Dean Karnazes – the ultra legend who can’t stop running

As the US ultra-endurance icon brings out his latest book, he talks to Trail Running about his next challenge and what's changed in the sport

Dean Karnazes

by Paul Halford |

Dean Karnazes with his impressive medal collection (credit: Michal Venera)

Dean Karnazes’s running CV is among the most impressive on the planet. He’s run across Death Valley in summer, he’s completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, he’s run 315 miles in 11 days along the Silk Road in Central Asia, run 3000 miles across America and won the Badwater Marathon. Yet he’s been quoted as saying he doesn't believe he is particularly talented - just that his only “talent” was doggedness.

He was being modest. 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. 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.

He has just brought out a fifth book - A Runner’s High: Older, Wiser, Slower, Stronger. It ostensibly narrates the account of his first appearance back at Western States in 10 years. However, it’s an excuse to reflect on his career and how things have changed since his prime - both for him and ultra-running in general.

He tells Trail Running: “I think this book is a little more introspective. I think a lot of my books are talking about these crazy races that I’ve done and this book I think is looking inward a bit more and reflecting a bit more than other books and kind of looking at the path I chose through life, being a runner, and how I’ve changed and how the sport itself, trail running and ultra running has changed.”

He writes at the start of the book about how ultra-running’s popularity has exploded. That is partly down to his legacy. Not everyone is happy about the erosion of the trails caused by the added interest. Karnazes comments on the mass movement from road to trail and adds: “I’m not a big guy on regulations, but 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 around the trails, leaving the trails better than you found it. I think that can be promoted more on a grassroots basis versus having some authority say ‘hey we need to do this and do that.’ At least here in California, from what I’m seeing, the trail running community is kind of self-policing.”

As the title of the book suggests, he is happy to concede that - at the age of 58 - he is now slower. He looks back on how much else has changed: “The sport has changed a lot. When I first got into the sport, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I didn’t know what a training block was. I was spending half as much time surfing as I was running and I was racing in board shorts. At the prime of my career, when I was ending up on podiums I was just a guy that was passionate about trail running and pushed myself as hard as I could. Things have changed a lot. Things have become more competitive.”

We talk about the superstars such as Kilian Jornet and Jim Walmsley who have taken the sport of trail running to another level. “Would I like to be a Kilian or a Jim?” he ponders. “I certainly would, but my day has come and gone as far as that sort of competitiveness. I think it’s really exciting what those guys bring to the sport. 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 that hopefully brings more people into it.”

The penultimate chapter relates his finishing the Western States - a great achievement for most - but in a time he would not be happy with. He writes: “This isn’t the race I wanted. Not the performance I had been hoping for. Of course, I hated that. No one wants to fall short of his expectations and it stung . Though what defines us as individuals is not that we encounter hardship - for everyone does - but how we carry ourselves in such instances when things don’t go our way.”

For Karnazes, there will be plenty more challenges - his next in a few weeks’ time is to run 1000 miles across Australia. As he poignantly concludes the book: “For me, as for every runner, runs end, running is forever…”

Check out the next issue of Trail Running for our full interview.

A Runner’s High: Older, Wiser, Slower, Stronger is published by Allen and Unwin and is out now.

 A Runner's High - Older, Wiser, Slower, Stronger
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