A Conversation with Dean Karnazes “Ultramarathon Man” – One of the World’s Most Accomplished Endurance Athletes.

A Conversation with Dean Karnazes “Ultramarathon Man” – One of the World’s Most Accomplished Endurance Athletes.

Dean Karnazes is a living testament to the limitless potential of the human spirit. He has become one of the most inspiring and accomplished ultramarathon runners in the world. Throughout his career, Karnazes has pushed the boundaries of physical endurance, completing seemingly impossible feats like running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, completing the gruelling Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley, and running non-stop for 350 miles in just over 80 hours. His relentless determination and unwavering passion for ultrarunning have garnered him worldwide recognition, and he has been named one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World” by TIME magazine.

In addition to his extraordinary athletic accomplishments, Karnazes has made a significant impact off the track. He has authored several bestselling books, such as “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner” and “Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss,” which have inspired countless individuals to push their limits and explore the world of endurance sports. Furthermore, Karnazes has dedicated his life to raising awareness and funds for various charitable organizations, using his platform to create positive change. Through his inspiring life and career, Dean Karnazes has proven that the human body and mind are capable of overcoming unimaginable challenges, inspiring a new generation of athletes and individuals to test their own boundaries and redefine their limits.

In this interview, I speak to Dean Karnazes, “Ultramarathon Man.” We discuss why running is part of who we are as humans and explore what it takes to prepare for and achieve some of the world’s most mind-blowing feats of endurance running including running non-stop, for 350 miles, in 80 hours. Dean shows us all what we can learn for our lives from his incredible journey.

Q: How did endurance racing come into your life?

[Dean Karnazes]: I used to run as a little boy; some of my earliest childhood recollections are of running home when I was 6 years old. I ran competitively until I was in high school where I won the cross country championships. At 15 I decided to stop. I’d taken running as far as I thought I would take it – had a good ride – and wanted to move onto other things. I graduated high school, went to university, graduate school, and did an MBA. I had a very comfortable corporate job in San Francisco with all the perks…. A big paycheck, company car, stock options, 401k, healthcare, bonuses, everything…. On the night of my 30th birthday, I was at a bar in San Francisco doing what most people do on their 30th – drinking with my buddies. It was around midnight when I left. My friends wanted me to do a shot of tequila to celebrate, but I said, ‘I’m going to run 3 miles to celebrate!’ – my friends said, ‘you’re not a runner, and you’re drunk!’ – but I wanted to do it anyway. I walked out of that bar at midnight, drunk. I didn’t even own running gear, I had some comfortable silk boxer shorts on – took off my pants – and took off down an alleyway stumbling south without knowing that a town called Half Moon Bay (where I ended up) was nearly 30 miles away. I still don’t know how I did it. When the alcohol wore off, I had this epiphany. I looked up and saw heaven – I saw the stars – it was the first moment of clarity I had since I’d given up running. It made me realise that perhaps I was on this earth to be a runner – I wasn’t happy being a business guy, it was making me miserable. I was comfortable, but miserable. I wanted to be out on my own, vulnerable, suffering, and in pain, but with the beauty of me versus the distance. When I finally got to Half Moon Bay in the morning, I decided to quit my corporate job and become an ultra marathon runner.

[Vikas] That epiphany is interesting as running seems to be one of our most quintessentially human activities?

[Dean Karnazes]: Running is beautiful and simple – you just put one foot in front of the other at an accelerated pace. There’s something primordial about it though – something within us – it’s like we’re born to run. A lot of people have looked at the chemistry of running and found it creates the ‘feel good’ chemicals that we need, but there’s definitely something intrinsic to being human about running. It’s where we came from… in this modern era, people choose to run we don’t have to run – we’re not being pursued by Saber-Toothed Tigers anymore, but we still choose to run. It’s something to do which is hard, it connects us to something – and when life gets easy, to feel alive, we need to do something hard.

Q: Why have marathons become such a powerful spectator sport

[Dean Karnazes]: Marathons are like a concert experience- but more primordial. When we run, were the same. So many things in life divide us – the colour of our skin, the language we speak, the god we worship, but when we run, we’re the same. When we run, we’re united, it’s a commonality across our species like nothing else. You feel deeply connected with other people when running together. Let me give you just one example – it was after I’d finished the New York Marathon. I was walking back to my hotel in the Mylar blanket they give you when you finish. Millions of people come out to watch- and I just happened to lock-strides with a particular spectator and we started chatting. I asked if she had come to support anyone in particular – and she said no, but nevertheless for her it was the best day of the year, watching tens of thousands of people running past – feeling a certain connection with people – feeling a connection where you feel their pain, and together you get through it. In Buddhism, there is a concept called metta where you feel the pain of someone else – and she said that she felt this connection, this beautiful connection, with everyone running past – she wasn’t even running, she just came to experience the energy.

Q: Why run a marathon?

[Dean Karnazes]: I have this feeling that everyone should run a marathon once in their life- like a rite-of-passage. Most people think, ‘that’s not me, I could never run a marathon!’ That’s precisely why you should do it – a marathon is a way of proving to yourself that you’re better than you think- that you can go further- and endure more. The rules of engagement are crystal clear – there’s a starting line, and a finishing point 26.2miles (42km) away. You make it from start to finish, and you succeed. Life is rarely crystal clear like that- the finishing line for most things in life changes a lot. Running a marathon focuses our mind on one thing – perseverance.

Even for elite marathon runners, there are so many points where you want to stop – but you learn a mindset of not stopping when the pain sets in – Rather, you lean into the pain, you welcome the pain, you embrace the pain as a challenge like any other.

Endurance running teaches you doggedness – and maybe some stubbornness! It teaches you not to give up – and guess what, successful people share that mindset. If they have a goal, they’ll find a way to get it done – they’ll find a way to get around the obstacles. When you go out to run 100 miles – the lessons of a lifetime get compressed into 24 hours of non-stop running.

Q: What does success mean to you?

[Dean Karnazes]: I’ve never defined success as winning a race- and I can’t tell you how many elite athletes have fallen by the wayside midway through their career path because they viewed running as a race. To be, running transcends the human boundaries of a start and finish line. Running is something bigger than that. I’ve run thousands of races on all seven continents, and there has only been one race where I went into it saying ‘I want to win…’ that was the Badwater Ultra Marathon. It’s a non-stop foot race across Death Valley – I wanted to win that race, and thankfully I did, but after that I just went back to my old attitude of doing it for the exploration and adventure.

To me, the very definition of success is living up to your potential – and the very definition of failure is not living up to your potential, simple.

Q: What does failure mean to you?

[Dean Karnazes]: I hate failing- I hate falling short of my goals- as most people do! My grandfather had a saying, ‘show me a man who’s content, and I’ll show you an underachiever.’ Nowadays, my failures are much more public – anyone at a high level fails in the public eye – it’s shoved in your face, circulated on the m news, and on social media. Failures can be devastating for me. Failing is hard to reconcile – but I have to learn to embrace those emotional lows as much as the euphoric highs.

When im lying in bed at night mulling over why I didn’t finish a race, and why I felt short of my goal, I really lean into the fact that it is a horrible moment – and celebrate that darkness. You need to appreciate the devastating lows, as well as the euphoric highs, if you are to understand human experience.

Q: What is the role of ego in endurance racing?

[Dean Karnazes]: Ego is necessary – but its also an impediment to success. When you run ultra-marathons you go through this process – an elimination of ego. Maybe it’s the repetition you experience, but you’re so engaged with the act of running and making the finish line, that you don’t really have time to think about ego. Some of my very best moments in life on these long races have come because I had no ego – and I always try to go back to those moments and remember the feeling and how liberating it is when your ego melts away.

Thankfully…. I don’t have great self-esteem. When I go into my trophy room and see Olympic torches and all these records and trophies, it feels surreal, it feels like it’s not me. It feels like it\s someone else. Suppressing my ego, to that extent, feels very natural.

Q: Do you ever feel the weight of responsibility that comes with public profile?

[Dean Karnazes]: Honestly, I have quite a hard time dealing with the public side of of my life. That’s why I like to go run across the Silk Road from Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – nobody recognises me! I’m just some human, running.

There’s baggage that comes with being a ‘celebrity’ figure.

Ultimately we have to just be honest with who we are. I’m very disciplined. I don’t compromise. There are no skeletons in my closet. I’m open, transparent, and I think that’s the best way to be. I celebrate my failures, I own them. I also work very hard so that when people see me- they see me as I want to be seen – a fit guy who loves his craft. It’s a bit like being an artist I guess, being the best you can be!

[Vikas: What has racing taught you about humility?]

[Dean Karnazes]: When you’re in a foreign country, running, you’re not very threatening! You are very approachable – and end up having some very honest and truthful communications with people because they know you don’t want anything from them – you’re not a threat – you’re just running.

I think we all stereotype people based on their physical appearance, life or situation. There are so many times in life where- when you stop and actually have a conversation with someone- you realise they are not at all what you thought.

Running, all these experience, they teach you to have an open mind in every situation.

Q: Do you ever wonder if we really have limits

[Dean Karnazes]: I think most limits are self imposed. The limits we place on ourselves are between our ears – it’s our minds telling us we could never do X, or achieve Y. It’s our minds deciding what is possible, or impossible. Guess what… when you go out and do something you thought was impossible, it expands your perspective on everything. When I set out to run 50 marathons, in all 50 US states, in 50 consecutive days – sure people told me it was impossible. There were days I didn’t even feel able to get out of bed after running, but I thought… the only way to find out if it is impossible is to try it. If I could finish 50 marathons in 50 days and still be moving, I could prove that something I thought as impossible, wasn’t.  

Q: What would be your advice about setting and achieving goals? 

[Dean Karnazes]: Let’s go back to the idea of running a marathon! You probably think you can’t run a marathon – but if you sign up for a marathon, train, and finish the race – you suddenly realise you did something you thought you couldn’t! The same holds true with business or education – there might be a business goal or education goal you think you could never achieve- a startup, a PhD… but if you plan and go for it you’ll realise nothing is impossible.

For me, when I set goals, my goals are more like dreams – I just say what would be the most fun and adventurous thing you could do… I just dream about something that would be amazing. Once I ran from Los Angeles to New York City. I thought it’d be really amazing to see America on foot. So I spent 75 days running 40-50 miles per day across the country. So that’s how I come up with my goals, and once I Have a goal in mind I’m pretty focused on that goal. I tell people you have to have a goal, because without a map you don’t know where you’re going. So you have to have a goal in mind and navigate toward it in everything you do.

My next goal is to run from the lowest point on earth which is the Dead Sea, to Mount Everest, the highest point on earth. So… that is completely out of the realm of what most people think is possible or even desirable. But, I always tell people – if you’ve got a passion inside you, whatever that might be… It might be just basket weaving…. if you really love basket weaving and you throw your heart and soul and energy into basket weaving – you’ll somehow figure out how to make a living. If you do what you’re passionate about,  you’re always more likely to succeed.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Dean Kanazes]: I don’t think I’m worthy of a legacy…

I want to be remembered as a good husband, a good father, and a good son. These are the things which really matter, and the things I hope I don’t fail at. That is just what’s in my heart. So if my kids at the end of my life say wow, he was a really great dad, and my wife says he was a great husband and my parents say he was a great son, I’ll be very, very fulfilled.

That’s the foundation of being a good human. And I think that if you have that foundation, you’re fulfilled.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.