Harvey Lewis, ultramarathon runner

Few people have made an impact on their sport as emphatically as Harvey Lewis. The American has twice won the Badwater Ultramarathon, considered the toughest footrace in the world. The 135 mile race takes in extreme temperatures and massive height gain and losses. Harvey won in both 2014 and 2021.

His 2010 win at Sulphur Springs 100 miles gave him the course record. In 2012 he won the Tie Dye 32 mile and he won over 24 hours at the FANS in Minnesota. He’s also won the 2014 SC24 Spartenburg, covering over 154 miles. Harvey took first at the Cincinnati Stone Steps 50k in 2013, and the NorthCoast 24 hour 2013. He also completed Marathon des Sables, and the 400 km self-navigating Ultra Gobi.

In 2021 Harvey won the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, which is a race with no finish. Runners complete a 4.167 mile route every hour until they drop out with the winner being the last runner remaining. It means they run 100 miles every 24 hours. The record stood at 81 loops as winners of regional races across the world converged for the final. Harvey completed 85 laps to become World Champion and set the record internationally for the format (read more here). He covered 354 miles and was halfway through the fourth day when he won.

He’s been on the national 24 hour team more than any other man or woman with five appearances. His planned sixth was cancelled due to COVID.

Plant powered

Harvey is a long-term vegetarian who has been vegan since 2016. He’s aware of the range of benefits of his choices.

“I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years and I’ve been vegan for five years” he told Great Vegan Athletes days after the big win at the 2021 Big Dog event.

“Back in High school I ate what was in my culture. My Mom was a busy nurse, she didn’t have a lot of time so we ate a lot of fast food. Meals were heavier on meat. I was unhealthy overall as kid, I could grab layers of fat around my stomach, and I always had irregularity using the rest room. I had heartburn, challenges like that.”

“I would go to the line in McDonalds, I was dissociated about what I was eating and where it came from.” However, this conflicted with other thoughts. “I always liked animals a lot. I explored Pensylvannia, I saw all kinds of animals, even saw a black bear occasionally.”

He started to reconsider things. “I loved animals, my cat, my dog, my fish. But I didn’t think anything and would just grab something from McDonalds. Something was picking at me.”

“At my school there was one student who was vegetarian and I said to her ‘I’m going to be vegetarian’. So I went to the lunch line and there were no options.”

“When I was 19 my mother had a stroke. She was 54 years old, a nurse, and we had no family history. The nutrition was a big element that we could have done differently. It made me want to read more about nutrition in this country.”

Great examples

“That same summer I was in Australia in a Rainforest project. There were two groups and the best looking girls were in the vegetarian group. I found the strongest guy was vegetarian.”

Soon after he started eating vegetarian and ran his first ultramarathon.

“I also had some exposure early on in the ultra community from vegetarians too. I think Yiannis Kouris was vegan at that time.” Kouris is a legendary ultramarathon runner believed to be the GOAT of the sport. The changes Harvey was making in that summer of 1996 were ones he had been waiting to embrace.

“I went full vegan through the remainder of college in 1998” he says.

However, when travelling he got lazy and started eating cheese, which he now reflects was partly due to a lack of understanding of the cruelty in egg and milk industries.

“Five years ago I finally came back to my roots and decided I was going to do this for the rest of my life. I wasn’t expecting anything dramatic to occur but I have had some really positive physical results too.”

He was also able to reflect on the effect his sport, and being in nature had on his thinking.
Reflections of a runner.

“As an ultrarunner do you spend a lot of time philosophising on your own life and the exterior life. I think a lot in nature and I connect with the plants and animals and it makes me feel they have relevance as well. Knowing the ingredients you’re putting in your body and eating the incredible variety that exists in the plant world it’s so powerful, there’s just so many options. By diversifying you actually strengthen your longevity.”

“I’ve been running ultras for 25 years, to be doing that and to be competitive. I’m not sure anyone in the US can match that – for so many years and still competitive.”

“Michael Wardian, he’s been running for years, he’s nearly vegan.”

While Harvey turned vegan out of respect for animals, he has noted benefits for himself.

“Recovery time and the ability for the body to rebalance” is a massive benefit that he notes. “I did a 24 hour race in September and did a 100 mile trail race just 13 days hours later. I won the 24 race and came second at the 100 mile race. That was only five weeks before the Big Dog Ultra. Just having that quick recovery!”

“Last year I got the course record on the 146 mile route at Badwater and two weeks later I ran the biggest 100 mile race at Ohio and I won that race. It shows you how quickly the body can recover.”

Just days after the Big Dog record he ran a local 5 mile race, and the day after the Big Dog he ran a mile to continue his running streak.

Fuelling the race

“Also during the race time nutrition is huge. Race fuel doesn’t make me sick. I eat something big and don’t get sick. Other people are eating meat and dairy and it just doesn’t process. You can process more calories at a quicker pace with plants and that translates to more energy over time.

“I really like beets, but not during the race. But that might be because I didn’t like it as a child. I love squeezable chia seed fruit, miso soup, foods with sodium and fats, I like variety. I also drink coconut water and Aloe juice. Beans and rice is really nice. Cooked with spices it’s perfect.”

“I love different ethnic foods. Bean burritos, stir fry, quinoa and vegetables, soups, as long as it’s vegan I’m happy to have it.”

And while he’s achieved so much, Harvey is far from finished and has more targets.
“My big target now is the Berkeley Marathon” he said in 2021. “This happens in March.” Currently his PB is 2:45:58.

He also plans to enjoy more runs with his running dog Charlie, a rescued dog who now lives with the family. Charlie is capable of running long distances with Harvey and gets upset if he leaves without her. Charlie also eats vegan.

Another target refers to his 24 hour personal best, which currently stands at 160.6 miles. In his first 24 hour race he completed 81.25 miles and he wants to double this. So the aim is to increase to 162.5 miles.

He also hopes more people will follow him on their own vegan journey.

“Do it!” he urges. “Go online and get some go online and look up materials, join a couple of social media groups like vegan runners on Facebook. Maybe try doing it in increments. You may want to try half the week or maybe make a new meal a couple of days a week so they can work their way into it and see how it’s having a positive impact it’s having on them. Try and find someone who eats vegetarian to have a friend who can give you some suggestions.

“This is a huge investment. At the individual It has power to increase quality of life at every category and to lower their risk in every category. At the macro level it has the power to revolutionise a nation. In America an incredible amount of our GDP is tied up in healthcare. A lot of these things can be substantially reduced. Even think about people’s mood levels. There are so many things that can be improved.”

“The possibilities that lie out there in 10, 20 30 years for dealing with things like climate change, health, aging population, this is huge – and it’s a cheap fix. This is a very inexpensive way of making a dramatic difference.”

Seizing the opportunity

It’s been amazing to learn more about this amazing runner, and thought-provoking to learn how he grew from a childhood where he was not athletic.

Reflecting on childhood he says “I think I had a fair opportunity but I think everything is what you make of it rather than genetics. It’s a matter of how I strategically work, the effort levels and the nutrition – those are the building blocks.”

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