In a continuing collaboration with Scott over at Straight to the Bar, we will be writing about training and media influences throughout the month of August. I would like to start the discussion about how much the media colors our perceptions of athletes, specifically referencing Dean Karnazes.
Dean Karnazes is almost a household name.
He has inspired hundreds if not thousands of people to change their lives and become more fit. He wrote a humorous look at how an ordinary person can train himself to do extraordinary things in his book, Ultramarathon Man. He has raised a lot of money for various charities through his extreme feats of endurance. He is very personable, and a master at promoting both himself and his causes.
He also rubs a lot of people in the ultramarathon community the wrong way. His often blatant self-promotion gets on a lot of people’s nerves, and even Karnazes himself will be the first to admit that there are people out there that are much better than him at some (or even most) of the events that he competes in or stages.
He recently won an for his accomplishments in 2006. A lot of people will mumble, mutter, or yell about how they aren’t very impressed. Dean may have run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, but Sam Thompson ran his 50 marathons months before Dean did and did it with less support and on a smaller budget. He may have won the Vermont 100 Trail Race, but Scott Jurek wins just about any endurance event that he competes in and regularly wipes the floor with Dean when they compete against each other.
Even Karnazes will admit that Scott Jurek is a better racer than him:
“Along with Ann Trason, Scott Jurek is one of the most dominant, competitive ultra-runners this country has ever seen,” Karnazes said in an e-mail to the News Tribune. “I’m a big fan of his and would surely include him in my top three picks with [Americans] Charlie Engle [adventure racer] and Laird Hamilton [surfer].”
Why does Dean Karnazes get the award rather than somebody else? Is it because he was considered for Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world last year? Is it because he will take any excuse to put his face in front of a microphone or camera? Is it because nobody has ever heard of somebody like Scott Jurek, while they see Karnazes’ face everywhere they go?
The media can influence the way that people think, and nobody can deny that Dean Karnazes is a master at getting and keeping attention. His public relations skills are second to none in the ultramarathon community. That is one of the main annoyances that the people that vilify him have. He seems to be the antithesis of the stereotypical endurance athlete that is out there to test their own limits in some measure of privacy and anonymity, where even the most accomplished athletes walk away with only a belt buckle as an award. They wonder why he can’t be humble enough to refuse a “best athlete” award and recommend it to those who are better than him.
I think that the media has it mostly right. Dean Karnazes inspires a lot of people, and he has a long list of amazing accomplishments that very few other people can match. He knows how to work the system and bring more attention to a sport that is now gaining in popularity more swiftly than it has in the past, and a lot of the reason for that is because of the attention that he has been able to bring to it.