Harvey Lewis of Cincinatti, Ohio is not easy to track down, but when you finally catch up with him you will meet one of the most affable ultrarunners around as he devotes as much time to training and racing as to the running community itself.
I met Harvey during the 54th mile of my first 100-mile attempt at the Burning River 100 in Ohio and he was kind enough to mentor me the rest of the way. He happened to be on a 70-mile fun run and if he had not shown up like some ultrarunning-guardian angel there is no telling where I would have ended up. The generosity he showed me – a complete stranger at the time - was no anomaly. I ran into Harvey again at the L.A. Marathon this year. He finished just ahead of me as the official 3:05 pace group leader. While most runners wilted at the finish line of the hot race, Harvey only paused to congratulate the runners he lead to a sub-3:05 finish and then proceeded to volunteer more of his time in the form of lugging cases of water to areas in need.
Lewis is currently training on the roads and in the saunas for his fourth Badwater 135 race for which he is one of the top contenders.
MA: This past year has been so full of milestones, I’m not sure where to start congratulating you: for running 154 miles in 24 hours this March and qualifying for the USA 24 Hour Team, your commitment to commute to work for a whole year without using fossil fuel – even the day after logging 154 miles on a track – for finishing 4th at the scorching 2013 Badwater 135, or still finding time to found an eco-tour company RunQuest Travel. (Harve is also a full-time high school teacher).
MA: Congratulations on your 154-mile day and qualifying for the USA national 24-hour team for the second consecutive year! You needed 153 miles to qualify for one of the six team spots. Just a little pressure. Could you describe your physical and mental states going into the race?
HL: Physically, I could have benefited from a few more days of tapering. I paced the 3:05:00 group for the L.A. marathon for Clifbar the weekend prior and I didn't know I would race the 24 hours in South Carolina until two weeks before that. I learned that Zach Bitter - who has the American record for the 100 miles - was going to race, and I thought I had to go if I wanted to retain a place on the team. Thus, I made last minute arrangements for the race without time to properly taper.
Mentally, I was honest with myself going in. I knew the track was going to be a big challenge if I didn't change my mental outlook. I've run probably fewer than 20 miles on a track over the past three years, and in my whole life likely fewer than the total miles I ran in the 24-hour race. Two days before the race I wrote my goal on a note card along with reasons why I would want to run on a track. My written goal was “155 miles” and the positive thoughts included “predictable, flat, get to see everyone each lap, food and drinks each lap, and opportunity for meditation.”
MA: What were your race and nutrition strategies for the 24 hours?
HL: I like to win, but my friend Iain Hughes reminded me that there were two open spots on the team and technically Zach and I could both qualify if we both ran over 153 miles. While I was watching his moves, I relaxed into my own race. I knew I controlled my destiny, yet once we started I felt the impulse to race. My first mile was under 6 minutes. I eased up and Zach continued to hit the distance hard, even with the heat and wind. I maintained a constant pace close to 9:20's and then made a move to hammer at 11 hours, but ultimately it came down to pace, nutrition, and consistency.
Zach led by over half a marathon at one point. However, I believe his hard running in the beginning battered his body more than he realized and he pulled his Achilles tendon. I just stuck to my game plan and ultimately won the race.
I believe there are many domains to consider when assessing the strength of an ultrarunner. My stomach’s ability to handle food is one of my attributes. I am unique in that I can eat and not be adversely effected, even in the heat. I focused on consuming calories and electrolytes, taking a Clif gel about each hour and drinking a sports drinks, coke, and solid foods like mashed potatoes and pizza throughout.
MA: Harvey’s last mile was at a seven minute pace – that is not at typo. Did you feel like you maxed out or could you have run even faster and farther?
HL: I was maxed only for the day. I try to give the most I have each time I race, but I believe I can run further and faster!
MA: What about the live video you posted on Facebook during the race in which you draw an analogy between sailing and ultrarunning. Do you actually sail or were you being “ultra-imaginative.”
HL: I like to channel my thoughts in the direction of what I want to emulate.
MA: You seemed poised to challenge for the Badwater title this year – Is this one of your goals? How do you feel about the new course?
HL: One of my greatest running aspirations is to win the Badwater 135. It is by far my favorite race! Nothing really compares.
There are always phenomenal racers and so many different challenges. I think that everyone who has raced or crewed Badwater was disappointed about the course change and removing it temporarily from its home in the Badwater basin. (A National Park service ruling banned events this year and indefinitely into the future.) The event has existed longer than the national park itself and is an iconic race, both nationally and internationally. It is disappointing that a single individual, the new superintendent, could single-handedly put the race on moratorium, especially considering these factors: The Badwater 135 has an impeccable safety record and it positively impacts the local economy while simultaneously raising money for philanthropic projects in Death Valley National Park. In addition, the racers and crews are environmentally conscious and take pride in keeping Death Valley pristine during event. Regardless, in spite of the changes to this year’s course, I am compelled to continue my support for the race.
I believe the new course will be even more challenging. First, there is more elevation and climbing than the traditional route. Coming from Cincinnati I have hills, but not the altitude. Second, it will still be hot. Maybe temperatures won’t reach the 120’s like last year, but heat will still be a factor. Fortunately, I'm one of the best heat runners in the world, which at least gives me an advantage. Third, the support crew has been trimmed from six to four members. I believe the smaller numbers are a move to appease the national park for the next year.
MA: What makes you a successful Badwater runner?
HL: I attribute my past success at Badwater to my phenomenal support teams. Kyle Fahrenkamp and Doug Bertram have both been my crew chiefs and are superb at what they do. Chris Cavanaugh will be my crew chief this year and he's quite impressive when it comes to leadership, logistics, and the right mindset. Matt Garrod has also been on my team the past two years and will be returning.
Certain phenomena occur during Badwater. For example, I can tap into the energy force of my team. When a new crew member comes in I feel their energy force and my energy level changes. Meg Perez, Jack Corey, Kebba Jeng, Iain Hughes, Luke Laga, Aaron Whipple, Emily & Todd Bello, Keith Vizini and Kevin Sansone have all been instrumental as team members. I can also tap into that force with certain runners, but only when I've been running more than 40-80 miles.
MA: What are some other upcoming races?
HL: The big races this year will be Badwater, July 20th, the 24-hour National Championship, September 20, and the World 24-hour Championship in Taiwan, December . Also, I'm looking forward to pacing the Big Sur marathon with ClifBar next month and running the hometown Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon in May. I really like to race everything! I feel its good to never get too comfortable with any one distance so I jump into various races. Last year I ran 26 races.
MA: You stand out amongst ultrarunners for making it look easy. No matter what the mileage you are always positive and upbeat. Have you always been that way or did it take some time before you reached the level of being both competitive and seemingly comfortable?
HL: I’m naturally laid back, but I believe some of this is developed by ultrarunning. Running long distances calms my soul. Not only does running improve one’s physical health, but also makes people emotionally healthier as well. People have experienced some crazy things in this world. I can't get too worked up about a race and I try not to take it too seriously. Ultimately, racing is for fun, an opportunity to connect with others and to improve ourselves. I try to relax and experience the moment - even if at that moment I feel like I'm pushing a MAC Truck. Over the past three years I have improved greatly on relaxing my breathing. I don't go to yoga nearly enough, but there are endless positives to combining yoga and running.
MA: Do you prefer to race a certain distance?
HL: Whatever I'm racing on the given day is my preferred distance, though I excel in races further than 100 miles with elemental challenges.
MA: This year you pledged a “human power commute” – even after the 154 mile effort I noticed you stayed true to the commitment. How is this effort panning out? Lessons so far?
HL: I've really enjoyed it as an element of my day. What's amazing is what most Americans would consider exhausting, I find relaxing. The commute lets me clear my thoughts, work out any stress and feel revitalized for each part of my day – most of the time. One day I crashed pretty hard on an old bike in a bad part of town, probably cracked some ribs, and then walked the rest of the way to work. I half hoped someone would steal the bike, but it was there later that night when I returned. Learning what to pack and how to pack is key along with some good backpacks.
MA: Do you feel challenged to balance work, fatherhood and competitive running? How do you manage to do it all?
HL: It’s all about balancing and prioritizing. The big rocks - like family, friends and significant others - go into the jar first. Then being flexible is critical. For example, I will fit my running schedule into my “run commute” or I’ll run further on days I don't have my son. As opposed to many runners with set schedules, I just have a general idea of how far I want to run in a week, but I don’t adhere to a meticulously scripted schedule.
Part of a successful juggling act is also taking good care of oneself. Many mothers and fathers who are ultrarunners are better parents because of ultrarunning. The running is theraputic and they inspire their children to pursue healthier lifestyles.
MA: In addition to all that you are doing you also founded “RunQuest Travel” this year. Your first expedition is scheduled for Portugal this June. How did you decide on Portugal? Where else would you like to lead a running vacation? How will you accommodate the different paces ?
HL: Our slogan is “Run Towards Adventure!” I've been running and traveling most of my life and have always had the most thrilling adventures when the two intersect. I've explored 73 countries on the run and want to share my passion and expertise with others. Portugal was serendipity. Last year’s winner of Badwater, Carlos Sa, is from Portugal and a phenomenal guy. As a result of our friendship I was inspired to research a trip to Portugal earlier this year and was sold on the charm, history, beauty and people. Some highlights will be running on Roman roads with wild horses, exploring romantic architecture in Sintra, and running a portion of El Camino de Santiago. There's a wonderful group of people already signed up and a few remaining spaces from June 7-14th.
Pacing is my forte. We are limiting the group to only 15 and we have a 5 to 1 runner to guide ratio. We'll have maps, plastic cones, and a couple other strategies to not lose people. I'm also working on a regional vacation in the Midwest for the fall. If anyone has a destination suggestion look us up on facebook at RunQuestTravel. I’m open to any destination!
MA: What kind of support do you receive from sponsors? Do you have advice for other runners who are looking for financial assistance to pursue their passion?
HL: I've had a couple dozen sponsors over the past 17 years of ultrarunning, but nothing to enable quitting the day job. I have to really love a product to have them as a sponsor. Currently, Newton and ClifBar are my central sponsors. Chicabands, Febreeze, Structural Elements, Spibelt, and Find Your Zone have all been sponsors in the past. To help yourself get sponsors’ attention, network and foster relationships, even with your employer.
Part of the romanticism of ultrarunning is that we probably push ourselves harder than many of the pro athletes in America's big three in order to get a belt buckle. I have a friend who works on some of the top athletes in the NFL and he tells them the story about Badwater and my training regimen. Somehow the topic comes around to what do I get paid for that sort of thing. When he mentions that it’s for a belt buckle they look at him in disbelief. Running has exploded over the past decade. Hopefully we will never forget what it’s for.
MA: Ok, you just ran 154 miles, took a shower and now you can have anything you want for dinner – what’s on your menu?
HL: After the 24-hour race in South Carolina I craved Clif Shot’s newly formulated Orange/Mango Protein Recovery Drink Mix. I also got a Burger King veggie burger, fries, and Coke shortly after the race. Upon returning to Cincinnati, I ordered the vegetarian bibimbap from a Korean place called Riverside Restaurant. It was heaven!