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In New Book, Dean Karnazes Explores Ancient ‘Ultrarunning,’ Then Tries to Recreate It

On a recent evening, the ultrarunner and author Dean Karnazes stepped to a podium at a bookstore near his home in Marin County, California, dressed in a hoplite costume—a simple toga-like dress worn by ancient Greek warriors. The hemline stopped above his knees, revealing muscular calves and strappy flat sandals on his feet. An ivy wreath adorned his head.

It’s the same costume he wore while running a marathon five years ago, as he began to explore his Greek heritage. That heritage is the subject of his recently released fourth book, The Road to Sparta, which weaves Karnazes’ personal history together with that of the classical ultrarunner Pheidippides and a running of the Spartathlon ultramarathon.

“You’re probably here to see Dean Karnazes, but I’m not Dean. I’m Constantine Nicholas Karnazes,” he said, sharing his birth name.

“It’s not just a book about running; it’s also a book about finding your identity,” he went on.

Readers of his first book, 2005’s bestseller Ultramarathon Man, know that Karnazes, now 54, took up ultra-distance running during an early-midlife crisis on his 30th birthday. He introduced the concept of ultrarunning to the masses with stories about eating whole pizzas while running through the night and enduring extreme fatigue during the Western States Endurance Run and Badwater Ultramarathon.

Fans also know “Karno” through his high-profile position as a host of The North Face Endurance Challenge trail-racing series, which he launched with his main sponsor a decade ago, as well as through the media attention generated when he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days (the subject of his 2008 book 50/50) and ran across the United States in 2011.

Anyone who wants to know Karnazes on a deeper level—and learn more about the sport’s history—should read The Road to Sparta, an engaging and well-researched work that delves into both modern-day ultrarunning and ancient hemerodromoi, the Greek foot messengers who traveled ultra distances to deliver news.

The quest to learn about his relatives and their home country dovetails with his interest in the saga of the messenger Pheidippides (pronounced by Karnazes, with lilting long-e vowels, as Fee-dee-PEE-dees). The original marathoner, Pheidippides is famous for running from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, about 25 miles, in 490 BCE to tell of the Greek victory over the invading Persians—then collapsing and dying from exhaustion.

Before Pheidippides completed this legendary run, however, he followed military orders to go by foot from Athens to Sparta—a distance of some 140 miles over unforgiving terrain—as quickly as possible, to seek reinforcements against the invaders, and then return.

When Karnazes began to hear the real story behind Pheidippides—that is, the lesser-known mega-ultra behind the famous marathon—“the truth didn’t so much set me free as drive me nuts,” he writes. “We’d been brainwashed into believing that the marathon stood as the ultimate test of endurance, but there seemed more to it than that.” He resolved to learn as much as he could about what Pheidippides experienced—and how the messenger covered so much ground—in the Greek hillsides more than 2,500 years ago.

The first step was buying the hoplite dress and running the 2011 Silicon Valley Marathon in it. (“Even though the outfit was airy and light, there was nothing comfortable about running in this ancient Greek wardrobe, and by the midway point in the race, chafing was developing in places where the sun don’t shine.”)

That experience “provided a taste of what it must have been like for Pheidippides and the other hemerodromoi,” he writes. “But it was just a taste. I wanted … to indulge wholeheartedly in the flesh, and relive the true experience” of being a Greek foot herald.

Enlisting the aid of Greek history scholars, Karnazes set out in the summer of 2014 to scout the route Pheidippides followed to Sparta. Describing several solo runs around the countryside, his book paints a vivid picture of the landscape: “Waterways led to enchanting little waterfalls with spiraling tendrils of moss dangling off the cornices, like long strands of Medusa’s hair … toadstools of fairytale-like proportions sprouted everywhere … [and] dragonflies the size of hummingbirds lazily danced about.”

These enchanting scenes segue to a harsh reality, however, when Karnazes repeatedly finds himself confused about the route and stumbles through much less bucolic byways—a “rat’s nest of intertwined roadways and pavement in every conceivable direction”—which led him to conclude that recreating Pheidippides’s exact journey would be impossible.

Crushed that his research project and personal journey hit a wall, Karnazes became determined to do the next best thing: run the Spartathlon, a 153-mile race founded by John Foden, a British military general who, like Karnazes, had become fascinated with Pheidippides and his run from Athens to Sparta.

The book’s delightful digression about Foden and four other chaps embarking on a fat-ass-style, 38-hour ultra across Greece in 1982 marks one of many points where Karnazes’ gifts as a storyteller kick into high gear. Foden was trying to test whether it was humanly possible to do what the ancient historian Herodotus attributed to Pheidippides: completing the journey from Athens to Sparta “the day after he set out,” i.e., in less than two days’ time, before the second nightfall.

“They encountered innumerable challenges along the way,” Karnazes writes about Foden’s run to Sparta. “First was the unexpected nightmare of having to deal with car traffic and billowing air pollution along the overcrowded roadways of Athens. … On the climb through the shantytowns of Dafini, numerous stray dogs, some of whom appeared rabid, rushed out and snapped at them.”

Dehydration, lost radio communication between support vehicles and other near disasters ensued. But they made it, and the Spartathlon ultramarathon was born.

To complete his odyssey, Karnazes lined up near the Acropolis to start the Spartathlon in September 2014, along with some 350 other runners. (Since Foden’s day, the race has evolved into a well-organized event, albeit an exceptionally challenging one, because of the distance, hot climate and tight cutoff times to checkpoints.)

Striving to better understand Pheidippides’s challenge, he refueled only with food that would have been available during ancient times: dates, olives, figs, salty cured meats and pasteli, a paste made from ground sesame seeds and honey. (He left the hoplite outfit at home, however, and ran in modern running clothes and shoes.)

Once the great race got underway through crowded streets in searing heat, Karnazes encountered hordes of well-intentioned but suffocating fans and reporters, which prompted him to muse about his role as an ultrarunning ambassador—one he generally embraces but at times finds exhausting.

“What had I gotten myself into? All I wanted to do was run the Spartathlon, and suddenly I had media obligations,” he writes. “These sorts of situations usually don’t bother me much. I accept them as part of my duty in trying to be a good ambassador of endurance sports … But hullabaloo like this is certainly easier to deal with when you’re feeling fresh.”

At the book-launch event, Karnazes elaborated on these feelings, and spoke about his experience running across Central Asia in July. Following an invitation from Secretary of State John Kerry, Karnazes ran a 325-mile, 11-day route dubbed the “Silk Road Ultramarathon” through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, organized by the U.S. State Department’s Sports Envoy Program. The goal was to inspire people there to run, foster good U.S. relations through a positive American role model and recognize the 25th anniversary of those countries’ independence from the Soviet Union.

Footage from the Silk Road shows Karnazes running with enthusiastic groups of teens and adults in villages and along vast open roads. These group running experiences “are incredible, because it takes running to the next level,” he said. “Those of us who run know that running has a great power to unite people. So many things in this world divide us, be it the color of our skin or the god we believe in, or the language that we speak, and running is one thing we all share in common.”

He makes a similar point toward the end of The Road to Sparta. On Day 2 of the Spartathlon, he connects with other runners at an aid station. They “hobbled along, their limbs looking anesthetized as if half dead. A few of them tried to talk to me in labored, broken English. The gist of their message was a familiar one; they had read one of my books and were attempting to express gratitude. … They intimately related to my story because it was also their story. … We shared the same emotions and experiences, and this commonality united us in a way that words could never adequately convey.”

Late in the race, barely able to put one foot in front of the other and recovering from an out-of-body experience, he writes, “I was there because I had to be. It was my destiny, my calling. In so many ways these were the most glorious footsteps of my life, yet in other ways they were the most unrelenting grunt work I’d ever undertaken, and a damn tough way to make a living. Like Greece itself, the Spartathlon had been a dichotomous experience.”

As anyone who reads race reports knows, a disappointing performance makes a better story. Suffice to say that Karnazes’s Spartathlon tale is a great one.

Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor at Trail Runner. She profiled Karnazes for the magazine in 2012.