When runners think of Dean Karnazes, they may recall the story of when he ordered a pizza to be delivered during a run. Or the time he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. Or the time he ran 350 miles in 80 hours and 44 minutes without sleep.
His list of accomplishments is long and awe-inspiring to runners and non-runners alike.
But most people would not guess which of Karnazes’ accomplishments is the one that gives him the most pride.
“That’s an easy one,” the San Franciscan says. “Although I’ve traveled to some of the most remote and exotic locations on earth — from the Gobi Desert to running a marathon to the South Pole — my proudest moment was running a 10-kilometer race with my daughter, Alexandria, on her 10th birthday. I saw a different side of her during that run, a free-spirited, independent and capable side. It was a breakthrough moment, for both of us, and something I will never forget.”
Alexandria still runs today, though she is not a competitive racer. She runs for the sheer enjoyment of it. And, in a sense, she represents many of those who gain inspiration from a man who has completed The Relay — a 200-mile race — solo on 11 different occasions. Many of Karnazes’ followers seek their own Bucket List goals — becoming an ultra runner, or getting a 100-mile buckle perhaps — and feed off his relentless quests for exploring what is humanely possible.
In his popular book, "Ultramarathon Man," Karnazes proclaims there is "Magic in Misery." Too him, it’s a way to break out of one’s comfort zone of modern amenities and discover what we can truly accomplish.
“We spend so much of our time in comfort,” he says. “In fact, we’re so comfortable we’re numb much of the time, simply going through the motions in a somewhat despondent manner. I find that I’m never more alive then when in the midst of hardship trying to accomplish some lofty goal, struggling and suffering to get through it and emerge triumphant. It’s in those moments of supreme misery that we come most alive.”
When it comes to lofty goals, Karnazes is working on an extraordinarily — even for his standards — complicated one.
“My ultimate dream is to set out on a global expedition to run a marathon in every country of the world in a one-year time span,” he says. “I’ve been working with the U.S. State Department and United Nations to get the necessary passports and permits to be able to do this. As you can imagine, the planning, logistics and sponsorship negotiations are every bit as complex and difficult as the running itself will be. But I like the challenge of all these elements and am not giving up. People ask if I ever fail. I’ve been failing at this quest for the past five years. In fact, I’ll continue failing, until I eventually succeed.”
The face of The North Face
Karnazes has been affiliated with The North Face for over two decades. The relationship started at the finish line of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, a grueling race that he has completed 11 times in less than 24 hours.
“They first approached me about developing a line of trail-specific running shoes and gear,” he says. “I jumped at the opportunity. Subsequent to that — as a sponsored athlete — I ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, which was part of The North Face expedition program and titled: The Endurance 50. It was a great success and from there we decided to launch a legacy race series called the Endurance Challenge Series.”
The series is held in a half-dozen locations and welcomes runners with distances ranging from 5K to 50 miles.
“The idea of bringing athletes together of all ages and abilities by offering multiple races distances — all on trail settings — was something I thought critical to the ongoing success of the event,” Karnazes explains. “Now, over a decade later, the event has grown into one of the largest off-road racing series globally. The North Face Endurance Challenge has seen tens of thousands of finishers across the globe, and we continue to develop new venues and race formats. This is something that makes me very proud.”
Never Stop Exploring
Karnazes brings a simple message with him when he appears regularly as a speaker at North Face events: Never Stop Exploring.
“Seriously, the idea of offering multiple race distances — everything from a 5K to our flagship 50-miler — is to encourage participants to attempt a challenge beyond their comfort zone and explore the unknown,” he says. “For instance, if you’ve done a 5K, try a 10K. If you’ve done a 10K, try a half marathon. If you’ve done a half marathon, attempt the marathon. And if you’ve run a marathon, try an ultra.”
The crowds that form at his speaking engagements, often armed with copies of his books, draw their inspiration from Karnazes. But little do they know, they are his source of inspiration.
“People say I inspire them, but honestly inspiration is a two-way street,” he says. “I get more from hearing other people’s stories of persistence and perseverance than anything they get from me. Rarely do I race at these Endurance Challenges. It is my time to support others and give back to the running community.”
Still, Karnazes shows no sign of slowing down. He runs constantly, has recently written and published The Road To Sparta, and continues to appear at The North Face Endurance Challenge Series events and elsewhere.
One has to wonder whether, given all of his impressive feats, are there endurance challenges that scare him or that he just won’t attempt.
“Every endurance challenge scares me just a little, even the marathon, and I think that’s a good thing,” Karnazes explains. “Going into any physical contest overconfident is a recipe for disaster. A healthy respect and humility keeps you on your game, alert and attentive. But as far as endurance challenges I won’t do, I can’t think of any. I love it all.”