Dean Karnazes is a legendary ultramarathon runner who has run 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states. In his autobiographical book Runner without Sleep, he shares life stories and reflections on motivation, fortitude, and overcoming oneself. Here is a story about Karnazes’ development as an athlete.
How it all began
I’ve been running most of my life, and one of my earliest memories is running home from kindergarten. I grew up in Los Angeles in a working class family, brother Craig is a year younger than me, and sister Peri is three.
My father worked two jobs, so he could make ends meet. To make life easier for my mother and save her from having to take me home from school every day, I started running.
First, on a direct route from school to home. But over time, I began to make detours in new areas and unexplored places. At school, you had to behave well and sit still while you were told what the world really is. And when I ran home, I could explore something new, I had a sense of freedom that was not there in school. And so running home was much more fun than going to school. I ran down the street and studied the world: I watched the houses being built, watched the birds fly south to winter, saw the leaves fall and the days get shorter due to the changing seasons.
No textbook could compare with the lessons of life itself.
In the third grade, I already took part in running competitions for quite short distances, often no longer than a football field, and even organized them myself. I constantly called my classmates to my company, but sometimes it was difficult for me to find someone willing to run with me. Relatives from the Old World have often reminded me that the Greeks were great runners and that marathon running eventually originated in Greece.
As I got older, I liked more and more to test my small body in different extremes. It seemed to me that I had a written down subcortex of the need to constantly push the boundaries of my own endurance. In terms of physical activity, it was very difficult for me to be in moderation. At eleven years old, in a week, carrying everything I needed on myself, I walked the Grand Canyon up and down and climbed Mount Whitney – the highest peak in the Continental states.
Difficulties in childhood tempered Dean Karnazes. Source
I wanted to celebrate my twelfth birthday with my grandparents, but they lived almost sixty-five kilometers from us. I did not want to strain my parents with a request to take me and decided to go on a bike. My desire for adventure was not weakened even by the fact that I had no idea how to get to my grandparents’ house. Brother Craig did not give in to persistent persuasion and did not go with me, and the attempt to give him a bribe from my pocket money did not help. I shoved the money back into my pocket, told my mother that I was going to the local store, and headed for Pasadena.
When I asked for directions, people looked at me with puzzlement and concern.
“It’s more than sixty kilometers away,” said the gas station operator.
– In which direction should I go? I asked.
“I think first on the freeway, and then north on the highway two hundred and ten,” he said uncertainly.
Of course, I could not ride my bike on the freeway, I had to find my way through the city streets.
I smiled and went in search of the nearest city street in the direction he showed me. Everything was going well.
I got to Pasadena ten hours later. The road I was driving was winding through the valley around Los Angeles, so it’s hard to tell how many kilometers I traveled. A couple of times I stopped at gas stations to ask for directions, buy soda, or go to the toilet. I almost ran out of money, but it didn’t matter. One thing was important: I got to Pasadena. Now what?
I did not know the name of the street where my grandparents lived, nor their telephone number. And, as it turned out, they didn’t even live in Pasadena, but nearby – in San Marino. I wandered around and found a familiar place — the Galera — a large ship at a road junction that had been converted into a diner. We went there to eat many times, and I knew how to get to my relatives from here. It was about eight kilometers from the Galera to San Marino.
Driving up the dirt path to the house, I felt great satisfaction. With the same feeling, I could stand on top of Everest or on the moon. It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.
Fortunately, grandparents were at home. Seeing me, they were both delighted and terribly frightened. The parents, whom we immediately called, were not angry, they were glad that nothing had happened to me, and they sighed with relief when they learned that everything was in order. I think they were too scared, so they didn’t scold me. No one ever explained to me the full danger of my act, and I hoped that my family was proud of me. My grandparents loaded the bike into the back of the car and took me home, where the whole family met us – cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors also came, everyone gathered for a party in honor of my birthday. Music played, we danced, feasted, and the adults drank heartily.
All the conversations during the holiday now and then came back to my journey. What I just did was incredible for a child my age, it gave me strength and was very inspiring. All I had to do to gather the whole family around me and arrange a holiday was to ride a bike or run a very long distance. It may sound naive, but this is the lesson I learned that day.
As we grew up, Craig began to believe that my obstinacy was becoming overwhelming. And in this case, his feelings were completely justified, since the main event of the weekend for me was always some daring adventure. Sister Peri, on the other hand, was sympathetic to my oddities, but she always made her take into account her interests, regardless of how others felt about it.
“If you like running so much, go on,” she said one day. That was all she was: even as a child, she knew how to rejoice for others. I really enjoyed running, and I continued this activity in high school, where I met my first mentor. There I also learned more about why people are attracted to long-distance running.
Dean Karnazes running. Source
It was rumored that Private Jack McTavish could do push-ups, pull-ups, and abdominal exercises more times than the rest of his co-workers, including officers. At the same time, he was also the fastest. The rest of the recruits were afraid to pair up with him, because his strength and ability to concentrate left them nothing but shame. McTavish had a very simple approach to life: get up earlier, train harder, and hang on longer than others. On the days when he didn’t feel like he was giving his best, he forced himself to give one hundred and twenty percent.
The first time I met a coach was next to the men’s locker room, he was pumping abs on the concrete floor. Maktevish stood up, squeezed my palm with a handshake, looked me straight in the eyes and introduced himself, and then, without batting an eye, returned to the exercises.
The coach’s approach to running was different from what the textbooks suggested: he simply challenged us to run as fast as possible until we crossed the finish line. The coach almost never gave advice or encouraged us.
His favorite admonition was: “Turn on more sharply.”
Once I tried to explain to him that if I quickly jerk right from the start, then by the end I will have no strength left.
– Nonsense, – he answered, – start fast and finish fast too.
It was one of the few long phrases dropped by the coach. And in general, in two years, we hardly said more than fifty words to each other. At the same time, of all the runners on our team, he spoke to me most often, as if paying tribute to my potential abilities.
All my attention was always completely riveted to him. In a strange way, something attracted me to his teaching method. I had to give my best, and I began to understand this and even enjoy myself when I was running to exhaustion. The theory was simple: the victory will go to the one who will run with all his might, train the longest and endure to the last.
At the California Long Distance Championships, a prestigious late-season event at the legendary San Antonio College Stadium, the coach issued, “Run faster than all those boobies right from the start.” And left. It seemed to me that the others knew what they were doing.
I stood at the start, and I was shaking with anxiety and fear, it seemed to me that other athletes knew about how to train better and run faster, something that I did not know. But it was very important for me to run a mile – the longest and most difficult competitive distance in high school in terms of physical effort. I knew for sure: despite not knowing the formal running strategy, I am much tougher than the rest. I was sure that none of the participants tried as hard as I did, no one persisted as I did.
A shot rang out, and I did exactly what my coach taught me: I jumped as quickly as I could. I ran as if it were not a mile, but a short distance. Thanks to such an aggressive start, I was immediately ahead of everyone. Increasing the pace, I rushed faster than lightning, and the distance between me and the rest of the participants increased. I ran faster and faster and farther and farther. In full concentration, I did not notice how I ripped off the ribbon, and I continued to run until I noticed people waving at me, trying to stop.
I stood bent in half and tried to catch my breath. Participants and coaches came up to me with congratulations, they said something like: “I’ve never seen someone jump off their seats so abruptly.” It was clear that my decisiveness had puzzled them. But it was more like the narrowness of their thinking. In the end, when everyone had dispersed, the coach quietly approached me.
“Nice job, buddy,” he said. – What do you think?
This shocked me. The coach never asked questions.
– Well, – I began slowly, – it was right to abruptly leave the start. Everything is fine.
The coach poked at the ground with the toe of his sneaker.
“If you’re okay,” he said, narrowing his eyes like Clint Eastwood, “then you haven’t tried your best. It must hurt like hell.
My father was transferred to another city, and we moved with the whole family a week after this competition. Those words were the last that the coach told me, and I am still guided by them in my life: if it is easy for you, then no effort is required and you do not try your best.
It must hurt like hell.
Based on materials from the book “Runner without Sleep”
Post cover: ellines.com