Badwater Ultramarathon champion Harvey Lewis has a penchant for endurance-related adventures.
How does a man training in southwest Ohio prepare for desert heat and mountain climbs in one of the world’s hardest running races? A good imagination, a strong crew and a few local hills.
On July 22, Cincinnati runner Harvey Lewis won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, which is known as one of the hardest foot races in the world. The course typically sends runners through Death Valley National Park and includes three serious mountain climbs (up to 10,000 feet in elevation gain) and temperatures that surpass 120 degrees. The Badwater course was altered this year after the National Park Service put a moratorium on events to review safety concerns. The modified course sent runners on a series of loops from Lone Pine, Calif., to Whitney Portal, Calif.
Just getting into the race is half the battle. Hundreds of entries (which include a personal essay and a “running resume”) are reviewed and only about 100 people (from 25 different countries) are “invited” to enter the race. Lewis was not only invited a fourth time but won in 23 hours, 52 minutes, 55 seconds–50 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
But that wasn’t enough for Lewis, a 38-year-old social studies teacher at Cincinnati’s School for Creative & Performing Arts. Two days after he finished the race, craving some more adventure, he skipped his flight home and took off with some crew members and a few Badwater competitors to run/hike to the 14,505-foot summit of Mt. Whitney (something he’s done the past three years after the race).
Then, three days after the Mt. Whitney summit, Lewis and a group of friends drove eight hours to the Grand Canyon for some more hardcore trail running in the heat. Lewis did the iconic Rim to Rim to Rim run, 42 miles across the Grand Canyon and back in one day.
“His body just knows how to recover better,” explains Matt Garrod, who was a member of Lewis’ Badwater team for the third time. “He walked around with ski poles for the first day (for support), and by the next day you couldn’t even tell he’d run 135 miles.”
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Although Lewis said he didn’t experience low points, his biggest obstacle during the race was simply continuing to believe he could win. He got unexpected help two days before the race when he met a “young Morgan Freeman” at his Las Vegas hotel pool who told him, “Nothing can stop a man with a belief.”
“People are placed in our lives for a reason,” Lewis says. “I made that my mantra. I wasn’t the strongest runner out there. I just had the dream to win Badwater. To share that with all of Cincinnati, my friends and family made the win all that much better.”
Remarkably, it’s actually Cincinnati’s dramatic river valley hills and people that Lewis attributes to helping him prepare for the conditions at Badwater.
“My greatest competitors come from mountainous states. Well, I live in Cincinnati,” Lewis says. “Some people have misquoted Cincinnati as being as flat as a pancake, but they’ve never been here…we’ve got some hills here!”
The seven hills of Cincinnati define more than just the geography. One of those hills, Mt. Airy, is home to one of the largest urban parks in America.
“Per capita for a city its size, Cincinnati has a strong running community,” he says. “Cincinnati is a mecca for running and I run with everyone around—from the fastest to the slowest.”
Those hills are not mountains though, and Cincinnati is definitely not located in a desert. But Lewis’ imagination is very healthy. He references Muhammad Ali by saying, “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”
“My students keep me on my toes to use my imagination to the fullest,” he says. “At times I’m running up a hill in Cincinnati and I’ll envision I’m running up the tallest peaks of the world.”
Garrod, nicknamed “Cerro Gordo” after the mountain he helped Lewis climb as his “glorified water boy,” spoke to his friend’s imagination.
“The guy’s mental ability is top notch. He can imagine himself anywhere,” Garrod says. “He was more relentless, focused and scientific this year. He wanted it badly. In previous years he’d stop for longer and more frequent rests.”
PHOTOS: 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon
Perhaps fewer stops were due to Lewis’ commitment this year to commuting “by human power” every day to work (6 miles round trip). It helped condition him for a little bit of everything. “Even in the dead of winter, I ran with a giant backpack with all my clothes, computer, graded homework and lunch,” he says.
One day he slogged his way about 2 miles to the Ohio River with his kayak, kayaked 2 miles down the river and then slogged with his kayak another 2 miles. Friends of his say that his social-media-documented commuting inspired a lot of other Cincinnatians to begin commuting.
That commute was a “free 30 miles” for his average 100-mile weeks. During the winter Lewis ran about 70-90 miles per week; in the spring he was just over 100 miles per week; and in June he consistently hit the 120s. He diligently ramped up without backing down for an easy week, Garrod attested, until his three-week taper.
Lewis’ creativity, buoyant attitude and purpose-driven runs have led to some unique workouts. He’s been known to run hills dragging a car tire behind him by a rope. Another workout involves him running hill repeats on trails with his girlfriend on his shoulders. When he travels, he often runs to the airport with all his clothes in a really big pack.
In June, as part of a 40-mile run in celebration of Garrod’s 40th birthday, the two each ran with a 40-pound backpack 15 miles to the airport for Lewis’ flight to Europe. When Garrod started struggling, Lewis took his friend’s pack for him and finished the last 2 miles uphill carrying 80 pounds.
His company, RunQuestTravel, also keeps him in endurance mountain running shape. This summer he and 2013 Badwater winner Carlos De Sa took a small group to Portugal for a trail running vacation. Lewis also got in some good mountain running on his trip to Chamonix, France, to plan for his company’s trail running trip to the trails in the Mt. Blanc region next summer.
Lewis completed Badwater’s old course three times consecutively previous to this year, placing 11th, fourth and fourth. But Lewis thinks both courses are equally unique, difficult and spiritual. “The distances you can see—you feel like you can reach across time,” he says. “The elements of the heat, height, darkness, stars—you’re blown away by the closeness you feel with God.
“When we drove through Death Valley this summer, I felt like I was looking at an old relative and not able to stop and say hello,” Lewis says nostalgically. “But I was happy when I arrived at Lone Pine (site of the new course) because the spirit of Badwater was alive. The people are what make Badwater special.”
The old course has always been just on the road, but this year there was a stretch of 16 miles on gravel and rocky terrain with steep grades up to 12 percent. It was tough enough that some of the past Badwater winners didn’t finish the race—some who have never DNF’ed before.
“There are more mountains in the new course and more heat in the old course. It wasn’t harder or easier, just different,” Lewis says. “I really love and respect both courses. But I am hoping we get the original course back. It’s just iconic.”
With a Badwater title under his belt, Lewis is next headed to the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (the 2014 U.S. national championship for 24-hour running) in his birthplace of Cleveland. So far he has run the farthest distance for this year: 154.6 miles in 24 hours on a track.
“Next year I’d love to do both Badwater and the Leadville 100 (less than a month a part),” he says, although he admits he’d take a more conservative approach on the technical mountainous terrain of high-altitude Leadville.
But a little rest and recovery is in order first. And where does the winner of Badwater vacation to cool off after racing 135 miles through the desert? Iceland, of course, for some more running and exploring. He’s still running with purpose: to find routes for his company’s next trail running trip.
Lewis politely excused himself at the end of the interview for this story.
“Well I gotta pack and reserve a hotel room for our stay tonight,” he says. “I leave for my flight in 30 minutes.”
Lewis admittedly likes a little spontaneity and it serves him well in an ultra where he says you have to be ready for whatever curveball gets thrown your way. Apparently his imagination works wonders too.