He attended Bismarck State College, where he earned a track and field scholarship, was captain of the cross country team and ran the 1,000 meters at the 1974 National Junior College championship. He then transferred to Stanford University,
Karlgaard's first job after college was as an editorial assistant at Runner's World in 1977. He quit a few months later to write a book called The Last World On Running, that was published in 1978 by Caroline House. Karlgaard spent the late 1970s and early 1980s working as a dishwasher and security guard before becoming an advertising writer in Silicon Valley and a technical writer at the Electric Power Research Institute.