Lessons on Persistence from Dean Karnazes

Lessons on Persistence from Dean Karnazes


Photo by Alex Gorham on Unsplash

In college, I came across a book about long-distance running called Ultramarathon Man. The author, Dean Karnazes, was a runner throughout his childhood and into his teens, before taking a long break from the sport. More than a decade later, Dean found himself with an urge to run after work and covered 30 miles before calling his wife from a 7-Eleven for a ride home. For 25 years, he’s been a leading ultramarathoner, having won a 135-mile race in Death Valley and once running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

In my piece criticizing tech’s obsession with long hours, I suggested that perhaps Elon Musk could be the “Dean Karnazes” of our industry—an unstoppable worker cut from a different cloth. For us mortals, trying to be more productive by working 80 hours a week is like trying to be fit by running 20 miles a day. It just doesn’t make sense.

To my surprise, Dean actually got in touch with me and said that his own working and training habits have evolved over the past decade to avoid the “excruciating toll” that Musk and others have suffered. As a former collegiate gymnast, endurance racing is the complete opposite of my experience. I was intrigued and reached out. We arranged an interview, and I got a lot more than I bargained for. Here are five pieces of advice from an athlete who knows a thing or two about giving your all.

1. Earn your rest

On the topic of recovery, Dean’s stance is clear: you have to earn it. “I think most people haven’t pushed to the point where they’ve earned the recovery day,” Dean says. “It’s often a cop-out.”

He sees it when he goes to the gym—people who aren’t particularly dialed in. “You’re texting, you’re reading your Instagram feed. Why are you even here? You’re barely working out.”

For Dean, recovery is something that comes after a hard effort. That’s when the rest can actually do something for you. Which means we need to continually push ourselves and test our limits.

While this may sound harsh, it doesn’t have to be. Many of us have had the experience of working a short week, because of a holiday break or time off, and finding ourselves getting just as much done as usual because we’re working smarter and pushing ourselves further.

What if we gave that level of effort every day? “I think that most of the limitations that we have are self-contrived,” Dean says, “Sometimes, if you can just shut down your mind and just execute, you can do extraordinary things.”

2. Run your race

Long hours feel especially grueling if you don’t believe in the mission of your company or don’t feel a strong sense of purpose for your work. In order to do what he does, Dean says he couldn’t make decisions primarily on how they would impact his bank account. “I am 100% certain that I would be more financially well-off had I remained a business guy,” Dean says, “But I would be completely less fulfilled.”

Dean made a conscious decision to choose a line of work where success—e.g. winning a race—brings little more than a metal buckle. He’s had to get creative, generating income from writing (five books and counting), speaking, and corporate sponsors.

In the business world, it’s natural to see income and wealth as the primary metrics of your life’s success—and as a Bay Area resident, he says he sees plenty of folks who operate with that mentality.

“People give lip service to the idea that their life is more than just money,” says Dean. “But in the end, not many are willing to say ‘I’m not going to take this on because I know it will screw up my quality of life.’”

Even if we don’t fully buy into the idea that money equals success, our consumer culture makes it hard not to focus on making more money to support our spending. But in the past decade, the FIRE movement has won over many young people who seek to live well below their means so they can retire early and focus on their hobbies and passions. This doesn’t mean it’s realistic for everyone to save 75% of one’s salaries to retire early—but just remembering that we have choices can help us find the motivation to push ahead.

3. Work more effectively

Over the years, Dean has learned to handle his life and his training differently. Part of that has come with learning that trying to force himself to do something doesn’t always work. Getting rest is important so he can push himself fully when he is training—rather than going through the motions.

“I’m not afraid now to turn off all the alarms and just let my body wake naturally,” Dean says. “Before, if I was not out of bed before sunrise and working out, I was a failure.”

Rest is important because it allows us to recharge and bring our A game. Showing up at the office at a certain time or staying late but being tired doesn’t do anyone any good. This is something many of us, myself included, are guilty of. Of course some companies track hours aggressively, but hopefully if you get your rest in and produce better results, it will be hard to question your approach.

Switching between intense effort and rest is the idea behind programs like Pomodoro, where 25-minute work sessions are punctuated by five minutes of designated goof-off, relaxation time. Ultimately, we have to find systems that allow us to do our best work.

4. Don’t fear pain

Being a successful ultramarathoner is not glamorous. For Dean, it involves regularly running 70-80 miles in one go in training and powering through multiple days of running with no sleep in races. This life has given him a sober outlook.

“Struggle and suffering are the essence of a life well-lived,” Dean says. “If the point is to run a race, run the damn race. Make it hurt; that’s why you’re there.”

We often live in fear of discomfort and pain. But for Dean, that’s something to be embraced. Like when the water’s cold and we’re scared to go in. Diving in is a shock, but we quickly acclimatize and move on.

Whether it’s starting a company, switching careers, or having kids, when we accept that it will be difficult—instead of pretending it’s not—we end up in a better place.

5. Pursue adventure

At 56, Dean has been running ultramarathons for quarter of a century, completing the 100-mile Western States back in 1994. Ten years later, he won the Badwater Ultra, a 135-mile run described as “the world’s toughest footrace” and recently was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition.

Usually these kinds of awards are bestowed on someone who’s starting to slow down, but not for Dean. He’s got a 135-mile run from Sparta to Athens later this year and just published a new book called Running for Good that collects 101 feel-good stories of runners from all walks of life.

Whether it’s through his training or just his nature, the man is persistent. And along the way, he’s always pursuing things that call to his spirit.

“The challenge of running 50 marathons in 50 states and 50 days, I mean that was a grand adventure,” Dean said. While physically grueling and logistically complicated (with landing sponsors and acquiring race permits), it was all worth it, he says. “The people I met, the food I ate, the sights I saw, were all so fantastic.”

That two-month adventure in 2006 inspired him to want to run a marathon in all 203 countries on earth in one year, a project he’s been pursuing for five years. An idea of that scale requires serious coordination with the U.S. State Department and the UN to pull it off, which is understandably a challenge. “That’s a goal that I’ve been failing at for five years,” Dean admits, “and I’m going to continue failing at it until I succeed.”

Dean was meant to be an endurance athlete. From his joyful long runs in childhood to his lack of running injuries—or even a single bout of cramps—he has found an endeavor where he can flourish.

Ultimately, most of us don’t have the desire to run 100-mile races. Nor do we see the value in plowing through evenings and weekends for a company or project we don’t believe in. That’s okay. But in Dean’s eyes, the problem isn’t the effort itself; it’s where the effort is applied. One of his favorite maxims, adapted from songwriter Kinky Friedman, is “find what you love, and let it kill you.”

He’s got a point: We’re all dead in the long run. But meanwhile, what pursuits would we be excited to channel our full selves into?

This piece first appeared in Fast Company