Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes reconnects with his roots and retraces the footsteps of Pheidippides, in ‘The Road to Sparta’. Read our review!
Meet Dean Karnazes
Ultramarathoner and NY Times bestselling author of 4 books, Dean Karnazes was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in Orange County, CA. He traces his Greek roots to Silimna, outside of Tripolis, and the island of Ikaria.
Dean got into running as a young boy, and actually ran his first marathon at the age of 14. He found running to be a great physical and mental challenge. But we’re supposed to pursue a course of study that will earn us a good living, right? So Dean went to college. Then he earned an MBA. After settling in San Francisco, he became a “successful corporate guy”. He’d achieved “the dream”, as it were, but it wasn’t his dream.
“On my 30th birthday, I decided I didn’t like my life. That night, while out drinking with friends at a bar, I left around 11:00 pm. I had to run. I decided to run 30 miles to celebrate my 30th. I ran through the night, for 7 hours. It changed my life.
Today, Dean is an internationally recognized athlete, a speaker, and best-selling author. TIME magazine named him one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He’s run all over the world and in all sorts of conditions — in 120◦ temperatures in Death Valley, to -40◦ at the South Pole. He is one of an elite group of runners who has completed 50 marathons in all 50 state — although Dean accomplished this in 50 consecutive days! His incredible feats have been spotlighted on 60 Minutes, CBS News, CNN, the BBC, and so many others. Dean has been featured in countless magazines, including the cover of People magazine Greece. He’s now a monthly columnist for Men’s Health, the largest men’s publication in the world.
He and his wife, Julie, were high school sweethearts. They have two children, Alexandria, 21, and Nicholas, 19. And yes, they all run.
Embracing his Hellenic roots
Recently, Dean experienced a cultural reawakening. He’s embraced his Hellenic roots in a big way. Kosta, as he now prefers to be called, felt compelled to learn where he came from.
“I realized I was influenced by our forefathers. I always embraced physical fitness, but didn’t always know that my mind, body, and spirit are aligned with them. I felt their presence, but never knew why. To learn these are timeless values is very intriguing. It somehow transcends the ordinary.”
That moment happened when after running the Chicago marathon, he immediately flew to Greece — for the 1st time.
“I was so exhausted; I just wanted to sleep. Then I looked out and saw the Acropolis. Something in me changed. I had to go up there. And right then. I climbed to the top, and stood there in awe. I never felt such a profound sense of providence. I knew I was supposed to be in that spot at that moment in time. I’ve never felt something so powerful, so unsettling in my life. I felt like I was home — like I belonged there.”
Since then, he’s vowed to help Greece as much as he can.
“I promote Greeks, Greece, Hellenism. I’ve taken an active role in Sports Tourism. It’s a rather lucrative segment, as healthy, active travelers spend a lot of money. Greece is the perfect place. It’s genuine — people hear this story and it moves them.”
Running in Pheidippides’ footsteps
Kosta learned about Pheidippides as young boy. His dad made that first connection.
“When I started running, my dad said, ‘Dean, you’re just like Pheidippides!’ He told me that Pheidippides ran that first marathon in ancient Greece, and he explained it at length. I was intrigued, and wondered how could a human run that far — it’s impossible. Part of me felt challenged by it. It was like, ‘Ok, I’m Greek, we’re athletes. I want to do this!’
Kosta actually thought that was all there was to Pheidippides’ story, and didn’t think much more of it.
“Then I met an old Greek man who said that’s not what really happened, that there was more to it. So I decided that I had to learn the truth, to be true to our Hellenic heritage. I started studying ancient Greek history. Pheidippides’ story — the entire story — fascinated me. What really happened is that 2500 years ago, a foot messenger — a hermerodromos — ran from Athens to Sparta — 153 miles. I wondered, how could a man run that far, especially in the mountainous terrain of Greece. This led me on a path to understand how ancient Greek athletes were so superior in so many ways.”
He also realized that he wanted to someday retrace the steps of that first marathoner.
Kosta had run plenty of ultramarathons, and footraces of hundreds of hundred of miles. But none were the Spartathlon. He began to train to run ultramarathon of the ancient variety — and in the motherland — but in order to truly retrace the footsteps of his hero, he would only consume same foods as Pheidippides did — figs, olives, cured meat, and pasteli — and only drink water.
“Because there was no gatorade 2500 years ago! This was so different. I’ve run 36 hours continuously, but I had no idea what I would encounter on this path.”
He met a few surprises along the way — and in the dark it can be rather dangerous.
“I met a few porcupines in Messinia. I didn’t know they were indigenous to the Peloponnese. And spiders, lots of big spiders!”
There were 350 starters in the race — the most elite athletes in the world — representing 47 different countries. To simply finish was the goal. And this was no easy feat. Only a third of the starters typically finish.
“The passes around Sparta are incredibly treacherous — I scaled the side of a mountain almost on all fours. The rock there is very barren.”
Writing The Road to Sparta
Kosta tells the his story from the time he started running, to the present, in The Road to Sparta: Reliving the Ancient Battle and Epic Run That Inspired the World’s Greatest Footrace. He said the book required extensive research and took 5 years to write. During that time, he took many trips to Greece to study the areas he wrote about, including detailed information on the topography. He worked with the foremost authorities on Ancient Greek culture, including Professor Paul Cartledge from the University of Cambridge; and Dr. P.J. Shaw, the top authority on the travels of Pheidippides.
Review of The Road to Sparta
In the Road to Sparta, Dean Karnazes takes us on a marathon of sorts through his life story, as he embraces his roots, and pays homage to the ancient hemerodromoi — and the most famous one of all, Pheidippides. Follow Dean on his personal quest, in which he validates his hero, learns more about himself, and reignites his passion for all things Greek. Dean shows us a side of Greece most of us will never know, and opens a whole new world to us — one of an almost superhuman feat, with all its ups and downs. He shares the highs and lows, the frustrations, and the fight to finish, through the delirium, and the ultimate test of his body. This race was about more than finishing, and connecting with this hero. Ultimately, it is a means to inspire others. You don’t have to be a runner to appreciate this book. Dean Karnazes shows us what true grit, determination, and perseverance are all about. He inspires us to push just a little bit harder, to not give up, and to pursue our dreams.
Kosta will continue to explore.
“Just like Socrates was a citizen of the world, I strive to be one.”
In 2018 he plans to embark on a 1-year global expedition to run a marathon in every country of the world. That’s 203 countries! He’s currently working with the UN and the US State Department to obtain the necessary passports and permits. Kosta is working with corporate sponsors such as The North Face, Colgate-Palmolive, and FitBit.
Dean Karnazes has achieved much, but isn’t even close to the finish line of his career. Watch for more feats of wonder — and many more stories.
By: Dean Karnazes
Publisher: Rodale Books