The Ultramarathon Man

To continually challenge both the body and mind is no small feat. Yet somehow an elite few exist who tread this path with total conviction, and simply cannot be blocked by any obstacle.

This select and herculean group includes Dean Karnazes, a distinguished endurance athlete and self-proclaimed Ultramarathon Man.

He’s also the author of multiple books on endurance, including the New York Times Bestseller “Run!” and is hailed by TIME Magazine as one of the “Top 100 Influential People in the World.” BTR sat down with Karnazes to speak about his accomplishments, his greatest challenges, and his goals for the New Year.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Not many people know about ultra-marathon runners, can you explain what that means?

Dean Karnazes (DK): So, in Latin, the term “ultra” means “beyond.” In the running and endurance sports world, a marathon is a foot race of 26.2 miles. Basically, an ultra-marathon is anything beyond a marathon.

I know the word marathon has become a term used to describe anything necessitating great endurance, such as a marathon session of congress or a marathon traffic jam, but in the endurance world a marathon refers to a specific distance run. An ultra-marathon could be a 50-mile race, a 100-mile race, or something even further.

BTR: Speaking of ultra-marathons, back in 2005 you ran in all 50 states in 50 days, and that gained a lot of attention from sponsors. Can you tell us a little about that?

DK: I highly encourage taking on sponsorships.

That being said, it’s as much about your sponsors as it is about you. My value as an athlete, in a sponsorship, is what I provide to them. Typically, they’re selling a product or a service, and my job is to be an effective salesperson or endorser of their product, as well as a believer of their product.

For this reason, I’ve aligned only with sponsors that I authentically use and love. If I don’t use the product but someone approaches me, I won’t agree to an endorsement or sponsorship. That’s my initial filter.

I’ve been in a lot of sponsorships over the years, and at the end of a term it’s so demoralizing to sit down and experience that moment where you have to admit that the deal isn’t working out. That to me is so humiliating; I don’t like it at all. The goal is to sit down at the end of the term with a sponsor after a job well done, having returned two to three times what they invested in you–at which point they invite you to renew the sponsorship.

BTR: Are there any races that you’re currently training for?

DK: 2016 is a busy year for me, I’ll be participating in a number of organized marathons. I run marathons as a form of training, so I’m starting out this year with the LA Marathon, which is in the middle of February. I’ll run the LA Marathon, some of the big marquee marathons across the US including Boston, Chicago, New York, and so forth.

I also plan on returning to a race called the Badwater Ultramarathon, which is out in Death Valley, California. That’s a 135-mile foot race across Death Valley, in the middle of summer. I’ve now completed it 10 times, but they have a special commemorative trophy awarded to 10-time winners.

There’s only a handful of us, and in order to qualify for the trophy you have to actually be present, which to me means you have to run it 11 times. So I’m going back to run the Badwater Ultramarathon, and I’m also completing a number of obstacle course races including a few of the Spartan Beast races and a Spartan Ultra Beast.

BTR: What’s a Spartan Ultra Beast?

DK: The Spartan is an obstacle course race. I’ve completed a number of these kinds of races, and was both the event host and ambassador of the Men’s Health Urbanathlon. They’re all basically just running events which include obstacles along the way.

You might have to climb over something, you might have to swing across something, swim across something. You might have to push something, pull something, but you’ve got to get through all of the obstacles in order to finish.

They really break up the activity, adding a new challenge to straight up running.

BTR: You’ve completed a lot of these runs in extreme conditions, especially those that you’ve detailed in the book as well. Which races challenged your endurance the most, and how were you able to overcome some of those obstacles?

DK: I’m actually just finishing up a fourth book, called “The Road To Sparta,” about a race I completed in Greece. This was a 153-mile long footrace, from Athens to Sparta, covering the path of the first marathoner Pheidippides.

I did this in 2004, and I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been so tapped out by a race. One of the reasons is that I wanted to emulate the ancient Greek foot racers, the Hoplites, so I only ate specific foods that they had access to, like I was eating only figs…

BTR: Wow.

DK: [Laughs]. I was also eating dried cured meats, olives, and drinking only water. No athlete foods at all, no energy bars, no electrolyte replacement. I mean, I was mentally in a different universe.

I somehow ran this incredibly difficult hot, hilly, 153-mile race. For that last 75 miles, I did it without eating anything.

I think it gets to the point where you’re just running on something beyond you. It’s some mental state that you put yourself in, which goes beyond the physical.

BTR: In regard to that kind of mental state, do you believe that everyone is capable of reaching it; of allowing themselves to build the discipline necessary to run some of these real endurance feats? Or is it something that you’re born with, that’s more innate to you?

DK: I don’t know if you’re born with it, or if it’s nature versus nurture. But I think there is a certain personality type that allows people to go to that place. And it’s certainly a minority of the population.

For most people, there’s a system of checks and balances where they get to a point and they think, “I’ve gotta stop, this is crazy,”–that the activity either hurts too much or they just can’t keep going. But some people, for some reason, are able to override that and just push beyond it.

I don’t know, I think it’s more of a mindset than physiological profiling.

BTR: I’ve read that you’ve worked with schools and kids, how do you help these true beginners really build some endurance in order to become lifelong runners?

DK: It depends on the age of the person, but something I tell people to do when they’re just starting out is to just try running for two minutes without stopping.

It sounds easy for any runner, like, “oh, running for two minutes, that’s nothing,” but a lot of people cannot run for two full minutes. Part of the reason they can’t do that, I should clarify, is because they typically tear out of the gates like they’re running a 100-yard dash.

After 30 seconds they’re so out of breath, they just stop and say, “I can’t do it, I’m just not a runner” and I respond that if we start again, they have to stick to my pace. I try to take them through a two-minute run during which, at minute 1:58, they’re almost tapped out, almost spent, and by two minutes they’re done.

Runners don’t go racing from the start; we sustain a pace that we can endure for the entirety of the run. For these beginners to make it to two minutes really provides a sense of gratification. From there, they begin to quantify, try to build up to three minutes, to four minutes. Saying, “I’m gonna try to run three or five miles,” can be a really daunting goal.

BTR: Speaking of goals, you mentioned that 2016 is going to be a huge year for you. What is your biggest goal aside from the races themselves?

DK: I’m really trying to become a good writer, if you will. I’ve learned the power in the written word to really inspire people.

I’m getting a little bit older in my career, and I’m not as competitive as I once was. I think the greatest value for me is not to chest pound over all these trophies I’ve amassed but to give back; to use any gift I have in order to inspire others to reach their goals and dreams.

My other personal goal is to speak fluent Greek by the end of the year. Being 100 percent Greek, it’s always been a source of embarrassment for me that I wasn’t fluent, so I’m taking lessons as well.

[Laughs]. It’s a really tough language.

Feature photos courtesy of Dean Karnazes.