Pasteli-Powered Karnazes Takes On Ancient Silk Road

There’s no stopping Dean Karnazes once he sets off on a run. The Greek-American ultra-marathoner from California can run anyone on earth into the ground – over distance.

He has run a marathon to the South Pole in temperatures of ?13 °F, completed 50 marathons in 50 days – one in every state – and finished 350 miles in just 80 hours and 44 minutes without sleep – unless you count the part where he said he was running while sleeping, a kind of psychotic dream state in which his legs never stopped.

For all that, Karnazes said he has never had a cramp or even experienced his muscles seizing up, thanks to a rare condition which allows his 53-year-old body to rapidly flush lactic acid from his system.

On June 29, Karnazes began a 12-day, 326-mile run along the Silk Road, part of an ancient trade route through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, a trek he’s undertaking for the U.S. State Department’s sports diplomacy program.

Should be a piece of cake over those number of days for a man who completed a 200-mile relay race, ran across Death Valley in the middle of the summer and finished a marathon at the South Pole in -13 degree weather, another superhuman feat.

Karnazes is regarded as one of the top long distance runners in the world, along with Yiannis Kouros, a Greek-Australian from Melbourne who is sometimes called the “Running God,” or “Pheidippides Successor” because of his similar style of just not stopping.

karnazesKouros says that his secret is that “when other people get tired, they stop. I don’t. I take over my body with my mind. I tell it that it’s not tired and it listens.”

Karnazes has garnered more fame with his frequent runs. Not bad for a man who gave up high school track and didn’t pick up running again until later in life after growing up in Inglewood, California, son of Nick and Fran Karnazes.

In a piece in The New York Times, Karnazes told writer Jen Miller that he’s taking on the Silk Road endurance test as part of why he runs: “The spirit of exploration,” and “seeing whether the impossible was possible.”

Karnazes said he took to ultra-running and pushed himself even more after the 50-marathon grueling runs. “What it taught me was that the human body is more remarkable than what we realized. If we can just get out of the way of our perceived limitations, we’re really capable of extraordinary things,” he told the paper.

It didn’t come as easy as it seems even for him. “There were mornings where I couldn’t even roll out of bed,” he said during the 50-marathon push.

He’s run on all seven continents of earth twice including some of the most remote and exotic places but says his “pinnacle achievement,” was running 10-kilometers with his then 10-year old daughter on her birthday. She’s now 20.


With so many accomplishments under his worn-out shoes, Karnazes said he didn’t think of the Silk Road until running the 2015 San Francisco Marathon when someone recognized him at the start and told him he worked for the State Department in faraway Krygyzstan.

“That led to me asking, “Is there running there? Recreational running?” Then he got an offer he couldn’t refuse: the man told him, “I want you to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.”

Karnazes said at the time, “I’m thinking this is just a fantasy, this guy. But his State Department contacts, they put a proposal in front of me. I’m very bad at saying no, and this sounded too good to be true. So I said yes.”

He immediately started to research and prep for a course he didn’t know. In July, the Silk Road can be brutal on the human body, with temperatures in Uzbekistan capable of hitting 112 degrees on long desert stretches above Afghanistan.

“If you saw this agenda — when I first looked at it, I thought, ‘They’re going to kill me,’” he said. “So I’ve been running in the mid-day heat, which a lot of runners don’t do. Also something runners don’t do: I’ve been purposefully dehydrating myself and running without water to get used to the fact that I’m not going to have consistent support out in some of these more remote areas,” he told The Times.

He’s also running a lot of mountains, including one that’s more than 50 times a higher pitch than the famed Heartbreak Hill at the Boston Marathon. He’s a little wary of what might happen, including if he can’t get reception his cell phone.

To fuel himself, he said he’ll take nutrition products, electrolyte powder for water and rely on local foods – along with his secret munchie, the Greek treat of pasteli, honey and sesame seed he said he first tried in Greece. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is better than any gel pack I’ve ever had, and it’s more sustaining.”

Along the Silk Road he will sleep and stay with families and is planning to run 50 miles a day, a cakewalk for someone of his skills and drive. The three countries he’s running through are celebrating 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union.

“The idea is to link these three countries together on this footpath. The power of running — it unites people,” he said. “There’s a magic in running. It’s so simple, it’s a commonality we all share as a species. We’re divided by the color of our skin, divided by the God we believe in, socioeconomic level, whatever else, but running’s a great democratizer. The idea is to get people to come out and run along with me, to show together the power of running. That’s the whole idea behind this sports diplomacy program … just make it. Enjoy the journey.

(You can follow Karnazes’ trip at https://eca.state.gov/ultramarathon. The State Department will be posting updates on Twitter at twitter.com/sportsdiplomacy, and on Instagram at instagram.com/sportsdiplomacy)








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