Look out for Dean!

January 28, 2007

Dean Karnazes is a true rarity: an ultramarathoner who has achieved fame outside of the ultra community. Whether this is a good thing depends on whom you ask. Dean’s ubiquitousness in the media has brought awareness and understanding of ultrarunning to a wider audience, and his life story and unusual feats of endurance have resonated with many people. But others feel that the attention Dean receives is way out of proportion to his achievements as an athlete. (For an example of this perspective, click here.)

I was thinking about Dean yesterday while running with Scott and talking with him about staying motivated during races. Scott said that he responds well to harsh negative comments along the lines of, “C’mon, you wimp, [name of nearest challenger] is catching up! You don’t want HIM to win, do you?”

This method of “encouragement” sounded like fun, so I decided to give it a shot. But which imaginary rival should be added to this training run? I figured that I knew enough about Dean and his adventures to offer a fairly realistic call to arms. And so I began:

“Better get moving, Scott — Dean Karnazes is starting to reel you in.”

“Now he’s signing autographs, but he’s still making up time on you.”

“Now he’s eating a pizza in between strides. He’s still closing the gap.”

“Now he’s shaving his chest for the next Runner’s World photo shoot. He’s looking really strong.”

“Now he’s talking to North Face on his cell phone, renegotiating his sponsorship deal. He’s saying that he wants a bonus for each time he beats you.”

“Now he’s dictating his next book into a hand-held mini-recorder. I think he just said that he’s about to pass you….”

I’m not sure that Scott was inspired by my monologue, but I certainly enjoyed it.


  1. "C'mon Doogie, Fox is catching up! He's carrying a course map for navigation, but he's still closing the gap!""Fox is still gaining, Greg! He hasn't trained in years and he doesn't even own running shoes anymore, but he's still going to pass you like you were going backwards!""Do you want to get beat by your own King Slow Boy? Pick up the pace!"Do you feel motivated now? πŸ˜‰ Actually, I'm guessing not–I assume the imagined rival provides motivation in proportion to his/her plausibility as a rival. The thought of being passed by me is probably about as motivating as the thought of being passed by an octagenarian, or a Martian.

  2. I was going to stop by and ask how this weekend's training run went. However, I don't think I need to ask, as this next entry just about covers it all. My favorite part of this internal(/external?) dialobue was the chest shaving bit. You don't think he was born shiny smooth?Happy recovery!

  3. professor Crowther: beyond taking a poke at the pokable (something to be cherished, and in fact self-inflicted for balance) I would argue the weakness in your base reasoning is to support a false assumption. Why even accept the "ultra-marathoner" defintion of Dean Karnazes? Irrespective of definitions and names, does he fit your definition on ultra-marathoner? Your only partial agreement with Flashesofpanic would indicate that at some level you acknowledge and possibly appreciate the magnitude of his endeavour and would be quite thankful if other people acknowledged the magnitude of your own… But the rules of competition are such that our adversaries should be competing in the same event … and it is quite evident that you and Dean never will. Namely because he just seems to be an above average athlete who has made running his focus and extended his work day… hardly anything to do with racing an ultramarathon… If it is popularity you are after, then you may want to consider changing focus rather than racing against imaginary enemies…

  4. I really enjoyed this posting.

  5. The Dean persona is truly amazing and this is a funny post. I am certain however that Dean is not going to put the fear of "loss" into you or Scott. If you are really going to have world domination you better start racing against relay runners. Get 10 good 10k runners and challenge them to a 100k. They get to relay and you get to run solo. now do this once every other month for 6 months. Whether or not you beat them, you may just become the world best in the 100k! Oh, and if you do beat them you could definately get Runners World to profile you as the GREATEST RESEARCH SCIENTIST RUNNER. If you the RW fame you might want to pick a few slower relay runners, like myself! By the way what is the Lincoln park route called on the Running Routes page?

  6. Adam, did you mean Seward Park rather than Lincoln Park? We alternated between the "Seward Park Road Loop"(http://www.usatf.org/routes/view.asp?rID=787) and "Seward Park with Hills" (http://www.usatf.org/routes/view.asp?rID=101784).

  7. Hey Greg, did you know that you are pictured on the February 2007 cover of National Masters News, winning the World Trail Challenge? I saw a familiar face peeking out from under the mailing label, and I was like, "nooo, couldn't be."I suppose it is a dubious honor to be featured at your (youthful) age in a publication about masters running, but at least you didn't have to shave your chest like certain people.

  8. I am reminded of my father's claim to hold the world record for whittling a blue pencil into the Mianus River. There is greatness in your ancestry.

  9. Greg, wonder if you saw Steve Rushin's article in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated lamenting that humans are close to reaching or have reached their (non-drug-enhanced) performance limits in "real" sports, thereby forcing them to invent pointless new activities in order to continue to break records. Rushin doesn't cite Dean Karnazes as an example, but he could have. Not sure I quite buy Rushin's argument, but I share the sentiment behind it. I'm not a big fan of pointless activities, however athletic, being compared with or substituted for proper sports. At the risk of seriously offending a lot of people, I'd suggest that the category of "pointless athletic activities" is a lot broader than the sort of individual "feats" that Rushin talks about. What about the "sports" of ballroom dancing, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, etc.? Or cheerleading? SI humorist Rick Riley once wrote a quite opinionated article on the pointlessness of cheerleading. Obviously the motivations people have for engaging in this broad swath of activities are quie varied (most cheerleaders have quite different motivations from Dean Karnazes, I'm sure). But what all these activities share is that they resemble proper sports enough to convince a lot of people apparently don't see the difference.I can already here folks lining up to ask me for a definition of a "proper" sport! πŸ˜‰ I would actually be curious to hear from someone who takes the opposite point of view. Is my sense of what constitutes a "proper" sport too limited? What am I missing here?

  10. Jem, don't think you are missing anything. It's an issue of parameters (thank-you for your blogspace Greg!)This could go who's-on-firstly forever. And maybe it should with as many opinions as possible. In general I think humans over time, eventually, get tired of conventions. In much the same way, if Darwin was right, that fish became fed up of staying in the "proper" water… maybe… Something that does not work for me is the idea of "fragile" or "unhealthy" athletes. From Namath's and Walton's knees to anorexic one-time winning marathoners and everything in between. Irrespective of performance and victory. Sports is not War. In a similar way as humans who have made "Beauty" their job (or chief occupation), sort of miss the yeah-but-there's-got-to-be-more-to Life point. If your proper means "old" and "traditional," well maybe it is a tad too limited. Aren't Space and Tolerance needed for Evolution? "Daily Marathoning" is unlikely to ever become an olympic sport. But given the amount of people running and willing to compete in "ultra" marathons, maybe there's room for an Olympic 100Km race. With all due respect to Philippide and his deadly marathon-victory announcement. Maybe it's time some average joe run a 100Km to tell everybody "Hey guys, there's a Party in town!!" And start dancing to get people motivated… Rest assured, the competition will likely be enhanced…

  11. I loved this blogpost, Greg! Would you be willing to record those gambits in a podcast for my next workout?Inspired by Mark's comment about perhaps your first magazine cover, I searched on Google images. Given the plethora of Greg Crowther images, I wonder if a Dean-esque career switch is in the near future for you?(After that, I searched on Google images for myself and all I found was a tombstone.)

  12. No, Jem, I didn't see that article. I'd certainly agree with the claim that people's desire for notoriety leads them to pioneer new, sometimes bizarre ways of testing themselves athletically. Still, I question whether there's an important distinction to be made between sports that are "proper" and sports that are not. I think people should be free to enjoy any sport they want as long as that sport isn't unnecessarily dangerous (to us or the environment) and doesn't monopolize resources that should be used for other purposes. I'm not personally interested in ballroom dancing, but if others want to compete at that sort of thing, it's fine by me.Am I missing your point with my liberal relativism?

  13. Like you Doogie, I don't have any problem with people pursuing whatever sport or sport-like activity they want. But I do think there are problems when someone (the public, the media, the participants themselves) mistakes non-sport for sport, and that these problems aren't limited to allocation-of-resources issues.My stance of course begs a definition of what constitutes a "proper" sport. I confess I'm unable to offer a formal definition, but nor would I want to make the question-begging claim that "I know it when I see it". Instead, I'll just suggest that the idea of sport is an inherently historical concept that traces back to the ancient Greeks. So while I can't offer a formal definition of a "proper" sport, I would argue that "proper" sports tend to share some key features with ancient Greek sports, the sports that first gave rise to the very idea of "sport".In particular, I think that direct competition between the participants is a key element of a proper sport. By this I mean that the sport itself is inherently competitive, so that (barring cheating) the outcome of the event is determined directly by the competitors' performance against one another. Officials like referees only affect the outcome by preventing cheating. Track and field events are good examples, as are many team sports like soccer. This is in contrast to sports where competitors compete only indirectly, via the decisions of a judge who determines which competitor best met some standard of performance.I find direct sporting competition uniquely valuable for several reasons. First (and least important), sports that lack inherent, direct competition necessarily have a made-up, arbitrary quality. Any activity, athletic or otherwise, can be turned into a competition simply by deciding what constitutes optimal performance and then assigning someone to judge which contestant best meets that standard. Second (related to the first reason, but more important), sports that involve direct competition necessarily value athletic over aesthetic prowess. Soccer may be the beautiful game, but the beauty is not the point (literally; there are no style points in soccer). Most judged sports have a strong aesthetic element–to be good is to look good according to some criterion. Third, I think sports that involve direct competition are better for teaching sportsmanship. The postgame handshake loses its point if its not preceded by a direct competition. The outcome of a judged competition depends in a direct sense only on the judge's decisisons. You tend to end the competition focused on the judge's decisions, and so not focused on your competitors at all (I speak from personal experience here, having participated in many high school marching band competitions). Finally, I find direct competition more attractive and satisfying in a primal, elemental way. Direct competition is people pushing one another to their limits, pushing one another to excel. Judged sports are about people pushing themselves to please a judge. I recognize, though, that this final reason is more a matter of personal preference.Hopefully it's implicit in the above why I think it's a bad think to mix up proper sports and other sports. Not hugely bad in the grand scheme of things–there are many things in the world worse than mistaking competitive ballroom dancing for a proper sport. But bad nonetheless.

  14. I think that sports like running and swimming fail the aforementioned test requiring direct competition. If you talk to age group swimmers after a swim meet, they'll report in how many events they improved on their PR and whether they achieved something like an "A" ranking. When I run a race, I'm mostly interested in my time and whether that can be considered an improvement although I will try to catch someone in front of me. My inclination would be to require that comparisons between different performances can be made with strictly objective criteria (this also implies that sports are performed). This does not seem complete because this criterion would permit a math quiz to be classified as a proper sport. Maybe we should stick with the traditional definition of proper sports which is that something is a proper sport if the British consider it so.

  15. Jem's take on direct competition makes sense to me and is inclusive of running and swimming, in my opinion. However, I do like Jay's traditional definition of "proper sports." It reminds me of Dr. Robert Hoffman's definition of "peer review," which is that manuscripts' suitability for publication ought to be judged by members of the British peerage (dukes, marquis, earls, viscounts, and barons), who, while often lacking in academic credentials, throw very nice parties.

  16. I also appreciate your suggesed definition of "proper sports", Jay. πŸ˜‰ And I should hasten to add that whether a sport involves direct competition is at least somewhat independent of the attitudes the participants take about their own performance. As you said, runners may well care more about running a good race (according to their own personal standards) than catching the person in front of them, and something similar could be said of participants in any sport. As a Little League coach, I encouraged my players to take pride in their own play (e.g, did you try hard, did you play better than last game), but not to worry about wins and losses. I don't think that undermines my suggested (partial) definition of a proper sport, though. The nature of the activity seems like a separate issue from the attitudes or motivations of the participants.

  17. Greg,I have tried many times to define sport while having arguments with various figure skaters and golfers. I always end up going with the Justice Potter Stewart obscenity explaination."I shall not attempt further to define what exactly sport is, but I know it when I see it."Which usually leads to a "you couldn't do a triple lutz in a leotard on ice" type of retort. To which I always respond with "I can't program a computer chip either but that doesn't make computing a sport." From there it goes to a "you're stupid" "NO YOU'RE STUPID" level leaving no elementary playground insult unturned. Which ends up making one wonder why bother in the first place?

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