Dean Karnazes has always been intense. He races ultramarathons (loosely defined as any race longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon, but usually more than 50 miles) in part because regular marathons are just "too short" for him to be competitive.
Karnazes gained public acclaim and the title of "The Ultramarathon Man" by completing highly publicized feats of extreme endurance: running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days; running 350 miles without stopping for sleep; running across the contiguous lower 48 United States tailed by a camera crew from LIVE! with Regis and Kelly.
On Sunday he will be running the New York Marathon, but he refers to it as "just a training run." This weekend, Karnazes doesn't plan to race, just enjoy the experience.
Even the most intense athlete has to assess his or her priorities sometimes, and at 52 years old, Karnazes has had a few years to think about whether intensity should be his defining characteristic. He's very conscious of the platform he has built with his endurance exploits and the opportunity he has to influence others and create change in the world.
Karnazes says he draws inspiration from early television fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who chased extreme fitness records such as completing more than 1,000 pushups in a half-hour, but he made his biggest impact through his televised workout shows, which introduced weightlifting and exercise to millions of Americans.
"[LaLanne] influenced millions of people, but I think if he had just stayed this kind of obscure, superfit guy, that never would have happened," Karnazes says. "So many elite ultramarathoners I personally think the world of, but beyond their small circle, their sphere of influence is kind of limited, and I think that's tragic. So for me, I'm just trying to shift those expectations from being a guy that goes out and races these 100-, 200-mile runs to someone that's more mainstream."
Karnazes wants to be remembered less for the miles he's covered and more for the miles that he can inspire others to traverse. One of his favorite parts of his run across the country in 2011 was stopping at schools along the way to talk with kids about the importance of healthy, active living and a good diet, and then running a few miles with them before continuing on his trek.
"Still to this day, I get tons of emails and letters from parents saying 'My daughter or my son still talks about you coming to their school,'" Karnazes marvels. "I've got boxes in my garage filled with letters ... [and] an Outlook box on my email with more than 10,000 letters," all from children and parents who were influenced by his cross country run.
One of the most lasting legacies from the trip is the 5K runs established along the routes Karnazes ran with students. He says that a few of the schools have turned it into a tradition that's been continued for three years now.
Karnazes also helps kids in a more systematic way, using his ability to generate publicity to raise funds for nonprofits that target childhood obesity and encourage kids to exercise. During his cross-country journey, he raised nearly $200,000 for Action for Healthy Kids. The national organization enlists thousands of volunteers to help implement programs that encourage healthy eating and activity in schools.
Volunteers can also fundraise and run a marathon with Karnazes and Team Healthy Kids, as 61 runners did three weeks ago at the Chicago Marathon and 25 more will do this Sunday in New York.
Karnazes thinks most of the runners would be inspired to train and raise money for Action for Healthy Kids without his involvement, but he allows that his star power probably doesn't hurt. For him, the New York Marathon will be just another training run.
"I know it sounds funny, but it's just too short a race for me, it's not where I excel. So I kind of use marathons as just training reps," he says. "I haven't done any specific training for New York. It's for the enjoyment, it's for the celebration, and it's to support Team Healthy Kids. Do I have a specific goal time for New York? No. Enjoy yourself along the way."
Three or four times a year, Karnazes will pick a big event to focus his competitive drive, something at least 100 miles long where his endurance can really shine.
"I still compete at the best level I can. I don't have any delusions that I'm going to keep winning races at age 52, but that being said, I'm still competitive," he says. "I've got to work nearly twice as hard now to keep up the same level of fitness, but I'm willing to do that. I really enjoy the pursuit of physical excellence. I always tell people my finish line is a pine box."
Most weekends, though, Karnazes isn't focused on getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. He runs many races for fun, for charity or because a speaking or sponsorship obligation has him in the area.
"I just like being out there and kind of experiencing the race. I think that some of the magic is lost when you start looking at these races as just races," he says.
"When you're immersed in it, you tend to think of running just as racing, but these ultramarathons are set in some the most beautiful places in the world, and I think to lose sight of the magnificence of both the setting and what you're doing, it's a bit nearsighted."
More and more, Karnazes tries to look at the big picture, enjoy the experience and do what he can to help others. Thousands of kids appreciate that change of pace.