An Interview with Ultramarathon legend Dean Karnazes

Dean Karnazes is one of the most celebrated ultra marathon runners in history. With 4 books behind his name, his fourth having just come out in New Zealand, Dean is both an accomplished athlete and author. 

With a list of accomplishments that are too extensive to mention here, it’s fair to say that Dean has reached legend status in the ultramarathon and running community as a whole. He is a real ambassador for goodwill, a safer and more united planet and a true hero of the sport he loves so much. His latest contribution to the world of literature sees Dean sharing his very intimate and often hair raising adventures during the Spartathlon. The book titled, "The Road to Sparta" takes you on an unforgettable journey between two cities in the footsteps of the legendary Pheidipides who ran 153 miles from Athens to Sparta in 490 BC to recruit Spartans to join the Athenians in their wars against the invading Persians. 

Dean’s story is both history and biography as he shares his delves into his Greek roots and ancestry to bring you a backdrop that is only outdone by the gruelling and personal story of completing a journey that was pioneered by a national legend so many centuries ago. 

So without further ado, here’s what we discussed in a far ranging interview with Dean:

LT: Dean, congratulations on your new book, which is the main reason we’re chatting today - and man, what a story. “The Road To Sparta” was released in Australia and New Zealand recently. Tell us a about it, I know it’s a very personal journey...

DK: Yes, you’re right. It’s my best book because, in part, it is also my most personal work so far. While it's very personal, I hope it empowers others through my story and that it, hopefully, resonates with runners from around the world.

LT: It certainly is educational and it brings in so many aspects. It talks about your Greek lineage, the history of the Greece at a certain historic time, the geography and so much more. It also brings in your personal journey in running this race, the Spartathlon. It really inspired me, and I’m sure other readers, on so many levels and should definitely resonate with so many people all walks of life.

DK: As I say in the book, I am 100% Greek and I started to wonder about the origins of the marathon as we know it today. Interestingly the journey led me back 2500 years to the ancient battle of Marathon between the Athenians and the invading Persians. In the midst of this raging battle, we have Pheidipides, a messenger who ran from Marathon to Sparta to proclaim victory to his compatriots and ended up falling dead on his arrival with the news. It's a very ironic tale but true and it’s actually messengers like Pheidipides who played a very important part in the spread of Greek democracy in those ancient days.

LT: How so?

DK: Well, at this specific time in history, the development of democracy was in its infancy and the Greeks found themselves at odds with the rest of the world as they attempted to spread this new way of human civilisation. So one can say that Pheidipides and other like him played their role in planting the seeds of democracy.

LT: Just for clarity, Pheidipides ran 153 miles from Marathon to Sparta and the Spartathlon is modelled around this epic journey in the midst of a war between the Greeks and Persians 2500 years ago?

DK: A lot of ultra runners have heard of the Spartathlon, which is based on that very same run Pheidipides completed so long ago. And yes, he had to run from Marathon to Sparta to encourage the Spartans to join the Athenians in their fight against the Persians. However, relations weren't always great between the two Greek states, which made Pheidipides trek all the more Pheidipides, but also very necessary.

LT: So Athenians and Spartans didn't get along?

DK: They were both states within the Greek empire but had their disagreements around discussion tables. Fortunately for Pheidipides, messengers like him were seen ambassadors between states and were usually allowed passage through areas that may otherwise have been difficult to navigate. The messengers were seen as useful in the event of wars or other emergencies to communicate with neighbouring cities or states to keep mutual interests safe.

LT: Back then, running messengers didn't have access to the technology and supplements we're so used to today. How did they accomplish such great feats?

DK: After running the Spartathlon myself, I can honestly say that I do not know! I did however, rely on as much of the ancient foods they used back then. One thing I wanted to accomplish was to model my run on that of Pheidipides’ as much as I could. So I ate a lot of figs, olives, cured meat and something called pastilli, which is a honey sesame paste - and of course a lot of water. That's how they did it back then and so I wanted to emulate that experience. I still did it in modern running gear and relied on modern amenities. 

LT: According to your book, Pheidipides ran the distance between the two cities in 36 hours, which was an incredible feat at the time, yet wasn't particularly celebrated since running these incredible distances was just a part of a very tough job, albeit a very important one.

DK: Exactly, it was considered a job and the fact there were these people who could cover very large and treacherous areas was a useful thing to have, yet not highly celebrated. These guys often ran right through the night and in the worst conditions. How they did it, I honestly don't know.

LT: It's interesting to note that these messengers existed across cultures across the world. In our research for a TV show a few years ago, we uncovered the phenomenon of messengers covering vast areas to share information that was often of a life and death nature. It’s a great feeling to think that running far distances is such a huge part of human history and culture.

DZ: Absolutely! It's something to be proud of and a huge reason behind doing this book. I mean there are countless examples of how people who were able to traverse great distances and stepped in to help entire communities and even change the course of history. 

LT: As a renowned ultramarathon runner, do you sometimes  find yourself at the centre of ridicule by people who don't understand people like ourselves, folks who push their bodies so far?

DK: I think there's a deeper meaning to doing what we do and that it's not only exclusive to people like ourselves and it’s true that we push ourselves to unbelievable lengths. But in reality, for a guy like me to run a half marathon may not be a huge achievement, but for people who just finished their first 21km race, it's as big as what completing the Spartathlon is to me. In fact, I did a half marathon just yesterday and I could see the pure joy and accomplishment on people’s faces. I think that’s a beautiful thing. And I also see a trend towards more people running, which could be ascribed to the fact that our world's become so automated and convenient that people are starting to long for something a little more real.

LT: Running for me strips us back to who we are and let’s us go back to basics in a way and reconnect with nature. Do you agree?

DK: Yeah, for the most part, we in the West laboured under the idea that more material comfort would equal more personal fulfilment. We know now that this idea simply doesn't hold water anymore. In fact, we've become so comfortable that it's making us miserable...

LT: And we seek out all these crazy mind altering states through all these synthetic means. Is that an involuntary cry for help, you think?

DK: The sense of escapism is very much present in what we do, just like an addict of whatever substance. Of course, what comes with things like drugs or alcohol isn't as positive or rewarding as the things that come with being an extreme athlete. People like us are lucky in the sense that we both come from places where access to nature, hiking and running trails were readily available. I look at major cities around the world and see that many city dwelling people are literally cut off from nature and are kind of trapped in this concrete jungle if you will. 

LT: Being on the road, in the bush or wherever, is also a way for people who feel more at home in nature to be in a space that's good most comfortable to them Do you agree?

DK: That's very true, I myself lean towards being introverted despite what most people think and am most comfortable when I'm out somewhere between two cities with hours and miles between myself and the rest of the world. 

LT: It's a time to work out all the things that's bogging you down, those inner demons. But, how can you say that you're an introvert, because you're one of the most gregarious people I know?

DK: There's a term that's called an ambivert. It's someone who can turn on the charm and the personality when they have to and then withdraw into themselves when the need arises. I'll be going for a run straight after this interview! (Laughs)

LT: (Laughs) How do you stay so motivated?

DK: I always tell  people to just get to the point where you're putting your running shoes on and at least just make it out the front door, because that really is the hardest part. Once you're running for five minutes, all those reasons for staying in are gone, guaranteed. There's a technique called projection in psychology that lets you envision how you'll feel after the run. And it's always true that you feel better after a run than before so focussing on that outcome can get you through the front door every time.

LT: That's true.

DK: Even after a bad run, I still feel better than what I did before and always get some kind of benefit or positive reinforcement from a run.

LT: Some people don't realise that you were a resident of Australia for about a year...

DK: Yeah, I hitch hiked across both the north and south islands of New Zealand when I was fifteen years old...

LT: No kidding. I didn't know that. What did you think of New Zealand?

DK: Yup, I was an exchange student so I lived in Sydney for a year and got to visit New Zealand a couple of times. Fantastic people, awesome scenery, nature - pretty close to heaven on earth.

LT: Indeed. You did a lot of research around the book and traced Pheidipides’ trails as closely as you could. Tell us more about that.

DK: I was lucky enough to meet with a respected historian who had documented what she thought was Pheidipides actual route as closely as she could. She did a an unbelievable amount of surveying to keep as close to the route that Pheidipides took, but of course it would never be accurate. But you know, surveying the route myself, I was surprised how little development went on outside of the major cities. The urban areas still have that ancient Greek feel to it, with the white rock and beautiful, rugged hills that just go on and on. In the end, I defaulted to running the Spartathlon instead of tracing Pheidipides. The race is all on the road and is a similar path he would have followed and made more logistical sense to run.

LT: How did the Spartathlon come about? When did it become an official ultramarathon?

DK: The event is an annual race that was started back in the 1980s by a British military man by the name of John Foden, who happened to be both a history buff and a runner. When he learned about the legend of Pheidipides he was amazed at the events around the marathon. He learnt as much as he could from the writings of thr Greek historian, Herodotus, and decided to create an official race to commensurate the Pheidipides’ amazing feats. Today, the race draws in participants from all over the world. Yet, still only one third finish the race, on average, due the sheer magnitude of it. I've seen it at other ultramarathons with people spending thousands of dollars on their crew, hotel bills and gear and end up having a bad race.

LT: It doesn't surprise me, especially due to those brutal cut off times, which make it so tough. The fact that a third of contestants don't finish just says a lot about how tough this race really is. I had the privilege of running with you at Bad Water...

DK: You call that a privilege Lisa, I recall it being brutal (Laughs)

LT: I recall being completely awestruck with the lineup of racers I was competing against and recall seeing you at a restaurant and was just completely starstruck. But for me, that race did cost a lot of money and was the culmination of 15 years of work to race at Badwater. In fact, that's why I did it twice in a row, thinking that if I can do once I might as well push for a second time. But you've done Badwater ten times already!

DK: Yeah it's much easier for someone to pull it together if you're living so close to the event but you still got to qualify! As for the Spartathlon, I encourage every ultramarathon runner to run this marathon and not be discouraged from trying because it is simply a phenomenal race. It's so different from any other race you'll ever do. There isn't even a finish line that you're so used to running through at the end. You actually run past a statue of Leonidas, the Spartan king, in the middle of a square in the city and touch his feet; that's when the clock stops for you. It's such different and unique experience as a whole. I was transfixed by it all to be honest.

LT: So, running 153 miles on ancient foods, that must have been an interesting undertaking. And no electrolytes...how the hell do you run 153 miles on no electrolytes?

DK: I think as far as the book goes, it tells an interesting story of someone continuing through the challenges of finishing the race. I mean from breaking down and finding the strength and endurance to keep on when it got really rough tells the story of the race and how brutal it is. And it also wasn't my best race. And after eating only figs for 153 miles and two days straight, I was determined to never see another fig again!

LT: Yes! And us runners have to manage runny tummies during endurance races, but I can't imagine running on only olives and figs and leaving half of yourself on the road! (Laughs)

DK: Yes, that’s exactly what happened! Apart from how descriptive that may, be it's true...

LT: Even as a super athlete, you undoubtedly also go through the tolls of being an ultramarathon runner. Few people may know this, but things such as hallucinations and mind tricks are a reality for endurance runners. In the book you discuss your perceived outer body experience that we have to touch on....

DK: This was after about 30 hours of running and you know, your body is starved for electrolytes, fatigue is setting in and your mind can play games on you as you try to keep things in perspective. I recall seeing what looked at like a stick figure, which ultimately turned out to be me, looking down at myself as I was running. I realised that I was actually watching myself from an outer body vantage point. It was as if I was hovering above myself. I remember thinking that this is probably what it's like before you die. But I try to capture all of these things in the book and knew it was going to be one hell of a race one way or the other.

LT: Dean, please don't kill yourself we need you around for another fifty years!

DK: (Laughs)

LT: Lots of ultramarathon runners do have hallucinations. Your brain tends to wander off as sugar levels get low and fatigue kicks in. One of my common hallucinations is giant penguins, like the ones you get in the Antarctic, clapping and cheering me along! They pop up all over the world wherever I go. I don't know if it relates to a longing for coolness and water, especially when you're slugging it out in the middle of a desert somewhere! Did you ever think about what you're doing to your body when you're in these sort of situations?

DK: For me, I think you need to go in as ready as you can be both mentally and physically. This is so that you can be prepared to deal with adversity as it comes. There have been races where I ran 100 miles and I go "wow, that wasn't so bad." But most often it’s far more traumatic than that, especially when you get to those longer distances. But this is when you get to learn more about yourself; when races get tougher and longer...

LT: How do you cope with the pressure and expectation of winning from supporters and the running community?

DK: It’s a strange dynamic when people try to outsprint me at the finish line just because they recognize me. That makes it a little harder, but I don't want to stop running in local races because of that. I don't want that magic to go away so I just throw myself into it.

LT: Technology has changed so much over the last few years. We both had the opportunity to produce content for television but had to walk away from those projects due to large production costs and complexities. Today, you can rock up with an iPhone or GoPro and sidestep most of the production requirements to get your content off the ground.

DK: That's true. We're doing a live interview right now and we're on opposite ends of the world with, possibly, thousands of people listening. That's what is amazing about technology, it makes things possible.

LT: What is your next mission? What's the next big adventure for you?

DK: Well, it's funny you should ask. I'm planning on running a marathon in every country in the world over the course of one year. So I want to run 203 marathons in 203 countries within a year.

LT: That's just insane! Fortunately you have the U.N and the U.S State Department behind you, don’t you?

DK: Yeah and it's a fantastic event. I mean, can you imagine seeing every country in the world and running a marathon in each?

LT: No, and to be honest with you, I think I'll leave that one to you Dean!

DK: (Laughs)

LT: How are you going to cope with that schedule while avoiding injury and illness?

DK: You know, one of the things with this particular endeavor that's going to keep me going is that I'll be inviting the people from every country to run with me, so it's going to be bigger than me. It's about involvement and unification of the globe through running. So I think you draw from a higher power when you get involved with something like this. When I ran the 50 marathons in 50 days it was terrifying the first day because we had sponsors that were paying millions of dollars to advertise the event, and I'm thinking what would happen if I can't keep going. There were also moments when I did have a cold or felt bad. I knew I had to continue and simply slowed down. I ran a 4 hour marathon. You just do what you have to do and have faith in yourself. As long as you give it your all.

LT: You’ve just got to take the leap, yes? 

DK: That’s right. Make sure you do the best you can and give it your all. It’s always worth it in the end.

If you enjoyed this interview be sure to check out the live discussion on Lisa's podcast Pushing the Limits Podcast -

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