Trekking through challenging terrains across the globe, enduring hours of arduous running in hundreds of marathons, breaking numerous athletic records, and constantly pushing his personal limits, Dean Karnazes has rightfully earned his title as the Ultra Marathon Man. Beyond long distance endurance running, the Greek-American athlete also enjoys competing in triathlons, is a successful entrepreneur, best-selling author, philanthropist, and dedicated father. In 2013, Karnazes took on another title as the official ambassador of the annual Navarino Challenge, which takes place in Arcadia and Messinia, Greece. The three-day sporting event brings together a diverse range of participants in an effort to raise awareness on the issue of childhood obesity, while promoting the benefits of the mediterranean diet. Karnazes speaks with Portes Magazine about the upcoming Navarino Challenge, to take place September 11 through 13, and offers some insight on his athletic career.
What is unique about the Navarino Challenge as a sporting event?
To me it’s a very progressive event, and I’ve done hundreds of different types of running events across the globe. For Greece, this an event that is ahead of its time, and it’s an event conceived for mass participation. The core concept is similar to the original notion of the Ancient Olympics, which served to bring all of the citizenry out in a celebration of fitness and health. The [Ancient Olympics] were not only for elite athletes vying to win a gold medal. All of the participants received a laurel or a Greek wreath, so to me the Navarino Challenge is approachable to anyone regardless if you were an elite runner used to running great distances, or just someone who is going to run their very first challenge. And that’s something that appealed to me from the very beginning, making sure the challenge is not so intimidating so that many people are welcome and encouraged to take part.
How would you compare this sporting challenge to past events or courses in which you have participated?
I don’t know why, but there is something magical about the Navarino Challenge. I think in part people are inspired by me because they think, well here is a guy who runs hundreds of kilometers at a time and he’s out here running a more casual 10 kilometers with me. I think that inspires people, but I think people fail to recognize how much I’m inspired by seeing people who are pushing themselves to their very limit. For me, going out and running a half marathon is not extraordinary, and while it doesn’t necessarily come easy to me it’s less difficult for me than for others. But in this event, people really rise to the occasion and prove to themselves that they are better than they think they are and can go further than they thought they were able.
As the ambassador of the Navarino Challenge, what advice would you give to someone who is participating in a marathon or athletic endurance event for the first time?
Start from the ground up and invest in a good pair of shoes. Then I would say try starting your training program by running a set number of minutes instead of a set number of feet or miles. When you first start out you might just say I’ll commit to running just five minutes straight while pacing yourself, and then work up that way and try to expand that to ten or fifteen minutes as days go by. You’ll find that’s much easier than setting mile goals and much simpler in terms of keeping track of your goal.
You referenced earlier the concept of the Ancient Olympics is reflected in the Navarino Challenge. Can you share with us what ancient Greek wisdom or ideal you think might still apply to athletes and athleticism today?
The Greek ideal of ‘arete’ suggests goodness comes from finding a perfect balance of the mind, body, and spirit. And I think in the Western world unfortunately we have really neglected our body. I mean the Greeks embraced physicality and the balance between mind and body as being important. For example, in Ancient Greece gymnasiums were not only a place of mental learning, but also physical learning, and I really embrace that idea, because when your body is sharp your mind is sharp, and that’s a very ancient kind of notion that the Greeks honored. Other things the ancient Greeks taught us was to dare, to question everything and to go beyond what you think are your limitations. As they used to say “he who dares wins” so in practice I try to be fearless and explore new things, and not be afraid to fail.
Moving onto your personal athleticism, what first inspired you to begin a career as an endurance runner?
Well my earliest recollection of running was running home from kindergarten as a six year old boy. I was the oldest in my family of three kids, and I remember that when my sister was born my mother had a hard time getting us home from school because we had a newborn in the house so I just started running home to take the burden off of her shoulders. And I loved running, I remember I couldn’t sit still in class and just waited until the bell ran so I can go outside and run. That’s kind of my earliest memory.
I also remember very fondly going to Greek Easter at Saint Sofia and I just remember at church seeing these old Greek men from the old country who looked so distinguished. They spoke no English and they were very lean and had very chiseled cheeks, and they used to dance until very late, and I was enamored more by their endurance to keep dancing. And it really struck me that these men from the old country had such endurance. They had a tirelessness about them that touched me in a certain way and I guess that is part of what got me interested in being an endurance athlete.
As an athlete, entrepreneur, best-selling author, and father, how do you find the time to balance all of your commitments?
I hope I didn’t say that I balance it all because there’s no balance really! It’s a crazy unbalanced frenetic chaotic pace but it’s quite lovely. I think that in being Greek I embrace family and that’s a value that has been instilled upon me. My mom and dad are still together and a lot of their peer groups are still together, so I definitely embrace family and my family is my number one priority and they know it. I make a lot of sacrifices for them, and I train early in the morning or late at night so I don’t take time away from my family, but even when I’m traveling we are always in touch and I think that a strong relationship is more about quality than quantity.
What keeps you motivated to continuously challenge yourself in multiple professional fields?
I think I still have a childish curiosity about so many things. I’m really quite immature when you get down to it. But I think the curiosity and the love of learning is really what drives me. And I think that’s a very Greek notion as well. I was, believe it or not, valedictorian of my college class, and I was inducted into several honor societies. Actually, one of the mottos of the honor societies translated roughly into “may the love of learning rule mankind,” and that’s something I very much believe. So, I think in part it’s my deep curiosity and love of learning that influences my decision to continuously follow my passions.
In your athletic career, you have participated in countless running challenges across the world. If you had to choose, what would be your ideal natural terrain to run in?
I really enjoy running around Greece. I know it sounds funny to say but it almost feels like a homecoming to me. When I run around Athens, and especially when I run around Messinia, Arcadia, or Laconia or some of the more rural areas, you don’t often see people running down the street. And I can’t tell you how many people stop and just ask me if I want some food or if I want a ride, or they just congratulate me, and it’s really magical to see that you can break through to people in that way. If you think about it, it’s kind of a foreign thing for them to be driving down a road that they’ve been driving down for 20 or 30 years and all of a sudden they see some guy running, and he’s healthy and enjoying it and he’s Greek. I’ve run on all seven continents twice and I’ve run in some of the most exotic and beautiful places in the world, and still running in Greece to me has a certain magic that nowhere else does.
What is your “secret” or best practice that helps you run marathons and participate in endurance challenges year after year?
I always tell people you don’t have to go fast, you just have to go. To me it’s really about mental discipline and perseverance to be able to continue even when it gets tough. People say it’s easier for me because I’m so highly trained, and I appreciate that it’s easier, but I still push myself to the point where I question whether I can take another step. It’s at that point when you ask yourself, ok well what am I made of and can I get through this? You just have to keep taking one step at a time. I always tell people take baby steps. A lot of baby steps will still get you at the end of the marathon eventually, and I know because I’ve done it.
It’s been close to ten years since you ran the 50-50-50 Challenge back in 2006, which was a tremendous feat in itself. What are you planning next?
Since completing that challenge I’ve certainly gone on to do a lot of other events that are equally demanding but perhaps less identifiable. What I’m planning as my next big challenge is running a marathon in every country in the world in a one-year time frame. So I’m hoping to set out on a global expedition. Right now there are 203 countries in the world, and I’m hoping to run in each and every one of them, which would be a marathon nearly every other day. I’ve always had a dream to visit every country in the world, and this challenge would be a dream come true.
Photos courtesy of Dean Karnazes