Dean Karnazes writes as he runs: ‘The Road to Sparta’ is his latest
By Lou Fancher
The writing of any book is an odyssey, some more than others.
Ultramarathoner and author Dean Karnazes’ new book, “The Road to Sparta” (Rodale, $25.99, 304 pages), chronicles both his own completion of a grueling, 153-mile journey and the Greek history and mythology behind the ancient race that inspired the annual modern one known as the Spartathlon.
Fascinated by the tale of Athenian herald Pheidippides’ historic run in 490 B.C. from Athens to Sparta, the Marin County endurance athlete, at the age of 52, upped his own ante. To surpass the 135-mile ultramarathon he’d run in Death Valley, the 50 marathons in 50 states run in 50 days, a 262-mile continuous Saturn Relay race he chose to run solo and a South Pole jaunt in negative 40-degree temperatures, Karnazes in 2014 retraced the rocky, mountainous trail of his ancestral predecessor. Being of Greek descent, he was seeking more than a medal — or simply material for another book to follow his best-seller “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner” and subsequent sports fitness books.
Karnazes ran in search of himself. He ran as he had since the night of his 30th birthday, when, disgusted with his materialistic, successful life, he doffed his jeans and took off on a nightlong jog to find a better man. Maybe even a hero.
More than two decades later, this run involved far less impulsivity. Karnazes trained as usual; running alone in the steepest Bay Area hills. He restricted himself for nine months prior and during the race to only the foods that would have been available to Pheidippides: figs, olives, cured meats and pasteli — a mix of honey, sesame seeds and nuts. He traveled to Greece and scouted the trails in 2013. He consulted scholars and experts to learn the history of the runner who ran 36 hours nonstop, carrying to Sparta the Athenians’ message seeking reinforcements after the massive Persian Army invaded.
“When you stand there and you see the magnitude of what Pheidippides accomplished, well it’s just bewildering how a man 2,500 years ago could run up those mountains,” says Karnazes. “Why run a marathon when it hurts so damn much? I think the victory is experiencing and embracing the pain. The paradigm is overcoming the difficulty.”
The combination of curiosity and admitted pain-addiction that drives his desire to run also propels him as an author. Determined to become as accomplished a writer as he is an athlete, Karnazes applies rigor to his writing practices, albeit in unconventional ways.
“I write while I run,” he says.
A mental image of Karnazes, climbing at Olympian pace the Bay Area’s vertical, rocky trails with an iPad in hand isn’t too far off. He uses an iPhone, dictating the words he’ll later transcribe when trapped on an airplane traveling to marathons or speaking engagements. “I feel restless sitting. I have my clearest thoughts while running. I think through chapter cadence, how to structure sentences so they flow like a song. I never think as much as I do when I’m moving.”
Rewrites of the book’s largely first person narrative were frequent and required supreme concentration, partly due to the dyslexia he suffered through as a student. “It was never diagnosed until I was older. I catalogued things in ways that weren’t conducive to how we’re taught in the West.”
To compensate, Karnazes became adept at rote memorization. “I’d run with my notes during college and grad schools and force myself to memorize them. I couldn’t just sit at a desk and understand concepts.”
The difficulty doesn’t prevent him from consuming literature, most often nonfiction audio books. John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” polar explorer Ernest Shackelton’s “South” and anything written by David Sedaris are favorites. He admires “thorough and honest” voices, accurate depictions of place and humor. Sedaris, in particular, rates high on the latter scale. “He’s irreverent and just so darn funny,” he says.
Eight hours alone on a trail with only your thoughts for company turns long distance runners into philosophers, Karnazes suggests. While working on “The Road,” especially as he learned ancient Greek history that’s included in the book, he thought a lot about human nature. “We seek warfare, I don’t know why that is. Men battle. I’m not sure if it’s an evolutionary carryover of self-preservation or a group thing where we formalize alliances and demonize the enemy.”
During the Spartathlon, he discovered a counterpart of what it means to be Greek. “Selflessness: volunteers along the run, barely able to keep their families going, were lancing blisters, giving massages, kissing sweaty cheeks — with joy. The barriers just melted.”
Karnazes says the success of his books has surprised him and motivated him to improve. He’s thinking of writing a diet book with no recipes and no diets. Instead, it will have behavioral strategies from the people who’ve read his books, started running and improved their health. “There’s an inflection point, where people change. I’m interested in learning how they stay the course and writing about that.”
In the end, the force compelling Karnazes to run or to transfer his thoughts into book form are the same motivation that nonrunning writers have: a burning desire to find their story—and tell it.