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After three and half days, Harvey Lewis was the last man standing.And if rules of Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra allowed him to continue, he might still be the last man running.
The 45-year-old Cincinnati high school social studies teacher ran through the boundaries of human endurance this week, as he proved to be the most relentless of a trio of final runners who displayed mind-blowing tenacity in the quirky and extremely grueling ultra-distance race put on by Lazarus Lake in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
What started with a hearty group of 35 runners at 7 a.m. on Saturday, October 16 running 4.1667-mile loops (or “yards”) every hour on the hour finally ended late Tuesday evening with Lewis successfully completing an 85th lap and an unfathomable 354.16 miles to secure the victory over Chris Roberts, an accomplished 36-year-old runner from Kirkwood, Missouri, who failed to finish that lap but still covered 350 miles.
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But in reality, there were no losers at all. (Although there were probably some lost hours of work productivity among the thousands of people who were following online.)
Both Lewis and Roberts broke the previous world record for a backyard-style race of 81 laps and 337.5 miles set by John Stocker in an event held in Suffolk, England in June.
Lewis, who has won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley twice and numerous 24-hour races, was surprisingly lucid moments after he finished, relaxing in a camp chair, laughing, recalling moments of the race, and candidly answering questions. He said fell on one of his last laps and scraped his right hand and arm, but he otherwise survived relatively unscathed.
“Right now, I have desensitized myself to aching. I’m not even thinking about it right now, but I’m sure if I really concentrate, I’m probably aching in places,” Lewis said with a laugh. “There were times where I would feel like a nirvana experience where I didn’t have any discomfort at all. But then there were times, for example at one point during the second night when I laid down and I was just feeling an ache throughout my legs.”
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Lewis said he didn’t take any painkillers during the event — and hasn’t at all since he broke his neck back in 2004 — but he did take magnesium supplements and fueled with Tailwind. He said he avoided caffeine for the first 24 hours but then started taking incremental amounts throughout the final three days.
The course sent runners from the start/finish area out on a lollipop trail loop during the daytime and an out-and-back section on the roads at night. Lewis completed laps with an average time 50:18 — his fastest was 39:13 and his slowest was 55:20 — which obviously didn’t leave much time for sleep. He squeezed in a few 4-minute naps at the transition area during the nighttime hours when possible, but he rarely slept more than a minute or two during the daytime.
When it was over, Lewis praised the effort of Roberts despite struggling with a wonky right knee for much of the final 36 hours.
“I was wondering if we were going to go for 500 miles,” Lewis told Roberts moments after finishing. “I bet if your knee didn’t get hurt, you’d have probably stuck in there for 500 miles. But honestly, I had no expectations. That exceeded my expectation in every way.”
Lewis said one of the keys to his success — both at this year’s event and in recent years — has been his switch to eating a plant-based diet.
“Honestly that was a big factor in the race and also in my training,” Lewis said. “For the race, I really believe your digestion is much easier with plant-based foods, especially when it’s hot. I switched over to a plant-based diet five years ago. I’ve been running ultras for 25 years, but I think these have been my strongest five years.”
Last year, the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra featured both an in-person race in Tennessee and several virtual events around the world. At the in-person event, Colorado’s Courtney Dauwalter outlasted Lewis by a lap and 12 other runners in the field while completing 68 yards or 283.33 miles. That briefly tied the world record set by Johan Steene at the Tennessee event in 2018.
But there were also an additional 286 runners running simultaneously in similar race in 20 countries around the world as part of the 2020 Backyard World Championship. In Belgium Karl Sabbe kept running for seven more hours until countryman Merijn Geerts dropped out, thus giving Sabbe the global win with a new world record of 75 laps and 312.5 miles.
As much as Lewis was singularly spectacular this year, it was the collective effort of the field that made his effort possible. Dauwalter, who ran with the No. 1 race bib, completed 42 laps for 175 miles before dropping out. Among the nine women in the field, she was the fastest along with fellow Coloradan Maggie Guterl (the overall winner of the 2019 race with 250 miles) as both tied for 11th in the final standings. (Also of note, Michael Wardian wound up 17th place with 36 laps and 150 miles, but he had run the Chicago Marathon and Boston Marathon the previous weekend so he still ran 202 miles in eight days.)
Nine runners completed 50 laps and reached the 208.3-mile mark, while but it was the gritty final five runners who all surpassed the 60-lap, 250-mile threshold that really helped make the world record possible. That’s as far as Piotr Chadovich, 43, of Woodinville, Washington, made it, but four runners — Lewis, Roberts, Terumichi Morishita, 41, of Japan and Jon Noll, 36, of Verona, Wisconsin, continued on amid extreme fatigue, discomfort and monotony that characterizes the event.
After Noll completed the 62nd lap (258.3 miles) but didn’t start the next one in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, it was down to Lewis, Roberts and Morishita, who kept going and going and going. Although tired and weary, they seemed to easily roll through laps, take a short break and report for the next one.
By the time that trio passed 75 laps, tying the world record of 81 laps and 337.5 miles became a very realistic outcome. It looked like all three might blaze right past it, but Morishita fell on the 81st lap and briefly lost consciousness and failed to make it back to the start/finish line by 30 seconds, thus eliminating him from the event.
From there, it was down to Lewis and Roberts, who typically started out by walking the first few steps of the new laps together before rolling into a jog and separating a bit. Roberts had been nursing the achy knee often and wearing an ace bandage and knee sleeve on the last day. At one point he felt on it and the pain went away for several hours, but it wound up swollen and stiff for much of the final 18 hours and especially the last several laps.
Roberts was actually faster than the conservative pacing of Lewis on most of the laps throughout the event (averaging 49:47 average) and ran his 84th and final lap in 46:45. But when he didn’t complete the 85th lap and Lewis did, the gig was over — as long as Lewis returned before the 60-minute lap cutoff.
Roberts walked back to the start/finish area, got a handshake, a finisher’s medal and some consolatory words of praise from Lake, plus a round of applause from the group of retired competitors, crew members and spectators still on hand.
“This is a really special event,” Roberts told Lake before cracking a cold beer. “It’s nice to know where your limits are.”
Lewis completed the final lap with plenty of time to spare in 49:42. He got an even more robust round of applause with a lot of hoots and hollers in honor of his new world record.
When Lewis was done, he was stoked to remember that he had earned the chance to enter the 2022 Barkley Marathons, another crazy race that Lake produces in the springtime at Frozen Head State Park.
“This is going to be a tough one to top,” Lewis said.
Indeed, it will.