Words: Tristan Kennedy. Main image: The North Face
2,500 years ago, a Greek man named Pheidippides died after running a “marathon” to deliver news of the military victory in the town of the same name. Seeking a greater understanding of himself and the origins of his sport, Greek-American ultra runner Dean Karnazes recently retraced his footsteps. He hadn’t realised he’d risk death himself in the process…
It’s four days before the London Marathon, an event that will see more than 40,000 people from all around the world attempt an incredible feat of endurance. For many this will be the only time in their lives they ever run 26.2 miles.
There will be sweat, there will be tears, there will probably even be blood. In previous years people have died running the London Marathon. At the very least for most of them it will be a landmark achievement, one to tick off, if not necessarily to repeat.
The man sat opposite me however, is treating the imminent ordeal a whole lot more casually. “So you’re here to run the London Marathon…” I ask Dean Karnazes.
“…But you just ran the Boston Marathon last Sunday?”
My mouth is already hanging open, but Dean isn’t finished yet.
“…And then I’m going to run another marathon on Tuesday in Lisbon, and then I’m going to fly to the East Coast, Washington DC, to run a 50 mile race on Saturday and then I’ll fly to the West Coast to run the Big Sur Marathon the next day, on Sunday.”
This, he explains, is not even an unusual fortnight for him. “It seems like my life is rolling like this now. I get invited and I have a hard time saying no.” He laughs. Most people of course wouldn’t need to say no, their body would do it for them. Recovering from a marathon generally takes around two to three weeks.
“Karnazes first ran the full marathon distance at the age of 14”
But as an ultra runner, and the author of the international best seller Ultra Marathon Man as well as the recent The Road to Sparta, Dean regularly runs far greater distances. His record is 350 miles in a single stretch, a feat which took him 80 hours, or three and a half days, without sleep. His body has a remarkable ability to push through pain and recover afterwards.
And yet, he’s seemingly an ordinary guy. Meeting him in The North Face’s flagship store in Regent Street, London, I’m initially surprised. I’d expected a tall, rangy, serious figure, but the man shaking my hand is shorter, broader shouldered and more muscled than I’d imagined. He’s friendlier too, accompanying his handshake with a broad smile.
What’s truly impressive about Karnazes is actually that his body isn’t particularly remarkable. Unlike say Usain Bolt, no-one has ever suggested that Karnazes was born with unusual athletic advantages. In fact in 2006, when he embarked on one of his most audacious challenges to date, running 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days, the team of sports scientists who followed concluded the opposite.
Their findings, which Runner’s World magazine published a summary of, concluded that his ability to run for great distances without suffering from muscle damage was the result of decades of practise rather than a genetic advantage or freakish physiology. “Karnazes’s ultra marathon habit has built up his bone-density, joints, running muscles and blood transport system to the point where he can motor along forever at a seven-to-ten minute per mile pace.”
But can a man who can achieve such things really be like us? And if he wasn’t genetically predisposed to it, how did it start, this “ultra marathon habit?”
Constantine “Dean” Nicholas Karnazes was born in California to Greek immigrant parents in 1962. Both his father, who worked as a field naturalist, and his mother were outdoorsy types, and were supportive of his adventurous streak from a young age. “I could just go and do whatever I wanted all day,” he says. “There were no rules really, they just kind of let me do my own thing.”
“What’s truly impressive about Karnazes, is actually that his body isn’t particularly remarkable”
At one point, he famously cycled more than 40 miles from home to his grandmother’s house, despite not really knowing where she lived. “This was before iPhones or whatever, I didn’t know where I was going. But then I got somewhere close and I recognised this one restaurant. I showed up at my grandmother’s house, and she was shocked. She called my mum and she couldn’t believe it,” he laughs. Dean was 10 at the time.
At junior high school he turned his efforts to running, first completing the full marathon distance at the age of 14. It was a fundraising event where each lap earned a dollar for charity. Most kids ran a few laps and gave up, but Dean just kept going.
But although he evidently loved it from a young age, his athletic progression was abruptly cut off in his teenage years. He discovered alcohol while still in high school and took to it all too enthusiastically. In Ultra Marathon Man, Karnazes says he basically stopped running for 15 years, only starting again on his 30th birthday.
“How I started was literally bad tequila.” he told American chat show host Conan O’Brien during a TV appearance. It was his 30th birthday, Dean was drunk and decided he was going to go for a run. “I walked out of a bar and just ran 30 miles on my 30th.” The experience sobered him up rapidly and gave him blisters. But it also rekindled his love of long distance. He’s not looked back since.
Dean’s list of career achievements is mind-boggling. As well as the 50 / 50 / 50 challenge and the 350-mile non-stop run Karnazes has singlehandedly completed the 199 mile race from Calistoga to Santa Cruz 11 times. Known as “The Relay”, it’s designed to be run in teams, the distance divided up between 12 people.
He’s run a marathon to the South Pole, enduring temperatures of minus 13 degrees C and he’s won the Badwater Ultra Marathon, a 135 mile race across Death Valley, Utah, which sees athletes enduring temperatures of up to 49 degrees celsius.
During the latter, he explains, his body was under such intense pressure it caused him to hallucinate: “I saw an old miner 49er – you know like a guy with a big grey beard and overalls – walk across the road to me.
“He had a gold pan and he was like: ‘water, water’. I was carrying like a handheld water bottle so I poured some in his gold pan. I just heard the water sizzling on the ground, so I reached out to touch him and was like: ‘Oh my god, that was a hallucination’.”
He had a similarly strange experience during the feat of endurance which forms the centrepiece of his recent book – a 153 mile run between Athens and Sparta in Greece known as the Spartathlon. “The toughest thing was sleep deprivation. There was a point where I was running and there appeared to be a praying mantis, a little stick figure, in between my feet down on the ground. I couldn’t put it into perspective. I was like: ‘What is that?’ And then I realised: ‘Holy Shit, that’s me!’ I was out of it.”
The Spartathlon is based on a run supposedly undertaken by an Athenian hemerodrome, or professional running courrier, named Pheidippides in 490 BC. Pheidippides’ name would go down in history as the man who carried the news of the victory over the Persians at the battle of Marathon to Athens, running 26.2 miles and promptly dying of exhaustion as he delivered it.
While that famous sequence of events gave us the modern Marathon as the ultimate endurance event, there’s actually historical evidence which suggests that Pheidippides’ true achievement was greater. As Dean recounts in the book, the courier was apparently dispatched to Sparta before the battle to ask the Spartans for their help in the upcoming fight.
Hoping to recreate that earlier epic run – and better understand his own Greek heritage – Karnazes decided to tackle the Spartathlon eating only what Pheidippides would have had available to him. It was a choice which caused him no end of problems.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a masochist, but I look forward to the struggle”
“I ate just the ancient food – olives, cured meat, a kind of beef jerky, and figs. I would run for 6 or 8 hours on training runs eating this food and it was fine. But what I found eating figs for 24 hours caused a lot of problems. You can imagine how much fibre there is in figs…”
Karnazes laughs, but the issue was deadly serious. “I pretty much had diarrhoea, and you know how when you have diarrhoea you don’t feel like running. You’re dehydrated, and that’s kind of where I was at.” It’s here that things started to become dangerous.
“When you’re hallucinating like that and having out of body experiences you’re pretty close to the edge,” he says. “How close, I don’t know. I pushed through it and luckily I’m still here, but you never really know how close… the other story could have been ‘Dean died on this race but you know he had a great life.’” He laughs again, but for a while the risk of ‘doing a Pheidippides’ felt horribly real.
The obvious question is, of course, why. Why would you potentially risk your life for running? Why would you put yourself through such intense physical hardship? Why would you push your body so hard that you hallucinate through sheer exhaustion? Dean must, on some level, enjoy it?
“Oh absolutely. I love it. It’s the feeling of accomplishing the un-accomplishable.” But it’s not just that feeling of achievement, it’s the actual getting there too. He continues: “It’s a process. I wouldn’t say I’m a masochist, but I look forward to the struggle. I’ve found that I never feel more alive than when I’m really struggling – and it hurts and I’m concerned and I’m pushing myself and pushing the envelope.”
When he’s deep into an ultra marathon, or an extended sequence of distance challenges, Dean finds his senses become heightened. “People say of the 50 / 50 / 50 ‘oh, it must have been a blur’. But I can recite all 50 marathons, every single day. Footsteps, people I talked with, the shoes they were wearing. You’re in this hyper alert state, I don’t know whether it has to do with pain or just pushing or what, but it’s pretty interesting.”
“Dostoyevsky had it right,” he writes in Ultra Marathon Man. “’Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’” His trip to Greece confirmed this belief, and not just because of the out of body experience. “Because of how hard I struggled and how hard I pushed I think I got a deeper insight into what happened 2,500 years ago,” he says.
“I mean it’s incredible to think a man in sandals ran what I did with modern elite kit on. I’ve got a headlamp on, I’ve got all of my protective stuff, he’s by himself running through the mountains not sure how to navigate.
“And think of the pressure. The Athenians are going to get slaughtered by the Persians. He might have had kids, he was supposed to be in his early 30s. I felt it was very personal to me because that’s my ancestry. My father insists we’re from the same village as Pheidippides in Greece.”
Like all Karnazes’ books, The Road to Sparta is fast-paced, and a good read, full of amusing and enlightening anecdotes. It’s a writing style which won him countless fans, but has also led to something of a backlash from the ultra running community. There are people who believe his exploits are verging on stunts, and accuse Karnazes of dumbing down the sport.
It’s certainly true that while he’s among the most high profile ultra runners in the world, Karnazes isn’t one of the fastest. The Spartathlon was far from a unique endeavor. It’s been run as a competitive event every year since 1983 and Dean’s time of “around 34 hours”, while faster than Pheidippides’, is a long way off the record. (A frankly incredible 20 hours 25 minutes, set by the Greek “Running God” Yiannis Kouros, who’s clocked all of the four fastest-ever Spartathlon times).
Yet spend any amount of time with Dean and you realise it’s precisely his everyman demeanour, his insistence that he’s not that special, and his easy storytelling style that make him so inspiring. Small wonder he’s the ultra runner that late night chat show hosts want to have on their programs. When asked by David Letterman if there was anything which set him apart physiologically, Karnazes quipped: “Well, I’m not real bright.”
What does undoubtedly make Dean special is his ability to endure (and even enjoy) extreme suffering, and then write about it eloquently. This means his books have inspired people far beyond the world of running.
Ultra Marathon Man is regularly passed around cancer sufferers’ support groups. “I met a woman who was 53 years old,” Dean says. “She had [been diagnosed with] terminal breast cancer when she was 50 but she read my book she was like: ‘I’m not only gonna beat breast cancer, I’m going to become a runner.’ She had the best attitude, she’d had a double mastectomy and she said: ‘Who needed ’em anyway, they just slowed me down.’”
“When you’re hallucinating, and having out of body experiences, you’re pretty close to the edge”
And even for those who don’t actually take up running, Karnazes believes there is something fundamentally inspiring in the act of extreme endurance. “I’ve written four books trying to explain that and I still don’t think I’ve nailed it. But I think there’s a humanity in running and there’s camaraderie in suffering. People that suffer together are tighter. Think about people in wars, military guys, how they form these bonds because of the hardship they went through. I think that running brings that out in people. You can relate to someone in pain.
“Even when you go to these marathons [like London or Boston] there’s non-runners along the course cheering. I’ve talked to some of these folks sometimes like ‘why do you go and watch a marathon? Why are you watching these people just running?’ There’s some power in it. To see another human suffering and struggling and trying to do something, trying to accomplish something, there’s something in us as humans that it kind of draws you in. It kind of moves you.”
As we part ways, and I walk back onto the safe but boring bustle of Regent Street, I reflect that Dean is right. There is something fundamentally compelling about reading tales like Dean’s, hearing stories of human suffering and endurance. After all, why else has Pheidippides’ story survived for 2,500 years?