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.

Outlasting Ultra Pain for Great Causes

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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.