By Gordon Wright
What do you get when you combine Dean Karnazes with a former pro triathlete who once crushed the Ironman World Championships to the tune of nine hours and ten minutes? A titanic clash of egos, with the two of them throwing surges at each other to break each others’ wills?
Nope. Just the opposite.
I’ve been running with Dean and his rotating cast of running partners pretty much every day during the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run, but Stage Three presented intriguing match-up: Dean was paired with the affable, Colorado-based multisport badass AJ Johnson.
When I caught up with them four miles from the finish, there wasn’t an ego in sight. It was more like a knitting circle conducted at an 8 minute mile pace. Dean floated along. AJ floated next to him. They had run twenty miles before I met them, yet they were yakking like they hadn’t noticed any of the soaring altitudes and grinding climbs. Their pace was metronomic, thoughtless – just two old friends who had just met. They traded race horror stories and swapped philosophies of racing (“My thing about passing people is, I’m not going to slow down or speed up; if I get past them, I get past them,” noted Johnson).
And while they were just out for a social run, we did get past some teams, who were buoyed by the fact that it was the original Ultra Marathon Man who was doing the passing. One team took our picture.
“That’s one thing I can’t get over,” remarked Johnson after the race, “I don’t know how he does it. EVERY person gets a charge out of seeing Dean, and they ask him pretty much the same questions. But he’s just unfailingly polite and fired up to deal with them, and the enthusiasm is genuine. I mean, people have read his books or seen him on TV, but at this race, he’s just here physically with everyone else, and it’s pretty cool.”
Also pretty cool is Johnson himself. The Iowa native has matinee idol looks and boundless athleticism: he’s an avid skier, and played two years of tennis for the University of Iowa. But it is in triathlon that AJ has made an indelible mark. He was a dominant age grouper before turning pro, and his 9:10 at Kona was good enough for 6th-best American that day. He’s not as active in competing in tris these days, but only because he’s a hugely in-demand tri coach (for D3 Multisport) and because there are so many fun things out there.
“I’m getting the itch to do an Ironman again,” he said as we approached the finishing chute, “But there are SO many fun things to do: adventure races, mountain biking, you name it.”
After the race, we raved about the beauty of the course and the perfect running conditions. The tenor of the run was neatly summed up by Johnson, who is writing about the race for Competitorrunning.com: “If I had to apply one word to this run, it would be thoughtful. No – thought provoking.”