My Perfect Adventure: Dean Karnazes

The legendary ultramarathoner tells us why he blames his little habit on tequila, and that he’d be all in for a marathon in outer space—but also that his perfect day wouldn’t even involve running

Dean Karnazes.     Photo: Philip Anema/Zozi

"A mistake? I wish I had made only a mistake. Truth is, I’ve made a couple dozen real doozies."

The night Dean Karnazes turned 30, instead of taking another shot at the bar, he stepped out and impulsively set off for a 30-mile run into the darkness. It was an iffy decision for someone who hadn’t gone running in more than a decade. Since then, though, his corporate-schnook life has disintegrated and he’s become the world’s most famous distance runner.

Karnazes has won a string of notorious races, including Badwater in Death Valley, the 4 Deserts Challenge (in the Gobi, Sahara, Atacama, and Antarctic), and the Vermont 100. He’s also devised a series of uberhuman stunts fit only, perhaps, for himself: In 2006, at age 44, he ran 50 marathons in each of our 50 states—in 50 consecutive days. He’s run 350 continuous miles, which meant not sleeping for three nights (he carries a phone and credit card and gets pizza delivered to remote locations). Ten times, he's completed a 200-mile relay as his own team—the other teams were comprised of 12 people each. In 2011, he jogged 3,000 miles from California to New York, stopping in D.C. along the way for a meeting with Michelle Obama. His plan for 2014 involves running a marathon in each of the world’s countries.

When he’s not on his feet, he’s writing bestselling books, including his latest, Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss. And spending time with children: On his Facebook page, the only award he lists is “World's Best Dad (by my kids),” and has said that his proudest moment happened on his daughter’s 10th birthday, when she ran a 10K with him. He donates time and money to youth-focused fitness programs as part of the national effort to fight childhood obesity. Karnazes is also one of the “Zozi Gurus,” an elite group of athletes and explorers who signed on with the adventure site to lead other travelers on memorable journeys.

Here, he gives tips for beating jetlag, remembers wanting to be a paleontologist (though now he strives to be a writer), and voices an ambition to give away everything he owns. Also, he confesses to being a horrific dancer.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn until dusk. Where would you be, who would be there with you, and what would you do?
Since I get to run just about everywhere on earth, I’d spend my perfect day on a boat moored in a remote reef pass off Huahine Island in French Polynesia. I’d have all my family with me as well as some close friends. We’d be surfing nonstop, sunrise ‘til sunset. Kelly Slater would pop in to join us for a session. Jack Johnson, too. There might even be a spare acoustic guitar lying around and Jack would decide to strum a few tunes.

If you could travel someplace you've never been, where would you go and why?
I’ve been on all seven continents twice now, so I’ve seen much of our planet. What would be really cool is getting off earth. Way off. As in, space. Running is high impact, but not in zero gravity. I’d love to run a marathon in outer space.

What’s the best place you've ever visited? And what made it so special?
Australia, the first time I visited as a kid. Besides being an inherently great place, what made it so special was that I discovered a number of close relatives who migrated Down Under. Before that, my family never even knew they existed. We’ve all become really close since then.

If you could have lunch with any athlete, who would it be and why?
The original Greek marathoner, Pheidippides. I’d love nothing more than to chat with him to learn the real story behind the legend. Of course, he died in 490 B.C., so Outside would have to pull a few strings to make a lunch happen.

What’s something you can’t travel without? Why do you need it?
I’ve got this old North Face puffy jacket I take everywhere. My body fat is less than four percent, which means I get cold really easily. This jacket is magical when it comes to temperature regulation.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s first on your agenda?
Going for a run. It’s the perfect way to see the sights of a new destination and get a sense of what the place is all about. Plus, nothing works better at minimizing jet lag than getting your heart rate up.

What motivates you to keep running?
All the free food I get at the aid stations [laughs]. Truthfully, running is just something I love to do. You really don’t need much motivation to do that which you naturally love.

As a child, what was your dream job? And if you gave up that dream, why?
I wanted to be a paleontologist, but since nobody knew what that was, and I could barely pronounce it myself, I decided to choose a career with fewer syllables.

When and how did you first start running long distances?
I blame it all on bad tequila. Let me explain: I used to love running as a kid but gave it up when I hit my teens. On the night of my 30th birthday, I found myself in a bar with a couple of buddies, doing what you do on your 30th birthday—drinking heavily—when I felt this primitive urge to leave. “What?” they questioned, “It’s only 11 o’clock. Time for another shot!” I was disillusioned with my cushy corporate job and yuppie lifestyle. The things that I’d thought would bring me happiness had brought me nothing but misery. So I walked out of the bar and ran 30 miles, one for each year. I ran straight through the night and it was the first time I’d run in more than a decade. It nearly killed me, but it changed my life, for the better, forever.

What advice would you give to an aspiring athlete?
Failure rocks! Don’t be afraid to fail. Too many people fear failure and thus never reach their full potential. Don’t be scared to bite off more than you can chew and boldly step into uncharted territory. If you don’t succeed the first time, celebrate the failure. Embrace it. Then regroup and try again. Personally, I’ve learned way more from my failures than from any of my successes.

Who was your most influential role model? What did he or she teach you?
My dad. He always told me, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that matters—it’s how many times you get back up.” He also told me, “Give a man a fish and he lives for a day; teach a man to fish and he spends the rest of his life very bored.” He has a good sense of humor.

What is your life philosophy?
When all else fails, start running! It’s a very versatile philosophy—applies to just about any situation.

Have you ever made a mistake during your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
A mistake? I wish I had made only a mistake. Truth is, I’ve made a couple dozen real doozies. Attempting to run a marathon to the South Pole was a good one. So was the time we duct-taped the landing gear of my buddy’s small plane during an airborne surf safari to Baja. But probably the diciest near-death experience was the time I got chased by a bull moose in Alaska during mating season. It was like, Legs, don’t fail me now!

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
I taught myself to write, and I quite enjoy writing. I still suck at it, but a couple of my books have landed on the New York Times bestseller list—I’m convinced the voting is rigged. If my next meal depended on writing, I’d be forced to improve.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Run a marathon in every country of the world in a single year—I have this scheduled for 2014.

I’d also want to learn to dance. Just watching me dance could result in permanent eye damage. I need to fix that for the sake of any unsuspecting observers.

Finally, I’d want to give away everything I own, to anyone who will take the stuff.

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