During his 30th birthday drinks celebration, Dean Karnazes announced he was leaving and then proceeded to run 30 miles through the night, even though he hadn’t run in 15 years.
It was the start of a lifelong obsession that turned him into one of the most famous ultra-runners ever.
We had the chance to chat to him via video call this summer. He had trophies and medals galore as a backdrop. But the screen surely isn’t big enough for it to be his entire prize collection and that’s before you consider the numerous untrophied solo challenges he’s taken on.
The Californian has run 50 marathons in 50 US states in 50 days, 316 miles in 12 days along the Silk Road in Central Asia, 3000 miles across America, a marathon to the south Pole and won the Badwater Marathon. He has been named by Time magazine among the “top 100 most influential people in the world” and appeared on the The Today Show, 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman.
Yet he’s been quoted as saying he’s not particularly talented. In one of his books, he wrote: “I wasn't born with any innate talent. I've never been naturally gifted at anything. I always had to work at it... Dogged persistence is what got me through life. But here was something I was half-decent at. Being able to run great distances was the one thing I could offer the world. Others might be faster, but I could go longer. My strongest quality is that I never give up.”
He was being modest when he said he lacked talent. After all, he has finished fourth in the Western States Endurance Run, one of the highest calibre trail races in the world, at the age of 40. He is much better than being able to run slow for a heck of a long way. Yet a great part of his legendary status comes not from his running talent but his ability to inspire and influence others by what he does, particularly in his book writing.
And his newly released, fifth book, A Runner’s High: Older, Wiser, Slower, Stronger, could inspire even more people. It’s essentially about his revisiting the Western States after a 10-year gap in 2019, but throughout he reflects on his running career and how the sport has changed in that time.
One of the topics he begins with is how ultra-running has exploded since he started out. It’s fair to conclude he himself had a hand in that. He recognises this interest has since led to a switch to the trails. “There’s been a huge movement – I coin it the road-to-trail conversion,” he tells me. “I talk to a lot of road runners and so many have said to me that they want to try trail running.”
For some, the movement has gone too quickly and could lead to fast erosion of trails and other environmental impacts. He encourages a better awareness of the issue, saying: “I think the people who are more experienced in the sport should encourage leaving the trail better than when you found it, so not ever leaving trash lying around, for example.”
Another way in which ultra-running has changed, as he reflects in the book, is its competitiveness. The likes of Kilian Jornet and Jim Walmsley have taken the sport to another level and, in their wake, have brought a new generation of faster youngsters. He looks back on one of his build-up races from 2019 and when he, by then in his mid-fifties, was going to be overtaken by a young whipper-snapper.
“As he did so, I could sense that he was far less strained than I was. And there my existential nightmare was affirmed. I didn’t so much fear losing to a younger kid; what I feared was losing my relevance.”
The idea of getting slower is one of the themes of the title, so it’s one I get him to expand upon. “As the sport has evolved to become more of a competitive sport, I’m past my racing prime. I win almost every age group race I’m in but no one really cares about that,” he says. “Would I like to be a Kilian or a Jim? I certainly would but my day has come and gone as far as that sort of competitiveness goes. Now I’m being the best Dean that Dean can be and that means trying to encourage other people to get into the sport, and writing about the sport hopefully brings more people into it.”
That’s the slower. How about the wiser? He responds: “I’ve got wiser in that I’m committed to being the man that I am, which is pretty much a runner. Living my passion and not swerving from that path is something that I’ve learned is going to bring my fulfilment. Even though it’s just running, it’s what I’m made of, it’s in my blood.”
When it comes to the final part of the title, he points out how taking care of himself has permitted him to stay strong and avoid injury: “I stay on the trails. I do a lot of cross-training. I really take care of my body. I’ve cleaned up my diet. I’ve never had an injury in three decades of hitting it hard on the trails. I don’t foresee an injury slowing me down, so hopefully nothing will get in my way.”
Dean does say he wishes he had run more in the UK, although he has done some trail running in the Lake District. What he remembers most about it are the midges and the amazing speed of the local fell runners. “Fell running’s pretty aggressive,” he recalls. “It’s a different type of running. They all wore spikes; I didn’t and they were a lot faster than me. The downhill running was something else.”
So who – apart from Cumbrian fell runners – does someone who has inspired so many to get into ultra-running look up to? Too many to mention. “My peers are guys who inspire me,” he replies. “Scott Jurek, he’s a little bit younger than me; Karl Meltzer is a guy that inspires me.” As someone with Greek heritage, he also picks out Yiannis Kouros, the legendary runner from that nation who holds several ultra world records from the nineties.
“A lot of names you would ever know, local runners that I run with that are not heroes, they’re not even on podiums, but I’ve seen their grit in getting to the finish line in certain races, and that inspires me more than people who are on the podium all the time because they’re working so hard to get to the finish line.”
His thirst to continue pushing himself to extremes shows no sign of being quenched. For 2023, he is lining up an incredible challenge to run from the lowest point on Earth to the highest – that’s the Dead Sea to the top of Everest – some 4500 miles.
Dean says: “To me, what is the ultimate adventure that combines running with exploration? The list is endless, there are always more adventures ahead.”
He says that aside from getting hit by a car he will probably never stop running. Indeed, as he poignantly concludes in his latest book: “For me, as for every runner, runs end, running is forever…”