Dean Karnazes - An interview with my friend and ultramarathon legend -
Posted on August 29 2017
Dean Karnazes is one of the most celebrated ultra marathon runners in history. With 4 books behind his name, his fourth having just come out in New Zealand, Dean is both an accomplished athlete, author, businessman and philanthropist.
With a list of accomplishments that are too extensive to mention here, it’s fair to say that Dean has reached legend status in the ultramarathon and running community. He is a real ambassador for goodwill, a safer and more united planet and a true hero of the sport he loves so much. His latest contribution to the world of literature sees Dean sharing his very intimate and often hair raising adventures during the Spartathlon. The book titled, "The Road to Sparta" takes you on an unforgettable journey between two cities in the footsteps of the legendary Pheidipides who ran 153 miles from Athens to Sparta in 490 BC to recruit Spartans to join the Athenians in their wars against the invading Persians.
Dean’s story is both history and biography as he delves into his Greek roots and ancestry to bring you a backdrop that is only outdone by the gruelling and personal story of completing a journey that was pioneered by a national legend so many centuries ago.
Dean’s new book is his best yet, mainly because it’s so personal and gives you an insight into the man and his connection to his roots. It’s an empowering story that will resonate with runners from all walks of life.
The “Road to Sparta” takes you through Deans’ Greek Lineage and the history of Greece at this epic time in history. It sets you in the geography and culture of the time on and on top of that, the story brings in Deans personal Spartathlon race.
Dean is 100% Greek and proud and although he has lived most of his adult life in the United States, apart from a one year stint in Australia in his youth, he felt a deep connection to Greece and being an ultra marathon runner he wanted to explore the origins of the marathon but also the the ancient battle of Marathon between the Athenians and the invading Persians that happened 2,500 years ago.
In the middle of this battle Dean discovers the character Pheidipides, a messenger who ran from Marathon to Sparta to proclaim victory to his compatriots and ended up dying of exhaustion on his arrival. This story is just one of the tales of many such messengers like Pheidipides, whose jobs it was to run from region to region, covering extraordinary distances on foot to spread Greek Democracy and important messages.
The interesting thing about this time in history was that the development of democracy, as we know it today, was in it’s infancy and the Greeks were at odds with the rest of the world as they attempted to spread this enlightened new way of building civilisation and thank goodness they did as we are the beneficiaries of this system today.
But this incredible discovery of Pheidipides story, the well known legend of him running the marathon distance just once and dropping dead turned out to be only part of the story. Pheidipides actually ran a mind blowing 153 miles from Marathon to Sparta and the modern day race known as the Spartathlon is modelled around this incredible feat of endurance. Pheidipides did this amidst a war between the Greeks and Persians against the worst of odds and in only 36 hours. This story has only a couple of lines in the history books, written as if this was just an everyday event but this story is unbelievable.
Dean says: “A lot of ultra runners have heard of the Spartathlon, which is based on that very same run Pheidipides completed so long ago. And yes, he had to run from Marathon to Sparta to encourage the Spartans to join the Athenians in their fight against the Persians. However, relations weren't always great between the two Greek states, which made Pheidipides trek all the more amazing but also very necessary.”
Athenians and Spartans didn't get along. They were both states within the Greek empire but had many disagreements. People like Pheidipides were the messengers between these two states and were seen as ambassadors and were allowed to move unhindered and protected. Everyone agreed that these messengers were crucial in event of wars with outside parties or other emergencies.
But let’s look at this feat of endurance. These messengers didn’t have the advantages we have today, great food, technology and supplements so how on earth did they do it?
Dean states “After running the Spartathlon myself, I can honestly say that I do not know! I did however, rely on as much of the ancient foods they used back then. One thing I wanted to accomplish was to model my run on that of Pheidipides’ as much as I could. So I ate a lot of figs, olives, cured meat and something called pastilli, which is a honey sesame paste - and of course a lot of water. That's how they did it back then and so I wanted to emulate that experience. I still did it in modern running gear and relied on modern amenities.”
Pheidipides ran the distance between the two cities in 36 hours, which was an incredible feat at the time, yet wasn't particularly celebrated since running these incredible distances was just a part of a very tough job, albeit a very important one.
They ran through the worst of conditions and through the night but somehow they managed. How I honestly don’t know but there are countless examples of how people, even in many other cultures besides the Greek culture, who were able to traverse great distances and stepped in to help entire communities and even change the course of history.
Back then these people were just par for the course but nowadays ultra marathon runners sometimes find themselves at the centre of ridicule by people who don’t understand how you could push the body so far but when asked Dean says there is a deeper meaning to doing what we do and yes we push ourselves to unbelievable lengths but it’s the pure joy and the satisfaction of the accomplishment is that what counts. Whether its a 10km or and ultra.
There is a trend towards more and more people taking up the ancient and natural sport of running which he thinks can be ascribed to the fact that our world is becoming so easy, comfortable, automated and convenient leading people to seek out new physical challenges They are, he believes, longing for something real, genuine and physically and emotionally challenging.
Running strips us back to who we are and let’s us go back to basics in a way and reconnect with nature.
Dean says that we in the West have lived under the idea that more material comfort would equal more personal fulfilment. We know now that this idea simply doesn't hold water anymore. In fact, we've become so comfortable that it's making us miserable.
Ultramarathon runners are lucky in the sense that they can get out and connect with nature but I look at major cities around the world and see that many city dwellers are literally cut off from Mother Nature and are trapped in concrete jungles.
Dean admits to being an introvert and he finds solace and peace when in nature and is most happy when in remote parts of the wilderness. I was acutally shocked at his opinion he was an introvert. I know Dean as the kindest most congenial person imaginable, endlessly patient and giving but he laughs and say’s I am an ambivert to be exact. Someone who can turn on the personality and give of myself when I need to but who loves nothing more than being alone and running.
I want to know how Dean remains so motivated and if it’s just so easy for him. Does he always feel like running for miles and he surprises me by saying no not always but the hardest part is always putting on your shoes and getting to the front door. Once you are actually running for a few minutes your mood and outlook changes. He also uses a technique called projection that lets him envision how he will feel after the run and you always feel better after, so by focusing on that outcome it can help get you motivated and even after a bad run, you still feel better than what you did before and always get some kind of benefit or positive reinforcement from a run.
So what is next for Dean. Well hold onto your hats because his next project is the most ridiculous mission I have ever heard of. Dean is planning on running a marathon in every country in the world over the course of one year. So he will be running 203 marathons in 203 countries within a year.
Fortunately he has the backing of the U.N and the U.S State Department behind him and he will need it and he is doing it in an attempt to unite the world through the simple act of running. No political ambitions or agendas just using his sport to do good in the world.
He actually sounds ecstatic when talking about this crazy mission. “Can you imagine seeing every country in the world and running a marathon in each? How wonderful. …ah no I think I will leave that one to you Dean. It will be an absolutely incredible feat if he can do it and will cost him dearly.
Dean is a machine but although he is a man on a mission, a big mission he is kind, extremely caring and compassionate and is driven to make the world a better place, using the talents he has been given. Yes he is an exceptional athlete but what I admire more is that he is an exceptional human being and I wish him well on his next insane mission.