The Greatest Athlete You've Never Heard Of

Bryn Swartz@eaglescentralSenior Writer IIIApril 19, 2009

Everybody knows who the greatest athletes in the world are. Guys like LeBron James. Alexander Ovechkin. Albert Pujols. Michael Phelps. And many more.


These are the athletes who dominate their respective sports to the point of absurdity. They win Most Valuable Player trophies, championships, and gold medals. They set records and make millions of dollars.


So I found it somewhat shocking when I heard about a man doing some of the most unbelievable acts of physical fitness in the history of mankind, and I didn't even know his name.


Meet Dean Karnazes, the world's greatest running machine since...well...ever.


That's right. A runner. It's what Dean does, every day, for several hours. He doesn't run 5K's or 10K's. He doesn't just run marathons either.


In his autobiography, he says, "I seek extremes. Why run 10 miles when you can run 100? Moderation bores me. For me, a marathon is just a warm up. I run 50-mile races, 100-mile races. I'll run 24 hours and more without sleep, barely pausing for food and water, or even to use the bathroom.


"I'll run up and down mountains; through Death Valley in the dead of summer; at the South Pole. I push my body, mind, and spirit well past what most humans would consider the limits of pain and exertion."


Dean Karnazes was born on Aug. 23, 1962 in Los Angeles. One of his earliest memories came in kindergarten when, to save his mother the trouble of picking him up from school, he ran home—every single day.


Karnazes enjoyed the running so much that he began creating new routes to take home from school. He increased the length of these routes to an unnecessary extent, simply running for fun.


As he recalls, "Running gave me a sense of freedom and exploration that school never did."


Karnazes began competing in more running events over the next few years, many of which he organized himself. He became more passionate about physical exercise, specifically pushing his body to extremities.


By age 11, he had biked across the Grand Canyon. He also climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.


As a middle schooler, Karnazes was introduced to long distance running. His track coach, Jack McTavish, lived by the simple philosophy: "If it comes easy, if it doesn't require extraordinary effort, you're not pushing hard enough: It's supposed to hurt like hell."


Karnazes states that this advice helped him win the one-mile California State Long Distance Championships.


Karnazes' freshman track coach, Benner Cummings, believed that a runner should "run with their heart." Karnazes lived by this motto, and was awarded "Most Inspirational" member. He also ran his first marathon that year.


However, Karnazes had a falling out with his track coach. He reacted by hanging up his running shoes for 15 years.


When he turned 30, he had a sudden panic attack, which he now considers his midlife crisis.


Karnazes went on a spontaneous 30-mile run, in which he transferred from a "drunken yuppie fool into a reborn athlete."


And on that day, a legend was born.


In the last 17 years, Karnazes has become one of the world's greatest athletes. He has accomplished more as a runner than many would have thought was humanly possible.


Eleven times, Karnazes completed the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race through mountain trails in California.


He ran 148 miles on a treadmill in a 24-hour span in 2004.


He completed the 199-mile Providian Saturn Relay six times.


He won the 2004 Badwater Ultramarathon in 120-degree weather. The Badwater Ultramarathon is described as "a 135-mile trek across Death Valley to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States...widely considered the ultimate test of endurance and human resolve...or just plain insanity."


He joined a team of runners to become the first men to complete a marathon at the South Pole, finishing in second place, with a time of nine hours and 18 minutes.


He completed the North Face Endurance 50, which is 50 50 50 days. The day after Karnazes completed his final marathon, he decided to run home: from New York to San Francisco.


But Karnazes's single most impressive accomplishment came in 2005, when the 42-year-old businessman ran for 350 consecutive miles without stopping. Yes, 350 miles. As in, the equivalent of 13 and a half marathons in a row.


So why? Why does Karnazes run for such great distances?


"Running great distances was a release, and, on some level, my boundless energy needed an outlet. Running great distances is my way of finding peace. It's a sense of adventure that keeps me running.


"I love nothing more than to put a credit card in my pocket, tuck the kids in for the night, and head out the door for an all-night run. If I want a latte, I stop by Starbucks and grab one. If I see something interesting, I stop and check it out. It's never tedious when I'm immersed in the adventure."


Karnazes isn't satisfied with running for 350 miles either.


His goal? To run for 500 consecutive miles without stopping.


The biggest challenge? Not the actual running.


"The biggest challenge for running 500 miles is the sleep deprivation. I've fallen asleep while running before on several occasions. I didn’t fall over or anything—just kept “sleep running” for a fair distance.


Initially I thought this was a bad thing, but I realized that when I awoke I was actually refreshed. So now I’m going to try to train myself to sleep-run as a way to overcome sleep deprivation."


Some things about Karanzes's running may surprise you.


Not only does Karnazes need to eat during his runs to, well, stay alive, but he literally eats whatever he wants.


He'll order enormous pizzas with everything on them, topped off with chocolate eclairs or a gigantic cherry cheesecake. He doesn't gain weight from it either. He'll burn 9000 calories during a 24-hour run.


Karnazes has, as you may have imagined, developed some pretty intense sores from running. He has lost dozens of toenails, and will often take off his shoes after a run to find his feet covred by giant, foot-devouring blisters. Want to know Karnazes's chosen methods of treatment?


Krazy Glue and duct tape.


That's right. Karnazes's blisters are popped open, filled with Krazy Glue, and sealed with duct tape. As he says, "I feel like a raft having a leak repaired."


Whether or not Karanzes ever runs his 500 miles, there is no doubt that he is one of the most dominant athletes in history. But Karnazes doesn't have the heart of a champion because of how fast he can run. Running great distances isn't about speed.


"Being a champion means not quitting, no matter how tough the situation becomes, and no matter how badly the odds are stacked against you. If you have the courage, stamina, and perseverance to cross the finish line, you are a champion. And if you can't run, then walk. And if you can't walk, then crawl. Do whatever you have to do. Just keep moving forward and never, ever give up.


Karnazes's final piece of advice for future runners?


"Dreams can come true...especially if you train hard enough. Sometimes you've got to go through hell to get to heaven."


Source: Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner



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