Let This Ultra-Marathon Runner Teach You About Mastering Pain

Dean Karnazes runs. A lot. On an average week, Karnazes will run anywhere from 80 to 200 miles. Calculate that out and he’s running multiple marathons every single week. That sort of devotion to the act of running — putting one foot in front of the other no matter how sharp the pain — is astounding.

Karnazes has a laundry list of marathons and mega marathons he’s completed. He’s Forrest Gumped across the driest deserts, gone hundreds of miles in 100-degree heat, and traversed the Antarctic. It’s in these challenges that Karnazes feels his soul, discovers himself, and reveals a little bit of his superhuman composition.

By the time Karnazes hit 30 years old, he was lost in the modern consumer world. He’d gone to college, signed for a mortgage, and gotten the car loan like everyone told him he was supposed to do. But there was a hollowness to it all that he just couldn’t live with anymore. On his 30th birthday, it all came to a head. Karnazes stumbled out of a bar that night and he ran 30 miles home. By the time dawn arrived he felt like he’d truly pushed himself for the first time in his life.

“I tend to be compulsive. I’m a runner,” laughs Karnazes as he reminiscences about that first night running. “My life was a mess and what was I gonna do? I needed to do something dramatic and intense.” Now, usually doing something dramatic and intense doesn’t include running a marathon home from a bar through an entire night. And the exhaustion from doing so would probably be enough to put any of us off running for a lifetime. But not Karnazes. He was hooked.

Some people find therapy and reinvention in the unlikeliest of places. But you cannot find it unless you take a leap first and look for it.

“I just wanted to destroy myself, essentially,” Karnazes tells us. “And I thought running 30 miles might just do that. And it did.”

From the physical and mental exhaustion of a 30-mile run, a phoenix rose from the ashes in the form of an ultra-marathon man.

After his 30-miler, Karnazes started off slowly. He invested in some running shoes and gear and started running ten-mile jaunts. One day, two runners blew past him while he was struggling to run up a hill. Soon after, his competitive streak led him to join those same two runners in a 50-mile race. Before he knew it he’d qualified for a 100-miler.

Suddenly the man who had never run marathons before was running across California. The question of whether or not he could or should left his mind as the road he ran got longer and longer. “When you do it yourself, it breaks boundaries. The unimaginable becomes imaginable,” Karnazes tells us.

That first 100 miles turned him into an ultra marathon runner and he set out to conquer the world. Within a few years, Karnazes newfound inspiration for life folded into a globetrotting adventure as he ran ultra-marathons on every continent — twice! Even that wasn’t enough. He sought new heights and new records to break. This led to a 2006 set of runs where he ran 50 marathons in 50 days in all 50 US states.

Running a single marathon is a life-changing endeavor for us mere mortals. So we have to wonder how Karnazes gets it done.

“Will and discipline keep you going when your body says stop,” he informs us before zenly advising, “Master your body, master your mind.”

It’s in the mind that Karnazes finds his inner strength. He tells us that while he’s running he lets his mind “wander freely.” And that freedom of mind, spirit, and body is what has made a lost person feel whole again.

Of course a strong mind only takes a person so far. Karnazes’ many amazing accomplishments have drawn the attention of the medical and scientific communities because — let’s face it — not all of us can run 50 marathons in 50 days.

Karnazes happily put himself under the microscope to dig deeper into his personal body chemistry. Researchers started digging into why Karnazes can do something like this with relative ease. Testing has shown that he is a little bit of Bruce Willis in Unbreakable: he has a physiological ability to block lactic acids from taking over and exhausting his body and muscles.

Dr. Stephen M. Roth wrote in Scientific American that “the production of lactate and other metabolites during extreme exertion results in the burning sensation often felt in active muscles. This often painful sensation also gets us to stop overworking the body, thus forcing a recovery period in which the body clears the lactate and other metabolites.”

Basically, our bodies know when to shut down our exertion so as not to destroy ourselves beyond repair. Karnazes’ body doesn’t do that at the same rate, allowing him to push much further. So, yes, Karnazes mentality is vital to his performance but his Unbreakable-Super-Hero body helps too.

That doesn’t mean we should just give up now. Although we may not have the superhuman ability to block out lactic acids, we can push ourselves to higher goals. We can break down our own barriers little by little by looking to someone like Karnazes for inspiration. Knowing someone is out there running across the Antarctic to the South Pole or running through the 100+ degree temperatures of some desert gives us something to strive for — even if it’s just a small slice of what he does.

“When things are looking really bad,” Karnazes says. “You have to somehow find the inner strength to push through it.”