Harvey Lewis Just Won’t Quit

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Herbert Krabel

By: Herbert Krabel

Herbert Krabel grew up in Southern Germany but now resides on the East Coast of the USA with his wife Amy and his 11-year-old twin sons. He raced mountain bikes professionally in the early 90s and then explored triathlon for a few years. More recently he found a passion for trail running, unique ultra-distance races and locations, and SwimRun. He also loves art, architecture, and European chocolates.

Harvey Lewis has tackled many uniquely challenging ultrarunning races, but his fall win at the Big’s Backyard Ultra Championships might be the most impressive result to date. Lewis managed a backyard ultra-record running 108 “yards”, or 450 miles during 108 hours, mixed in with eating, very short power naps, hourly shrill whistle sounds, mocking Lazarus Lake comments, and plenty of hallucinations. His quest to grab the win and run further than anyone had before at this event was made possible by his incredible will power and tactical experience, and was aided by the good competition that had assembled in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. After 103 hours there were still 3 runners left – Polish runner Bartosz Fudali, Canadian Ihor Verys and Lewis. Fudali would not start the 104th yard, and Verys turned back during the 108th yard to take the assist, leaving Lewis alone to finish the yard and grab the win. 

Despite that big outing in Tennessee, Lewis is not planning to take too many days off. While he’s not a run-streaker, he has run almost every day for the last 11 years. While he is still absorbing the 2023 season we look forward to whatever he announces as his 2024 schedule in late December. Before we get ahead of oureselves though, Lewis is first looking forward to some chill time with his family and their dog Carly, before the lure of Lazarus Lake returns.

“Laz reminds me of the Jedi Yoda. He can be extremely brilliant and philosophical, while the next moment lunging for a Dr. Pepper with the enthusiasm of a teenager. I really enjoy our conversations. He is well educated on almost any topic you can imagine. He thinks outside of the box and walks to the beat of his own drum. I usually learn something new each time we have the opportunity to talk for more than a few minutes. Winning Big’s is an auto entry into the infamous Barkley Marathons. I can’t resist the opportunity to return for a third time. I see lots of vert and running around on no trail in the woods like a wild animal in weeks and months ahead.” 

Harvey in white runs during the 2023 Big's Backyard competition. PC: Mike Trimpe
Harvey in white runs during the 2023 Big’s Backyard competition. PC: Mike Trimpe

To an outside observer it might appear that Big’s Backyard Ultra and the Barkley Marathons would appeal to different folks – despite certain commonalities. Lewis however is magically drawn to both. 

“They both involve pushing boundaries that seem at times illogical. I love Bigs because of the camaraderie and opportunity to continually interact with other runners and crews. Also, the boundaries seem limitless, and the race has no end. I love Barkley because it truly involves your intellect. You have to endure but also be constantly mentally focused or you’re going to get lost or possibly hurt. It’s very difficult to find one’s way in the darkness, fog, off trail with a map in the pouring cold rain.” 

Lewis teaches American Government and Financial Literacy to high school students and really enjoys working with young people and those topics. He attempts to infuse health into the start of Tuesdays and said he has learned a lot from his students and to some degree they are his fountain of youth. His students keep him on his feet and and he even managed to get some of them interested in running. 

“I’ve definitely had students on both ends of the spectrum. I aim to really just encourage positive health, to be active, mindful of nutrition and investing in their personal wellness and quality of life.” 

Lewis had mentioned in previous interviews that he views Backyard Ultra racing as very tactical, and this edition of Big’s Backyard Ultra in particular turned into a match of wits and strategy.

“It was an incredibly difficult mission. The field was exceptional. I really had to carefully thread the needle so to speak. Being a tactician was critical. I watched every runner but also ran my own race. I thought it was possible all 75 runners could still be in at 200 miles. It was fun to watch the success of the other runners.” 

Harvey Lewis taking a moment inbetween "yards". PC: Keith Knipling
Harvey Lewis taking a moment inbetween “yards”. PC: Keith Knipling

In June at the Australian Backyard Masters Harvey Lewis battled Kiwi Sam Harvey and Aussie Phil Gore at the Australia Backyard Masters. Lewis bowed out after 90 hours and the other two pushed on to 101 and 102 laps respectively. Things were going to need to go differently in Tennessee if Lewis wanted to take the win. 

“I had the most vivid and deep hallucinations of my life in Australia. If those had happened in Bigs I would have just run through them. I was in a different mode in Bigs. I have had a chance to reach to a higher level at other occasions; Bigs 2021, Badwater 2021 & 2014, Albi 24 Hour World Championships in 2019, and my FKT Badwater to Whitney. I can’t really tell you how. Sam and Phil are amazing and definitely amongst the top 5 runners I expected might be there with me at the end.” 

In most ultra-races the crew size is not limited, but at Big’s Backyard Ultra the runners can only have one crew person, and only one swap is allowed. Lewis had selected his friend Judd Poindexter to be his crew person but had to do a bit of problem solving.

“Judd Poindexter is a superstar! We met in Morocco in the Marathon Des Sables. He’s really an amazing problem solver and has a really strong mindset. We get into a mode late in the race where I often don’t even have to tell him what I want, he’s totally anticipated it. Judd had to work the first weekend as a DJ at a gig in Indiana. My other buddy, Randy Kreill had a dentist appointment on Tuesday. So Randy drove down with me Friday and crewed to Monday. Judd finished his work in Indiana and drove down Monday midday. They rotated in the parking area. We have only one crew, however as other runners drop out, you may accept help from other crews. Judd was pretty self-reliant and I don’t remember us receiving any direct help but other crews are always there. Everyone is open to helping.” 

Racing for 108 hours and covering 450 miles burns a lot of calories so we wanted to know what Lewis used keep moving for days on end.

“I ate all vegan foods! Possibly 40,000 calories across the full race. I loved it! From watermelon, barbeque chips, avocado hummus wraps, oatmeal with blueberries, mangos with chia seeds and dozens more delicious combinations. I wasn’t ready to stop for all the amazing food that was coming.”

We also wanted to know about his sleep or nap schedule – but Lewis did not want to reveal too much.  

“I have to leave some secrets for 2025. [laughs] But I will say that during day 5 I got to the point where I could fall asleep for a minute instantly and it felt like an 8-hour sleep. It was complete magic, but I had to go to a place few ever experience. Imagine being awake for over 3 days. Ah, then laying down and sleeping for a minute seems incredible. It doesn’t make any sense but it’s wild what we may be capable of.” 

The finale three of Big's Backyard Ultra
L to R: Bartosz Fudali, Ihor Verys, Harvey Lewis. PC: Mike Trimpe

When it came down to the final 3 athletes remaining Lazarus and other onlookers seemed to think that Lewis was in the biggest trouble – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth when it comes to grit and determination.

“I may have looked rough but I knew I wasn’t giving up. There was no guarantee and I had to work diligently but I felt good mentally about being out there.” 

So will we see Harvey Lewis back in Tennessee next year? 

“I must have some issues because I can’t see it any other way.” 

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