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Valeria waits for a heart donor
Team Dean with Elizabeth Wood
David Mehran, Liver Recipient



by Dean Karnazes, October 2002
View The Relay: Minus the Baton by Dean Karnazes, October 1995

Have you ever been unexpectedly awakened in the middle of the night by a loud noise? I'm not talking about your alarm going off a few minutes early. I'm picturing something a bit more unsettling, something like a meteorite crashing through your roof.

In this case, it was the blast of a horn that initially jolted me out of deep slumber. My eyelids shot open instinctively, almost mechanically, and I didn't like what I saw. In front of me flashed the piercing strobe of two bright lights. If I didn't alter my route in the very immediate future, their source would come barreling into me. Although I was still half asleep, it was clear that in the event of a physical confrontation the other party would have the upper hand. Flesh is no match for oncoming steel.

Pulling an abrupt left turn, I began sprinting for the roadside. One's mind tends to focus on the act of survival in such circumstances, so I hardly questioned what the hell I was doing running down the middle of the road at 4:00 A.M.

I had fallen asleep while running, that much was certain, and I had continued running merrily along as I slept. Somehow I had wound up running down the middle of the highway, which was not a good place to be loitering at this time of night. Now I found myself dashing for the shoulder as if my life depended upon it. . . which it probably did. The lights drew nearer.

How much distance had I covered while asleep was up for debate. The last reference of my watch was at 3:31 A.M., so the past half-an-hour had gone largely unaccounted for. I wanted to think about the situation a little more clearly, to try and make some sense of it all, but there was no time. Funny how pending annihilation can cloud one's thoughts.

The oncoming lights advanced ever so rapidly. It was clear that a dive would be in order. Taking one last frantic stride, I proceeded to push-off mightily with both feet and hurl myself headlong in a desperate attempt to avoid being plastered to the windshield like a winged insect.

The initial levity was not altogether disagreeable. Flying weightlessly through space, arms stretched forward as though about to penetrate the watery surface of a swimming pool, my body was consumed with the pleasant sensation of air travel.

If only the landing had been so pleasant.

I touched down with a sickening thud and proceeded to somersaulting abrasively into the thorny shrubbery lining the roadside. Lights whizzed by in a flash of confusion and bewilderment, the drivers as perplexed as I-whizzing around a corner on a remote backcountry stretch of highway only to find some guy running down the middle of the road. . .asleep no less. It must have been quite a spectacle, watching me wake up and then subsequently fling myself headfirst into the bushes like a human cannonball.

Of course, I didn't care how ridiculous I undoubtedly appeared, soaring witlessly into the hedges. Wiping the dirt from my shirt, I was just happy to be alive. This meant that my mouth would still open and I could chew. Sure it was good to be living, but eating was the most pressing concern at the moment.

Unfortunately, I had no food on me, which was in clear violation of my strict code of conduct. Always carry food, was my maxim, because the tanks could run dry very quickly during these extended outings. Two marathons ago, it wouldn't have mattered as much whether I had immediate access to food. Even three marathons ago, it was less critical to have a constant availability of food on hand. But now, after some six marathons and 36 hours of continuous running, the body required almost constant refueling to keep the metabolic engine humming. Not carrying food was a terrible blunder. Besides the physiological impact, the lack of suitable cuisine was damaging to the morale.

Now that I was rested from a good nights sleep-perhaps slightly disrupted by the fact that I'd been upright and running as I dozed-it was high time to procure breakfast.

Where was my crew, I wondered? I had requested that, should they need to sleep, they locate an appropriate resting area somewhere up the road. This had worked well on several previous occasions. They would pull some ten miles in front of me and sack out along the roadside. When I eventually reached them, I'd knock on the window-startling the life out of them, which I found quite entertaining-roust them from sleep, and resupply my pack with food and beverage.

Then they would pass me again, pulling the vehicle ten miles up the road to sleep while I continued by foot, catching up to them at some point. During this last cycle they had not driven past me, and we had parted company some two hours ago. I suspected that they had promptly fallen back asleep after our last encounter and failed to pull in front of me. Or perhaps they'd just had enough of my middle of the night torments and were shoveling some back my way.

Either way, I was famished and desperately in need of replenishment. My crew, it seemed, had finally failed. They had performed well up to this point, exceptionally so, given the circumstances. None of them had even anticipated being here, so I was grateful for any assistance at all. But now my crew had fallen asleep along the roadside, leaving me alone in the night. . .without any food.

So you can imagine my relief when I saw the lights of a 24-hour service station off in the distance. A meal was now squarely within reach, and I always carried a few spare dollars in my running shorts for just such an occasion.

The place was aglow with the incandescent wash of large overhead lights, and I was semi-blinded by the brightness. A rainbow of neon beer advertisements haphazardly flickered across the front window. I doggedly approached the structure, barley able to keep my head upright.

The outside air was cool and still, except for a certain static buzz that seemed to emanate from the long florescent tubes that hung high above the gas pumps. A few moths haphazardly circled the entrance doors as I made my way in. And so began the quest to buy as many calories as possible with four bucks.

"Out for a little jog this morning?" a startling voice came from behind the checkout counter.

"Ah. . .yeah," I responded without looking up. My concentration was entirely preoccupied with trying to choose between the bag of Cheetos or the canister of Pringles Sour Cream & Onion chips.

"You're certainly up early," he continued, "What time did you start?"

Glancing down at my watch, "Let's see. . ." I said, "Today is Sunday," I began counting backwards, "Yesterday was Saturday, Friday. . .a couple days ago."

He looked me up and down, "No shit?"

I nodded and continued on the shopping spree. Besides the Cheetos and Pringles (I decided to get them both), I picked up a grande burrito, a bag of M&M's, two Fruit Roll-ups (to counteract the junk food), and a quart of chocolate milk to wash everything down. Usually my diet is pretty good, but on these really adventurous forays things could get reckless. I'd consumed a good dozen Power Bars by this point, so at least I'd eaten something nutritious along the way. Now the focus was on purely filling the tank with as many calories as possible, while working within the given budgetary constraints. I dumped the armful of goods on the counter.

"Whoa," the guy said, his eyes widening. "That's a lot of food."

There was a moment of contemplation, "How far you going?" he questioned.

"Um. . .the goal is to get to Santa Cruz," I responded hoarsely.

"SANTA CRUZ?!" he shouted. "That's a good 40 miles from here!"

I didn't tell him that I'd already covered 160 miles. "That's at least the plan," I replied. "We'll see how it goes."

"Santa. . .Cruz," he said, reflectively. "What, you some sort of marathon runner or somethin'?"

"Ah. . .I guess you could say that." I was starting to like this guy. It was clear from his rotund stature that he wasn't athletically inclined. But he seemed genuinely captivated by our discussion, especially given that it was four in the morning.

When I came up short on the purchase price, he reached into the Skoal spare change saucer on the counter and grabbed the balance. "Thanks," I said. "My math skills aren't functioning too well this morning." To tell the truth, it was all I could do to keep standing, I was so hungry and exhausted.

He walked over and opened the door for me. "S-A-N-T-A C-R-U-Z," he chortled, scratching the side of his head. As I left I could hear him repeat it once more, slower and more methodically this time, " ssaannttaaccrruuzzzzz."

I nodded farewell and began trotting across the lot, bag of goodies in hand. There was a wild-eyed expression on the guy's face as he watched me run off, as if he couldn't tell whether to cheer or call the cops. It didn't take long for the lights of the station to fade away behind me, and once again I found myself running alone in the darkness.

I downed the bag of M&M's in one gulp. Already I felt invigorated, less from the sugar than from the human interaction. Uplifted, I continued plodding onward, picturing the beautiful beach in Santa Cruz and eating breakfast as I ran.

A Novel Approach

The 2002 Relay was witness to a number of otherwise rational individuals flinging all common sense out the window like discarded banana peels. As if running for two days on end isn't wacky enough, some people had to further demonstrate their lack of good judgment by engaging in truly madcap adventures. Witlessly, Team Dean was at the forefront of this effort. I'd flirted close to the edge during the past four solo Relay runs, but this year I think I may have actually slipped off of it (perhaps on one of those discarded banana peels).

The concept for the 2002 race was straightforward. I would run the entire 199-mile Relay without vehicle support. It would be an entirely green effort. Zero emissions, if you will.

To provide the necessary provisions during this extended escapade, two of my close friends had agreed to ride a bicycle alongside me, towing a Burley with all the necessary provisions. A Burley is a two wheeled tent-like structure that attaches to the rear of a bike, and is designed to house small children during Mom and Dad's leisurely Sunday outings. We had modified our Burley, beefed it up and customized many of the components, to withstand the demands that would be placed upon it during the trek from Calistoga to Santa Cruz. Ours was a burly Burley.

Things had gone reasonably well for the first 125 miles, until the bike broke in half. Apparently, hauling a trailer of such weight for that distance can prove stressful on a lightweight, modern bike frame. There was a virtual battle taking place between the Burley and the bike, and we were completely oblivious to the skirmish. After 125 miles of continuous pounding and knocking, the Burley emerged victorious.

With our support system all but destroyed, it seemed improbable that I could continue running for another 74 miles without access to food and supplies. But I wasn't about to give up. There were deeper forces at play that inspired me to keep pushing onward. This year I was running in honor of young David Mehran-a little boy who was now confined to a hospital room, awaiting a critical liver transplant. My struggle to run 199 miles was nothing close to the challenge David and his family were facing. If they could continue maintaining hope in the face of such adversity, I could certainly make it to the finish line.

Two years ago I had run The Relay to raise money and awareness for Elizabeth Wood, a little girl who was in the same situation as David. By some miracle, less than a week after I had completed the race she had been able to have her organ transplant. Throughout the years I've stayed close to "Libby" and her family. When I first held her tiny body in my arms at the finish of the 2000 Relay, she was little more than a frail spirit struggling for life. Now, when I see her as a healthy young girl, I am the one who sobs like a fragile child.

The first time I spoke to David's mother, Jeannie, she told me how deeply she and her husband had been touched by what I was doing. For my part, I was filled with gratitude that I could provide any support for another family in a time of such need. We had connected on a very meaningful level, and in a strange and profound way, my efforts to complete this race now seemed inextricably tied to David's struggle to maintain life. Jeannie had sent me a picture of little David, and I had taped it to the window of the Burley. His image, and his spirit, had been with me since the race began.

We had talked earlier this evening, and Jeannie had informed me that David's condition had worsened. She had called from the ICU at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, and she had concluded our conversation by telling me that in the midst of such hardship, I gave her family strength. Hearing this overwhelmed me. Here was a women whose only child lay confined to a hospital bed with tubes and needles stuck all over his body telling me that I gave her strength. Tears were streaking down my face as I hung-up the phone. "Likewise, Jeannie Mehran," I kept thinking to myself, "Likewise." Any strength that I gave them was being reciprocated tenfold.

Dawn was emerging, and there was still no sign of my crew. After the bike had broken, I'd recruited the only party I knew of vulnerable enough to support my antics. . .my parents. They had a new VW campervan and had planned on spending a relaxing weekend with their grandchildren. Instead, they now found themselves in a sleep-deprived nightmare trying to abet their lunatic son, who seemed hell-bent on running himself into oblivion.

We had last parted company in the parking lot of Roche Bioscience, Exchange 26. I was now approaching Camp Swig, Exchange 29, and there was still no sign of them. Inside their campervan slept my entire family and the second faithful bike rider, Angela Flaviani (who had absolutely no idea what she was getting herself into when she signed-up for this psychotic escapade). The first bike rider had bailed after 24 hours and was now nursing two swollen Achilles tendons.

Camp Swig came and went.

Leg 30 of The Relay was absolutely ruthless. The sugar-high from the junk-food had long since vanished, and I now found myself in a state of near delirium from hunger and dehydration. It had been four hours since leaving my crew in the Roche parking lot. I could picture my family and Angela sleeping away in the campervan, my father's incessant snoring providing a soothing drone that kept the entire group of them in a state of blissful slumber. I could imagine them waking midmorning, confused by their location and disoriented by the boisterous chortling coming from my father's throat. They would casually head off for Sunday brunch, forgetting about their son/father/friend (or perhaps ex-friend at this point) who was now curled-up somewhere along the roadside in need of an IV.

In a mounting state of desperation, I just kept slogging onward, uncertain of my fate and knowing that sooner-or-later, something would have to give.

The Reunion

Even with fresh legs, the vertical climb from Camp Swig to Skyline is brutal. But with a half-dozen marathons on the pistons, and no food in the system, the ascent was downright torturous.

Many of the teams began passing me along this leg. Sensing my state of fatigue, the other runners offered words of encouragement:

"You're almost there."

"It's your last leg."

"Less than a mile and you're done."

Of course, it wasn't my last leg. And I wasn't almost there. And I didn't have less than a mile until I was done; there were thirty-seven miles, to be exact, and more than six remaining legs until my journey would hopefully come to an end. But there was no way for these other runners to know that. To them, I was just some loathsome neophyte struggling to complete his third and final leg of a team commitment. There was no way for these other runners to know that I was completing leg thirty, not leg three, and I had little desire to broadcast that fact. My ego had been sufficiently humbled by this point.

It really didn't matter to me whether anyone else knew that I was taking this challenge solo. Running long distances is just something I love to do, and the fact that I could actually offer hope to the family of a sick child in the process made the experience all the more fulfilling.

I run all-night, I confess, because it makes me feel alive. Very alive.

Of course, a warm shower and a deep tissue massage would go a long way toward making me feel alive at the moment. Given my current predicament, I'd even settle for a quick sponge-bath and a couple shiatsu cracks to the mid-back. I continued plodding desperately onward, the summit of this beastly climb nowhere in sight.

Things began deteriorating quickly, and they had been pretty bad to start with. Over the course of the past half-mile, there seemed to be little discernible brain activity, the legs churning mindlessly with limited command from upstairs. Just as the entire system appeared to be shutting down, I was instantaneously JOLTED BACK TO LIFE by the deafening blast of a car horn coming up from behind me.

I jumped mid-stride and twisted 180 degrees in the air, like a cat that's been released upside-down from low altitude. My first thought was that some crazed hillbilly with a thing for stray pedestrians was about to mow me down. But, luckily, it was friendly fire. Tearing up behind me was the beloved campervan and I could see my family and Angela waving cheerfully. They were completely oblivious to the distress their blast had inflicted. I stood there, trying to arrest the pulmonary arrhythmia, wondering if there is an established clinical diagnosis for horn phobia. I felt certain that I would now suffer from such a malady. (I could just imagine future trips to the circus with the kids: Any time some unsuspecting clown squeezes his nose, poor dad would erupts in spasms.)

As traumatic as that beep had been, I didn't care. For besides the camaraderie of my family and friend, inside that campervan was a large cup of Peet's coffee and a bottle of Pedialyte, two favorite delicacies amongst discerning ultra-endurance athletes.

"Darling, you look hungry," my Mom said. "Let me make you something to eat."

"Just hand me that Pedialyte, and I'll be fine."

"You look tired," she continued. "Why don't you rest."

"The boy looks great," my Dad weighed in. "Strong." I could feel a stringer of drool dangling from my chin, but was too weak to do anything about it.

My children bounded out from the campervan and came running over.

"Daddy," my daughter said, "Where did you go last night? We miss you." I grimaced in pain as they both bounced on my outstretched legs.

"Easy guys," my wife chimed in, "Daddy might be a little sore." We sat on the roadside. It was like a family picnic, only slightly irregular in that the sun had yet to rise, and we were all sitting on a guardrail along the edge of a highway. None of us seemed to care though. During the course of running for forty-six straight hours, you learn to take what you can get.

"Okay," my Dad said after a few short minutes. "Let's get moving, we don't want you to fall behind schedule."

"Schedule?" I thought to myself, "What schedule?" I didn't realize I was on a schedule. Frankly, I was just happy to be alive. It was sufficiently challenging to remain coherent; adhering to an imagined timeline seemed beyond comprehension.

Less than a mile ahead of us was the crest of the tallest peak along the Relay course. We knew that we were very close, and Dad prodded that if we could just get over the hump it would be all downhill, and we could make it to Santa Cruz in record time.

In theory, he was marginally accurate. The summit ahead capped out at an elevation of 2,659 feet, and the finish in Santa Cruz was at sea level. So, indeed, there was a net elevation loss of a couple thousand feet between the upcoming crest and the finish. What he failed to recognize, however, were the "road bumps" along the way (one of which being a 900-foot vertical climb from Felton to the top of the Granite Construction quarry, where it seemed astonishing that the pavement even stuck to the earth, given the extreme pitch of the incline).

But who could be concerned with such details right now? I was in the midst of a perfect moment. Surrounded by family and friend, a bottle of infant formula in hand, the world seemed filled with endless possibilities.

The Man and the Myth

Over the course of the years, "Team Dean" has grown bigger than any one person. People oddly referred to Team Dean in the third person, myself included. Now, as the other teams passed by, you would hear periodic mention of Team Dean as though it was some entity rather than simply another runner.

"What does Team Dean eat?" one guy asked me.

"Does Team Dean sleep?" asked another.

Strangely, my responses were always in the third person as well, "Team Dean just ate four oranges," I said. "Only once did Team Dean sleep," I answered (not mentioning that Team Dean slept while he ran, because that seemed a bit over-the-top).

It didn't bother me that Team Dean had morphed into something beyond my person. In fact, I viewed it as a good thing. I'm just a human, with all the limitations, hang-ups and baggage that comes along with the part. Team Dean, on the other hand, is imagined to have almost mythical powers. Team Dean is good, stalwart, and virtuous. Personally, I could never live up to those expectations.

Team Dean is nearly able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I, on the other hand, could barely clear the pavement with each new stride. Team Dean eats kryptonite for breakfast and nails for lunch. I eat Cheetos and Pringles. Team Dean is articulate and cheerful. It was all I could do to keep the drool from my chin. Clearly, I was no match for Team Dean.

As more and more teams filed by, the tempo accelerated and the real fun began. Being around the other teams is wonderfully uplifting, even though I'm being constantly passed by runners of all shapes, sizes and ages. There is excitement in the air; everyone present seems to feed off the energy. The Relay uses the tag, "California's longest party." They weren't kidding when they came up with that line.

Before I knew it, we were up over the summit and trucking along at a pretty good clip down the backside of the peak. Teams were yelling and cheering for their runners; music was blaring out of car windows. "Heck," I thought to myself, "I've only got a marathon, a 10K and a 5K left and I'm done." I was so heartened, I could almost faint with anticipation.

But faint I didn't. The running gods were good to me, and at a quarter past three on Sunday afternoon they carried my big fat Greek hinny across the finish line. It had taken 46 hours, 17 minutes and 23 seconds to reach this point, but the job was now done. Mission accomplished.

Little Libby Wood and her family were waiting at the finish. Demonstrating their bravery, they all gave me a big hug-which, after running for two days without a shower, is the equivalent of cuddling a moose.

My crew was also at the finish line, and we celebrated the crossing as a team victory. The Relay staff awarded all of us with medals, which was a very touching gesture. Although I did the running part, Team Dean was a force of eight.

I recognized many familiar faces at the finish. Having run the race every year since its inception, I've made lots of friends along the highway. It's really great seeing everyone at the finish in Santa Cruz. If only I could remain conscious long enough to hold a conversation, I might actually get to meet some of these wonderful people.

For the brief period that I was coherent following the event, I did manage to call Jeannie Mehran. I wanted to let her know that my little struggle had come to a successful conclusion, and to see if David's condition had improved since our last conversation. My crew, and many of the other teams, wanted to know how David was doing. We were all in this together now. I wasn't able to reach her in person, but left a message. Then came the drive home, during which I lasted about two minutes before passing out in the back seat.

The next week was largely spent in a haze, trying to recover from the run while attempting to uphold my family responsibilities and job responsibilities without causing bodily harm to myself or others. (Operating a motor vehicle in such a state is not advisable.) Compounding the misery, I had learned that David's condition was declining. Something drastic would need to be done shortly if he were to stand a chance. This might even entail using part of David's fathers liver, which was a highly risky and dangerous surgery.

Upon hearing this news, I plummeted into deep depression. It seemed inconceivable that just last Sunday I was standing on the beach in Santa Cruz, and everything in the world was perfect. Now, less than three days later, it had all come crashing down. I was overtaken with grief.

None of what had transpired last weekend seemed to matter anymore. Not the run, not the loving support of my family and friends, not the grand adventure we had all shared in together. It seemed horribly unjust that another family could have such a tragedy cast upon them. They had done nothing to deserve this. The affliction was random. Why their number had been chosen remains a mystery. I could find no peace, knowing what they were going through. My world was consumed with sadness.

On Saturday morning I received a call from David's mother. My heart skipped a beat when I heard her voice. I braced myself for what was sure to be tragic news. But it never came.

Jeannie informed me that David had received a liver transplant last night and was in the recovery room, doing quite well. The news filled me with a sudden joy. He had run his race, and he had emerged victorious.

I dashed upstairs and hugged my kids, doing my best not to wake them. I ran downstairs and put on my running shoes. I bolted out the door and started heading west. The sun was shinning. Birds were chirping. And once again, the world was a perfect place.

Dean Karnazes is a small business owner in San Francisco. Watch for his upcoming book in 2004, "Confessions of an All-Night Runner" by Penguin Books.