Imagine running for 58 hours straight.
You’re navigating trails and roads through warm weather and downpours, through daylight and inky night, while racking up 242 miles on no sleep.
That was a reality for ultra marathoner Harvey Lewis.
The School for the Creative and Performing Arts teacher spent last Saturday, Sunday and part of Monday covering the terrain of Bell Buckle, Tenn. in the Big Dog Backyard Ultra Run. He placed second to Californian Guillaume Calmettes in a last-man-standing test of immense mental and physical fortitude.
Lewis, 41, has been running ultra-marathons – races longer than marathons – for 20 years, all over the globe. He once ran 250 miles in the Gobi Desert in a four-day journey that included an eight-hour sleep break. In 2014, he won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, known as one of the toughest running races in the world.
The Big Dog Backyard Ultra was another game entirely. It was the longest distance Lewis raced in such a short amount of time, and an event he’d been eyeing for a while.
“It’s sort of like a hidden gem, something that’s iconic,” Lewis said. “We had runners all over the country and even overseas.”
The set-up was simple: Each of the 58 entrants was required to complete a 4.17-mile lap every hour. The first 12 hours were on trails; nighttime hours were on roads. A 24-hour cycle equaled 100 miles, and the race continued indefinitely until the last competitor completed a final loop.
A base camp was set up near a timing mat that logged runners’ splits. Once runners crossed the mat they had the rest of the hour – for Lewis it was usually eight to 12 minutes – to rest, eat, hydrate and return to the corral for the next lap’s start. Runners that missed the hour marker were disqualified.
Entrants peeled off in time, and eventually the race came down to Lewis and Calmettes.
“We went through some unbelievable stuff. The first day it was warm, not crazy warm but warm. And the first night was my toughest time with sleep. From about 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., I would start to fall asleep, maybe a second or two, and then I would wake myself up,” Lewis said.
Yes, that’s sleeping while running. Lewis had a tent at base camp, where his friend and crew member Judd Poindexter provided vegan food (including vegan jerky) and fresh clothes, but the runner could never relax enough to fall asleep in the scarce time between laps.
Sleep deprivation and fatigue played havoc on his mind, causing Lewis to hallucinate. At one point he saw a black image that his brain interpreted as a Go Kart.
He pressed on, only to find other challenges ahead.
“The second night there was rain. The storm didn’t really have thunder but it had the most torrential downpour I think I’ve ever run in in my entire life. It happened to be when we were running at 180 miles on our way to 200. It was unbelievable. My body was just absolutely drenched,” Lewis said.
“We just went through it. I wanted to win the race really badly and Guillaume was a great competitor. We pushed on each other psychologically but all told, I have a lot of admiration for him. The only way we got to where we were is because we both kept on pushing.”
The race record, Lewis said, was 204 miles. He and Calmettes shattered it.
Mile 230 was the toughest for Lewis. He almost missed his time qualification for the hour, narrowly beating it by 2 seconds. He frantically jumped back into the corral, per the event rules, in order to start Mile 231.
Then he rallied, completing the next 4.17-mile route in just 41 minutes.
Lewis had 19 minutes to spare until the next lap but that ultimately was his undoing, as his muscles tightened and he struggled to persevere. He desperately wanted to win but bowed out after 242 miles, the distance of nine concurrent marathons, in order to watch Calmettes come across the finish.
Calmettes was required to finish one more loop after Lewis stopped in order to cement the victory. He did just that, amassing a staggering 245 miles in 59 hours.
Although he was thrilled for Calmettes, an exhausted Lewis was glad the race was over.
“At that point I thought I’d never want to run this type of race again,” Lewis said.
How about now?
“Well, yeah, I probably will. I’ll probably be tempted,” Lewis said, laughing.
Lewis was captivated by the people at the event and challenged by the physical activity. He said it was a unique and memorable race experience.
“This event, more than most others, really causes one to reach into their deepest core to overcome the weight of the obstacles that compound over time,” Lewis said.
Another Cincinnati area resident, Lebanon’s Derek Tinnin, logged nearly 80 miles in 16 hours and 26 minutes in the Big Dog Backyard Ultra.