The Road to Sparta by Dean Karnazes: Book Review

How did Dean Karnazes’ heritage influence his running?

Both his maternal and paternal roots are in Greece, and are known for both their resilience and tranquil way of life. Karnazes’s genetic linkage is also distinguished by abnormally enlarged, bifurcated calf muscles.


Growing up, did Dean Karnazes run?

Yes, Karnazes did run, winning a mile race at school and enjoying cross country. Inspired by his coach and teammates he sometimes ran 70-80 miles a week. At 14 years old, he overcame severe pain to run 105 laps of a track, equivalent to a marathon, raising money for his high school. Similar to East African runners Karnazes found running home from school freeing.


Did Dean Karnazes pursue a running career once he became an adult?

No. Instead of pursuing a running career Karnazes sought a high salary and status, becoming a millionaire by his late 20s by working at GlaxoSmithKline.


What was the catalyst for Dean Karnazes’ ultrarunning career?

Partly discontent with his corporate job and seeking a new challenge, he ran 30-miles on the night of his 30th birthday, wearing only pants and trainers. From that moment on he became addicted to the sport. He would often run more than once a day, and 8-10 hours non-stop each day of the weekend. His commitment lead him to become a sponsored athlete, after finishing The North Face, a 100-mile footrace. He then quit his corporate job to become a full-time athlete.


What is his advice to ultrarunners?

Karnazes’ ultrarunning advice is to always hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Multiple contingency plans are essential. Interestingly, despite enjoying competing Karnazes preferred less-structured adventure outside of racecourse boundaries. Due to his natural introversion he would run for hours and sometimes days alone, away from home.


What did Dean Karnazes discover about Ancient Greek ultrarunners?

During his journey of self-discovery he came across hemerodromoi, professional day-long runners in Ancient Greek times. These athletes would cover incredible distances on foot, over rocky and mountainous terrain, forgoing sleep. Hemerodromia were men of high strength-to-weight ratios, upstanding characters and hugely patriotic. They ran barefoot or in leather sandals, and ate figs, olives, dried meats and pastela (ground sesame seeds and honey in paste form).


What is the story of Pheidippides?

Pheidippides was one of the best hemerodromia of his times, and was needed to carry important messages between Athenians and Spartans during the invasion of the Persian armies around 490 BC. He is said to have run from Athens to Sparta (136-142 miles) for 36 hours straight, only to return to Athens in 2 days after a brief stop. He then had to run 25 miles to Marathon and once again run back to Athens. Unsurprisingly he died of exhaustion, covering over 300 miles in less than a week.


How did Dean Karnazes prepare for the Spartathlon?

Intrigued to replicate Pheidippides’ epic journey, Karnazes completed a number of adventures.

  • He ran the Silicon Valley Marathon half naked dressed as Pheidippides.
  • He ran 700 miles to the 2007 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, then completed the marathon in 3 hours and 16 minutes, consuming 7,500 kilocalories on route.
  • He trained 100 miles per week, with 80-mile training runs once a month and completing a host of 50-mile and 100-km races to maintain his competitive edge.

He benefited from his life on the coast of California, USA, because Greece is similar in mountainous terrain, and warm, dry temperature. Unsurprisingly he felt at home in Greece, despite the jet-lag and illnesses from regular plane journeys. He also cross-trained a lot in the gym but never felt self-assured leading to race day.


What happened when Dean Karnazes ran the 2014 Spartathlon?

The annual Spartathlon consists of 153 miles (equivalent to almost 6 marathons) from Athens to Sparta, replicating part of Pheidippides’ legendary athletic mission 2,500 years ago.

At spectator points Karnazes had to sign autographs for his fans, fulfill interviews and be followed by constant photographers. When he was alone, he suffered nausea, hallucinations, and even an out-of-body experience (watching himself running outside of his body). He ran whilst asleep for brief moments and failed to consume many calories.

Although he wasn’t all that pleased with his performance he completed the race in 34 hours, 44 minutes and 49 seconds, finishing in 131st position.

Run Like Duck by Mark Atkinson: Book Review

This book review of Run Like Duck by Mark Atkinson answers the 15 most important questions every runner should know.

What is Run Like Duck?

Run Like Duck is an autobiographical book, which details the running journey of UK’s Mark Atkinson.

When was Run Like Duck published?

The paperback was published on 15 November 2018 by Sandstone Press.

Who is Mark Atkinson?

Mark is the author of Run Like Duck, a self-professed unathletic man from Milton Keynes, who began running when a friend introduced him to his local parkrun.

When and how did Mark start running?

Mark began running in early 2011 whilst in his early thirties. He began by using a run-walk strategy, under the cover of darkness. Thankfully, he persisted, despite the initial frustration and difficulty.

What were the first races Mark ran?

In his first year of running Mark ran the, then called, BUPA London 10k, the NSPCC Milton Keynes Half Marathon and the Run to the Beat Half Marathon  in London.

Where was Mark’s first marathon?

During that same year, Mark ran the Luton Marathon. Although he didn’t train adequately enough he persevered in wet and cold conditions to finish in 4 hours and 57 minutes. More significantly, it was the day he discovered the 100 Marathon Club.

What other significant marathons has Mark run?

He has run the London Marathon for charity, his local marathon in Milton Keynes, the Brighton Marathon, the Bournemouth Marathon and the New Forest Marathon, along with many others across the UK. Mark has also run numerous marathons abroad, including the Tallinn Marathon in Estonia, and the Paris Marathon.

What is Mark’s personal best time?

At the time of publication Mark’s personal record is 3:15:31.

Is Mark a member of the 100 Marathon Club?

Yes. In 6 years, and with plenty of determination and perseverance, Mark completed his 100th marathon, and joined an inspiring group of runners.

What running advice does Mark have for other runners?

Mark often thinks that if he spent more time focusing on specific races with plenty of training cycles beforehand he would improve his personal best time for the marathon. However, the excitement of his next race means sometimes he hasn’t even recovered before he stands on the starting line again.

He believes in rotating running shoes regularly and that pursuing athletic goals can’t be achieved at the same time as weight-loss goals.

As a coach I echo his wisdom; success is more likely if you stay determined on a single goal, and allow yourself enough time to be fully prepared for the challenge.

What running mistakes has Mark made?

He frequently cites that despite his extensive experience, he doesn’t run a consistent pace during marathons, as he tends to run too fast during the early miles. 

He also frequently eats McDonald’s breakfast meals as pre-race fuelling, along with chocolate and cola drinks on route. The wrong running clothing is another error he has made, as cotton t-shirts are not the best for allowing sweat to evaporate efficiently.

Has Mark ever run an ultramarathon?

Yes. Mark has run numerous ultramarathons throughout his running journey. His first ultramarathon was the Bewl Water Ultra. He ran the 37.5-mile course in 5 hours and 50 minutes. 

Other notable races he has completed include the Chiltern Wonderland 50, the South Downs Way 50 and the South Downs Way 100, the last of which he completed in 22 hours and 22 minutes.

What other running experiences has Mark enjoyed?

He is a fan of the Enigma-hosted races, and has run the Quadzilla, which consists of 4 marathons in 4 consecutive days. Endure 24 is another race he ran, which is a team relay event. He completed 8 laps, equivalent to 40 miles in total, with two and half hours rest in between efforts. 

He also advocates for the events that the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) host as there is less pressure to perform and they are well organised (and cheap) adventures.

Would you recommend runners to read Run Like Duck?

Absolutely. Mark’s account of his numerous running races is an inspiring read. Some of his stories will be familiar to any marathoner. Other times, his opinions will make you laugh or nod. But always, his endeavours remind you that from a humble beginning and with imperfect running form, any endurance feat is possible if you don’t overthink it.

Where can you buy the book?

According to a book price comparison tool you can buy Run Like Duck from Amazon, Abebooks and Wordery.

6 Elements to Improve Endurance Running

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance (2018) by Alex Hutchinson


Theory

A traditional view of endurance is that the body is a ‘machine’, limited by the muscles’ ability to use energy and oxygen.

However, more recently, researchers such as Tim Noakes and Samuele Marcora have asserted that human limits are defined by the brain’s functions. Conscious or not, our mind senses the dangers of exerting ourselves too much and so guides our body’s ‘pace’ (otherwise known as ‘anticipatory regulation’).

Our sense of effort and ability to overcome our instincts to stop once we feel pain are crucial elements if we are to perform at our best. Researchers point to the finishing ‘sprint’ during a marathon as proof that our bodies always have a reserve of energy.

Practice

Pain is unavoidable, a complex and situation-dependant sensation, but, if we seek pain in training (e.g. run harder, faster workouts) our pain tolerance will increase.

The more hours we spend physically training our bodies, the better we can alter our minds to push ourselves faster and further.

Muscles

Brain fatigue and muscle fatigue are inseparable, but lactic acid isn’t the feeling of acid dissolving our muscles. It’s a cautionary signal created in the brain by nerve endings triggered only in the presence of certain metabolites.

Caffeine is an effective performance enhancer because it disables brain receptors that detect muscle fatigue.

Oxygen

The advantage that East African runners have originates from being born at altitude and having active childhoods. This means they can better maintain their brain’s oxygen supply due to possessing a greater number of thicker blood vessels that connect to the brain.

Heat

For every 100 calories we consume, it’s estimated we will generate at least 75 calories of heat. This means that to fully adapt to bodily heat, we should exercise repeatedly in hot conditions.

We will sweat more heavily and our blood volume will increase, resulting in our heart rate staying lower during exercise.

Thirst

If thirsty we should drink when we have the chance, but we shouldn’t obsess about it when we don’t, because any losses of less than 4% are unlikely to impair our endurance performance.

Fuel

We should never be under-fuelled at the start of a race, otherwise this will be a limiting factor in our performance. The brain uses fuel, and so having larger stores of glycogen is optimal.

An example is it only helps to consume a sports drink in runs shorter than 90 minutes if our body is low on fuel to begin with.

Brain Training

Ultimately, as athletes we need to better monitor our body’s reactions to training loads. The more we can predict pain, the more likely we are to feel impartial to it, and push through that feeling to make better micro-decisions during a race.


Runner Alex Hutchinson

Hutchinson’s own views as a runner, after completing his first marathon in a time of 2:44:48, are useful to ensure we best implement the advice from the countless studies he compiled. He wishes he implemented more positive self-talk. Over many years, this will inevitably translate into greater self-belief.

More than anything else, running lots and holding greater faith in achieving personal goals will give us the best chance of athletic success.

Outlasting Ultra Pain for Great Causes

Book Review of RUN! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss (2011) by Dean Karnazes


Humble Philosophy

 

Karnazes has built his life around a pursuit of adventure. His vivacious appetite for pushing his limits, attempting new, and often inconceivable challenges, has no boundaries.

He views running as both a cause of, and cure for, pain, but also a means of giving back to the community that has so dearly supported him.

Due to his natural introversion, he uses “Karno” as his alter ego, never accepting he has any special skills or talent, simply an indomitable will to keep moving when there is every reason not to.

He does the basics right though, preparing for every race meticulously, conditioning his mind to embrace the unexpected, and appreciating family time and a non-materialistic lifestyle.

Extreme Adventures

 

Influenced by his Greek father’s stubborn, but always supportive, demeanor, Karnazes tells the stories of races and runs that require nothing less than his total dedication and sacrifice.

After almost dying during his first attempt at the Badwater 135 he manages to finish the following year after being on the verge of a coma. He then overcomes almost being run over, escapes flash flooding, lightning and snowstorms to complete the brutal race seven more times.

He attempts to break the world record for running the most miles on a treadmill in 48 hours live on TV. Despite the constant onlookers, sleep deprivation and extreme chafing he lasts longer than the belt he runs on, which becomes slack halfway through the challenge. Although he fails to break the world record, his 212 miles is a remarkable achievement.

He becomes the 2008 champion of the 4 Deserts Championship after completing four multi-day, self-supported races crossing 155 miles of the most savage wilderness. He wins one of the races and places well in all the others to become the first of two men to complete every race in a calendar year.

Other highlights include:

  • Failing to finish the Leadville Trail 100 miler twice before overcoming a mental burden and vomiting to complete the high altitude race.
  • Running 354 miles from Australia’s highest summit to its largest city in six days.
  • Running across the United States of America on TV, accumulating 75 days of 12-hour, 40-50 mile runs, wearing out 53 pairs of shoes on the pain-filled route from California to New York.
  • Running the Hood to Coast, 197-mile 12-person relay race, all by himself, to celebrate his 40th birthday, equivalent to 45 hours of running non-stop.
  • Running ‘on water’ in a Hydro Bronc, and almost coming to blows with a sea beast.

Inspirational Mentor

 

Throughout the book Karno explores the journey of his best friend Topher, from being a non-runner to quickly becoming an obsessive ultrarunner like Karno. Skipping the marathon distance altogether Topher races 50km and 50 mile races until he beats Karno at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a 103-mile circumnavigation of Europe’s highest peak.

Karno’s athletic feats are awe-inspiring, and yet it isn’t his seemingly unending tolerance for pain for which he should be admired most. Instead of fame and money, Karno has used his amazing ability to help others.

Whether raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity or placing his own money under random car’s windscreens as he runs by, he is a community-minded man, who continues to look for the truth within himself and the people who are crazy enough to join him.

Solutions to the Uphill Battle of Ultramarathons

Running up that Hill: The Highs and Lows of Going that Bit Further (2018) by Vassos Alexander


The famous BBC sports radio presenter and journalist Vassos Alexander built on the success of his first book by taking readers through his adventures as an ultramarathoner.

After his first race at the 2010 Great North Run he became addicted to running marathons with the aim of running under 3 hours. However, his pursuit of this road racing dream led him to realise that athletic obsession can quickly become stressful and draining, a contrast to the reasons he entered the sport initially.

Although he achieved his time goal at the 2016 London Marathon, he favoured ultramarathons as his main challenge.

Alexander ran his first 100 mile trail race, the South Downs Way, in June 2016, before volunteering the following year because of the wonderful atmosphere. He followed this up with an attempt at the Dragon’s Back Race, the toughest 5-day foot race in the world, through Welsh foggy wilderness and mountains. But with a lot of ‘technical terrain’ (stretches of land that must be walked) and a high ankle sprain he was forced to stop after two days of racing. He learnt that a lack of specific training on rocky terrain and a persistent injury can’t be ignored.

Other highlights included his joint 7th finish at the 2017 Mendip Marauder 50 miler and a training run alone that covered the entire 67-mile perimeter of the Isle of Wight.

His crowning glory was completion of the 2017 Spartathlon, a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta, which recreates Pheidippides’ epic journey 2,500 years ago to preserve Greek freedom, democracy and civilisation. He had no crew and realised he had started the race too quickly.

But the many villages, schools and aid stations he passed helped him overcome the 4,000 ft mountain he had to ascend and descend. Even the severe pain he encountered in his ankle was enough to stop him making progress. He squatted, took magnesium supplements and even had a massage in order to keep his legs moving.

His astonishing feat of endurance was summed up 40 hours later when he still couldn’t move his legs, requiring a Zimmer frame.

Running Up That Hill book cover

Naturally friendly and approachable, Alexander also retold many stories and advice from ultramarathon race directors and some of the very best ultrarunners on the planet, such as Scott Jurek and Mimi Anderson.

  • Charlie Engle (the Running Man) believed ultrarunning is a great method of self-discovery, which fundamentally improves one’s mental health.
  • Ben Smith (the British man who ran 401 marathons in 401 days for an anti-bullying charity) shared that it took 50 consecutive marathons before his body adjusted to the physical stress of the challenge, but his serotonin levels were severely depleted.
  • Jasmin Paris (elite fell runner and record holder) valued her impressive ultrarunning less than her work researching cures for cancer.
  • Nicky Spinks (elite fell runner and record holder) acknowledged that her experience with breast cancer inspired her to be a positive role model, and that running helped her better overcome life’s discomfort.
  • Dean Karnazes (the Ultramarathon Man) revealed his most memorable running moment as his 10-year-old daughter running hard during the last kilometre of her first 10k race despite the pain.

The book even had the foreword from former elite triathlete Chrissie Wellington, who emphasised trying in spite of low confidence (which for most runners is an inevitability at some point in their life).

Alexander ultimately discovered that ultramarathons will always cause problems that runners have to solve. His advice was that if one’s thoughts remain positive then not only will solutions appear but the journey to the finish line will be more than worth the effort.


Adventure Racing Dog

Arthur: The dog who crossed the jungle to find a home (2016) by Mikael Lindnord with Val Hudson


Journey to the Extreme

Lindnord grew up in Sweden where conditions are ideal for biking, skiing and trekking. But it was his 15-month compulsory military service, with its demanding missions, that strengthened his mind and body. After losing his place in his local ice hockey team he pursues a sporting career in adventure racing.

The book details Lindnord’s journey as a member of Sweden’s Team Peak Performance, during the 2014 Adventure Racing World Championships. Held in Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest, competitors cover 430 miles of treacherous terrain. During the six days, Lindnord and his three teammates overcome altitude fluctuations, extreme fatigue, navigational errors, severe injuries and broken equipment. They finish in twelth position.

Additional Team Member

But it was not because of the team’s impressive athleticism that the book was written. When a stray dog attaches himself to Lindnord during the latter stages of the race the dog is dying from open wounds. Lindnord names him Arthur after the heroics of the legendary King Arthur and treats him as another team member.

Arthur shows a serenity unique to animals. His survival is as impressive as Lindnord and his team’s race performance as they all deal with the harsh conditions to reach the finish line.

The consequences of keeping Arthur once the race has finished are life-changing. The heart-warming story is picked up by so many media outlets and involves government departments and numerous vets in order to clear Arthur’s passage to Sweden. The surgeries, quarantine, interviews and travelling prove that Arthur is a strong and spirited animal, and eventually he finds a loving home with Lindnord’s young children.

He even runs with his owner, much healthier and happier than in the wild. A legacy has also been created through the Arthur Foundation, set up to support the prevention of the abuse of stray dogs in Ecuador.

Ultimate Lessons

This highly entertaining and satisfying read is similar to Dion Leonard’s tale Finding Gobi, where during an extreme race a stray dog becomes an inseparable companion to a racer.

The description of the adventure racing compares to passages in Charlie Engle’s book Running Man and evidences Lindnord’s skill to continually push his comfort zone well beyond the average athlete’s limit. Also, his organising of adventure races with his wife Helena reveals his commitment and passion for his sport.

Arthur’s loyal and kind nature fits perfectly with the unwavering endurance of a superb athlete.

The back cover of the book 'Arthur''

How to Run

How to Run… Improve Your Speed, Stamina and Enjoyment from Fun Running to Full Marathons (2010) by Hugh Jones


Jones’ book is filled with practical and down-to-earth advice on how to maximise your running.

He reminds me of the positive attitude needed to be a better runner, but is frank in his assessment that running should not be over-complicated. Instead he highlights how running is influenced mainly by willpower and fundamentally natural movements.

Similar to other sports, athletes must simply dedicate time to build the necessary strength in the muscles and joints in order to improve performances. Running on variable surfaces such as grass is an effective strategy, but the application of adequate and progressive training and recovery, over a long period of time, is essential.

Historically, sport was viewed as a pursuit to strengthen character, relying on self-motivation and resulting in personal reward.

It is therefore essential that running is seen as a method of discovering more about oneself. After all, running can be measured not only in statistics but in the development of mental conditioning and self-worth.

For me, Jones’ book outlines an approach that is easily forgotten; running is a simple act and should be used to develop your physical fitness and mental sharpness.

The Contents of How to Run by Hugh Jones

Advice to Optimise Your Running

Running Science: Optimising Training and Performance
(2017) edited by John Brewer


Fantastic Facts

  • Running performance is greatly determined by how much and how quickly horizontal force can be applied to the body.
  • On calm days the energy cost of running to combat air resistance is still approximately 8% for sprinting, 4% for middle-distance running and 2% for marathon running.
  • There is no additional benefit in exceeding 60-70 miles of training per week for a recreational runner (or 70-110 miles for elite runners).
  • Exercise is an effective strategy to regulate and improve mood, which supports creative thinking. Successful performances are therefore linked to strong mental and physical health.

Training Tips and Errors

  • Avoid straightening your knees on landing, striking the ground in front of your body, swinging your trailing foot and leaning too far back whilst running because it decreases running economy.
  • Run on a variety of surfaces to create greater adaptations in bones and soft tissues.
  • Avoid taking an absence from running (unless due to injury or mental fatigue) for four weeks or more. Cardiac output may fall by 8% and VO2 max by up to 15%.
  • As exercise intensity increases concentrate on the components of running, such as form, foot strike and stride length, to run closer to your maximum.
  • If you listen to music whilst you run, ensure the tunes incite emotions appropriate to the situation; listen to calming beats on easy runs and personally motivational songs during more important workouts.
  • Avoid wearing clothes made from materials such as cotton and wool that will keep sweat from evaporating whilst running. Instead choose wicking fabrics such as polyester to prevent overheating.
  • Wear sunglasses whilst running on sunny days to ensure your eyes are relaxed, which is crucial for performance.

Book Review: ‘Swim Bike Run’ by Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee

Swim Bike Run is the story of the Brownlee brothers, the famous British ex-World Triathlon Champions. It culminates in the London 2012 Olympic Triathlon race, where both vied for the gold medal on home soil.

Early in life they were encouraged to pursue running before, during and after school hours. Unsurprisingly they formed a positive association with exercise.

Interestingly, their fast development as athletes was facilitated by older athletes and mentors.

Proven training advice is outlined too, including racing with others of similar ability, setting short-term motivational goals and maintaining consistent training volumes and intensities. They remind me that putting in greater effort will yield greater fitness rewards.

They advise that training should have a purpose, but enjoyment should not be sacrificed, as this is how high performance levels are sustained.

It is an honest account of the relationship between two competitive brothers with different personalities. Both show their love for each other and passion for their sport in unique, but no less valuable, ways (one more isolated, the other more inclusive).

They also reveal that by training faster than race pace they can adapt when conditions are harsher. They also run every day, often twice: 35 minutes for recovery and two hours for endurance.

Throughout the book the Brownlees have to overcome many obstacles, including injury, doubt and personal conflict to excel in various races. They remind me that at the elite level there is a huge amount of training structure and race tactics, and that although winning races is the best feeling one must move on quickly to compete at the next one. The constant interchanging of the brothers’ perspectives flows well and their obsession with their discipline is always evident.

I learnt that triathlon requires athletes to prioritise efficiency. Success comes from swimming and cycling hard enough to compete, but still conserving energy for a strong run.

Book Review: ‘Adventureman’ by Jamie McDonald

Following a dream is tough but rewarding.

Adventureman relays Jamie’s 10-month unsupported journey across the breadth of Canada, ending in early 2014. By running a marathon a day for 200 consecutive days he raised £250,000 for children’s hospitals.

Anyone can support your mission.

Despite the harsh and treacherous conditions Jamie maintained a positive outlook and open heart.

He encountered many strangers who supported him with either food, donations, accommodation or encouragement. Although some view Jamie’s trek as crazy and life-threatening he proves that dreaming big can not only achieve a personal record but positively affect the lives of others.

Jamie uses his strength of character, high pain threshold and fearlessness to great effect throughout his incredible adventure. Jamie also outlines his philosophy on education, recovery and community spirit.

Running can be a moral act.

Jamie’s story excites my imagination to undertake an amazing feat of my own. He reminds me that endurance running is travelling and can promote modern altruism, demonstrated through the Super Hero Foundation, a charity he co-founded. His lack of planning is bold, and teaches me that uncertainty is a natural feeling that should be harnessed. I had never heard of Terry Fox before but Jamie is another contemporary runner that raises awareness for important causes.

Jamie continues to make a tangible difference. The world record he set in 2012 for the longest time riding a stationary bike non-stop (over 268 hours) proves that if you are brave you can accomplish astonishing acts.