How to conquer extreme mental challenges: the Dean Karnazes interview

Our expert for this episode is legendary ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes. Dean provides insights into the mindset he uses to overcome extreme physical and mental challenges. To illustrate his approach, he also shares excerpts from his latest book, The Road to Sparta, which chronicles his experiences running one of the world’s most difficult ultramarathon events: The Spartathlon—a grueling 153-mile run from Athens to Sparta.

Q Rundamentalists: How do you approach mental preparation for an Ultra endurance event?

Dean: The key is to anticipate mental anguish and rehearse dealing with it during your training runs. When the dark moments come (they are inevitable if you are pushing) you will be ready.

Also, part of becoming a successful athlete is having the mental discipline to apply effort…. particularly when you are surrounded by other distractions. In the past I tried focusing on the scenery or crowd in a big city event, however, this didn’t seem to work for me. I have to live in the moment…. blank out everything apart from the next two feet in front of me.

“There are always ups and downs during an ultramarathon—high points and low points. It’s entirely unrealistic to think that a race of this duration will go like clockwork, no matter how well trained an athlete is. Just as smooth seas do not make skillful sailors, smooth races do not make resilient runners.” — The Road to Sparta

Q Rundamentalists: What mental techniques do you use on race day?

Dean: Usually when the going gets tough, my technique is to become super-granular in my perspective. I focus just on the two feet in front of me. I don’t check my watch….I exist in the moment and just keep grinding.

One of my personal challenges is that despite my notoriety, I am naturally an introvert. My ideal preparation is to be alone with my thoughts. I recall one Chicago Marathon when I found it particularly difficult to find peace. Other runners recognized me…they wanted to talk….take selfies. One guy even asked me to phone his brother during the run. Of course I realize that I am in effect ‘on stage’ and I have to always smile, try to be fun… sign autographs. This requirement to play a role that is not my natural self creates additional mental pressure.

“Inevitably an ultramarathon is not a race against others or against a stopwatch; it is a match against oneself, a contest of you versus you. I knew my body well, knew how hard I could push it without going over the edge before. For it is only in knowing our limits that we can move beyond them, and I was adept at toeing that fine line between consciousness and collapse.”The Road to Sparta

Q Rundamentalists: Any tips for when things don’t go as planned?

Dean: To succeed at running, you have to learn to deal with any eventuality. Things will go wrong—the weather, equipment malfunctions, injury.

“I’d seen too many ultramarathoners’ performances suffer when they didn’t get their special potion or their secret sauce. This, to me, always appeared like more of a psychological blow than a physiological one. Anyway, I didn’t want to be dependent on anything other than my wits and my own two feet.” — The Road to Sparta

Q Rundamentalists: Do you use mantras when the going gets tough? Can you share some of your favorites?

Dean: My mantras are very short and basic…nothing weird:

“Next Step”

“You’ve Got This”

“Focus, Karnazes! Focus! I told myself, a shot of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Wandering into oncoming traffic is never a good idea, especially when your mind is someplace else.” — The Road to Sparta

Q Rundamentalists: Have you ever had to quit a race for mental rather than physical reasons?

Dean: In my latest challenge, the 153-mile Spartathlon, I came very close. Attempting to stay true to the legacy of Pheidippides I trained and raced only using ancient Greek foods—there were no electrolyte-loaded drinks and gels in 490 BC. This had a severe impact on my physical and mental well-being. The Spartathlon is rated as one of the world’s most grueling races and I suffered many extremely tough episodes.

“In many ways, the Spartathlon stands as the ultimate test of physical stamina and mental fortitude. Only with dogged tenacity and gritty resolve is one able to persevere and stand at the finish…”The Road to Sparta

Q Rundamentalists: How did you cope with the darkest moments?

Dean: The Spartathlon was at a totally new level…I suffered hallucinations and a period of ‘sleep running’……scientists call this cataleptic nocturnal locomotion. I also had my first out-of-body experience, where I thought I could see a miniature runner pacing me. I then realized it was me looking down on myself.

Q Rundamentalists: At least you had a running buddy.

Dean: Only a Brit would think of that.

Rundamentalists comment: Dean describes his approach to overcoming extreme mental challenges in graphic detail in his book:

“My world was slowly deconstructing, until there was nothing left except the primitive act of putting one foot in front of the other and repeating the action over and over again.” — The Road to Sparta

Q Rundamentalists: What about post-race? Many runners suffer ‘Post Marathon Blues’. Is this amplified for an Ultra challenge?

Dean: After every event there is that euphoria—the ‘runner’s high’; however, many runners, myself included, experience low points. One of my most memorable challenges was to run the Ancient Silk Road. The event was organized in collaboration with John Kerry’s office at the State Department. Every day I ran 40 to 50 miles, followed by huge welcome parties at every town we visited. I got to do some really cool stuff, like sleeping in a yurt. This was such an amazing experience and yet I felt very lonely and that I had no-one to share it with. I felt extremely low… almost devastated for many weeks later.

If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra
— The Road to Sparta

Q Runamentalists: Given your massive achievements, how do you stay motivated (hungry)? After the Spartathlon, what is your next big challenge? What’s next on the dance card?

Dean: Back in 2006 I ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. This was the inspiration for my book, 50:50. I am now preparing for an epic extension of this concept with a marathon in every country on the planet within one calendar year. The plan is to ‘bookend’ the challenge starting with the NYC marathon in 2017 and finishing there in November 2018.

One of the biggest issues is logistics and our team has to plan for all of the permissions and visas necessary to enter countries way off the tourist map. Luckily, we have great relationships with the State Department and UN.

You are welcome to come and join me on one of the runs and cover it in Rundamentalists—pick a country…there are lots of choices. (Rundamentalists note - Just checked with Professor Google—there are answers varying from 195 to 204 countries in the world! – either way a lot of choices).

My goal is to show that running can unite the world.

Dean CROSSING THE ATacama

Dean CROSSING THE ATacama

Q Rundamentalists: Which athletes (or non-athletes) do you admire for their mental strength?

Dean: I have respect for the achievements of the greats of ultra distance running: Scott (Jurek), Karl (Meltzer*), Jenn (Pharr-Davis) and so many others. My personal hero in the world of running is Meb (Keflezighi)—he is a true champion with proven staying power. Having gotten to know him, I have observed that no matter how stressful the situation, he always carries himself with dignity and humility.

The toughest athlete I have met in my travels is actually not a runner. Through my association with North Face, I became friends with the iconic climber: Conrad Anker. This guy takes toughness to the next level and his exploits are legendary. Decisions we make as runners are rarely life or death. However, for Conrad, he always has to execute at the highest level. (A DNF often has a totally different meaning on Everest.) I persuaded Conrad to join me in a 50 miler, his first official running race. (Rundamentalists comment: this is an extreme example of the couch to 5k principle…don’t try this at home!). He completed the race with ease and without a single moan or complaint—even when we both suffered a nasty case of poison oak. At the finish line, other participants were huddled in a warming tent and I noticed Conrad was outside taking an ice cold shower from a hose.

“Having a strong body is only part of the equation. Having a strong mind is equally if not more important. There is a saying at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run: The first 50 miles are run with the legs, the next 50 with the mind. There comes a time when the human body is fully tapped out, depleted, and spent. Even the mightiest cannot go on forever; this is where mental fortitude comes into play.” The Road to Sparta

*Check out the Rundamentalists interview with Karl (Speedgoat) Meltzer

Q Rundamentalists: What advice would you share with the average Joe runner about the mental side of running?

Dean: My number one tip is not to deny or attempt to prevent the mental roadblocks. You have to shift the paradigm to embrace (even celebrate) the arrival of a mental challenge. If you can achieve this transformation, it will add significantly to the richness of your running experience. I therefore use my long training runs to rehearse getting to the ‘dark places’. Learn to recognize the symptoms, cope with them… and then use this knowledge and experience to my advantage on race day.

It is vital to always be honest with yourself—you must be authentic. This should also carry over into your life outside of running.

Learning to quell anxiety and to channel this emotional electricity into long-term storage for steady release over a prolonged period of time is an essential skill for any endurance athlete.
— The Road To Sparta

Rundamentalists conclusion: Dean’s perspective appears unique. Most of the experts we talk to are looking for ways to prevent mental pain......Dean actually goes looking for it and makes it part of his running arsenal.

Dean Karnazes WITH Kevin McGirl - EDITOR OF RUNDAMENTALISTS

Dean Karnazes WITH Kevin McGirl - EDITOR OF RUNDAMENTALISTS

The Road To Sparta (copyright Dean Karnazes) is an inspirational book and is available at Amazon and all good booksellers.

For more information about Dean and his amazing challenges check out his website www.ultramarathonman.com

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There are two ways to cope with pain. One is to put your head down and grunt through it. I don’t know the other way.
— The Road To Sparta