Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man
Dean Karnazes runs more in 24 hours than many people do in a year. We often hear about amazing feats in human endurance, but Dean Karnazes’s story is not the typical narrative of a few big adventures, or a few years in his prime setting records. His plays out over more than 25 years and is not stopping.
We sat down to talk about what he has learned over the past several decades pushing his body far beyond conventional limits. His answers on diet, longevity, recovery and training aren’t what you might expect. No pre-race meal, no massage or stretching, no taking the day off after a big race. Instead, constant movement, strengthening, pushing further, nurturing your relationships, chasing passions and finding what works for you.
Dean Karnazes also provides an inside look at what it takes to build a career as an endurance athlete in an industry where there is no playbook.
A few career highlights before getting into the fun stuff:
- Ran 350 miles in 80 hours and 44 minutes without sleep
- Ran a marathon in each of the 50 states in 50 consecutive days
- Winner, Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles across Death Valley in 120 °F temperatures)
- Ran 253 miles in Greece on figs and water reliving the ancient battle and epic run that inspired what we now know as the marathon
- TIME magazine’s “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World”
- ESPN ESPY Award winner “Best Outdoor Athlete”
- Author of four books: Ultramarathon Man; Run!; 50/50; The Road to Sparta
Listen to the full interview with Dean Karnazes on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
David Swain: I like to start with what you had for breakfast.
Dean Karnazes: I have an easy answer: I don’t eat breakfast. I’ve been following this intermittent fasting program or timed-delayed fasting. I fast from dinner usually until a late lunch, sometimes all the way until dinner the next day, so almost a 24-hour fast.
That’s not the answer I was expecting. How long have you been doing that?
About ten years. I don’t even eat breakfast before I race. I run in a fat adapted state, ketosis basically. I feel a lot better doing that. I do drink coffee. Interestingly enough I add fresh rosemary to my coffee. I go pick it from the garden and brew it in my coffee with the ground beans.
Do you typically exercise in the mornings, or are you eating lunch and then exercising?
All of the above. I pretty much exercise from the moment I get up to the moment I go to sleep. In fact, what you’ve got me doing now is something I’d never do, and that’s sitting down. I’m pretty much moving from the get go. I can go for 20, 30-mile runs in a fasting state, with just water, not even a lot of water, and do just fine. It’s counterintuitive. I tell this to people, and they’re like, really? You must be emaciated. You must be anemic. I’m like, I’m pretty healthy.
DEAN KARNAZES: BECOMING THE ULTRAMARATHON MAN
You’ve been in the running world for 25 years. Let’s talk about your story for people who haven’t read your books. I was introduced to you after your first book, Ultramarathon Man, when you came to speak at Facebook in early 2008.
I’ll tell you a funny story about that. Here’s my business acumen. After that talk I gave at Facebook, a couple of your colleagues were walking me to the car. They were just really fired up. They love the story, this and that. They’re like, “We’ve got to build you a Facebook page. We’ve got to get you on Facebook.”
I was using MySpace back then, but barely using it. They said, “We can make you an investor. We’d like to get some shares and stuff. Do you want to be an investor?” I’m like, “I’ll get back to you this. That sounds great.”
I got in my car and I was like that is the dumbest idea. That company is going so bankrupt. Who would ever want to share their profile online with other people? No one’s going to do that. That shows what I know. You always say what would you change when you were younger? I would have invested in Facebook in 2008.
One of the things I remember from reading Dean Karnazes Ultramarathon Man was the story of your 12th birthday when you decided to ride 50 miles to your grandparent’s house through LA. No Google Maps, no phones, no anything. Not many kids would feel independent enough to do that at 12 years old?
Literally my first memories are running home from kindergarten. I used to love running home – it was about a mile. I was sitting in class just so anxious for the bell to go off because I hated sitting down and being in class.
I remember running through the park saying hi to people, waving to people as I was running. It was my way to explore the world. I grew up loving to run outside. I got into cross-country and started racing, but running was the ultimate freedom. It made me feel completely human to be out in the elements kind of like we were designed and evolved to be.
That passion for running just carried with me. You can probably tell there were not a lot of parental restraints on me when I was growing up. It was a different era back then. I was living in Southern California. Just that my mom would let me run home a mile when I was five years old, what parent would allow their kid to do that now? Those parental restraints were never there.
My parents let me do whatever I wanted to do for better or worse. That’s how that 50-mile ride came about on my 12th birthday. I just decided I love my grandma and grandpa. They always spoil the hell out of me, so I’m going to ride 50 miles to their house. I ran competitively in high school and then stopped running when I was a freshman after cross-country season. I didn’t run at all until the night of my 30th birthday.
Then I was in a bar in San Francisco in the Marina District drinking with my buddies. At midnight I told them I’m leaving. They’re like, “Why are you leaving? Let’s have another round of tequila.” I said, “Nah, instead of having more tequila I’m going to celebrate my 30th birthday by running 30 miles.” They looked at me like, “You’re not a runner. You’re drunk.”
I said, “Yeah, I am drunk, but I’m still going to do it.” I walked out of the bar, and I knew Half Moon Bay was 30 miles away, and I just started running south. I didn’t even own running gear at the time. Thankfully I had these comfortable silk boxer shorts on, so I pulled my pants off and ran in my underwear and Reebok gardening shoes.
About ten miles in I started sobering up down by Daly City. I was like what the hell am I doing? This is absurd. You’re drunk. Something just felt right. For the first time in a long time I felt fully engaged.
After I went through college, grad school, and business school, I was working in San Francisco. I had a very comfortable corporate job with GlaxoSmithKline, which is a big pharma company. I had a company car. I had stock options, 401(k) matching, healthcare, all those things that I thought would make me happy. I was miserable.
I hated being a business guy. It just wasn’t who I was. I think that just came to a head on my 30th birthday and I ran away from it all. I decided that night I was going to be a runner. I was going to quit my job.
That’s amazing. You just went in the next day and started the next chapter of your life, and you’re still at it 25 years later? .
Twenty-five years later, yeah. It’s amazing.
RUNNING AS A CAREER
Why don’t we talk about that transition into becoming a runner. Running isn’t one of the mainstream TV sports in the US; how were you able to piece your career together as a professional runner?
I started doing these races. I remember running a race called the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which is 100-mile continuous foot race through the Sierra Nevada. It starts at Squaw Valley and finishes in Auburn, just outside of Sacramento. I finished that race and I was in the top 20 kind of thing. It was my first 100-mile race.
I went to the awards ceremony, and I’m thinking what’s the guy who won going to get? We all got belt buckles. They’re fancy belt buckles for finishing the race. Anyone who finished, which was not a lot of people, they all got a belt buckle. I thought, when do they start handing out the prize money? The guy who came in first place got a belt buckle.
I thought that’s kind of cool, actually, because it’s very democratic. We all crossed the same finish line. Then I thought if you’re going to sustain yourself in this field, all the belt buckles you can accumulate are not going to keep the lights on. You’re going to have to figure out a way to make a living.
For people who are following your path now out there, let’s talk about some of the ingredients you started to piece together and how you navigated that over the last couple decades.
Bear in mind, when I tell you how I chose my path, it’s going to be different these days. I started working with a company called The North Face. I said to them, “People are running on trails more. I think that’s going to be a huge trend; runners are going to want to get off the road.” I go to these road marathons. They’re kind of miserable. I go to these trail marathons and people are very happy. It’s a totally different feel.
This trend is going to build over time. I feel very strongly about that. They said, “We’re still going to make big, bulky backpacks, vibram soled shoes, hiking boots.” I said, “No, let’s go faster and lighter. That’s the trend.”
We came up with this clothing gear concept called Flight (Fast and Light), which was about moving down the trail as people were doing back then hiking, but instead running. It started to build. Nike, New Balance, Asics; these guys are all on the track. They’re gym and track companies. The North Face’s heritage is from the outdoors, so we can play in this space. It took about ten years of continually beating this drum before The North Face said maybe you’re onto something. That’s been a very good partnership.
I also thought how else can you make a living with what you’ve got? I said, what are your assets you can bring to a company? I started doing corporate keynotes because I had a business background and talked about the lessons from athletics that translate to business.
The other thing I talk about, which is just as applicable, is the lessons from business that translate to running. As far as marketing yourself, looking at a standard SWOT analysis (your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). Those kind of things really played into how I pieced together making a living in the sport I love. Today there is a bit of prize money, so you can focus more on being a really competitive athlete. Then again, I don’t think there’s enough prize money to sustain you living anywhere but inside your car.
The gig economy, as we all know, is growing every day. The opportunities within endurance sports for gigging is growing as well. You can look to companies for projects, either event production projects or help with trade shows, those kind of things. You can work in the endurance sports industry while still being able to train.
You’ve written four books. Becoming an author is still a path other athletes could follow. After that, it’s now an interesting mix of podcasts, starting a YouTube channel, becoming an Instagram celebrity, an online coach, or some combination of all of them. Sometimes so many options make things more difficult; what do see working best in your peer group?
There’s a lot of different directions you could go. It all starts by looking inward. I always tell people to take out a piece of paper and script your perfect life. What I mean by script, just a stream of consciousness, describe what your perfect life would look like. If you could do whatever you wanted every day you woke up, what would that look like?
Then you have this ideal you’re going for. You think at first what would be my perfect life? Laying on the beach in Tahiti. Really think it through. Is that going to bring you satisfaction having Mai Tais in Tahiti every day? A lot of people say, you’re right – there’s no fulfillment and no meaning in that.
Get real. Once you have that blueprint, you can determine where you want to go. Are you a people person? Do you want to be in event management? Do you like retail? There’s all kinds of retail opportunities within endurance sports. Do you like coaching, training, those kinds of things? There’s a lot of different directions.
What role has your long distance running played in helping you figure this all out for yourself?
By nature I’m an introvert, so I’m more comfortable being out in nature by myself than I am being at a trade show, for instance. I feel really cooped up and crazy and anxiety ridden when I’m around a lot of people. I need that kind of time just to go decompress, work things out.
If it’s a shorter run, I just decompress, put the world back in perspective, think through problems. When you run you have a lot of time to think. We’re so bombarded with noise. I don’t think many people have time to reflect and really process.
Running to me is a way to get away from it all and have time to think for yourself. I spend an enormous amount of time training, and I love to read. I probably have 500 audio books on my playlist. I love podcasts.
How often do you listen to books or podcasts while you’re running?
I think the eight or ten-hour runs, it’s a hybrid of both sometimes, but I really enjoy books. I probably listen to a few books a month.
I listen to a lot of business titles, and adventure stories. Not much fiction. Things like the classics, Into Thin Air, the endurance of Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to the South Pole, adventure stories like that, The Worst Journey in the World.
You wrote The Road to Sparta in 2016; talk about that story for you and your Greek heritage you explored in writing it.
It was a pretty epic story because I’m 100% Greek. I wanted to learn the origins of the marathon, what are the myths about the marathon, and tell the story in a historical way. I was put in touch with one of the foremost authorities on ancient Greek culture, Professor Paul Cartledge from Cambridge. I worked with a historian in recreating the original Greek marathon and telling that story and then going and doing it myself using just the foods that the ancient Greek runners used like figs and olives and stuff they call pasteli, which is ground sesame seed and honey like a power mix, like a gel. I ran this course doing that.
But the marathon wasn’t 26.2 miles like most people think?
I don’t want to be a spoiler with the book, but he ran for Pheidippides who was the runner. His name literally translates into spare the horse because this guy could outrun a horse. Why would you kill a horse when you’ve got this guy who can run hundreds of miles? He ran further than just from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, which is 26.2. He first ran to Sparta to recruit the Spartans into battle, and this is when the Persians invaded Greece at the Bay of Marathon.
If you’ve seen the movie 300, who is the most badass fighting force in ancient Greece? This is Sparta. He ran 153 miles to Sparta to recruit the Spartans into battle. The Spartans said we’re coming. We’ll reinforce you. We can’t leave for six days because the moon’s not full. Our religion prevents us from leaving for battle until the moon is full.
Pheidippides says all my comrades are at Marathon waiting for the Spartans. I’ve got to tell them the Spartans are going to be a little late. He turned back and ran the other 153 miles to get back and then ran the final marathon. It was a much more robust story than just 26.2.
If the history of the marathon intrigues you, it’s also a story about finding out who I was using DNA analysis tools like 23andMe and meeting family members, interviewing them, tracing my family tree as far back as I could go. My dad always insisted we were from the same village in the hills of Greece as Pheidippides. I always tell my dad we grew up in LA. What village in the hills of Greece chasing goats are we from, Dad? I’m second generation American.
How did the process of writing the book change your perspective on your roots?
It gave me a much deeper appreciation of being Greek. To me you’d have to read the book to get into the experience of being Greek-American, but I was raised very Greek when I was a kid. I went to Greek school. Have you seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?
The Greeks are really like that. When I got to be a teenager I thought these people are weird. I am not Greek. I need to move away from these people. I rebelled against my Greekness and suppressed that until I turned a later stage of life.
Now I really embrace being Greek. It’s a beautiful and rich culture. Obviously, the shape of the Western world is largely the way it is because of the Greeks, the way they evolved 2,500 years ago. Before the Greeks, people focused on not dying. After the Greeks, people focused on really living. There was a fundamental shift in the way humanity approached day-to-day life.
DEAN’S KIT: TRAINING, RELATIONSHIPS, NUTRITION AND LONGEVITY
You’ve pushed your body to the absolute limits for decades now. It’s hard to fathom how you do that without getting injured.
I kind of view my life through the lens of an endurance athlete. Everything I do is to be the best animal I can be, whether that is sleep, nutrition, training, cross training, never sitting down, this constant movement, life is training, training is life, as well as interpersonal relationships. I think the quality of your interpersonal relationships really influences how you perform ultimately.
Doing all of these things has really helped prevent any sort of overuse injury. I run with a lot of super elite runners. They don’t do anything else. They’re either winning races or they’re injured. A lot of them burn out as well from that constant cycle.
I’ve said I’m going to go beyond that. I’m going to cross train. I’m going to put on a little more muscle bulk. It will slow me down as a runner. As you know, anything other than a big engine and big legs is slow, but I don’t care. I think I’ll be healthier overall. That’s just the way I conduct my life.
The interpersonal relationship focus is interesting. That’s not something you hear talked about much. Do you view that as when you have strong relationships, you just have less tension in your body?
It depends on your personality. Some people have more of a fighting spirit. I honestly believe some people are a little more combative, and they need that. I’m a little more harmonious. I like my relationships to be settled and pleasant.
If there’s some conflict, that disrupts me and weighs heavy on your mind. There’s no way it can’t impact you. Your cortisone levels rise. You don’t sleep as soundly, everything.
For me, being the master of your own schedule is really important. I have a bunch of agents, a literary agent, an athlete agent. They’re always like why don’t you get an assistant or two assistants and hire this guy to do this? The more people you have reporting to you, the more issues you have. The biggest problems I remember from business were always people problems.
The people problems to me were always very complex. I know that I’m not a great manager. I’m too giving and too liberal, so not having employees to me is a good thing. I don’t want to scale. I’d rather not make that extra dollar, not sign that extra contract and have a life that I love living and not feel pushed and stretched.
Where have the points of tension been for you over the years where you feel pushed out of the zone you want to be in?
The bigger the sponsorship agreement, the more activation and activities you’re required to do. The more I’m put in front of audiences, the more stress it is for me. I need time in between to decompress. I love running with people, don’t get me wrong.
Even at the trade show I was just at, we did a group run. There were 150 people, and they’re all great. They bring books out, and I love interacting with them. I just can’t do it back-to-back day after day. I need that time to decompress.
Let’s talk about some of the cross-training techniques you integrate into your week.
I have a cross training routine that’s all body weight. It’s high intensity interval training. It’s a series of different push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, chair dips, and burpees, and it pretty much works almost every muscle in my body. I can that anywhere, whether I’m traveling and in a hotel, anywhere there’s a ledge. The first thing I do when I walk into a hotel room is see where there’s a ledge with a handhold so I can do my pull-ups. I’m constantly cycling through that throughout the course of the day. Just any time I have 12-15 minutes. I purposely end calls at 10:45 and put the next one at 11 to make the time. Having that time constraint to me really compels me to do it. I leave 15-minute windows in my schedule all the time.
What about stretching, rolling, massage – are there other things that are part of your routine?
You might not want to hear this but I don’t spend any time stretching. I don’t spend any time with any sort of foam roller. I don’t get massages. I don’t do any of that. I use that time instead to focus on training.
How does your training change based on what you have coming up?
What does my training look like? If I’ve got a block of training where I’m really preparing for a big race, it’s pretty hardcore and it’s pretty regimented, pretty disciplined.
People say do you run in the morning or the evening? I’m like, I run at different times every day. I think, as a runner, it’s really helpful. If you just run every morning, you’re going to be a good every morning runner. If you run five miles every morning, you’re going to be really good at running five miles every morning. In endurance sports, especially when I’m running for 24 hours or more, you’re running in the middle of the day. You’re running in the evening. You’re running after work. I mix it up. I don’t just do one thing. I rarely run the same route twice back to back.
Do you develop your training plans yourself or with a coach?
I’ve worked with several coaches throughout the years. I always say to runners and athletes listen to everyone, follow no one. I’ve got a lot of advice and I’ve pieced it together for what works best for me. I’ve found that following a rigid program is a recipe for over-training for me because I’ll load up too much. I’ll fight with my coach. He’ll say this needs to be an easy day. I’m like, no. Two back-to-back hard days are good for me and I’ll maybe show up a bit over-trained at a race, so I’ve learned to back things off and to be a better listener.
Taking it to the next level, regardless of how far it is, what are the tips you’ve seen through your own training or through your peers?
Start off by biting off more than you can chew. Go to a race that’s beyond any distance you’ve ever run before or cycled before. Find the race you want to do and hit enter. Once you hit that button on the computer, you’re in. Start with that sort of commitment to go up to a bigger event than you’ve ever done. Change the way you train. Just intelligently approach it. If you’ve never rode a [century] before and you ride a century, you probably going to want to have a training block going into it that you follow pretty regimentally, just to get yourself prepared for that.
For the average super busy person, how do you make it all happen and get to the starting line ready to go?
That speaks to the point of sacrifice. My grandmother used to tell me, you can have anything you want in life; you just can’t have everything. If you want to run a half marathon or a marathon, you’ve got to have that time to train for that. That means if you’re busy, like most people are, you’ve got to put aside something. Do you like watching television? Guess what, you can watch an hour less. Do you like going to the movies? Do you like going to dinner? You can cut back to fewer dinners and more training. You’ve got to sacrifice something. There’s no way you can fit it all in, while maintaining the quality of sleep we just talked about. A lot of runners and endurance athletes are willing to make those sacrifices. They welcome it.
When you look at what’s in an athlete’s toolbox and the pieces that really matter, are there things that stand out?
Most athletes are pretty dialed, at least when you get to a certain level, especially when you can run a hundred miles. You don’t just wake up one day and say, I’m going to run a hundred miles. It takes a lot of racing beforehand, so you learn what works for you. I experiment with everything.
I admire guys like Tim Ferris and life hacking and all that, but I’m like, do you really need to hack yourself with some substance to make yourself better. If I can do it without any of that stuff, just on my own, I prefer to do it that way.
How has technology evolved and what do you think is working?
In broad terms, I think the technology for tracking, whether it be through your phone or through something on your wrist, has fundamentally changed the way we look at our training – we approach it more scientifically. Twenty years ago, we really couldn’t do this sort of thing. Being able to quantify things is very empowering and motivational for people. Can you beat your own last best time, whether it’s a Strava segment of whatever that might be? Can you exceed the 50 mile run that you did, can you do 60? You can now track that.
I’m sponsored by Fitbit so I’m a bit impartial but the one thing I love about Fitbit and the reason I wanted to get involved with them is that as much as I love Garmin or Suunto, those are very high-end products. They’re built for elite athletes and that’s a very small percentage of the population. Fitbit makes step counters – just that ability to track your steps has transformed so many millions of people’s lives. It’s hard to even get your head around it.
My mother in law lives in Lubbock, Texas. I got her a Fitbit and she started walking, and every day she has to hit her 10,000 steps. You get a little flash of like fireworks going off, you took 10,000 steps. She and all her buddies have Fitbits and they compete with each other, like I took 12,000 steps today. It’s a really good thing.
People are watching heart rate variability (HRV) now; what are you paying attention to?
I think the gains from technology have not been as big as we thought they would be. I’m not sure we’re running that much faster. If you look, historically, at how we’ve improved as a species, but I think knowing these things can be, again, empowering and motivating.
I think over-training is overstressed. I think very, very few people are classically over-trained, unless you’re a very elite athlete doing back-to-back racing. Over-training and trying to measure that and quantify it has almost been a bad thing because people say you’re going to over-train. It’s like a cliché now; you’re over-training. If you really look at your data, I think it’s hard to support that you’re over-training. You just might have a bad day one day and you look at the variability of your heart rate and it’s all over the place. It’s not from training; it’s just you’re stressed out or maybe you’re getting a little cold or something like that.
What is your take on over-training, and how much does adding variety to your workout schedule factor in?
Back-to-back days with heavy legs is a good thing. Your legs feeling tired is different from over-training. Over-training for a day or two is a good thing. How does your body adapt unless you’re pushing beyond where it’s supposed to be, beyond homeostasis. I still think the hard-easy prescription is helpful, so go really hard one day. There’s this thing called the black hole that’s just doing the same routine at the same intensity every day. You get into this black hole; you don’t improve. It’s better to go really hard short one day and then maybe long and slow the next.
A lot of athletes don’t have the discipline to do that, and I was like that before. Every time I went running, I wanted to push myself as hard as I could. To hold back and give a couple of days of light running and then really killing yourself, I think is a good thing.
We started with an interesting story of your lack of breakfast and the intermittent fasting. It’s from 8 o’clock at night until lunch the next day?
Lunch the next day or until 8pm the next night for dinner. That’s a common thing I hear from people who are busy and traveling, “I was doing so well on my diet and then I had to go overseas and then I start traveling, airplane food and this and that.” I found it’s better to eat nothing than to eat the wrong thing. It requires a hell of a lot of discipline but to me if there’s not food that is healthy and good, I just fast and I find better results with that.
What does your diet look like now and how did you get to it.
Some people who know my story are going to be laughing because I’m known as the guy who ordered a pizza while he was running. I used to eat, I admit, all kinds of junk food. I thought you’re burning 25,000 calories a day in these things you’re doing. Get in the calories however you can.
I’ve gone full circle over the years and have cleaned up my diet tremendously. Now I don’t eat anything that’s processed, anything that’s refined, anything in a bag. I don’t eat any grain. If you look at wheat, you can’t just pick a piece of wheat from the field and put it in your mouth; it’s got to be processed by a machine. Same goes with oats, barley, so no grains. Now if I can’t pick it from a tree, dig it up from the earth or catch it with my hands, like lean meat, or catch it with a hook – seafood – I don’t eat it.
What’s your view on the role of good carbs? You’re getting that mostly through fruits?
Entirely through fruits, and probably far fewer carbohydrates than most people think they need in a given day. When you look at a piece of bread or breakfast cereal, you’d have to eat the equivalent of three or four apples to get as many carbs in your body. More protein and good fat are my primary sources of calories.
Every day there’s a new fad diet or supplement or magic potion. Do you have anything in your supplement list that you incorporate?
I used to take supplements and I used to take Ibuprofen for pain and inflammation and I stopped taking those things altogether. I had my diet analyzed so many times, and I get all the vitamins and minerals I need through my food sources, usually 300 or 400 times the recommended daily allowances just through food alone. A lot of the vitamins, a lot of people don’t realize this, you just urinate them out. With the water-soluble vitamins you’re just putting extra load on your kidneys to get rid of the stuff when you’re supplementing with megadoses of vitamins. The fat soluble vitamins, those accumulate in your adipocyte, so you can actually overdose on certain vitamins. I completely stopped taking any anti-inflammatories, and I recover so much better.
Do you use turmeric or any of the other herbs, spices, etc?
Tons. I buy it in bulk, organic turmeric, organic ginger, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, oregano from Greece, rosemary from Greece, sage. There’s heaps in my diet.
You’ve still got yogurt and dairy?
I just eat plain Greek yogurt, full fat, no sugar added.
You start your day with some coffee. What about alcohol, how does that factor in with races and your training?
I enjoy a glass of wine or two a couple of nights a week.
RECOVERY AND SUPPORT
How do you think about food, sleep and recovery after training or racing?
I mostly focus on recovery after racing. I can rarely train hard enough where I feel like I really need to recover. After you lay it out on a hundred-mile [foot] race for instance, you’re going to feel it. There’s no way to wake up the next day and say, I feel kind of good.
The recovery for me is remarkably quick. A lot of times I’ll run a hundred miles, and I’ll always go running the next day. That’s kind of counterintuitive and I tell people, if you run a marathon really hard, the worst thing you could do is not do anything for the next few days. The next morning, get up and force yourself to run. You’re going to be hobbling, you’re going to be just shuffling, but shuffle for a mile or two, just move your legs. I get up the next day, even after a hundred miles, and I’ll run a few miles, and I notice it only takes, maybe, three or four days until I feel like I could probably do another hundred.
You did 50 marathons in 50 days back-to-back. That’s not much recovery.
In all 50 states, which was the great part because it combined my love of travel and exploration with running. I got to see all of the United States in 50 days.
The mental side of that must have been intense?
Yeah, absolutely. We started by counting down because I had a crew with me who were checking off and it got so demoralizing. I remember being at marathon 19, it was in Arizona and it was 105 degrees and I didn’t think I’d even make it to the finish. I remember coming into the bus afterward and they were like, “You finished 19 that’s great.” I’m like I’ve got 31 more to go. I’m like, put this chalkboard away. I remember getting up some mornings and thinking, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t even get out of bed, how am I going to run a marathon today. My foot hit the ground, there was like that shocking pain. How am I going to do this?
I took it one step at a time, just one day at a time. Like I said, don’t keep counting down. Don’t think about the future. Don’t reflect on the past. Just be in the here and now, be in the present. Get that foot out of bed. Get that next foot. Stand up. Walk to the sink. Splash some water on your face. Make some coffee. Put one leg through your shorts. Put the other leg through your shorts. Tie your left shoe. Tie your right shoe. Literally got that granular for 30 days. It was almost like a Zen-like state where that was it. It was just here and now; that’s all that mattered.
Who did you have with you as support for the 50 marathons?
Jason Koop, who is a coach of mine and he was terrific. He was with me the whole time. Then I had a logistics crew. There’s a whole business study I could have done on that event. How it came together – how do you fund something like that first of all?
So how did you fund it?
The North Face has an expedition proposal process, where athletes submit proposals to them for expeditions. Typically, it’s like climbing the north face of Nuptse or doing an Everest back to back. I said running and exploration expeditions don’t have to be just on the side of a mountain. We could take this to urban settings, to other places, so I pitched this 50 marathons, 50 states, 50 days as a North Face expedition. They bought on it. The marketing manager back then was new and he wasn’t a runner but he saw a vision there.
He said, “You know what? The price tag to do this right…” He was a big thinker, and said, “…it’s probably going to be a couple of million bucks and we can’t afford that, so we’re going to have to sell sponsorship.” I’m like, what do you mean sell sponsorship? “Let’s package this thing and we’ll go out to some sponsors and see if we can get some sponsorship money.” Literally, the first five sponsors we went to all said yes: Toyota, Timex, Nature’s Path, they just said, let’s do it.
Now I had sponsorship obligations. We got this logo-d bus. We have sponsorship tents at the start of the marathons.
We had permits for up to 50 people to join me at every marathon. We had people flying all over the country, people flying internationally. A guy flew from Japan to come run one of these marathons with me. It became more than just a lonely runner out there with his wife, every night running a marathon. It was a big circus.
Your wife and family joined for the 50 days?
My daughter was 11 and my son was 9 and I wanted to take them. My mom is a retired public school teacher and she came along, my mom and my dad, and they home-schooled the kids, or road-schooled as we like to say. The teachers would send the lesson plans to my mom, they’d email them to her on Sunday, and she’d give the school program during the course of the day and then we’d do a lot of sightseeing. What a great opportunity for kids; to see all 50 states, meet other kids in 50 states, sample the food. It was a great trip.
How has your running career influenced your kids now that they’re older? Are they athletes?
They’re athletic, and my daughter likes to run. She enjoys running. I’ve never pushed running on them. I figured if running is something for them that’s fine. If it’s not, it’s not. I don’t think they really see me as a big athlete. Maybe they do more now. I’ll never forget one day dropping off my son, Nicholas, and I walked him to school. I was limping a bit and the teacher got Nicholas, walked him to class, “Is your dad okay?” I remember Nicholas going, “Oh yeah. He ran a hundred miles yesterday.” The teacher was looking at him, going, wow he’s got a vivid imagination.
Are there any mentors, role models, coaches, people you’ve looked up to over the years?
There are so many people. People say, who do you admire? It’s usually the people closest in my life. My wife, who is not an athlete, I admire her. She thinks a lot differently than I do, and she’s taught me so many lessons like the grace of living. My dad, I love my dad, for better for worse. I think we learn how to be from our fathers and how not to be. Your dad is always going to be the biggest influence I think on any man’s life. My mom as well, who took me out from the day I was born in a jogging stroller. Our family is from Greece and that’s what they do. They’re outside every day. They’re gardening. They’re walking the neighborhood. She just encouraged me to be adventurous. People I’ve worked with in my career. Cheryl Kruger, who was a manager of mine. If she heard this interview, she’d be like, “What? You admired me?” I’m like, you were great. You just expanded my horizons in so many ways, yeah.
Let’s talk about the progression of the endurance sports world and what you’re seeing that gives you excitement?
The conversion from road running to trail running — people are getting off the roads. We say trail running on the west coast because we think about single-track trails. Usually I refer to it as natural surfaces because in a lot of places, it’s just a grated fire road or rails to trail conversion, so it’s not really a wilderness trail just so much as not a paved road. That’s a big trend. Ultra-running is a huge trend. It’s starting from a smaller base but the percentage growth, year over year, of ultra-running is continuing to boom.
The other big trend is more women getting into the sport, which I think is a great thing. Last year in the US, more women than men ran half marathons, like 60-40, substantially more women than men finished half marathons. That’s a really positive thing, and I think there’s a lot of fresh new energy. Running has changed a lot in the past 20 years, the past 30 years, where it’s gone primarily from a small male-dominated field of very fast runners to a very mixed bag of runners where the overall finish times have actually decreased but participation has increased.
What do you attribute these shifts to?
People are looking for experiences versus just another race. People don’t want to do the same race twice. They want to experience it once and move somewhere else. That’s a really healthy trend and it’s opening a lot of new markets in running for running tours.
I was just in Peru at a place called Cusco, which is by Machu Picchu and I went on a running tour with a great tour guide. It was just one on one, and he does also groups. I got to see all the sights, but instead of being in a bus or a cab or an Uber, we’re running. We spent eight hours running. He took me to a great place for lunch. We had a latte along the way. We went through this farmers’ market that was insane, all the stuff from the Amazon. We got a smoothie on the way. It was a great way to tour.
There’s running tours in San Francisco, all the big cities, Paris, Rome, Athens, and that sort of thing wasn’t happening before. Now people are making a living just doing running tours. Other things half marathons in the wine country, and they have wine at the aid stations! Experiences like that. You do a wine tour, my God this is great. I did Napa, now I want to do Sonoma, now I want to go to Healdsburg, so those sorts of things are on the increase.
I really geek out on some of the statistics in running. About 25 million people have signed up for some type of running event, but there are 75 million Americans that identify themselves as runners. It’s a huge portion of the American population. The most recent Running USA report on running is that most people report they get into running to lose weight. That’s the number one incentive. Then if they’ve been running for three years or more, they say they run because they enjoy it. A lot of people get into running just to lose weight and once they start running, they find, I like it. I just enjoy this time by myself and I feel better when I’m finished. My focus is how to get more people just to try it? If they want to lose weight, instead of going to a diet program, try running.
What have you seen work over the years of what motivates people to get started in something like running?
A lot of times, it’s one exposure. A lot of people are embarrassed, like I could never do that. If you can just get them to try it just once.
Also, your peer group, there’s a group called Another Mother Runner, and it’s women that are mothers that got out of shape and said let’s encourage our peers to do what we did. These are approachable programs. There’s a program called Couch to 5k, where it’s not intimidating. They tell you, here’s the shoes you should look at, here’s the apparel you should wear to make you comfortable. You feel like an athlete at that point. There’s a lot of movements like this that I think are really healthy for this country.
You seem as comfortable with the average athlete as you are with the elite pros.
It always amazes me, my sponsors bring me out to expos and they say okay, you can work the expo, make an appearance and then you can go home. I’m like hold it, the marathon’s the next day. I’m not going to go all the way to Chicago or wherever, do this expo and get out of town! A lot of athletes do. They just go do their signing for an hour and they split. I’m like hey I’m a runner! I’m going to go run.
I think people really love that. People are so surprised when they see me at the starting line of a marathon. My God, you’re going to run with us! Yeah, I’m one of you. I’m just a runner just like you, let’s go and experience some pain together and struggle and get to that finish line.
Very good. Thank you, Dean.
Thanks for having me on.
Let’s close with a throwback to Dean and David Letterman. Notice Dean Karnazes’s diet wasn’t quite as evolved back then!
Listen to the full interview with Dean Karnazes on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
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