level day after day."

Jill Owen also advises caution. "Mental strength can help you run through tiredness, which is fantastic. But if you run through a stress fracture, it may be detrimental to your running and your health later on. The mind is incredibly powerful, but use it wisely!"

50 marathons in 50 days: What you said
  • B (Ewok's Mate): "It's like visiting the dentist every day for 3 months just to test the limits of human pain. It wouldn't be laudable, just plain stupid. When I was training for my marathon I got so bored on a Sunday, 3.5 hours running round Deal. That's why I can't really think to myself 'Wow, what an athlete for doing 50 maras in 50 days', instead I think 'What a lemon'. The same reaction I'd experience if someone told me they were decorating 50 bedrooms in 50 days."
  • Too Much Water: "Apparently some crazy Germans do 12 in 12 days for the 12 days of Christmas."
  • Plodding Hippo: "I get bored if long running alone, but in a race I'm in too much physical discomfort to get bored so I play mind games to keep going."
  • fat buddha: "Pah, he ought to try a Decaman - 10 Ironman race distances. Swim 24 miles, bike 1120 miles and run 262 miles (10 maras) - all within 14 days..."

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Posted: 16/08/2006 at 07:41

Posted: 16/08/2006 at 08:04

Posted: 16/08/2006 at 08:13

Its only that deano bloke
Its all quite normal for him!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 08:14

just thought you might fancy it ;o)

good way to get a lot closer to the 100 in a relatively short space of time
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 08:31

Posted: 16/08/2006 at 08:33

Im not DERANGED you know
10 in 10 weeks is bad enough
or whatever it is i am doing
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 08:33

PH, I am not worthy. You go girl.

After my first marathon I decided that I'd stick to HMs, 'cause the pain down the side of my left leg in those last couple of miles seemed to be my body's way of saying "STOP NOW YOU MORON".

But but but.... judging by this guy Karnazes, and by Ranulph Feinnes when he did his 7 in 7 days, maybe you really can train your body (and mind) to just keep on going. Or maybe *some* people can.

Hm, wonder how much of it is down to mind and much is down to body?

Whaddya reckon PH?

Posted: 16/08/2006 at 11:13

apparently some crazy Germans do 12 in 12 days for the 12 days of Christmas
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 11:20

Ah yes, this would be the famous Mr Karnazes who WIlliam beat by a good few hours at Badwater.
We were leapfrogging his support crew for a while and there's a photo on the Badwater website just behind him (DK) as he's stood sponging himself.
Strangely he didn't hang aroudn for the post race do and didn't look us in the eye in the hotel lobbey on his way out.
His support crew were friendly enough though.
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 11:48

DK is#99, William is #52. I'm next to him with the green tray with a sponge soaked in ice water, a hat with a pocket with ice, a bandana to go round his nexk with ice rolled up in it. A fresh water bottle and he's drinking his Complan which he took every half hour. We did all this on the move and then drove ahead a mile to repeat!!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 12:04

you NAME DROPPER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

jane-it certinaly aint physical
I am not at all fit
Its mind over matter , for sure
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 13:22

you look like you are carrying a bucket of cleaning materials!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 13:39

pah - he ought to try a Decaman - 10 Ironman race distances - so swim 24 miles, bike 1120 miles and run 262 miles (10 maras) - all within 14 days.........

Posted: 16/08/2006 at 14:16

I love that pic UH - even when he's sponging himself down the ripped abs are on show!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 14:27

When I ran my first marathon I met a guy who was running 52 that year then I met him again at Harrow a few years later when he ran his 400th.

The bucket of cleaning materials meant William didn't stop.
DKs crew wheeled the ice box over to his side of the road and left him to it. We walked back to meat William and ran back to the car with him so at that point we'd parked behind DKs crew and left before them.

Rob, I didn't notice his abs. We pretended we had no idea who he was even though the organisors were making quite a fuss over him. Well, he has won it a few times.
He's not a bad runner really, he's run for USA at the world 24 hour champs but wasn't their best runner.
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:18

Haha love the photo, Hamster. The expression on his face...
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:24

I love that you pretended not to know who he was!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:37

He's not a bad runner, and if he manages this it'll be a fine achievment. But he does seem to, ahem, like himself just a little!

That said, I couldn't do it!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:49

well, he has got a nice body
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:50

My fave ultra runner is Topher Gaylord anyway!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:50
hes not bad either
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 16:53

Those are ripped abs? Haha, do me a favour.

I'd be bored ####less doing this. Is it possible for anyone to love running so much that 1300 miles in 50 days would be enjoyable????
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:41

I dont think you are supposed to enjoy it

deano says he switches off doing it
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:41

Ahem, I quote from the aforementioned article:

'"I've had a couple of jaws drop," he said. "I really don't consider myself to be gifted in any sort of way ... I just really love to run."'

If you're not supposed to enjoy something you do of your own free will in your own time, then why the slip do you do it?

It's like visiting the dentist every day for 3 months just to test the limits of human pain. It wouldn't be laudable, just plain stupid.
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:48


i dont enjoy it at the time
but i enjoy some of the after
and if i DONT
i feel terrible
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:49

You have to go through X minutes of pain just to enjoy Y minutes of it afterwards? It begs the question "why?"

Wouldn't you be better off shagging all day for 50 days running to test the limits of human endurance (and actually enjoy what you're doing at the same time).
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:52

thats an idea
but i havent shgeed in nearly 3 years]wouldnt know what to do;)
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:53

Get on your knees girl and I'll show yer!

Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:55

er, last time i did it
i wasnt on my knees

er, i dont think i was

are you sure thats right?
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:56

Would you like a medal or a t-shirt afterwards?
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:56

Yep, I'm sure.

It's either that or lean over the dining room table.
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:58

could i have a tshirt please-is it a wicking one

(im sure this isnt right)
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 19:59

Don't think it's wicking although we could try that out with a bucket of water if you like.

Can't think of any other positions that don't involve hand-cuffs - sorry!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 20:01

shagging has changed since i last did it!
Posted: 16/08/2006 at 20:02

Hey B and PH get a room ;)

You both made good points.... B I'm with you on the boredom thing. Most of my runs are first thing while I'm still waking up, so there's usually enough "plans for today" stuff going round in my head to keep me from getting bored. But over very long distances... hm. Great scenery or interesting cities would help, but I definitely got bored during the Dublin marathon.

The more I think about this, the more I think long-distance running is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. IMO you have to be quite disciplined to keep the pace slow enough to enable you to carry on (and on and on and on)

What do you think?
Posted: 17/08/2006 at 10:40

to get back to topic

for me its definitely mental

but i dont get bored as such
Posted: 17/08/2006 at 10:42

I know it's kind of a stupid question (ie next to imposs to answer), but how do you not get bored? Do you look at stuff around you, or do you think about things? My mind goes ten to the dozen while I'm running*, but I couldn't keep that up for hours and hours on end.

(* probably from all the coffee...)
Posted: 17/08/2006 at 10:47

I do zone out a bit when I go for a run.

But I've stepped my distances down now, concentrating solely on the 5k for the next 6 months or so. I don't run for more than an hour on my LSD day.

When I was training for my marathon I got so bored on a Sunday, 3.5 hours running round Deal. :-(

That's why I can't really think to myself "Wow, what an athlete for doing 50 maras in 50 days", instead I think "What a lemon". The same reaction I'd experience if someone told me they were decorating 50 bedrooms in 50 days.
Posted: 17/08/2006 at 11:53

I get bored if long running alone
but in a race im in too much physical discomfort to get bored
so i play mind games to keep going

the only downside si i dont appreciate the scenery if there is any

b-at least 50 bedrooms would be something constructive to do
Posted: 17/08/2006 at 12:50

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