Cincinnati’s Marathon Man: Harvey Lewis on What Keeps Him Going

Harvey Lewis’ “Fave 14 Races"
(In No Particular Order after Flying Pig Marathon, (because the Pig is his favorite marathon) and In His Words, Excerpted)

Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon - Hands down my favorite marathon in the world. Who doesn't love the pig theme?. The route through the neighborhoods: Great. Crowd support: Tremendous. The shirts, posters, medals with Flying Pig character are annually amongst the best in the world. 

Columbus Marathon - Ranks in my top 3-4 in the country. Fantastic fall event, superbly executed, raises money for Columbus Nationwide Children's Hospital. A child champion who is or has been a patient at Columbus Nationwide Children's Hospital stands at each mile, giving high fives to runners.  

Badwater 135 - Known as the toughest foot race on the planet. Covers 135 miles from the lowest point in North America to the portal of Mt. Whitney, highest mountain in the Lower Forty-Eight. Temperatures in mid-July exceed 120 degrees. Magic nature to the serenity of the desert salt flats, the mountains and especially the final ascent of Whitney.

Northcoast 24 - Imagine the challenge of seeing how many miles you can run in 24 hours. This race is frequently designated as the National Championship for the 24-Hour Race. The race is a mile loop at Edgewater Park along Lake Erie; third week of September.

Spartathlon - Follow the route of Phiddipede from Athens to Sparta, Greece, 153 miles. Each village along the route proudly prepares foods and drinks for runners.  Finish with giant celebration in the heart of Sparta kissing the feet of the statue of the famous Spartan, Leonidas.

Gobi Trail Ultra - Inspired by the Chinese monk Xuanzang who explored the remote regions of the Gobi on foot in search of Ancient Buddhist Manuscripts in the 7th century. 400 km (about 250 miles), no course markings. Temperatures range from below freezing to over 100.

Arrowhead 135 - Winter equivalent of Badwater. International Falls (“Frostbite Falls”)  to Tower, Minnesota. All racers must carry mandatory survival gear pulled typically in a sled. Route is a snowmobile trail with a nearly infinite green sea of pine trees.

Twin Cities Marathon - I've run most of the big marathons in the country like Chicago and while each race has something special I prefer the marathons that don't have overwhelming crowds. Superbly run. Climatic finish at the beautiful State Capital Building and Cathedral in St. Paul.

Marathon Des Sables - Famous in Europe and touted for its difficulty, among some professional circles in France and the U.K. Legendary sand dune environment in southern Morocco. Over 1,000 runners from around the world traverse six stages of endless sands across 150 miles.

Hyde Park Blast - Beautiful 4-mile race through Hyde Park in the heart of the summer. The race has raised more than half a million dollars since its inception towards cancer research. Terrific community event with music, food and a festival feel. 

FANS 24 - Iconic 24-hour in a park in Minneapolis in June. To survive and maximize one's ability, stay well hydrated, consume plenty of calories, stay loose and keep an positive attitude.

New York Marathon - My favorite of the large marathon races. How else could you visit all five of New York's boroughs in one day? Marathon is ingeniously executed including starting waves to permit 50,000 people to cross New York's bridges and streets. Finishes in Central Park. 

Mohican 100 - Set in the backwoods of Ohio at Mohican State Park. Is among the oldest

Ultras in the country. “Figure Eight” trail that runners must repeat. Forests and trails are timeless.  Avoid looking down at your watch and being tripped by those nagging roots.

RunQuest Travel Portugal - Final  favorite isn’t a race at all, but an “experience.” Each summer I take guests along with Portuguese guides on running holidays to Portugal. Run past the castles of Sintra, through charming town of Porto or Lisbon, and explore the wilds of Geres National Park.  Learn more at RunQuestTravel.com

By John Erardi
Photos and videos by Madison Schmidt

Three things struck me immediately about world-class ultra-marathoner Harvey Lewis: he is buoyant, imaginative and convincing. I have no doubt that all three qualities play an incredibly important role in his ability to overcome great distances, elevations, terrain and yes, at times, monotony.

Being terrain-aware might be my only commonality with Lewis, a history and government teacher at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts. I like dramatic terrain, force-of-nature stuff, genuinely awe-inspirational, preferably in the middle of nowhere (but, really, anywhere). But I experience it with my eyes and soul, not my legs. It's not like I've ever hiked the Himalayas. I do like walking, especially hills. But to compare what I do to what Lewis does would be, in the words of Mark Twain, to compare a lightning bug to lightning.

I usually do some sort of preparation for every interview, but I wanted my time with Harvey to be free-flowing, like the man himself in his favorite space: race day. I wanted him to steer the conversation, an ultra-marathoner in charge of his own destiny. I hadn’t scripted a single question, not even the first one:

“What is the most difficult terrain you’ve ever run in an ultra-marathon?”

Bingo!

 

Fewer than four months ago, Harvey completed the 250-mile personal self-punishment trial known as the “Ultra Trail of the Gobi.” I didn't even know for sure where the Gobi Desert was, just that it wasn't anywhere I'd ever been, which meant it had to be in Asia, where I'd never been, and I suspected it might be in China because of the impossible, sheer mass of land there that surely much include a desert. It was and it does.

"The whole experience was like the movie, ‘Enter the Dragon’ (the 1973 Bruce Lee classic filmed in Hong Kong),” Lewis began. “It was like it in the sense that you never knew what you were going to come up against next. It was the craziest thing you could ever imagine.

“There were only 30 really strong runners, and 11 of us had been invited by the Chinese government -- me because I had won the Badwater (Race, 135 miles through Death Valley, known as toughest race in the world). It was like random people showing up for this race; everybody had their own specializations. They just threw us out in the desert. No course markings. We had GPS (devices), but mine went out in the middle of the night once. Fortunately, there was a guy up in front of me, and I was able to speed up and get on his tail. It was all so crazy! No way that race would ever be insured in America!”

And that’s how Harvey hooked me.

Lewis has a storyteller’s ability for describing things. It goes without saying that the 40-year-old Lewis is washboard-fit. But there’s nothing spare about him when it comes to describing what he’s doing with his life.

Off we went on a 40-minute dazzle-thon of "On The Road With Harvey Lewis.”

“The first thing was the distance – 400 kilometers, 250 miles,” he continued. “You’re having to run right through the obstacles, not around them.  Canyons. Up over a mountain that was 10,000 feet (in elevation). Even a river crossing, where the water was freezing cold. Didn’t have to swim; I could wade it, up to my thighs. But you can imagine that at night time.

“One night I had to go through this area where the brush was super-thick. No way around it. Another time -- a 10k stretch, actually -- of huge mounds of dirt that you had to step directly on the top of, or you’d twist your ankle. Then, huge sand dunes – had to run right across them. At one point, I remembered thinking, ‘Is this some sort of military experiment? Or they just want to see how funny it would be punish Americans?’ ”

Lewis made himself laugh at those last two lines -- and that made me crack up, too.

It was only the second annual Ultra Trail of the Gobi, which means where wasn’t much communal knowledge out there that Lewis could hope to absorb.

“About all I knew is that no one died (in the first one),” Harvey said. He said it with a grin, but I knew he wasn’t kidding.

It immediately came to my mind that death is something ultra-marathoners have to factor in, even if only to avoid it.

Talk about a reality check (and, in the words of the late, great Joe Nuxhall, death certainly is one)…

Harvey didn’t talk any more about “no one died,” but I got the clear sense that it is gallows humor for ultra-marathoners. (“Well, if nobody’s died yet, how bad can it be? Sign me up!”)

After our interview, I read a pre-race article that said there would be “underfed wild dogs” on the Gobi Trail. But if there were, Lewis didn’t see them.

“No wild animals, but a lot of camels,” he said. “Saw one snake, a few birds, that’s about it.”

Lewis was leading the race early, when calamity struck.

“On Day Two, it was the hottest day, about one hundred degrees – normally, the heat is my specialty, living here (in the Ohio Valley with its summer heat and humidity) – but I had number of things go wrong. I drank (a specific hydrating beverage) but overdid it. I also ate some heavy soup at lunchtime, at the zenith of the sunlight, and got really nauseous. I was only about a third of the way through the race.”

(Make sure you’ve got your Wheaties down before reading this next part…)

“I wound up throwing up for about an hour straight. It was really bad. Believe me, I normally don’t do that! I barely got to the next checkpoint. I was little bit delirious (along the way there) – not to the point of death, but I could have maybe passed out for a few hours in the dark in the middle of nowhere -- but I made it. I was in the tent (at the checkpoint) for about eight hours. That was a low point.” (Ya’ think?)

Lewis awoke the next morning feeling a little better, shook the cobwebs loose, and hit the trail. He made up for some of his lost time by running more and sleeping less, trying to calculate his hydration and food intake as exactly as he could. (It took him five days overall to do finish the race, a day under the six-day limit.) Over the course of the next 36 hours after waking up, he stopped only twice, 90 minutes apiece.

Even under that great, physical stress, he enjoyed as much as ever those two special moments of the day that we all enjoy, no matter how sedentary we might be.

Sunrise and sunset.

“I remember coming off the mountain; I was on a completely flat surface, and I looked around as far as the eye could see in any direction and there wasn’t a single human being out there except me,” he said, marveling. “I finished 11th or 12th. I was proud of that. I could’ve given up. I like to compete, push myself, be the best I can, but, really, it’s about, ‘Can you finish this thing?’ In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re first or last. It’s about the experience of the race, in what you overcome.”

And, then, he got to the heart of the matter, why in part he loves ultra-running.

“It’s such a spiritual experience when you’re out there,” he said. “Here I was in this complete, flat, sandy desert. And for so much of the time, I didn’t see anybody else out there. There’s a community that helps you to ‘get there,’ but the self-reliance (that hits home during the race) can lead to these moments of serenity, the opportunities to reflect… (Running these ultra-races) leaves you with a greater sense of the world you belong to.”

The trick, of course, is maintain a state of awareness, while being in a meditative state.

“You want to be as relaxed as possible,” Lewis explained. “Otherwise, you’ll use too much energy. But you also want to be really conscious of what’s happening. At that moment when you’re the most relaxed – you’re meditating, basically – you also have to know there is a rock in front of you, and if you step on that rock, you’re going to be out of the race.”

The way he described it then sounded lovely to my ears; it made total sense, even though I’ve never run an ultra-marathon.

“It’s a microcosm of life,” he said. “There are moments of euphoria, and there are moments of lows, dark places that you have to climb out of. They challenge the way you think; the way you approach things. To be successful in this type of race, you have to have a positive outlook. The best experience is to come out of those dark places because of the way you approached the problem with your mind, and refused to give up.”

But here’s what I find most intriguing about Harvey Lewis, all four decades’ worth of him.

“As I was running the race, I was thinking to myself, ‘I need to finish this race, because I don’t know if I’ll ever do this one again.’ Then, an hour after I’d finished the race, and enjoyed a Chinese buffet, I was like, ‘Man, I would do that again.’ ”  

Amazing, isn’t it?

And, as much as Harvey likes to travel, he always enjoys coming back home. Harvey is on a quest to visit all 196 countries in the world, having just notched #84 with a visit to Barbados over Christmas Break. He’s thinking he might reach 100 countries in the by 2020.

“I really appreciate Cincinnati as a launching pad; this place inspires me,” said Lewis, who counts the Flying Pig (he’s run all 18 of them; that makes him a “streaker” in runners’ parlance) as his all-time favorite event.

He credits his vegetarian lifestyle the past 20 years for being a "substantial part" of his running success and body's resiliency. He said being a vegetarian supplies him with, among other things, the "necessary ingredients for my body to bounce back quickly from punishing endurance events over one hundreds of miles. I drink no milk. I live... entirely (on) plant-based products... I can run a 24-hour race hitting over 158 miles and then run to school the very next day."

I laughed when he told me his fiancé lives in Circleville.

An ultra-marathoner like you, Harvey, a world-class runner with a fiancé, she should live someplace exotic, someplace far out, someplace like the moon, no?

It was Harvey’s turn to laugh.

“Yeah, too easy, right?”

 Right.


HarveyLewisBWMAP.jpg

Countries around the World Visited by Harvey Lewis
Country/ Year       

1.    USA (Birth 1976)
2.    Bahamas (1987)
3.    Canada (1988)
4.    Belize (1994)
5.    Mexico (1995)
6.    Australia (1995)
7.    St. Kitts & Nevis (1995)
8.    Guadeloupe (1995)
9.    Dominica (1995)
10.    Guatemala (1998)
11.    El Salvador (1998)
12.    Honduras (1998)
13.    Nicaragua (1998)
14.    Costa Rica ( 1998)
15.    Panama (1998)
16.    Columbia (1998)
17.    Ecuador (1998)
18.    Peru (1998)
19.    Bolivia (1998)
20.    Chile (1998)
21.    Argentina (1998)
22.    Paraguay (1998)
23.    Brazil (1998)
24.    Venezuela (1998)
25.    United Kingdom (2001)
26.    Ireland (2001)
27.    France (2001)
28.    Belgium (2001)
29.    Netherlands (2001)
30.    Spain (2001)
31.    Andorra (2001)
Aruba (2002)
32.    South Korea (2003)
33.    Japan (2003)
34.    Thailand (2003)
35.    Cambodia (2003)
36.    Italy (2005)
37.    The Vatican (2005)
38.    Egypt (2005)
39.    Jordan (2005)
40.    Israel (2005)
41.    Palestine (2005)
42.    Czech Republic (2005)
43.    Germany (2005)
44.    Austria (2005)
Antarctica (2005) *Reached seventh continent
45.    Uruguay (2005)
46.    United Arab Emirates (2006)
47.    Ghana (2006)
48.    Togo (2006)
49.    Benin (2006)
50.    Greece (2007)
51.    Albania (2007)
52.    India (2008)
53.    Nepal (2008)
54.    Poland (2009)
55.    Sweden (2009)
56.    Norway (2009)
57.    Denmark (2009)
58.    Croatia (2010)
59.    Bosnia and Herzegovina (2010)
60.    Slovenia (2010)
61.    Bermuda (2010)
62.    Trinidad and Tobago (2010)
63.    China (2011)
64.    Mongolia (2011)
65.    Romania (2012)
66.    Bulgaria (2012)
67.    Macedonia (2012)
68.    Guyana (2012)
69.    Suriname (2012)
70.    French Guiana (2012)
71.    Cuba (2013)
72.    Portugal (2013)
73.    Iceland (2014)
74.    Monaco (2015)
75.    Liechtenstein (2015)
76.    Luxembourg 2015
77.    Dominican Republic (2015)
78.    Morocco (2016)
79.    Republic of Estonia (2016)
80.    Latvia (2016)
81.    Lithuania (2016)
82.    Finland (2016)
83.    Grenada (2016)
84.    Barbados (2016)

Alex ReillyPROFILES