A Run With Dean Karnazes, "Just Never Give Up"

(Written for and published in Tri-DC Magazine)

Have you ever run so far that you had to have pizza delivered to you while you were running, and then ate the entire thing while you were still running? This sounds kind of crazy, but this is not an unusual activity for ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes. I got the opportunity to join a run led by Dean from Georgetown last fall, and meeting him greatly changed the way I think about endurance. At the time, I did not know much about Dean. All I knew was that he had run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. I thought this was pretty amazing, but after learning more about him, this just sounds like a regular 50 days of running with some travel thrown into the mix.

Incase you are not familiar with Dean’s other accomplishments, I will take the time to name a few. He has raced in the most extreme of weather conditions including running 135 miles across Death Valley in 120 degree heat to score a first place finish. When it is this hot, running shoes melt on pavement and bread toasts in your hand. On the opposite extreme, he ran the first marathon to the South Pole without snow shoes while combating temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. He has run distances that most people only ever cover in their car, such as running a 200 mile relay race with a team consisting of just him. After completing the 200 miles, he didn’t put his feet up and relax; he headed to an amusement park with his wife and two kids for the afternoon. The next morning he was back at work behind his desk by 7:45. The next year, he decided 200 miles wasn’t quite enough, and upon reaching the finish, he added a marathon to his run for a total of 226 miles. He has since run farther of course. As a result of his endlessly long runs, he has mastered running through the night going days without sleep, and eating entire pizzas, burritos, cheesecakes, or whatever he can get his hands on while on the move. Dean does not stop with just running; he is also an accomplished windsurfer, an avid mountain biker and has completed several Ironmans.

With less than four percent body fat and a resting heart rate of less than 40, Dean is in unquestionably good shape. However, his superior fitness is only one part of what powers him through the difficulty of running impressive distances in nothing near ideal weather conditions, through the night, and over difficult terrain. When describing the Western States 100-mile Endurance run, Dean stated that “To complete it, your mental resolve must be indomitable. You’ve got to bundle up your self doubt and fear and stuff them in your shoe, cutting lose your rational mind as your body is pushed into inconceivable levels of endurance.” Dean’s unwavering determination and refusal to quit carries him forward when it seems almost physically impossible to go on. Dean does not question if he can do something, instead he strives to find out if it is possible. With more hard work, determination, and pain than most people are willing to endure, he does it. And when things get tough, giving up is simply not an option for him. Dean’s outlook, which Starbuck’s found inspiring enough to print on its cups last year, is “run when you can, walk when you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.”

Being in the presence of Dean’s cool confidence, unwavering faith in others, and extraordinary list of feats made me think about the limits that we subconsciously set for ourselves. These self imposed limits may not be clearly defined, but they exist in our mental perception of ourselves as athletes. Dean excels at pushing not only his body to inconceivable limits, but his mind as well. According to him, “The human body is capable of amazing physical deeds. If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our internal fire, the possibilities are endless.”

If you doubt that you can do something, you probably won’t, but that does not mean that you can’t. If you go to a race or start a workout doubting your abilities, you have already put yourself at a disadvantage and you haven’t even started yet. Your own confidence in yourself is key, and so is the mental toughness to push yourself to get there. The best part is that self confidence and mental toughness are not genetic, they do not degrade while you age, and you cannot injure or over train them. They are possibly the most deadly weapons we have in our training arsenal, but they are probably also the most overlooked.

We measure, monitor, and track everything from heart rate and VO2 max, to how many grams our shoes weigh, and buy as much carbon and titanium as we can afford, because we are hoping it will unlock the secret to making us go faster and farther. But perhaps the most important factor that cannot be measured, but has the potential to carry each of us through our training to go farther or to cross the finish line seconds to minutes faster than our closest competitor or most recent PR, is simply our desire and determination to get there.

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