Self-help books are all the rage. Titles like How to Write a Blog (must read that one when I get time), How to Be a Better Lover (yes, that one too) and How to become a Millionaire (all essential reading it seems) clutter the Amazon “To Buy” list; all of them are based on the idea that we all have the capacity to do anything, we just need to spend a few quid on a book and it is instantly within our grasp.
The reason it works is because Karnazes hasn’t written a self-help book. He has, however, in his approach to ultra-distance running – that is any distance beyond the 42.2 kilometres of a marathon – offered up a template for anyone looking to shake off the shackles they place around their own abilities.
“There’s really no mystery to what I do. It hurts me just as bad as anyone else. I’ve just learned an essential insight; your legs can only carry you so far. Running great distances is mostly done with your head … and, as Benner (Cummings, first cross-country coach) taught me twenty-five years ago, your heart. The human body is capable of amazing physical deeds. If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our internal fire, the possibilities are endless.”
Karnazes is a Greek-American from California. After turning his back on a promising running career when he was in college, he rediscovered the joy of running on the night of his 30th birthday. A premature midlife crisis perhaps as he realised he had been trapped by the corporate lifestyle and had lost touch with his inner self.
Stripping down to his underpants and throwing on a pair of old sneakers and under the light of a silvery moon, Karnazes began to run. Seven hours and thirty miles later in Half Moon Bay, he found a payphone and rang his wife Julie, asking for a lift home.
That night opened the tap. He remembered that he liked running. And running long.
“In the course of a single night I had been transformed from a drunken yuppie into a reborn athlete. During a period of great emptiness in my life, I turned to running for strength. I heard the calling and I went to the light.”
He began competing in the Western States Endurance Run, 100 miles through unforgiving mountainous terrain.
“Although the task seemed incredibly difficult, at least the rules of engagement were clear. There were no hidden meanings or mixed messages. Just run, and don’t stop. If I made it 100 miles I’d succeed. If I didn’t, I’d fail.”
Facing the heat, crossing mountains and rivers, running through the night wary of the potential threat of a mountain lion, feet bursting with blisters, muscle spasms and a severe case of nyctalopia or night blindness, it wasn’t exactly a Fun Run. Certainly not what you need as you struggle under a starless sky along a trail with brush flashing in your face and the prospect of slipping down a steep sandstone embankment. Which is what happened.
Karnazes dogged it out, at one point literally crawling up the trail, and crossed the finish line in 21 hours, one minute and 15 seconds.
“Covering 100 miles on foot was more than a lesson in survival, it was an education on the grace of living.”
Karno then takes us through the agony of Badwater, a 135-mile run through the vicious heat of Death Valley which left him collapsed in a heap after 72 miles.
“It was pure unadulterated defeat. But what I came to realise on the drive home was that I’d loved every second of it.”
He would return to Badwater, winning it in 2004 and chalking up another five top-ten finishes.
Looking for more challenges he went on to run the first South Pole marathon – this time it was the frostbite that nearly finished him off – and then did the 199-mile Relay from Calistoga to Santa Cruz in 46 hours. Each challenge offering new insights into what his body and his mind could take.
Karnazes may not go down in history as the greatest ever ultradistance runner – anyone would be hard pushed to match the astounding feats of the Greek athlete Yiannis Kouros – but he will go down as a runner with as tough an inner core as you could hope to find. And an approach to running that translates well into an attitude towards life itself.
©Barney Spender 2014
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