Dean Karnazes is no stranger to long-distance running or adventure. He once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. Yet, when the State Department approached him to run more than 350 miles across Central Asia, he had some initial hesitation. “I had never been to these three countries before and had no idea what kind of support there would be for a run of this magnitude,” Dean admitted.
After a few discussions, Dean was more than interested and agreed to participate in this strenuous program as a Sports Envoy. Over the course of 12 days in June and July, he took on the “Silk Road Ultramarathon,” covering 525 kilometers between Tashkent, Uzbekistan, through Bishkek, Kyrgy Republic, and ending in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The distance of 525 kilometers was chosen as the three countries are all part of the C5 countries, and 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of these countries’ independence from the former Soviet Union.
During this marathon, Dean interacted with thousands of people, from youth who were members of Embassy-sponsored Access programs, to the countless adults who stopped to stare, take pictures, and even invite him into their homes for food and drink. “The kumis [fermented horse milk] I had with a family in their yurt high in the mountains of the Kyrgyz Republic was easily the most unusual drink I have ever had during a run,” said Dean. “How did it taste? Not as bad as you might think.”
While running through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic, Dean slept and shared meals in people’s homes, even staying one night in a yurt camp. Throughout his journey, he was taken by the hospitality of the people, the breathtaking scenery, and widespread support for the program and the United States.
In each village Dean passed through, children of all ages and adults, joined his run -- some planned and others not. One day in the middle of a run just short of the border from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan, Dean and the support crew stopped for lunch at a small shashlik (a type of kabab) cafe. While the group was eating, word got out among the local community that Dean was there. When he emerged from the cafe, 20 local runners, suited in running gear, were waiting to run with him.
Dean also met with youth and school groups to talk about the United States and the importance of interconnectivity, a State Department priority in the region. In Talas City, Kyrgyzstan, Dean spoke to an audience of local students from Youth TechCamp, a State Department initiative which promotes digital literacy among youth leaders. Dean used his Fitbit watch as an example of how technology allows him to measure the efficiency and results of his training.
Weather was a complicating factor throughout the run. Temperatures hovered around 100 degrees with little shade or respite in the initial days of the run. He later found himself in a hail storm high in the mountains, where landslides were an ever present threat. But Dean persevered on, as he always does.
Dean’s participation in the ultramarathon demonstrates how sports can be an integral tool to build and strengthen relations between nations. The connections he made with the people, culture, and history of Central Asia during his journey are proof of the power of sports diplomacy and its unique ability to bring people from different cultures and nationalities together.
Dean concluded the Silk Road Ultramarathon on July 10 with a 25 kilometer run from Almaty's President Park to Medeu, the site of the one of the world's largest outdoor ice rinks. The final day’s course was almost entirely uphill with an altitude gain of nearly 3,000 feet. Dean felt the strain of the miles, but as happened so many times along the way, he was uplifted by a pack of enthusiastic runners that accompanied him.
About the Author: Travis Murphy serves as a program officer in the Sports Diplomacy division of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
For More Information:
- To relive Dean’s historic run through Central Asia, visit the ECA ultramarathon daily blog.