American ultramarathon runner and businessman Dean Karnazes (born 1962) is best known for running 50 marathons in 50 days in 2006. A native of southern California, Karnazes was an enthusiastic runner from a young age but stopped running after high school, returning to the sport at age 30. Since mastering the marathon (26.2 miles) and the ultramarathon (anything longer), his promotional acumen and personal endurance have combined to make him the best-known runner in his field, with plentiful media coverage and numerous awards.
Dean Karnazes started running home after school during kindergarten, and this habit eventually expanded into an all-consuming passion. Although he stopped running cross country during his high-school years, Karnazes returned to the sport on his 30th birthday when, drunk, he ran 30 miles before stopping. Inspired to compete professionally, he ran progressively longer races and began staging promotional runs for charity, attracting both sponsors and media attention. His resumé of extreme-running feats, such as to the South Pole, across the contiguous United States, 350 miles without rest, and many more, is extensive. Karnazes also owns a health-food business; authors inspirational books that emphasize personal philosophy, health, and diet; and has received many awards from outdoor publications.
Karnazes was originally named Constantine Nicholas Karnazes, after his grandfather, and was born on July 23, 1962, in Inglewood, California (near Los Angeles). As the son of Nicholas “Nick” and Fran Karnazes, he grew up in an extended working-class, Greek family. The eldest of three siblings, Karnazes started running at age five, to spare his mother the trouble of fetching him home from kindergarten. At first he ran straight from school to their house, but he later started exploring other routes, often through nearby neighborhoods. He liked running better than school; school was passive, running was active, and it allowed him to be outdoors, independent, and able to experience life directly.
Karnazes enjoyed staying active; as a preteen he participated in a rim-to-rim backpacking trek of the Grand Canyon and also climbed to the top of Mount Whitney, located in California and the tallest mountain in the continental United States. On his 12th birthday he decided, without telling anybody, that he would ride his bike to his grandparents’ house, 40 miles away. He got there in ten hours, navigating the route by asking for directions along the way. His family recognized and celebrated Karnazes's passion for physical challenge, and he found it rewarding to seek out new activities and thereby retain their admiration.
In junior high school, Karnazes encountered formal training through a military-style coach that encouraged young athletes to embrace a philosophy of effort, pure and simple. The young teen absorbed the coach's terse instructions and pushed his limits accordingly, winning his first mile-long competition. A move to San Clemente brought him to a high school where he chose cross-country running over track. He liked the relaxed attitude and hippie look of the freshman cross-country group, with whom he went surfing on weekends. The track team, by contrast, seemed much more straitlaced and conservative. His new coach, also a history teacher, nurtured the cross-country group with an ethos of running from the heart, claiming that the body would follow.
Karnazes's first and most important accomplishment in San Clemente was completing 105 laps—the equivalent of a marathon—for a charitable run supporting the library. Most students completed five or ten laps; a few completed 20. With his cross-country team, Karnazes achieved victory at the biggest meet in a very competitive league. He again pushed his limits and prevailed against competitors’ roughness, arriving at the finish line with a bloody nose and in first place.
As high school wore on, Karnazes became disenchanted with running, encountering another coach with whom he felt incompatible. He took advantage of an opportunity to study in Australia for a year, returning home with a mind to study business. He also turned to “surfing, windsurfing, and drinking.” Expelled twice from high school due to attending class under the influence of alcohol, Karnazes still managed to make his way to college, matriculating at California Polytechnic State University. Still inclined to drink heavily, he did not return to running for over a decade.
Tragedy struck in his junior year of college, when his beloved 18-year-old sister was killed in a car accident. On one hand, the painful loss served as a wake-up call for Karnazes, who quit partying and graduated with a degree in food-science technology. On the other hand, as he would later write, he was angry over her untimely death and used the pursuit of material gain as a way to cynically numb his emotional pain. Graduate degrees in science and business from the University of San Francisco's McLaren School of Business now followed. He also married his highschool sweetheart, with whom he would have two children. After graduation, Karnazes worked as a public-relations executive for several multinational corporations, steadily advancing and earning substantial salaries. Despite having all the trappings of material success, as his 30th birthday approached, he was in low spirits.
On the night of his birthday, Karnazes sat alone in a San Francisco bar, drinking tequila. In a melacholy mood, he recalled happier times, including his years as a junior-high and high-school track star. Wondering if he could still run, he left the bar and walked the few blocks to his home, stumbling onto the back porch where he kept a pair of sneakers. Removing his suit and tie and clad only in his underwear and sneakers, Karnazes ran down the street, into the night.
His alcoholic fog had cleared by the time he reached mile 15, and in the pre-dawn mist he felt more alive than he had in years. At mile 30 he was well on the way down the Pacific Coast. Finally stopping in Half Moon Bay, Karnazes called his wife from a pay phone, asking her to come and pick him up. He'd had an epiphany along the way: he wanted to run, to see how much farther he could go. Untapped potential lay within and he wanted to see what he was capable of. But first, he needed to go home and sleep.
Karnazes began running in earnest and entered the long-distance runs held around the Bay Area near San Francisco. The distances increased from the 26.2-mile marathon to a 100-mile endurance run held in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Karnazes had to run 50 miles to qualify for this event, but the experience whetted his appetite for pushing his limits. Over the next two decades, he weaned himself from corporate life and piled on many athletic accomplishments: running a marathon to the South Pole; running 350 miles without stopping, even to sleep; running 50 marathons in 50 days, then completing the New York City Marathon in three hours; crossing Death Valley at a run amid temperatures topping 120 degrees; and participating in dozens of 200-mile relay races as a team of one.
Early in Karnazes's renewed running career, he ran endurance races while still showing up for his corporate job. He needed to make a living to support his family. Then, after a grueling 100-mile race, he was approached by potential sponsors from a major athletic gear manufacturer. With their support, he could consider running full-time. With his wife's enthusiastic consent, he took the offer and never looked back. He gave his full energy and attention to feats of endurance and promoting the lifestyle he had come to love.
In addition to running—a 2015 endurance challenge included a run following Pheidippides's classic route in Greece—Karnazes prioritizes time with his family. He also owns a health-food company, writes books, and is a motivational speaker known to his many fans as “Karno.” Through his events, he has raised money for children's health-related causes, including the “No Child Left Inside!” programs Karno's Kids, Girls on the Run, Kids on Trails, and the Conservation Fund. A celebrity athlete who has made numerous television appearances and earned several media awards, he has used his name recognition to offer advice to fellow endurance runners, as well as to advocate general principles for living life with purpose, discipline, and integrity.
Karnazes, Dean, The Road to Sparta: Reliving the Ancient Battle and Epic Run That Inspired the World's Greatest Footrace, Rodale Press, 2016.
Karnazes, Dean, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, Penguin, 2006.
Wired, January 1, 2007, Joshua Davis, “The Perfect Human.”