By Steve Breazeale
Dean Karnazes is best known for putting his body through the most grueling physical scenarios imaginable. He once ran for 350 continuous miles, ran 150 miles across Death Valley in the middle of summer and finished 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.
Karnazes, who Men’s Fitness named as one of the fittest men on the planet, will be inducted into the Friends of San Clemente Sports Hall of Fame May 16.
The San Clemente Times caught up with Karnazes, a San Clemente native, via email to talk about his past exploits, his plans for the future and his thoughts on being enshrined among the city’s elite athletes.
San Clemente Times: Did the city of San Clemente in any way shape what turned out to be an active life for you?
Dean Karnazes: I loved San Clemente as a kid. The lifestyle was perfectly suited to me. Being outdoors and physically active was such a healthy way to grow up and develop. Every summer I joined the junior lifeguard program and spent sunup till sundown outside and exercising. I really believe the San Clemente atmosphere and lifestyle shaped who I am today.
SCT: I heard you had a “see the light” moment on your 30th birthday that sparked your whole endurance running career. Tell me about that night.
DK: I was in a bar with some friends, doing what you do on your 30th birthday (i.e., drinking heavily) when suddenly I felt this primitive urge to leave … I walked out of the bar and ran 30 miles to celebrate my 30th birthday. I ran straight through the night and it almost killed me, but I just kept going. It felt right, despite the pain and blisters. That run forever changed the course of my life.
SCT: You said that you enjoy the pain that comes with these ultra-distance runs. What is it about that pain that keeps you coming back for more?
DK: This may be difficult for some to understand. Most people think that in the absence of suffering, if we have every comfort available, we’ll be happy. In many ways, however, we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There is no pain, no struggle, and no hardship left in our lives. Everything comes easy. I find that I am never more alive than when I am struggling and in great pain running long distances. Embrace the pain, I tell others, there is magic in misery.
SCT: Looking at the records you’ve set and runs you’ve accomplished, I would have to assume you’re a competitive person. Are you? Or is it more of you being competitive with yourself? Is that the main driving force for continuing to do these extreme distances?
DK: Truthfully, I’ve never competed against anyone but myself. In doing the things I do, it’s largely you versus you. Mastering your body and mind requires 100 percent focus. I’ve always just tried to be the best me that I could be and figured the rest was beyond my control. I’m Greek, and there is a word for this, aristeia (finding your “bestness”).
SCT: What was your reaction when you learned that you will be inducted into the San Clemente sports hall of fame?
DK: Complete surprise and elation. It’s funny, I was named by TIME magazine as one of the ‘Top 100 Most Influential People in the World’ but being inducted into the San Clemente Sports Hall of Fame makes me prouder.
SCT: You are also a prolific public speaker and author. What do you enjoy more, finishing a grueling distance race or imparting wisdom on adults/children about the benefits of staying healthy? Or are the two so different from each other it doesn’t relate.
DK: I find both finishing a grueling contest of endurance and stamina and supporting others to be equally rewarding pursuits. To me, the true mark of a champion is not how many medals he accumulates or how my trophies he wins but being able to inspire others to be the best that they can be. I really admire other athletes that put their talents to work in the service of mankind. Sure, finishing a race is gratifying, but helping someone else finish a race brings me more joy.
SCT: What is your next big physical goal you have set for yourself? Any race/distance/destination you have in mind?
DK: My next great challenge is to embark upon a worldwide expedition to complete a marathon in every country of the globe in a one-year time period. There are 203 countries and I’m working with the State Department and U.N. to get the necessary passports and permits to be able to do this. As you can imagine, the planning and logistics are every bit as complex and difficult as the running itself. But I’ve always told my kids to dream big, so I guess I’d better set a good example.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.