Inspirational runners 004. Dean Karnazes ‘ Ultramarathon Man’.



I measure success in my life in the context of exceeding my expectations. When I played music, I connected with a bigger audience than I ever thought possible. I met with and played with people whom I had idolised as a teenager, created engaging and satisfying art, and had experiences that I would have never imagined.

At 28, that, for me, was winning. Fast forward 5 years: music is out, family is in, and I’m standing in my local library holding a book in my hand. It’s simply entitled RUN! On the cover stands Dean Karnazes, giving every impression to this fledgling runner of being the strongest human being alive.

It’s safe to say that Dean’s recounting of his exploits in RUN! (and Ultramarathon Man, and 50 in 50, his other books) frightened and intrigued me in equal measure. Could you run more than a half marathon, which had been the longest distance I’d done at that point, or a marathon? 80 kilometres? 100 kilometres? 100 miles??? Well if you could do that, what about two marathons, on consecutive days? What about 50 Marathons? Was there a limit? (Was this man even human?) Judging by Dean’s books, I wasn’t so sure, so I promptly sought about finding out. So here I sit, a further five years down the track, nearly fully immersed in running culture, it’s lore and ephemera, having completed a few ultramarathons and planning to run until the day I die. I maintain to all and sundry that “running saved my life”. At 38 years old, I’m still winning, because I’ve exceeded several goals in terms of running that I never thought possible. I’m ALSO winning because I interviewed Dean Karnazes. Something that if you told me I’d be doing ten years ago I would have laughed out loud in response.

Run a marathon next to someone and they become your brother or sister for life. It’s warfare, only it creates life instead of death. – DK.

If ultramarathon running had a gateway drug for me, would be it. Sure, like everyone who moves into a culture that they are curious about and have an affinity for, I sought out other inspirations and sources of information as I moved through my endurance journey, but I’ve always held out that Dean Karnazes was a solid foundation in my decision to pursue ultra endurance running. Here’s the thing, and excuse the continued musical reference, but if , Dean Karnazes was a band, he’d be Pearl Jam. He’s very popular, very well known, has remained current throughout his career, He’s shifted a tonne of units (his books have sold very well) and continues a regular touring schedule of racing and speaking engagements. His followers are loyal, and even people who would ascribe to more “current” or “hip” runners sponsored by more storied labels are turned into at least temporary believers having spent time in his presence. Struggling to see the comparison? Watch a Pearl Jam concert online and tell me that a very popular band can’t maintain integrity or authenticity.

By this, you’d be right in thinking that Pearl Jam was my favourite band, right? No. Not even close. My favourite band is Washington DC’s Fugazi. But here’s the thing. If I was to claim ultimate authentic punk rock credibility, I’d say that I found out about Fugazi through the other Dischord bands, but I didn’t. That would be totally inauthentic.I didn’t discover Fugazi by listening to the bands that preceded them, Rites of Spring, Minor Threat and Egg Hunt. I found out about about Fugazi at the end of a Pearl Jam bootleg. I was 15, listening to this thing on my cassette player in my garage in Blockhouse Bay, when Eddie Vedder says ,at the end of the band’s festival set, “Ok, I’m going to go and see Fugazi now”. “Fugazi?” I thought. “If Eddie Vedder likes them, they must be good”. They were, THAT decision to take a first step (then a flying leap) into punk rock totally changed my life, and I can’t listen to Fugazi now without silently paying a word of thanks to good old PJ. Are a major label rock band like Pearl Jam as “authentic” as Fugazi, my beloved, stalwart DIY champions? Totally.

They are just different. If we consider “authenticity” as making an empathic connection with another person, so that a shared connection is made, through his running, his books, his speaking, and his advocacy for Karno Kids, then Dean Karnazes is as authentic as they come. As surely his profile is such that he has created an empathic connection with many, many people. He is popular, he is “mainstream”, he may not have a beard, a Tumblr and a bespoke axe for cutting lumber in his long house, but DK is the real deal. He loves running, just as you and I do.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

As to his exploits in the ultra marathon world? They are well documented and mind bending, Dean has won Badwater, the 135 mile race through Death Valley, He’s run the Spartathlon, the 246 kilometre road race that honours his Greek ancestors. Scanning his Ultrasignup page you see the words “Western States” “Miwok” “UTMB” and “Leadville Trail” multiple times. Karno has run, a lot… Let’s not even TALK about the Hawaiian pizza.

So what about giving back? Dean’s non-profit foundation KARNO KIDS is actively involved in raising money through direct solicitations of individuals and corporations, through fund-raising events, and through selling of athletic memorabilia and commemorative merchandise.

“As a foundation, KARNO KIDS provides direct financial support to organisations and programs that are focused on improving the health and wellness of our youth and restoring and preserving the environment and urban open-spaces. We work with a select number of quality organisations and programs that support this vision in an accountable and quantifiable manner. Some of these include: Girls on the Run, The Conservation Fund, and Kids on Trails.”

One of the best things about writing for Good People Run is the focus on the WHY? of running, not the HOW?, Certainly, it appears that Dean is firmly on team WHY? Dean was gracious and forthcoming in his answers to my questions about his day to day training, a busy life on the road, epochal moments, achieving balance (or not) in one’s life, and the pressure of always having to be “on” when you see yourself being just like everyone else.

“KARNO KIDS provides direct financial support to organizations and programs that are focused on improving the health and wellness of our youth…”

Your build up to ultra endurance running is well chronicled in your book, Ultramarathon Man; Do you believe that what you have achieved can be done with preparation, time and effort? i.e. can anyone run 100 miles? or are you just built differently?

I honestly believe anyone can run an ultramarathon. When I travel to races, I see people of all shapes, sizes and ages running ultras. Certainly training and preparation is important, and I don’t want to play down its importance, but completing an ultramarathon is just as much about attitude and mental toughness as it is about physical prowess. Those that succeed have the right combination of both.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

What struck me most about your story is the sense of the epochal moment, where you tottered out of that bar on your 30th birthday to run 30 miles through the dark. Clearly, that one event set you down the road to where you are now. Do you ever think of where you’d be today if you hadn’t laced up your lawn mowing shoes and headed out into the hills?

I like to say that every runner has a story, and this is mine. That zeitgeist moment you referenced had been brewing inside me for several years. I sensed something was amiss with my life and it all came to a head the night of my 30th birthday when I walked out of a bar, three sheets to the wind, and decided to run 30-miles in celebration of my 30-years of existence on planet earth. I hadn’t run for over a decade prior, and I ran straight through the night without rest. The aftermath wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t matter. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do; the blisters and chaffing and muscle cramping didn’t matter at all. My destiny was now clear. That night forever changed the course of my life.

I honestly believe anyone can run an ultramarathon. When I travel to races, I see people of all shapes, sizes and ages running ultras.

What facet of running do you enjoy most? What drives you to run so much? Be that races of any distance, training, engagement with community, solo runs? What stands out as the best experiences for you and why?

Personally, I most like running solo for long distances in new and uncharted territories. I love the adventure of it all, the people you meet along the way, the things you see, the grand exploration. I’m not talking about racing in different parts of the world, but just running freeform. I certainly enjoy racing and competing in ultramarathons, but I most relish running unbridled in a come as you go fashion with no boundaries or finish lines. There’s something primordial about this, something very human. I think it harkens back to hunters-gatherer days when we just roamed freely, unencumbered by the weightiness of material possessions and the burdens of modern living. I’ve done multi-day, solo runs like this in many parts of the world, including New Zealand, and these are my fondest memories.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

On that, where is your favourite place to run, and why?

Wow, that’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve had the great fortune of running in some remarkable locations. Probably my very favorite is this little Greek island in the Aegean named Ikaria. My mother’s family is from this island and it is probably the most beautiful and diverse place I’ve ever had the pleasure of running, which is quite extraordinary considering that it’s just a small island in the Mediterranean and I’ve run on all seven continents of earth. There is something magical and timeless about Ikaria, like nowhere else I’ve been.

I looked at your schedule on your website, you’re on the road a bunch. Are you always running, or do you have days where you don’t due to travel commitments and the busy nature of your life? If so, does this sit well with you, or are you always itching to get out and run?

Because I can’t run all the time it makes me look forward to running all the more when I can. Part of the dichotomy of eking out a living as an endurance athlete is that I’m required to travel more frequently than when I had a “normal” life and job. Oftentimes the travel is more exhausting than the running. But that’s all part of the challenge and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I love what I do, and you can’t put a price tag on personal fulfilment.

These days, do you train? or does your base fitness and busy event schedule get you what you need?

“Life is training, and training is life,” I like to say. I constantly train, non-stop, every waking moment of every day. I do not see a separation between training and life; fitness is the core part of my everyday existence. Looking back once more to the hunters-gatherer days, the average human walked, jogged or ran upwards of 18-miles a day. I would say that very few of us get that same amount of activity nowadays. We were built to move, but unfortunately the modern world is built for just the opposite, idleness.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

One thing I never do is sit down. Even on an airplane I’m constantly moving, walking up and down the isles, driving the flight attendants crazy. Whenever I can, and wherever I can, I do sets of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, dips, jumping lunges and burpees throughout the day. At home my entire office is set up at waist level and I have a standing desk, so I do all of my writing and emailing while standing up and bouncing around on my feet and toes. I take calls on a cordless phone so that I can walk around. Some might consider what I do crazy, but I think sitting on your butt all day is crazy!

I love the adventure of it all, the people you meet along the way, the things you see, the grand exploration.

Where do you call home?

HA! That’s an interesting question because last year I spent more time on the road than I did at home. But in between travels I reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place called Marin County. It’s just north across the Golden Gate Bridge from the city and a world apart.

You’ve inspired a lot of people, a good friend of mine has your “run when you can..” quote tattooed on his inner forearm (and I’m sure he isn’t the only one who has Karnazes ink). Do you find there is pressure associated with being so well known, and is there a sense of having to be “always on”? If so, how do you deal with this pressure?

You never really get used to this stuff. I don’t see myself as being anything more than just a runner, no different than anyone else. Sometimes it’s hard when I’m struggling or in pain because people think I’m invincible. But honestly, I think it also provides inspiration in a way. People see that even a guy who trains as hard as I do and who’s done all that I have done can still hurt and can still face challenges. There’s something very real about it, something innately human. It gives people hope. In the end, I’m just a runner, I’m just like everybody else.

Do you have a certain philosophy regarding running and the concept of community engagement and advocacy? Can running benefit the wider community in more ways than increased fitness? What if everyone ran?

I truthfully believe that the world would be a better place if everybody were a runner. Running unites people, it brings people together. There is so much in this world that divides us, that tears us apart and separates us, be it the colour of your skin, the god you worship, the language you speak or your socio-economic level. Running is the great equaliser, the great democratiser. Running is a commonality we humans all share, regardless of these other differences. When we run we are one. There is nothing that brings people together like shared suffering and triumph. Run a marathon next to someone and they become your brother or sister for life. It’s warfare, only it creates life instead of death.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

What is inspiring about your story is that you have turned something that you love into a lifestyle anda way to follow your dreams. What advice can you give to people who want to follow their dreams and to do what they love?

Because of this I feel like the luckiest man alive. How many people get out of bed every morning and look forward to their day’s work? I suspect not many, and this to me is tragic. We should all love what we do; we’d be more productive, and, more importantly, we’d be happier. I always tell people to “script your perfect life.” In other words, write a paragraph or two about what your perfect life would look like, similar to a briefing for a Hollywood movie. What would you be doing? Where would you live? How would you spend your day? That sort of thing. Dream big. Stretch yourself. Romanticise. Find what it is that would give you the most meaning and purpose in life and leave you the most fulfilled. Now you have an outline of your idealised self, of the place you want to end up. The roadmap for getting there might not be clear, but at least you know where you want to go. And unless you have some vision of where you want to go, you’ll never get there.

I truthfully believe that the world would be a better place if everybody were a runner. Running unites people, it brings people together.

Dean, would you mind sharing with us your top three tips to achieving happiness or balance in life?

Being Greek, I always revert back to the Oracle at Delphi. First: Know Thyself. To know yourself you must explore and discover, you must put yourself in new situations, sail uncharted waters, depart from your comfort zone and enter the scary realm of the unknown. Running an ultramarathon is an excellent way of doing this. You can learn more about yourself over the course of a 100-mile run through the wilderness than you knew in a previous lifetime. Next, the Oracle states: Be Thyself. Once you’ve discovered who you are, be that person. As Shakespeare paraphrased it, “To thine own self be true.” Finally, live in the moment. So much our time is spent being preoccupied with thoughts about the future, reflecting on the past, or being caught up in the daily ritual of checking screens, paying bills, meeting deadlines, etc… We rarely live in the present moment of time these days, in the here and now. You can still go about your life as usual, just try to be more present and aware as you do so. If you can master this skill your life becomes vastly more pleasant. Those are my top three skills for achieving happiness, as for achieving balance, forget about it. I think the idea of balance is misguided. A life well-lived has no balance, it’s more like managed chaos. How can you possibly find balance in our modern world where everything is so out of balance? Instead, don’t fight it. Learn to live in a state of blissful unbalance. That is the key to finding balance.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

Dean Kanazes. Image supplied.

The only constant in our lives is change, so where to from here? Is there any event, adventure or challenge that you have not done that you would like to undertake?

I once ran 50 marathons, in all 50 US states, in 50 consecutive days, and that was the greatest experience ever. My next big challenge is to embark upon a worldwide expedition to run a marathon in every country of the globe in the span of 1-year’s time. There are 203 countries and I’m working with the US State Department and UN to get the necessary passports and permits to be able to do this. As you can imagine, the planning, logistics and sponsorship negotiations are every bit as complex and difficult as the running itself. But I’m not giving up until it’s done. I’m inviting the local country people to come run with me when I’m visiting. As I said earlier, I think the world could use something like this right now. Let’s stop fighting with each other and start running together. I always tell people to dream big. Well, it’s time for me to eat my own cooking and do the same. Run World, as it is being called, is my big dream. Now I need to put in the hard work and sweat to make that dream come true.

Instead, don’t fight it. Learn to live in a state of blissful unbalance. That is the key to finding balance.

Lastly, where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have the answer. Life is ever changing and unexplainable. You think you’re heading in the right direction and then the rules change. As a friend of mine once said, “Want to make God laugh? Tell him about your 5-year plan.” Hopefully I will have my health in 5-years. In an uncertain world, health is something you mostly can control. I’ll try to control what I can, and then kick back and enjoy the ride…
Matt Rayment

Matt Rayment

Family man, runner & editor with GOOD PEOPLE RUN.
Matt Rayment

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