This is a preview article from the April 2022 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Not a subscriber? Please consider becoming one

Running on Water

By: Dean Karnazes

Ultrarunners are notoriously prolific. We run on every imaginable terrain—mountains, deserts, snowfields, marshes, grasslands—on all continents. Any landscape that’s accessible is runnable. Been there, run that.

But what about water? Who would ever think about running across an aquatic seascape, not like Jesus, but legitimate ultrarunning. How ridiculously implausible would that be?

A bit about my background, I’m one of those types that thrill over the prospects of running in new and unimaginable places, and I’ve been around the world a couple times doing just that. Though I admit, the thought of stepping off land and running on water was never part of my realm of consideration. That is, until I saw the Hydro Bronc (bizarre name I know, but it gets even weirder).

Designed as a lifesaving device for ice rescues on frozen lakes, I immediately saw an alternative utility. So, I contacted the inventor.

Rob Blair met me in the parking lot above the San Clemente pier in Southern California. An engineer by training and holder of enumerable patents in a wide array of fields, Rob was rather gruff and surly, like a mix between Einstein and Clint Eastwood. We inflated the Hydro Bronc in the parking lot and he instructed me to get in. The floating contraption can best be described as a large, inflatable hamster wheel. There is an internal mesh trampoline to stand on and handles on either side to grab hold of.

“Just step in?” I asked.

“That’s what I said,” he sneered, as if challenging me.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the thought of crawling into something twice your size and somewhat angry looking seems a bit unsettling to me, especially given that this particular beach parking lot is some distance from the water’s edge, and perched on the severe downward slope of a hill.

“Go on,” he chided, “What are you waiting for?”

Reluctantly, I stepped inside. Almost immediately, the thing started wobbling. The platform seemed unstable and prone to bursts of jittery micro movements. It was like trying to stand upright in a tippy canoe. And I was on dry land. Then it started rolling forward.

“Better latch onto those handles, Skipper,” Rob advised. Oh, how I started to despise this man.

Believe me, I thought about bailing out the side several times, but the forward momentum was too great. Now the Hydro Bronc was rolling down the parking lot with a mind of its own and I was trapped inside moving my legs on the internal trampoline just as fast as they’d propel me to prevent myself from being haplessly cartwheeled upside down. The Hydro Bronc produced a fleshy prehistoric thud each time one of the inflated pontoons slapped against the pavement.

I vaguely detected the beach ahead and assumed the apparatus would come to a subtle arrest once I hit sand. It did not. Now people were scurrying for their lives, with screams and hollers from concerned citizens, and parents snatching up their children and cradling them in protection. I, myself, was yelling loudly (more for my own life than theirs). Somehow, I managed not to pancake anyone while traversing the beach and splashed into the water like a great wallowing beluga whale. Surfers started franticly trying to get out of my path as I crashed through the breakers like the SS Minnow. Inside, water is flying everywhere as the tillers spun overhead; I couldn’t see anything as my feet continued churning on the internal trampoline, propelling the Bronc seaward. The entire contraption bobbed up and down as the swells swept beneath me, leaving me feeling a bit queasy, yet I just kept running, more like stumbling forward, legs scampering up the ever turning trampoline, which kept driving the device onward over the undulating liquid moguls. As I cleared my eyes, I looked up to the left. There was a procession of kids running alongside me, only they were on the stable wooden planking of the pier and I was in an aquatic circus oddity, a balloony bizarro vessel that hardly seemed seaworthy. Yet, I’m headed for open ocean. At the end of the pier stood a weathered seafarer in a sailor’s cap. “Bon voyage,” he hails. “Aye-aye, Captain,” I reply. (That didn’t really happen, but I felt like it could have.)

Soon I was out past the pier when it occurred to me that there were fish in these waters. Big fish. The men in grey suits, as the surfers call them. These fish only bite once (that’s all it takes). I started to recall past episodes of Shark Week and remembered that Great Whites have upward of 300 razor-sharp teeth, even one of which could sink this craft, instantly transforming me into a human hors d’oeuvre.

I started the slow process of listing to starboard and eventually coming about, and then proceeded shoreward. Who could ever imagine such lexicon in the vocabulary of an ultrarunner? After some effort, I arrived back on dry land, the final stretch assisted by incoming waves washing me ashore.

I thanked Rob for the experience and told him the insane asylum is full of potential customers.

But now, some time later and on stable earth, I’ve had space to reflect and I see possibilities. Once I got my sea legs, the Hydro Bronc was surprisingly nimble and quite fun to run in. So, I’ve set my sights on Catalina Island, which is about 30 nautical miles from the mainland, a true ultramarathon. Yes, I’m now measuring distances in nautical miles. And I’ve even found an enthusiastic sponsor. So next time you’re strolling along the seashore, be on the lookout for a rotund inflatable flotilla with the logo: Team Dramamine. I might be torn to pieces by sharks, but at least I won’t have to worry about getting seasick.