Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: The Road to Sparta by Dean Karnazes

Looking for inspiration? How about reading the story of an epic footrace retracing the steps of Pheidippides from Athens to Marathon? Did you know the entire journey was 153 miles, not the 26.2 miles we associate with the distance commonly run today? In his memoir, The Road to Sparta: Reliving the Ancient Battle and Epic Run That Inspired the World's Greatest Footrace, ultramarathoning legend Dean Karnazes recounts his attempt to retrace the steps of this hemerodromos (the term for those ultramarathoning messengers of yore). While doing so, he also explored his Greek roots and his life path from surfer to runner. There's a lot of good stuff here.

book cover photo courtesy of Dean Karnazes

Karnazes traces his interest in Pheidippides to a story told to him as a child by his father. "Perhaps you'll run a marathon, like Pheidippides, " his father said. "He ran over 25 miles and then he died. But he still delivered his message." It wasn't that he wanted to die, but the idea of performing such a noble act was inspirational to young Dean. From the conversation with his father, the dream was formed. Dean wanted to be Pheidippides. He wanted to run a marathon.

Interweaving throughout the book, Karnazes tells 3 stories. He tells the story of his life and the influence his Greek roots have had on him. There's a lot of history as well, as he shares the story of the Battle of Marathon, where the Persians attempted to overtake Greece. Dean also shares the story of the Spartathlon, the ultramarathon that attempts to retrace the steps of the ancient hemerodromoi. There's a lot going on in this book but it works. As interesting as it was, reading about the footrace, the story wouldn't be the same without the history behind the run as well as the personal meaning this race held for the author.

He tells a funny story of his obsession with all things Pheidippides, running the 2011 Silicon Valley Marathon dressed as the Greek warrior. I shook my head when I read this because he broke the cardinal rule of running: nothing new on race day. There was, as you might expect, epic chafing. He also realized that this wasn't the way to experience life as a hemerodromos.

photo courtesy of Dean Karnazes
In 2013, one hour after finishing the Chicago Marathon, Dean was on a plane to Greece to promote and run the inaugural Navarino Challenge. My legs tightened up in protest as I imagined an international flight after running a marathon. Exhausted upon his arrival, he says that once he spotted the Acropolis, he felt a rush of adrenaline and climbed up to the apex. It could have been the lack of sleep but he says the gods talked to him.

photo courtesy of Dean Karnazes
When he returned to Greece to run the Spartathlon, Dean was well prepared. His intent was to make the experience as authentic as possible. He planned to only consume the foods that would have been available to the ancient hemerodromoi--fruits, berries, nuts, and pasteli, a sesame paste. He knew not every part of the journey would be ideal, nor would the route be completely identical to the one run in ancient Greece. There was running along very busy highways and breathing exhaust. Most of the route was run on pavement. At one point in the race, he was ingesting emissions from a petroleum plant. Stray dogs chased the runners on the streets of Athens. He encountered people and news media who wanted to meet him, talk with him, and have him sign books. I marveled at how kind and patient he was throughout all the obstacles thrown his way during this run. As an aside, he was nothing but gracious when I contacted him as I prepared this post, sending me all the pictures you see here.

Did he finish the race? You'll have to read the book to find out but like the rest of us runners, Dean lives by the rule that no runner wants a DNF next to their name. He says for a race this intense, DNF takes on a new meaning: Did Nothing Fatal. His motto for this race? Death Before DNF.


finish line photo courtesy of Dean Karnazes
While I'm not an ultramarathoner, I love reading these epic ultramarathon recaps. There's just something so compelling about pushing one's body to its very limits. Cory Reese talked about Care Bears in his book, Nowhere Near First. Dean Karnazes says he's never had an out-of-body experience before this race but claims that at one point, he saw himself running on the trail below him.
"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." ~ Dean Karnazes.
and
"I had set out to find Pheidippides, and in the process I had found myself." ~ Dean Karnazes.
How lucky he was to have been able to experience this epic journey and explore all the history behind the marathon! And by the way, Dean answers the question that might be forming in your mind after reading about this ultramarathon. Why is the marathon 26.2 miles? Wasn't the original marathon distance about 25 miles? Dean speculates that the marathon distance evolved from Pheidippides' final, fatal yet noble run from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, which was approximately 25 miles.  The marathon distance was lengthened to today's distance of 26.2 in the 1908 Olympics so that the royal family could watch the finish right in front of their viewing box.

photo courtesy of Dean Karnazes
A few final thoughts from the book:
"The marathon is not about running, it is about salvation. It offers an opportunity for redemption." ~ Dean Karnazes.
"There is no luck involved in finishing a marathon. You can't fake your way through a marathon." ~ Dean Karnazes 
If you want to read more about Dean Karnazes' epic adventure, he shared some thoughts on Runner's World about applying ancient lessons to modern day thinking.  It's a great article so just try to ignore the plethora of ads that Rodale feels the need to throw at us. You can also go to Dean's website, which is blissfully ad-free. There's also a nice article on Trail Runner about Dean. Finally, a documentary has been in the works--I found the trailer for it, but no other information.

As I mentioned earlier, I was planning on sending Dean some questions for this post. I realized this week that after running Boston, he was hopping a plane to run London this weekend! I wasn't going to bother him. Instead, let's all visit his Facebook page and wish him well!




The Book Club link up has gone away but I'm still interested in sharing your book reviews! If you've read a running or fitness book lately and want to share your review with me, I'll post the link here! Just send it to me!

Next month we are reading a book that's been on my to-read list for a long time and that's Kathrine Switzer's Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's SportsFresh off her triumphant return to Boston at age 70, her bib number was retired but not until she ran 26.2! In honor of this event, the book is being re-released. I cannot wait to read it and I hope you'll join me for this one.




I'm linking up with the Fairytales and Fitness and Running on Happy for the Friday Five!


Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.

44 comments :

  1. I heard his interview regarding the book on the Runners World Podcast and found it fascinating. I will definitely need to read it! You know I love a good history lesson :D

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    1. There's a lot of history interspersed into the story. It was really interesting!

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  2. I recently read the article Runners World (December issue) did on Dean and this book. That's how back logged I am on RW mags. How did I not realize Karnazes was Greek? Doh.

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    1. I'm amazed by his feats--I think he must be superhuman. Maybe he could have been one of those ancient couriers?

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  3. Wow, he's definitely a character! I need to check out this book - seems like a good read!

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  4. I remember a few years back when he ran across the US and they were doing some daily updates on Kelly and Regis. He is done super human!

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    1. Oh my gosh, I forgot about that! He's done so many amazing things!

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  5. My sister just got Dean book, now I am curious if this is the one!

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    1. She'll have to let me know what she thinks!

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  6. Another great review, thanks!! I have a copy of Katherine Switzer's book (I met her a couple years ago at the DSM Maaraton expo), maybe I"ll get a chance to read it (hey, after Grandma's, I"ll be needing another project, right?).

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    1. I'm really looking forward to reading her story--her Boston Marathon at age 70 was pretty darn inspiring! 4:45? Way to go!

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  7. This looks like an interesting read- the older I get the more I realize I love the stories based on history more than fiction. I don't know how you find the time to get all that reading done! Your next choice looks awesome- a Boston finish at 70 is amazing and she looked fantastic when she finished!

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    1. We're fortunate to have so many running legends to inspire us. I am amazed at how accessible they all are to us. Everytime I do a book review like this and I ask for a quote, an answer to a question, or pictures for my post, they are always happy to oblige!

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  8. Well, chafing or not, Dean certainly makes a great looking Greek warrior! This book sounds fascinating and I plan to read it. I also want to read Katherine Switzer's book. She's so inspiring, not just for her fearless attitude and character, but I'm pretty impressed she ran a 4:44 at age 70,

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    1. It's all about staying true to your roots, right? I truly believe Dean is a descendent from the ancient couriers. There is no way he could run like he does otherwise!

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  9. I read his Ultramarathon Man book when I first started out running, and was really inspired by Dean...not to run as many miles as he does, but I liked his attitude toward running and I think he's one of the nicest famous runners out there. I'll have to read this book soon (I'm reading K. Switzer's book and it's great - you'll love it).

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    1. I had a feeling Dean was nice--one time I posted a comment on his page and he responded in the nicest way! It's so refreshing to have such down to earth celebrities around us.

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  10. I read Amby Burfoot's First Ladies of Running last year, right before running Tink. I just shake my head at all the ridiculous excuses men came up with to keep women from running.

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    1. I read that too, and it really was a man's world back then. Of course, some folks are trying to take us back there...

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  11. I have looked up other Dean Karnazes books to read, because he gets mentioned on Born to Run and on Scott Jurek's book, I'm going to check this one out.

    I read on Jurek's book that the distance is estimated to be 150 miles, because he did this same race. It seems that everybody starts hallucinating after 100 miles?

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  12. That sounds like a very interesting read! You read the coolest stuff.

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    1. It's funny, I started out the book club as a way to learn more about our sport and help some new authors out. But now it's become a labor of love. I really enjoy the books and reaching out to the authors. Only one didn't answer my request for contact. That's a pretty good track record.

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  13. I read his interview in RW a few months ago. This book sounds like a great read! I'd like to also read Katherine Switzer's book - I'll try to join you on that one!

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    1. I'd love the company! Her book is being re-released for the 50th anniversary of the original run. I'm so excited to read it.

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  14. Ordered! Both of them, thanks for the review. I am fascinated by the ultra distances but not sure that its for me. I do like reading about them and watching the documentaries, though. What he said about not faking your way through a marathon is sooo true!!!

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    1. Hands down, best quote about a marathon I've read. I hope you enjoy it--I found it to be one of my favorites so far. But I say that about all the books--I'm pretty selective, so I try to avoid ones I won't like.

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  15. This is on my list to read. Dean is such an inspirational athlete. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. Let me know what you think when you read it!

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  16. I just can't get over the muscles on that man! And it's so true.... you can't fake your way through a marathon. Lots and lots of work

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  17. This book sounds great! I cannot imagine ever getting on a plane an hour after running any race, let along a full marathon. My legs would be so tight by the end of the flight!

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    1. I think compression would be essential!

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  18. Dude! I did NOT know all that about Dean. I have to read this book!!!

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  19. Sounds like a great book! I also love reading about ultra marathons even though Ive never done one.

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    1. I also like to read about mountain climbing--something I'll never do either!

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  20. OMG, he sounds insane. But I guess I knew that. LOL at the epic chafing! That's got to be an understatement.

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    1. The last time I ran Chicago, a guy wore a similar getup. By the end of the race, the top was off and his back was raw!

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  21. I am in awe of all of his accomplishments!! I had no idea he was Greek. I would like to read this book as well.

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    1. He's pretty amazing and such a nice guy!

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  22. He seems like a really interesting guy and full of passion! Great review. I'd love to do an ultra one day. And I never knew that that's where the 26.2 came from!

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    1. I don't know if I want to run more than 26.2 but I sure get the appeal of a long trail run!

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