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Harvey Lewis on summer break

We check in with high school social studies teacher and top ultra runner, Harvey Lewis, on his summer racing plans.

Graham Averill

April 16th, 2022

9 min read

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Harvey Lewis is having a moment. The Ohio-based ultra runner has had a career that many runners only dream of, winning countless races and representing the US on the National 24-Hour Team five times over the span of two decades. But in the past year, Lewis seems to have kicked it up a gear, winning the Badwater 135, one of the most prestigious ultras in the world, and then winning the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, a quirky race that rewards the tenacious as each participant runs a 4.167-mile course every hour on the hour until there is only one runner standing. To win the championship, Lewis ran 354.2 miles in three and a half days, setting a new world record for this style of race.

These feats are even more impressive when you consider the fact that Lewis is not a full-time professional runner. He teaches social studies at a high school in Cincinnati and does the majority of his training by run-commuting to and from school. Oh, and he’s 45. At an age when most of us start slowing down and tapering our mileage, Lewis seems to be just hitting his stride. We caught up with Lewis during one of his runs home from teaching school to discuss his impressive year and what the summer has in store for him. What does an ultra-winning teacher of government do when school’s out, anyway?

Do you really run to and from work every day?

Lewis: I do. It’s a fun way to make sure I get the training in. Starting off the day with a run to work, you feel more invigorated. And on the way home, if you have a rough day, by the time you get home, you don’t think anything of it.

Do you get enough miles in for some of the big races you compete in?

Lewis: I train on weekends outside of the commute too, but I’ve been investing in this for such a long time. I’ve been making small dings each year. It’s been the culmination of decades of grinding on the craft. And I am kind of ferocious in my training at times. I’ll finish a big race and then I’ll be back at home the next day, running back to school. I always value even a small run. It’s powerful. The biggest thing is consistency. That day to day. And year after year. And decade after decade.

Winning Badwater 135 and Big Dog Backyard is an incredible back-to-back victory. How are you getting faster and stronger as you’re getting older?

Lewis: It’s wild, at 45, I had my best year of running in my whole life last year. It’s neat that you can continue to get stronger in multiple facets later in life. It changes the perception of age.

Tell us about the Big Dog Backyard. What’s it like to run for 3.5 days in a row?

Lewis: It’s a war of attrition. I love it. It’s like a board game, and you’re part of that board game. It can put you in some unique areas mentally when you run that long. You get the opportunity to reflect on life and the world. But I did actually sleep a little. You have an hour to do the loop. You can use your time however you want, so you have an opportunity to catch a little strategic nap. I would try to lie down for 4-5 minutes between laps, but it’s not so easy to sleep when you’re drinking Coke and your heart rate is racing, and you’re trying not to oversleep. I actually practiced that during my training. I took naps at school for 5 minutes every day, just on the floor in my classroom. I got to the point where I could lay down on the floor and fall asleep on the hard ground for 3-4 minutes.

You trained your body to nap quickly?

Lewis: Yeah, I always train for the specific challenge of each race. So, for Barkley, I did crazy stuff, like spending a lot of time outdoors in the winter being cold. Jumping in the river when it was snowing. And running off trail on steep terrain through the woods. For Badwater, I do heat training, running in 80-degree heat and adding layers every 30 minutes so I’m getting hotter and hotter.

Talk to us about Barkley. You ran it for the first time this winter, is it as hard as everyone says?

Lewis: Barkley is a puzzle. A mental puzzle that you must solve while you’re running it. You have a thousand decisions to make because you’re navigating and solving riddles and trying to find these books that [race director] Laz Lake has hidden, and it’s dark. And you need to eat food. And it’s cold. And you’re thinking about the next book. I didn’t do as well as I wanted [Lewis finished one lap], but you have to self-extract in Barkley, so I didn’t want to push it to the limit. It took us three hours to make it back to after deciding to call it quits.

You’re teaching kids that are the same age you were when you first started running big distances. Do you ever run with your students?

Lewis: Yeah, I have a running club that has just started back up now that it’s safe to meet in groups again. I love to make a positive impact on other people. I went into teaching so I could influence young people. And running is part of that. I think educating people about the benefits of an active lifestyle or their nutrition choices, these things they might do to reduce stress, can have the power to improve a person’s quality of life. That’s a huge motivator for me. I want to make a positive contribution to the world. And I love seeing the transformative power of running. People just getting started, seeing them experience that feeling of success is amazing.

Summer’s approaching. Where are you running when school is out?

Lewis: I have some fun races coming up. I’m running the Strolling Jim 40 miler in May, another of Laz Lake’s races. It’s fun because it’s an old school road race that benefits the local school’s athletic program. It has these monstrous hills that come at you. You think you’re running a marathon, but then there’s this huge hill you have to climb.

And in August I’m running Leadville for the first time. I’m excited because it’s one of the most iconic ultras in the world. But I’m starting to consider the elevation. I went to Cyprus for spring break and ran Mount Olympus, which is over 5,000 feet and I noticed I had to work harder than I wanted to, so I’m going to have to take the elevation at Leadville seriously. I’ll be coming from sea level, and won’t be able to get out there before the race because I’ll be back at school by then. Ultra runners get a mindset that nothing can stop them, but Barkley chewed away at that a little for me. So, I have to figure out how to train for Leadville’s elevation while living at sea level.

It sounds like you’re still learning about yourself and running after 20 years of racing.

Lewis: Definitely. There’s so much more to ultras than just the physicality of it. The mental aspect involved in the training and the racing is probably more important. I always try to take something positive away from every event, even if it doesn’t go well. I ran Barkley for the first time this year and completed one lap. And I invested a lot of time into that race, training for it from November to March training, focusing solely on Barkley. Some might say that was a failure. But it’s how you take it mentally. I could say I sucked. I could blame the weather, or the race director. I could make excuses, but instead, I say I’m happy. I made a loop. I had the experience. If I get in again, I have so much more understanding of the race and myself as a runner.

Wanna chat with Harvey?

Local school athletics fundraiser Strolling Jim is throwing a party! Run any distance, stay for the legendary fast finish, and enjoy post-race festivities:

Learn more and register for the 44rd annual Strolling Jim, May 7th.

Post-run fun at the Strolling Jim with Laz, Harvey, and runners.

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