25–26 Jan 2025 221 days to go! #RunShow

Interview with Dean Karnazes

There aren’t many times someone can say they met their hero… but today is one of those days! Mike from the National Running Show was lucky enough to interview his hero Dean Karnazes last week on behalf of the National Running Show. Mike said “I’ve read all of Deans books and have always been a fan of his writing. Having now spoken to Dean, I’m pleased to report that he is even cooler in real life! He was very generous with his time and has some fantastic advice for anyone interested in running whether you are a novice or an expert. If you ever need inspiration to keep pushing yourself then I’d thoroughly recommend listening to what this amazing man can do!

For anyone unfamiliar with Dean, he is an American ultramarathon runner and author of “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner”, as well as an upcoming book called “The Road to Sparta” (soon to be released in the UK). His notable achievements include running 350 miles in 80 hours without sleep, completing a 199-mile relay eleven times, running a marathon in the South Pole without snowshoes, and running a marathon in each of the 50 states in 50 consecutive days.

Despite all of his achievements, Dean remains a very down-to-earth human being, as evidenced by the 22-minute interview you can hear below. Dean will be at this year’s London Marathon on 20th – 21st April, so come on over to say hello!

You can find out more about Dean on his website: www.ultramarathonman.com

You can buy ‘The Road to Sparta: Running in the Footsteps of the Original Ultramarathon Man’ online here in paperback and ebook. A new edition of ‘Ultramarathon Man’ is also available.


Here’s the transcript of the interview:

Mike: Hi everyone, it’s Mike from the National Running Show, and it’s my great pleasure today to bring you a special Running Show interview with the ultra-marathon man himself – Dean Karnazes. For those of you who don’t know, Dean is one of the highest profile endurance athletes in the world. He is a man who has run 350 miles in eighty hours, 50 Marathons in 50 States in 50 days. He has won the Badwater Marathon, which is often referred to as the toughest foot race in the world, amongst many other awards and events. Dean is a renowned speaker and a prolific author and today we are talking to him about his latest book “The Road to Sparta” and in particular how he maintains his motivation whilst taking on some of the toughest endurance challenges on the planet. Dean, firstly thank you for making the time to speak to us today.

Dean: Oh it’s my pleasure, thank you for having me on as a guest.

M: No problem at all, getting straight into it, most of our audience probably look at the things you have done and think it sounds impossible or out of reach, yet ultra-running is really growing in popularity now, so I was kinda keen to get your view on this and weather you think anyone can run or more importantly, can anyone run an ultra?

D: You know to be honest anyone can run an ultra, and I say that to a lot of people and they laugh at me when I say it because they might be training for their first 5km or 10km. But that said, because I travel all over the world and I do so many races and so many ultras, when I am standing at the starting line and you look around the crowd of people don’t necessarily look like elite athletes. They don’t look all that necessarily physically fit, and you might question how is this person possibly going to run 50km or 100km and what I have learned is that it is really in the head. Ultra running is done more with the mind than with the body so I think if you have the right mindset you can do an ultra.

M: That was a point I was going to touch on actually, you have your famous Karnazes family calf muscles, so I was going to ask how much you think your major successes are down to your physical stature and how much of it is down to how you train your mind?

D: Well I think for me some of it is down to my physical stature, and you know they say the best thing you can do as a long-distance runner is choose your parents well.

M: Ha!

D: So, I inherited a body which is pretty proficient as a runner, but that being said every person, every human is going to breakdown at a point. I mean no one is capable of running forever, and I still believe that most of what I do is a mental battle verses a physical one.

M: And do you do much to train your mind? I see in your latest book you are talking about sitting in church and it being a test of mental strength, is that something that you really work on?

D: I do a lot of mental training, indeed I do, and I also have learned to structure my life to give me the quiet time that I need. I am very much an introvert by nature and I structure my life so that I don’t over-book. Sometimes it is inevitable, but I try and leave an hour or two every day for some alone time. A lot of the time it’s when I go running…

M: Yep.

D: But you know the Oracle of Delphi said, I’ll go back to my Greek routes, “know thyself” so I think I have spent a lot of time trying to understand who I am as a person and try and be true to that.

M: OK that’s great. In “The Road to Sparta” and in couple of your other books you talk about your first Marathon where you did 105 laps of a quarter mile track, and you’re talking in this book about the waves of elation and pain, and I think most of us runners have probably experienced that at some point or another. So how do you ride that out, how do you get through those down bits and the up bits?

D: Well it largely depends on the individual. Some people, especially if you have an extraverted personality type, you might like being surrounded by others and being patted on the back and cheered on and that gives you the inspiration to keep going. For me I prefer to turn inward and just focus on the present moment of time, I don’t think about… say we are running a Marathon and say we are at mile 20, kilometre 35 and you are hurting so badly that all you are thinking about is the next hash mark, where it tells you that you have one less mile or one less kilometre to cover. I say be in the present moment of time, be in the now. Just focus on taking one step, just say my next step, my next step, my next step. Get that granular where all you’re are trying to do is take the next step to the best of your ability. Don’t think about the future and don’t reflect upon the past and that has got me through some really tough moments.

M: OK, so keeping it really sort term focused goals?

D: Well it’s almost like a zen like state, it’s even beyond short term. Sometimes I will just say get to that next hash mark ten meters up the course, or just get to that signpost or that tree twenty or thirty feet up the road, but a lot of times it’s even more inward and granular and short term where I am saying one step, one step, one step. Just focusing on putting one leg in front of the other time after time.

M: So you still hit the wall? Even you?

D: I do, you know people are always amazed, they say “are you nervous?” and I think for the last four weeks in a row I have run a marathon every weekend, and people say are you nervous standing at the starting line and you know I am. I still get nervous, I still think this is the one I can’t finish. And I think actually that is part of the thrill or running and what we do is there’s no certainty in running a marathon or an ultra-marathon. You are never quite sure, you can never quite have that confidence that I am going to finish this race no matter what.

M: Well I was going to ask that, have you ever had a race that you have quit, and why?

D: You know I have run probably a thousand races across the world, and I have run on all seven continents of the planet twice now and in all of those races a have had a handful of what they call DNFs, which you probably know what that stands for right?

M: Yep, been there.

D: Well some of these races I do it stands for “Did Nothing Fatal” because some of them are so daunting that there is the threat of bodily harm or bodily injury. Those handful of times where I have dropped out of a race it’s where I felt like if I kept going I am going to injure my body, I’m going to hurt myself, potentially long term. And that is the only criteria I use to drop out of a race, other than that I just refuse to stop.

M: And that is another interesting point, obviously, part of what you do is pushing when it gets really really tough, and it is difficult for us mortals to know when that line is and when it is your body lying to you and when you can push on through, so how do you know?

D: Ha! You are asking the wrong guy! I am unqualified to answer that question. I don’t know, I have never really found that point I have blacked out and been picked up on the roadside, so I am not that one to ask when do you cross that line.

M: Yeah OK I don’t fancy that. OK and on the race, I mean you say you are doing a marathon every weekend, do you stay race ready all the time? Or do you gear up for challenges?

D: The reality is that I just have a hard time saying no. I mean I get all of these great invitations to run these races across the world and I just love exploration and I love travel and I just accept them all, so inevitably I am at a race on a weekend and in between sometimes I am traveling. But I am doing some cross training and some lighter training, kinda maintenance training in between. For instance, last weekend I ran the Oakland Marathon, this weekend I am running the Marine City Marathon, the weekend after that I am running Boston Marathon and then I am flying over to the UK and I am running the London Marathon for the first time.

M: Oh wow, so this is your first time in London?

D: First time, in London.

M: You are going to love it.

D: Well I have been in London before, been to London many times I have never run the Marathon though. So, this is the first London Marathon.

M: Oh I hope you have an amazing time, it is genuinely my favourite race.

D: I have read that it is a big party, which I am kind of looking forward to.

M:That’s why it is my favourite race! OK so you have talked about things like cross training and things like that as well, I was curious, do you ever have a duvet day? Do you know what a duvet day is?

D: I have never heard that term before, it is very British and I love it. I think I get the gist of what a duvet day is even though that is the first time I have heard it.

M: I mean I’m talking staying in bed, watching movies and not running 100 miles.

D: You know relaxing like that, it stresses me out. I mean my wife loves duvet days, I mean she just kicks me out of bed because she like, “I have never seen anyone constantly moving the way you do, I mean you never stand still!” but it is just how I am. If I lay down too long I get nervous.

M: So, the real reason you run so much is because your wife won’t let you in the house.

D: That’s why every man runs isn’t it?

M: Same here! OK so you talk a lot about family in your books and I was going to ask this question, and I think I know the answer but your biggest motivator or inspiration when running, would you say it was family?

D: Oh, without a doubt. Yeah.

M: And how do you focus on that when you are on the move? I know some people take pictures or write things on their arms. Do you do anything like that?

D: Well you know I have taken… My kids know no other life style than the one they have been thrown into. I have been running ultras from when my oldest child was born so they have travelled with me a lot. I used to take them on almost every road trip that I went on and it is hugely inconvenient, it is really a pain to travel with kids and plan everything, but it was really something that I felt strongly about and it bought us closer together. You know running as you have seen is very divisive, especially if one spouse runs and the other doesn’t. I have seen relationships destroyed because one got into running. But then again, I have seen relationships get very very close and grow tighter because of running. Thankfully my relationship with my family has grown tighter. You know I was a very early adopter of technology and my wife was so mad at me that I was getting my kids smart phones when they were young kids, but it allowed me to stay in touch with them, it allowed me to Face Time… I will never forget Face Timing my kids from a race across the Sahara Desert, that finished at the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and here I am, they are just waking up in San Francisco and I am standing below the pyramids in Egypt and we are having a live Face Time talk. You know I have used technology to bring us together verses then divide us.

M: No I think that is awesome, so going to the flip side of that and what you did for the “Road to Sparta” and the Spartathlon I think we have called it, can you tell us a bit about the latest challenge and the new book?

D: Well the challenge is to really find out why we run marathons, you know, how did the marathon begin; what was the genesis, and how did it get to what it is today? And to begin the process of understanding that I had to step back 2500 years to ancient Greece to learn the true story of a guy named Pheidippides and I am sure many of your runners have heard of Pheidippides. He is the guy, supposedly the guy who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to the Acropolis and proclaimed “Nike, nike” we are victorious and then, you probably know what happens there.

M: Yeah.

D: He fell over dead, so I looked at is this a true story; is this Greek myth, is there more to the story, and that is what lead me to write “The Road to Sparta”.

M: Yeah and it is a fantastic read, and in terms of what I think is interesting in this as well is how you strip back to kind of a more minimalist running philosophy for the challenge, do you want to just talk us through that?

D: Well, you know one thing that I tried to do was experience what Pheidippides went through myself. And to do that I couldn’t use any of the modern athlete foods that we have available to us, you know the gel packs the energy bars, the electrolyte replacement beverages. He wouldn’t have had access to them 2500 years ago, so I ate the ancient Greek foods which were figs, olives, cured meet so like a beef jerky kinda thing, and something that they call pistilly which is ground sesame seeds and honey, and I only drank plain water, I didn’t use any electrolyte replenishment or sports beverage, just plain water. The race, the Spartathlon race is 153 miles nonstop from Athens to Sparta and you need to complete the course in sub thirty-six hours, that’s the cut off time. So it’s a very daunting race, very mountainous, very hot with really a sharp cut off time. With eating only those foods I describe.

M: And without spoiling the story, because I think people should read the book, how did you find it?

D: I don’t want to go into too much detail, I think people tune out as soon as I start talking about it, but I trained with these foods, I have to be honest. I didn’t just decide to run this 153 mile ultra-marathon for the first time using these foods and I would go out for five, six, seven hour training runs probably eating figs and that was fine. What I learned was when you eat figs for 24 hours non-stop it creates some issues with… erm… you can imagine where the issues arise. You know, let’s just say the figs go in easy but on the other side things aren’t so pretty.

M: I think anyone who has run a long-distance race will know exactly what you are talking about right now.

D: Oh man, so my gut pretty much just shut down and I was forced to continue running just being able to eat nothing which really added a lot to the challenge.

M: I mean it is a fantastic book and a fantastic read and I should now just let everybody know that it will be released on the 20th April in the UK and you can get it online pretty much now actually. So that is something that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who is listening to this right now. Dean on top of that are you able to talk about what is next for you? In that you have done so much surely there can’t be any more challenges for you?

D: Well it’s funny you say that, I once ran 50 Marathons in all 50 of the United States in 50 days, in 50 straight days. So that was, to me, fantastic because it was the challenge of not only running a marathon fifty days in a row but the logistics the travel, the people you met along the way, the experiences you had, the sites you saw, the food you ate. So I am going to try a duplicate that model but globally. Hopefully next year I am going to set out to run a Marathon in every country in the world in a one year time frame. So the UN recognises two hundred and three countries and I am going to set out to run a marathon in each and every one of them in a one year timespan.

M: That’s incredible! And are these races that people can come and join you on?

D: Absolutely, that is the beauty of what I am doing. I’m not just doing it to prove one guy can do this but I am inviting all the local country people to come out and run with me when I am in their country. The thing that amazes me is that of the two hundred and three countries only one hundred and nine had organised marathons, like the London Marathon or the New York City Marathon. The rest of the countries have no Marathons, so we will GPS a Marathon route when we are in their country and I think that will almost be more interesting than running some of the bigger organised races because it will be kind of our own Marathon. It will be the first Marathon ever run in that country.

M: I mean that would be incredible, I imagine, are there some security issues in some of the countries? Are you able to get out?

D: Ha! I am laughing because you say some security issues and I am like “Oh my god!” I mean I have been talking about this adventure for about the past five years, and part of the issue is I have been working with the US department of State, State department, and getting the Passports and Permits to get into all of these countries has been really challenging and they have a list of countries that they can get me into the country but they are not going to let me leave the airport. So they are saying you are going to have to set up a treadmill in the airport. I mean countries like North Korea, Syria, I mean you see what is going on these days in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. A lot of those countries I can get to but I just have to run a Marathon on a treadmill in the airport.

M: Or maybe around the airport, maybe on the luggage carrousel. I mean…

D: It would be like a treadmill!

M: Yeah, that would be great! Well look that sounds like a fantastic challenge and we are going to watch that with anticipation.

D: You gotta come join me, come on!

M: I’m in!

D: Come join me in Fiji, it’s a tropical island we’ll run around the sand for 26.2.

M: I love it, I’ve actually been and it’s a beautiful place, so yeah count me in. Could you just persuade my wife, ha ha. OK so it has been brilliant talking to you and thanks for giving us your time. I think one of the things I was keen to get out of this was that our show if for anyone from people running their first 5km right up to the guys like you who do these incredible, crazy endurance challenges. Is there any advice you would give people who are training for their first race, regardless of ability?

D: You know I always tell people to start from the ground up, so invest in a really good pair of what you guys call joggers, runners, some really good running shoes. Go to a specialty store and get fitted for a good pair of shoes because one it is going to help you prevent you from injury and two it is going to be more comfortable. I would also say get some good moisture wicking clothing, I see too many new runners running in cotton gear that is very uncomfortable, and If you are comfortable it helps a lot both for making the quest easier and for your personal enjoyment. You know if you are chafing, blistering, all that kind of stuff it is just unpleasant. Then I say set a time goal verses a distance goal, you don’t need any fancy GPS or anything you just need a watch. Just try to run, when your starting out, just try to run for three minutes continuous. And I know for a seasoned runner that seems so easy, that’s only three minutes, but a lot of new runners have a hard time running for 3 minutes. I mean what typically people do is they sprint right out of the gate, they run maybe thirty or forty five seconds and then they start to walk. I say learn to pace yourself to regulate your speed so that you can run three continuous minutes. Then increase that to five minutes and then ten minutes and then you can start looking at distance goals verses time goals. So those are some of the tips I offer new runners.

M: No I think that is great, that is really good advice, for anybody who is looking to see Dean in person and to meet this man who has done so much for bringing Ultra Marathons into the popular market, he is actually going to be in London at the London Marathon Expo on the 21st and 22nd April. Dean I think you have an online diary that people can view, is that right?

D: Yeah I mean if you visit my site ultramarathonman.com or ultramarathon.com either one will get you to the same place. There is a tab that says Schedule I have a very detailed listing of where I will be when I am in the UK. Along with the London Marathon I’ll be at a couple of different appearances in London, all in London this particular trip.

M: Fantastic, well we will make sure we push everyone to go see you there and just to reiterate the new book “The Road to Sparta” which is fantastic is available on the 20th April it’s also available in bookshops and also online. Thanks for seeing us Dean, Thanks for giving us a call.

D: And I will add that there is a very British theme throughout the book and that is one that the founder of the “Spartathlon” the race I describe is a thread of the book, was a Brit RAF Wing Commander John Foden MBE, so he is an incredible man. Unfortunately, he passed away last year but a lot of the story involves him and I also worked with a gentleman by the name of professor Paul Cartledge who is the foremost authority on ancient Greek culture from Cambridge and as well I worked with a colleague of his Dr P. J. Shaw so I worked with a lot of British Historians and Researchers and Classicists in writing the book.

M: So you guys all have to buy the book because it is basically British! Dean, thank you so much for coming on the call with us.

D: And I will see you at the London Marathon!

M: We will see you there and I do hope that we can catch up with you after you have done your marathon in every country around the world. This interview has been bought to you by the National Running Show, which takes place on the 20th and 21st January 2018 at the NEC in Birmingham, we hope to see you guys there. Thank you.