The Road To Sparta, Dean Karnazes’ fourth book is a departure from his other works in many ways, which is surprising when you consider that the premise is Dean’s preparation for and completion of, the 153 mile (246 kilometre) Spartathlon.
This race, which was conceived by a retired RAF commander and had it’s inaugural year in 1983, is said to follow the route that the Athenian Hermerodromous Pheidippides ran between Athens and Sparta to seek help from the Spartan King before the battle of Marathon. Pheidippides is said to have covered this mighty distance in 24 hours, and many more miles in the coming days, resulting in him literally running himself to death, as he passed away in Athens upon delivering the message of Greek victory over the Persians; “Nike!” (Victory!).
The first encounter that I had with Spartathlon was through reading Robin Harvie’s “Why We Run”. Harvie’s book is a dark and engaging account of an ordinary man who trains obsessively to tackle Spartathlon. It did not look like a joyous time. Thus ever, Spartathlon was filed away in my consciousness under the heading “Races To Be Terrified Of”.
Unlike the Californian vibes of his other work, Karnazes’ tale takes on a darker tone, bookended by the affecting recount of his Grandfather’s passing and the well storied last moments of Pheidippides. There is a contrast between Dean as the Ultramarathon Man, He Who Will Never Stop, the guy who at 30 (already as self made millionaire) started his journey towards international acclaim, versus the man returning to the homeland of his parents and reflecting that essentially none of us are getting any younger, so keep those who you love close. The vulnerability displayed at points in this book by Karnazes’ is striking considering that may consider him to be made up of equal parts ability, calves, a tan and his ever present smile.
My family has always come first, and being Greek this means not just my wife and kids but my parents, too.
So too, Karnazes’ Greece is one of contrasts; On the one hand he waxes lyrical about the beauty of the frequent groves and waterways that he comes across on his exploratory runs and discusses with relish the abundance of wild fruit on offer, sitting against this is his description of having to run through the toxic effluvia of the many industrial plants that litter the Spartathlon route. In his other books, Karnazes’ dial is set to indefatigable, however upon enduring this unpleasantness Dean’s distress is palpable.
Karnazes outlines the political situation in Greece, without climbing onto a soapbox. A country that during the Second World War laboured under Fascist and Nazi occupation and resisted fiercely, despite brutal retaliation from the occupying forces, now faces a fraught geopolitical future, austerity measures implemented by the government under direction from the World Bank and perhaps most frightening, the rise of the far right party, Golden Dawn. As an onlooker it’s hard to reconcile this situation, as a person of Greek heritage the dissonance would be considerable.
However, Greece has always been a crucible of difference, back to the point whereby it was a collection of city states. Take for example the many differences between the Athenians and Spartans. Almost diametrically opposed in some facets of their society, however both at the same time quintessentially Greek. That’s what this book is, at once disparate and initially confusing, as a whole this book makes sense. Part philosophical essay, part socio-familial history, part eulogy and part race report which outlines Karnazes’ complete disintegration during Spartathlon, this book is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s running library.
The completion of this article took on an epic scope as over several months my own schedule and Dean’s took on a life of their own. Happily though, I was able to talk with Dean via email to ask him about the process of writing Road to Sparta, his preparation for the race, and many things in between. As usual, Dean was patient, engaging and generous with his responses. Efharisto Constantine!!!
So I’ve become an opportunistic and scrappy trainer, maximizing every second of every day.
In Road to Sparta you highlighted several times your busy schedule. Talk us through the process of writing this book, was it completed in one or two large blocks, or did you have to snatch time to write as and where you could? Do you write on the run, through dictating into a recording device, or is it saved for when you are at home?
Writing a book is an endurance event in its own right. Some writers have the time to dedicate every morning to writing. Because of my travel schedule this is not possible. I write when I can, where I can, often while running by taking voice dictations. When I have a relevant thought or narrative direction I try to capture it. Many athletes don’t write their own books, opting instead to use a ghostwriter. I’ve written my books myself because I want the reader to get a true sense of my voice.
The book had themes of connection on many levels. When you met with your parents in Greece you discussed that you were mindful of spending time with them. You’re now in your 50’s, do you feel that the priorities have changed when it comes to planning your next adventure. If so, how?
My family has always come first, and being Greek this means not just my wife and kids but my parents, too. My plans for future adventures haven’t changed, what has changed is having to plan around school schedules, work schedules, football games, etc… The planning and logistics is more complicated now, but still manageable.
Staying with the theme of longevity, you’ve been running for over two decades, logging large volume mileage and competing in countless ultra distance events. What explains your longevity in the sport? We’ve come so far that we’ve seen a few leading lights in the earlier days of ultra marathon now sidelined with ongoing injury, what do you think the most beneficial factor to your longevity has been?
Honestly, I really don’t know. I don’t think it’s one single thing, but a multiplicity of factors. Genetics, diet, cross-training, healthy interpersonal relationships, luck, all of these things probably play a role. My mother is from the Greek island of Ikaria, one of the famous, “Blue Zones” (places where the indigenous people live the longest). Ikaria has the highest concentration of centenarians on earth. It is an island, it’s been said, where people forget to die. Perhaps that has something to do with my longevity as an athlete.
You said that leading up to Spartathlon you ran a range of anywhere from 50 to 200 mile weeks, depending on commitments. How much of your training is specific in nature to your events, and how much is building on your base fitness? Continuing that theme, I know that you cross train, do you include speed workouts in your training?
I view training as life, and life as training. I try to maintain consistent training blocks leading up to a big event like the Spartathlon, but with my crazy schedule it’s becoming increasingly difficult. So I’ve become an opportunistic and scrappy trainer, maximizing every second of every day. And that includes plenty of speed work (primarily hill repeats) and HIIT training.
On that, What does a 200 mile week look like? Can you talk us through how you approach running 320 kilometres in seven days?
It involves five 20-mile days and an all-night 100-mile run over the weekend. I’m amazed at how many ultramarathoners don’t train by running through the night, but during a race that’s what we’re doing. So I train for it.
Pheidippides and other hermerodromoi would have run in leather sandals and/or bare feet. I note that you have run marathon barefoot in the past. There is such a variance with footwear these days in terms of pitch, drop, stack height and a million other parameters. Do you stay with one specific model of shoe or do you rotate several different pairs with different properties? Does barefoot running factor into your training on any level?
The problem with asking me about footwear is that I can run in wooden clogs. I don’t have any specific anomalies that prevent me from running in one type of shoe or another. My guidance to others is always to wear the most minimal shoe you can get away with.
Barefoot is best, but impractical if you’re running mostly on man made surfaces. When I run barefoot it’s usually at the beach on the soft sand or on the grass infield of a track. I encourage people to run barefoot as training, though on soft surfaces.
I can imagine that Spartathlon was a powerful experience on so many levels; from the several encounters with colourful characters you had on the way (including the Shade on Mt Parthenion) to the sheer exertion of running 153 miles through challenging conditions, to returning to your ancestral home to run a race honouring what was a critical moment in history. Do you feel that having completed the race once you’ll be back to chase a better time, or was completion of the race and what you took from it enough?
The Spartathlon was a powerful experience for me precisely because I struggled so severely. A trying experience makes for a better story than a smooth one, and finishing the Spartathlon was as difficult as anything I have ever done. It gave me a truer sense of how Pheidippides, the original Greek marathoner, must have felt.
More races are now testing for PED’s, which is really tragic
That said, from a competitive perspective it was not one of my best races (actually, one of my worst). I intend to return to the Spartathlon and really race it hard, using regular athlete nutrition rather than the ancient stuff I ate during the first Spartathlon (figs, olives, cured meat, etc…). Still, I’m glad things went the way they did during my inaugural journey. It was a glorious struggle.
Ultramarathon constantly evolves, and you would have seen a lot of change over the course of your journey. What to you are the most exciting developments in the sport? What are you most excited to see happen to the sport of ultrarunning?
You’re right, the sport has evolved tremendously since the time I ran my first race. The level of elite competition, especially at the 50K and 50-mile range, is phenomenal, but more so is the growth in mid-pack ultramarathoners. More and more everyday runners are getting into ultramarathoning and they’re bringing a vigor and enthusiasm that is benefiting everyone.
Ultrarunning is becoming more recognized by the general public as a legitimate sport and noble pursuit. Enough with the wisecracks about Forrest Gump, ultramarathoners have earned some well-deserved recognition for the athleticism and mental toughness completing such an endeavour take.
Conversely, what do you believe are the biggest challenges that the sport is facing, what would you like to see change or overcome?
Unfortunately, drug use is becoming something we’re seeing in ultramarathoning. More races are now testing for PED’s, which is really tragic. I think one thing that could help is for the testing bodies to publish not just the names of the offenders, but also those who tested clean. Instead of using the punishment of being caught as a deterrent, promote the pride of testing clean as an incentive. That might be one helpful idea.
I’m going to finish up the same way we did last time… What’s next? You spoke about Run World (as it was called at the time) .. How is the planning for that going? Are we going to see you down our end of the world anytime soon?
You’re right, that last time we spoke I told you about Run World (a global expedition to run a marathon in every country of the world in a 1-year time span). I’ve been working with the US Department of State 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 like the challenge of all these elements and am not giving up. People ask if I ever fail? I’ve been failing at Run World for the past five years. In fact, I’ll continue failing, until I succeed.