Down but not Out! Ultra running champion Harvey Lewis’s MdS story

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Alice Morrison

Ultra running is a great community, full of interesting people with stories to tell. Tales of bravado and bravery, suffering and satisfaction, races well run and abilities tested to their limit, above all stories of the triumph of the human spirit. This is one of those stories.

Harvey Lewis is an American ultra running star. He has won Badwater, one of the baddest races there is and has over twenty years of racing under his belt. But he wasn’t always like that. At school, he was tubby, in fact he was the second fattest guy in the school and was picked last for every team. He was also categorized as having learning difficulties and was put in the “special” class. He hated it, he really hated it and above all wanted to be normal. Then a couple of things happened that were to change his life forever.

The first was that he went on a long hiking trip to Wyoming with his Dad and the weight dropped off him. The second was that he entered the Cleveland Marathon at the ripe old age of 15. Arriving at the start he thought that putting band aids over your nipples was some kind of sick joke but off he set. Eight miles in – the furthest he had ever run – he was still feeling good but by mile 13 he wasn’t, and couldn’t believe the pain he was in. Then he met up with some people he knew, including his friend’s Dad and he finished. 

That finish gave him the thing that sees every one of us through races and life, self belief. He started getting Bs and above at school (he is now a teacher) and just kept on running which brings us to this particular chapter in his story: the Marathon des Sables.

In every race, I have a spirit animal, something fast and strong. This race I was a Scarab. I was the Scarab.”

MdS was his first stage race experience and he came in with lofty goals of finishing in the top ten, maybe even the top five. It was to be an education for him. “It was an awakening and a reminder that there is so much to learn on this planet,” says Harvey.

He had entered as part of team I Run 4 Hope running to raise awareness of ADHD, something that he has a strong personal connection to. The team was assembled by USA runner Linda Sanders and comprised Harvey, Jason Schlarb, Marco Olmo, Carlos Sa and Ricardo Mejia Hernández.

So, what happened?

Day One

It was the hardest stage start they had seen for ages. Even the Moroccans said it was the toughest for years. It was also very deceptive for someone who didn’t know what they were getting in to. After the first quarter of a mile, I was in the lead so I was the first man into the sand dunes. I went left, the rest went right. I was in front and I thought I was rocking. Then another quarter of a mile on, I went right and they went left… wrong!

I put too much effort into running in the sand. I had limited knowledge of how hard to push myself without blowing up. In the last 400 metres, I pushed it too hard. Jason passed me and I increased and tried to catch him. I could feel my hamstrings and I realized I had pushed it too hard.”

Harvey finished 16th on Day 1 and his aim for Day 2 was to improve on that which he thought was perfectly doable. But there were some harsh realities to face. “I finished, and there was no cooling down. No water, no ice, no coke. They gave me a tiny tea at the end and I asked for another but there wasn’t any. I didn’t bring enough food or the right stuff. I ended up trading massages with a British guy and could feel the tightness in my muscles. Also I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I didn’t bring a mat and that was a mistake.”

Day Two

I went in feeling strong. For the first 5 km I followed Carlos Sa, and then Jason and I worked closely together, blocking the wind. CP1: I got there and I had used up way more energy than I realized. Also, I had set up my backpack with my bottles at the front. Everyone had been talking about weight and I was thinking lids and straws were extra weight so I didn’t use straws. It was so cumbersome, I was thrown off every time I went for a drink. Then my bottle flew off just after the checkpoint, one of the straps had come loose. I was fiddling around for a mile and a half, not using my arms, not drinking, getting frustrated, not keeping good form and trying to keep up with Jason. I was thinking – what’s going on here?

I have a very scientific approach, I like to take the best tangent or angle and I couldn’t do that. I had to weave and go up and down. Running for me is like yoga or meditating, it’s smooth. My body was not smooth!

5 km from CP2 and I was walking. Every time someone passed me, I felt like I was giving them a free basket, and losing for my team. I only had a quarter bottle of water. I had half a mile to go. It took every ounce of concentration, every ounce of energy to walk to where the palm trees were. In the shade of those trees, I lay down. I couldn’t speak. It was close but I knew I still had some control. A little Moroccan kid clapped for me when I got up to finish the last bit to CP2.

Being out there in that desert, I knew you had to be self sufficient. If I had passed out in the middle of the desert it would have been a serious issue. It is extremely dangerous. I have twenty years of experience and I can teeter on that threshold but…”

Harvey was completely depleted, exhausted and out of the elite race at this stage. But he was still part of team I Run 4 Hope. If he DNFed, they would fail. He struggled on and finished the day. When he finally got back to the bivouac his team were there to support him, “Man it’s good that you are still alive!” was the consensus. That night, he went to the medical tent and begged some scales. What he saw really shocked him. From the time of leaving the US to the end of that second stage, he had lost a staggering 15 lbs (6.8kg). Complete depletion and something that most people would not be able to deal with.

Days Three Four and Five

Day three and day four (the long stage) went better. Sip by sip, Harvey rehydrated. Step by step he recovered. Day three his aim was just to get in to that top 100 and day four his hydration went well and he felt better. Day five is a rest day for most people who finish the long stage in good time. Harvey did a one mile run to keep up his running streak (started in December 2014) and said it felt harder than a fifty mile run, the energy just wasn’t there. Just one stage left, the marathon stage of day six.

Day Six

A big part of MdS is receiving messages from home. The camp is cut off from all mobile communications but friends and family can email in and the MdS crew print out the messages and take them to the tents every night.

The entire camp had their spirits up. I was thinking of my fiancée, Kelly. I had got her messages. Those messages were like Christmas gifts. We are so used to being in constant communication and then suddenly we were cut off. It was sunshine to the heart. A buffet of messages.

We lined up and tried to start with the group together. I looked over at Marco Olmo. He had run MdS and it had slaughtered me. I want to be like him in 28 years. 68 years young and he can out run anyone from my home town. I thought, I’m going to run with him. I’ll run faster with him than alone and our team will do well.

He is very graceful, like a surfer on a giant wave. He is like a six degree black belt in running. It was an amazing gift to follow him, to learn from the master of the dunes, the master of ultra running. I kept quiet and stayed in his shadow. I followed every line he made. Every time he took his hat off to get cooler, I did too. At around 10km he gave me a “hmmmm” look, he knew someone was there. I watched his movement. His body is so relaxed, so symmetrical, efficient and graceful. He moves like a gazelle. He doesn’t need an HRM, he is like a Jedi.”

The Finish Line

Following the master, Harvey finished his MdS in good form. His final place was 92nd with an overall time of 34h 47 min. The story does have a happy ending, with Harvey on the podium as part of team I Run 4 Hope who took second place in the competition.

With such a close call on the second day, what is Harvey taking away with him. “Well, I have been training so hard and I just got the shit kicked out of me!” he says. “But I don’t mind being beaten down. It’s a lesson, an education, an opportunity to learn. I am going to go back and re-examine my nutrition. This race has made me so much more aware of what I am eating. Especially for race day nutrition. I am also going to think more about how I train specifically. I should have run more with the backpack I actually used. If you do a parachute jump, you check the parachute every time, it should be the same with the backpack.”

And his final thoughts on the experience of MdS?

On the final charity stage, I purposely walked. I wanted to slow down. I moved off the trail as all these people passed me. There has to got to be a moment when you step back, take a pause and savour life.  Not every single step is a race to the next point.”

All images Dino Bonelli.

"In every race, I have a spirit animal, something fast and strong. This race I was a Scarab. I was the Scarab"

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