Despite what we see on the covers of running magazines or in various shoe advertisements, running is not all smiles. Running is a grotesque physical performance art of overworked muscles and labored breathing; it’s an exhausting battle between your body and your mind to see which will unceremoniously bow out first.
For ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes neither side ever seems to bow out, and as a result he’s become the sport’s poster boy of sorts. In 2006 he became the first to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. He won the infamous 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley in 2004, and earned five other top-ten finishes between 2000 and 2008. He has won the 4 Deserts Race Series that takes place in the Sahara, Gobi, Atacama, and Antarctic deserts. In his trophy collection, you’ll find 11 silver belt buckles from his 11 one-day finishes of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run.
“In the moment, what you’re going through isn’t shocking, and you don’t think about it too much because you’re too busy doing it,” Karnazes says. “But in reflection you see just how much you’re capable of and how massive your physical accomplishments can be when your mind wills your body to keep going. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable. That paradigm shift is one reason why I look forward to these adventures and challenges. I know it’s going to tear me apart, but that’s how I’ve learned what I’m made of on the inside.”
Every race he’s ever entered, whether it’s a half marathon or 100 miles, has held a moment where he thinks, “I can’t make it,” and yet he usually finds a way across the finish line. His first 100-mile race was a baptism by fire in this lesson.
“The first time I ran 100 miles was also the first time I ran the Western States 100-miler, which has become a very iconic race. Before the race, I’d never run beyond 50 miles, so I was going into uncharted territory. I had run 20 hours nonstop, bushwhacking through forests and walking through rivers, and I was beat psychologically and physically. The funny thing about Western States is that the first 98.5 miles is all trail. You’re alone out there navigating, but the final mile and a half — which is usually the ugliest — is through city streets, and the race actually finishes on a track behind a high school. Right as you come into the streets for that final mile and a half, there’s an aid station. I distinctly remember the moment that I got to those dim lights of that aid station in the middle of the night. I was delusional, totally spent. All I could do was collapse on one of the medical cots. And then I felt a hand slip under my head and cradle it. I was so exhausted at this point that I thought I was hallucinating at first, but then I realized that out of all people, it was my dad who was holding me. I was sobbing and drooling on myself and I said, ‘Dad, I can’t move. I can’t do it.’ ”
“Now, most people think their dad would say something along the lines of, ‘That’s okay. You did your best.’ He didn’t though. He said, ‘Run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must — just never give up.’ So I did what he told me to do. I dragged my body up the road for five minutes then I got my legs under me and I started walking. Then ran through the finish. It was, and still is, one of the most poignant moments in my running career. Just a boy and his dad, if you will. But it was the first of many moments that teach you that barriers are self-contrived. If we can get out of our own way of what is and isn’t possible, I think we would all shock ourselves. Your body is incredibly adaptive if your mind allows it to be.”