Harvey Lewis, winner of Big’s Backyard Ultra World Championships, was out running a 5-mile race at a pumpkin festival in his home state of Ohio on Saturday, just four days after setting a world best 85 yards (569.5 km) at Big’s. “We just ran casually,” he told us in a telephone interview. It’s tempting to be skeptical that Lewis could do anything casually; his Instagram reveals that he ran the final few loops at Big’s with a broken right hand, sustained when he took a fall on the course. But he didn’t tell anyone he was hurt until after the race.
This was partly because he genuinely didn’t think it was a big deal, and partly because of not wanting to show his hand (pun intended): “It’s kind of like a poker game,” he says. “You don’t necessarily want to show your cards.”
Lewis, 45, acknowledges that runners go through mental highs and lows at different points during the race, but as much as the atmosphere among runners is convivial and supportive, the only person he would seek support from during a low period is his crewman, Judd Poindexter, whom he met during the Marathon des Sables in 2016. “I let him know, I say it quietly, ‘I’m working through something here.’ He’d give me a suggestion or a positive statement. About 170 miles in, I was in a dark spot, and he’s like, just imagine you’re going out for a run to work every time you do that nighttime loop. That was golden – I could keep doing that forever.” (Lewis run-commutes 5 km each way to his job as a teacher at a public high school in Cincinnati.)
Lewis travelled back to Cincinnati and ran a mile (he restarted a daily run streak in 2019) before heading to the emergency room, where an X-ray showed a clean fracture of the fourth metacarpal.
One of Canada’s best hopes for this race, Matt Shepard of Valleyview, Alta., wasn’t so lucky: a bad fall took him out of the race after the 31st yard. “I had a tremendous race experience,” he told us by email. “I was feeling strong in my form, but I was having trouble reading the ground. About 1.5 to 2 km into lap 31, I caught my toe and fell on my hip. I considered turning around and walking back, because I knew my race was over. Gavin Woody caught up with me and encouraged me to finish the loop, so I followed his lead and pushed on to finish with 30 seconds to spare.
“I will be taking a few weeks off to heal, and I’ll be back in my runners in no time.”
Lewis claims he had no thought of breaking any kind of record at Big’s. “Big’s course is a bit tougher than where the record was set; it’s hilly and it has technical elements,” he says. “I really didn’t know that was possible.” He also acknowledges the depth of competition this year: “It was so competitive this year, I wasn’t even sure anyone would drop out in the first 24 hours. Only a few people got knocked out through unfortunate mistakes like getting lost, or making a mistake with the rules. It made me concerned not to mess up, too. When you’ve been running so many days, your brain doesn’t work 100 per cent. It would be easy enough to make a mistake accidentally.”
Dave Proctor of Okotoks, Alta., agrees. He says the mental aspect of a race like this, which has no clear finish line, can be extremely challenging. “A 100-mile race with a finish line is way way easier than a race that has no end,” he says. Proctor achieved 40 yards (268 km).
Lewis’s competition included people like Mike Wardian, who also ran the Chicago and Boston marathons back to back before showing up at Big’s (and who scored 36 yards, or 241 km); Woody, who finished third in 2018, and who’s credited with 36 yards this year; the 2020 U.S. champion, Courtney Dauwalter, still somewhat fresh off her win at UTMB in August (she ran 42 yards); and Proctor, who started his own backyard ultra in Alberta, with Laz’s blessing, in 2019. But few have as much experience at the backyard racing format as Lewis, who’s raced in backyard ultras five times – twice he won, twice he got the assist and once he DNF’d due to injury.
If you’re wondering how runners survive the sleep deprivation associated with running for four days and three nights, here’s what Lewis has to say on the subject: “It’s really an experiment. It depends how fast you can get around the loop – the nighttime loops [which are run on the road] are easier, and you can go faster with the same efficiency. So you might finish with 12 minutes to spare, and you can take a five- or six-minute nap, eat some soup or fruit and some Tailwind, tell some jokes…”
But the crux of the experience, for Lewis, is the connection to nature: “You’re rarely in our modern world spending 24 hours outdoors in the same area, watching the earth change in front of you,” he says. “You’re seeing the moon move across the sky, you’re seeing the Big Dipper move, hearing how the wind changes, noticing how the birdcalls change, and hearing coyotes at night, like I haven’t heard in my whole lifetime – they’re making beautiful noise, all kinds of wild noise. I’ve never seen a moon like that before –it was almost full, an orange-yellow colour. There was a field of winter wheat, and on the 2.1-mile loop back, it was lit up like it was dawn, it was that bright from the moonlight. I didn’t even use a flashlight.”
Lewis adds that, despite going through some lows, he had a transcendent experience after nearly 300 miles (483 km). He describes it as “a Nirvana where I felt no discomfort, and my soul had convinced my body and mind I could run forever.”
Next spring, Lewis plans to try a different kind of Laz race: the Barkley Marathons (his win at Big’s earned him an entry). Ever philosophical, Lewis is open to whatever comes his way at the infamous 100-miler. “Someone commented to me, ‘the Barkley isn’t in your wheelhouse,'” he says. “I don’t believe in anything like that. Big’s wasn’t in my wheelhouse, the first time I did it, and people said I wouldn’t last. I’ve got to do a lot of navigating, and running through brush. It’ll be fun to work on a skill that I’m weak on.
“There’s a chance I may not finish the first loop, but I may finish them all!”