The first time I met Tina Lewis, she had a broken foot. Her utter frustration at not being able to run was such that I could feel it. It was tangible–it buzzed in the air around her. This is a woman that loves to run so much. I caught up with Tina recently to talk about the trip she took from gymnast, to adventure racer and, ultimately, to ultrarunner.
iRunFar: Let’s go back to the beginning, Tina. What was it like growing up in Montreal? Was it a cool place?
Tina Lewis: Yeah, I think Montreal is one of the most beautiful cities. It’s a big city, very cosmopolitan and very European, with really old buildings and cobblestone roads. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s a lot of culture there and a lot of diversity. There’s lots of great restaurants and clubs, too–a lot of my growing up was done dancing on tables! You can dance till three o’clock in the morning and then go and have a second dinner afterwards. It was fun!
iRunFar: Sweet. How is it for outdoor activities? Is there a lot of that there, too?
Lewis: Oh yeah. I was always an active child and both my parents are really active. I grew up doing many sports and I was a competitive gymnast. You know, I’m not that big, I’ve always been really small. I got recruited on a competitive gymnastics team when I was about six years old. I think the guy who owned the club was Russian or something like that; he had been in the Olympics. We used to do practice before I went to elementary school in the morning–my Mom would bring me–then I used to do some evening classes as well. Friday nights would be tumbling team and weekends I would practice and compete.
iRunFar: Did you get to a pretty good level, then?
Lewis: I did well…I just didn’t try too hard. Apparently I wasn’t too much into it and was more interested in being with my friends.
iRunFar: You were more into the social aspect?
Lewis: Yeah, more into the social side of it. Outside of that, too–not being super-strict and just hanging out with my friends at home. On top of that, I used to spend my whole summers at a pool. I was on a swim team and did synchro[nised swimming], too. Then in the winter, I played hockey and ringette, which is, kind of, hockey for women.
iRunFar: Okay, so it sounds like you were pretty active. Did your parents bring you camping or hiking or anything like that, too?
Lewis: We camped in our backyard! Nothing too extreme. We had a cottage in Vermont, which was about 45 minutes from Montreal, just across the border. That was our little rustic cabin, right on the water. Everybody called it ‘Camp Lewis’ because my dad would wake us up at six in the morning, go for a 30-minute run, then go kayaking or canoeing, play tennis, windsurf… we were just constantly doing activities! It was later in life that I got more into the extreme things.
iRunFar: Cool. How about studying? Did you go to university after school?
Lewis: I did. In Montreal, grade 11 and 12 are called ‘CEGEP.’ It’s basically two years to drink a lot and figure out what you wanna’ do with life, [laughs] instead of going straight to university. That’s where my competitive side showed itself, too. I would do drinking games and get really competitive, or whoever could eat the most chicken wings. I ended up going into nursing. I got a diploma and then went to university and got my bachelor’s in Ottawa, about an hour and half from Montreal. I went there really to get away from home and live on my own. As soon as I had done my bachelor’s, I was really ambitious and wanted to be a nurse practitioner. So I went to Rochester, New York in the U.S. and did my masters.
iRunFar: When you went to the U.S., was that your first experience of traveling outside of Canada? Or did you travel a bit when you were growing up, Tina?
Lewis: Yeah, I traveled growing up. My grandparents had a place in Florida and we used to go down there probably twice a year. At least once a year we’d go to somewhere like Mexico with the family and just hang out at the beach and do watersports and things like that. I was always infatuated with maps and stuff–I wanted to travel the world. That’s why I went into nursing. I thought that, being a nurse, you can live anywhere and are in demand. It was either that or be a flight attendant or something.
Then I went to Europe a couple of times. I spent two summers there–once with about eight girls, which was just a little fun! Then another time with my mother, best friend, and 80-year-old grandmother.
iRunFar: Where in Europe did you travel?
Lewis: All around–France, Austria, Italy, Greece, England… the whole Euro pass kind of thing.
iRunFar: Okay, so ultra trail running, where did that start? Not necessarily the running, but the love for the mountains and the outdoors?
Lewis: I used to love going to Vermont and being on the water and in nature. You know, just going for walks, it was very peaceful for me and made me really happy. I dabbled in running a little when I was in my 20s. I used to go on little runs with my father–he’s a big triathlete. I’d go for a little run with him and then, later in my 20s, I’d go for little runs when I was traveling. It was just a great way to explore a city as you get to see places that other tourists don’t get to see. Then… I don’t really drink much anymore but I used to! We used to go to a friend’s cottage in Ontario and we’d have dinner parties and drink. We had this crazy idea that, after a big night of drinking, that we were going to run and meet some friends at a yacht. I remember that it seemed really, really long… maybe it was like 16 miles. So, we got up in the morning and a few of us decided that we’d do this and we ran the 16 miles.
iRunFar: You were feeling pretty delicate after the drinking, I take it?
Lewis: Oh yeah, really bad. Two of us finished, but it was rough. I don’t think we brought food or water or anything like that. So two of us made it and we thought it was a really good accomplishment. When we got to the yacht, we were pretty much toast and we were finished for the rest of the day. [laughs] The next weekend was the Toronto Marathon and I signed up the day before and did it. I just went out and did it and did well and qualified for [the] Boston [Marathon]. I think I ran like, 3:35…
iRunFar: That’s a good time seeing as you hadn’t trained and had only run 16 miles once, hungover, the week before. [laughs]
Lewis: Yeah… I didn’t take it seriously and talked to a girl the whole time. That wall that they talk about hitting a 20 miles–I definitely hit that!
iRunFar: Did it surprise you, that you were able to go out and do that?
Lewis: I think so. I think, when I put my mind to something, then I typically tend to finish it. It was nice, my dad was there and he’s done marathons and stuff. It was a pretty cool experience. Like I said, I qualified for Boston and decided to run Boston the next year. However, running a marathon without training meant that I got injured and had this knee pain. So I started biking and doing spin classes because I couldn’t run. I’d do like two spin classes in a row and then progress to the treadmill and do 10 minutes, 20 minutes, to see how my injury was going. This guy approached me and wanted to know what I was training for and I was like, “Nothing, I just want to be able to run again,” and he was like, “Why don’t you join my adventure racing team?” I said, “Sure!” That week he chose a bike for me and I bought it and the next week I raced my first adventure race and did well! I fell in love with it. That’s when the adventure thing started happening–trail running, too.
iRunFar: What age were you when that happened?
Lewis: I was 30 years old. So, yeah, I was in my 30s when I got into it. Then I did an expedition race almost right of the bat. I did Raid The North Extreme which was seven days nonstop, with maybe like 45 minutes sleep at the edge of a trail. That’s where I started my endurance training. I also traveled to Mexico, Florida, and races throughout Canada and the U.S.
iRunFar: What was it that attracted you so much to adventure racing? Was it the endurance, the physicality, the mentality?
Lewis: All of it! I was always pretty adventurous and I like trying new things. It was a new challenge and it was also a team sport. I really enjoyed that.
iRunFar: It didn’t hurt that you were pretty good at it, too?
Lewis: Yeah! I think I was decent. I was just starting…
iRunFar: Did you continue to adventure race or how did that develop with regards to ultras?
Lewis: I continued to race for two years up in Canada. I had to drive like 45 minutes to get to trails and stuff, I lived in Toronto. So I figured the world is my oyster and that I could live anywhere. I decided I was going to go and live somewhere that I could have trails in my backyard. I ended up moving here to Colorado and almost immediately got recruited onto an adventure-racing team here. Then I did four more years adventure racing here in Colorado. We did well, too–we won a lot of the races around here. Then I tried my first ultra four years ago and really enjoyed the personal challenge and being able to push myself.
iRunFar: What was that ultra, Tina?
Lewis: That was San Juan Solstice; it was a 50 miler. I didn’t train for it, I just did it because I felt like my adventure-racing background and the little we run in those races would prepare me for it. Obviously, it didn’t go great, but I did okay. I think I was maybe sixth woman or something like that.
iRunFar: That’s pretty good, though. Did you find it tough?
Lewis: The altitude was tough. I never trained at altitude so that’s a huge, huge factor. I attribute it to be being kid-sized. I don’t know, I get really, really sick. So I was really nauseous–I threw up the whole time. I suffered a bit of knee pain, too. I had absolutely no expectations. I just went out for fun.
iRunFar: You obviously got a taste for it. I mean, it didn’t put you off or anything. Did you start focusing on ultras after that?
Lewis: I was supposed to do a 24-hour adventure race the next weekend and I had to bail on that because I hadn’t recovered enough to preform with my team. After that, it was full-on trail running.
iRunFar: I guess the race that you are most associated with is [the] Leadville . What was it about that race and the 100-mile distance that was so appealing?
Lewis: I’d heard about Leadville before I was even trail running. When I was doing an adventure race in Mexico, there were a few people from Colorado there and they talked about Leadville. One of the guys there, Mark Macy, he had done Leadville several times and it was something that I thought I would like to do. I did the bike race for two years–finished once and DNFed once after I got a rock in my eye. The first year I did the bike race, two of my girlfriends from Canada came and did the run. I was like, “I will never run a 100 miles!” [laughs]
iRunFar: What changed? [laughs]
Lewis: I don’t know! A new challenge, I just like to be challenged… and it certainly was a challenge. It was not pretty!
iRunFar: Can you tell me about that first 100-mile experience?
Lewis: I did the 50 miler again as training and then I went to Canada and didn’t run so much. I just mountaineered and had a vacation. I did some climbing but very little running and I wasn’t really at altitude. Then I came back for the race and suffered badly. My whole crew was like, “She’s out!” I was in the chair, I couldn’t eat, I could barely walk. I did the death march. I just really wanted to finish, and I did!
iRunFar: Yeah, you finished. That must have felt awesome!
Lewis: You know what? To be honest, that felt like much more of an achievement than winning last year. I’m proud of both but what I said in my winner’s speech last year was that the true champions are the people that have to go through more and finish in just under 30 hours. They have 10 more hours of running.
iRunFar: From your first experience of suffering through your first 100 miler to actually winning one, can you tell me a little of how you feel the familiarity with the distance, with your own body, develops and helps you improve during those races?
Lewis: I think I improved every year quite a bit. I’ve learned some things definitely. This sounds a bit weird but I don’t pay attention to details. I’ve done the race a few times and even now if someone says, “What mile is such and such?” I don’t know. I don’t know my time until a few seconds before the end. I just don’t pay attention to anything like that.
iRunFar: Do you do that on purpose or is it just the way it is?
Lewis: No, it’s just the way it is. I don’t remember my times and I completely zone out. I guess I learned this from adventure racing but I actually fall asleep when I’m running. I’m in such a zone, like yoga, that I fall asleep and completely blank out while running.
iRunFar: Cool. You nod off and your legs just keep on doing their thing?
Lewis: [laughs] Yeah my legs keep moving and then I’m like, “Shit! Wake up, you’re racing!” It’s nice because I usually take it easy at the start and then race later on. Even on a training run, I go out my front door and then I get somewhere and I don’t remember getting there. [laughs] I just totally daydream.
iRunFar: Really cool. I wanted ask, too, about the changes, if any, that have occurred now that you are sponsored. It’s obviously opened up a lot of new opportunities for you, but does it feel any different now?
Lewis: It’s been an incredible experience. This year has been amazing. I’ve had some fantastic opportunities for racing and traveling and just meeting some incredible people. Last year, I had a few options of sponsorship and everybody thinks that Salomon is this elitist group but they are far, far from that. They are these silly, humble, and incredible athletes–I feel really honored to be on that team.
iRunFar: Great. I wanted to ask you something. We spoke a little in France about guys getting a little jealous about being outperformed by their girlfriends. Can you explain a little to me about your experience with that?
Lewis: Yeah, it’s something that I’ve dealt with for the last 10 years. I’ve experienced it with almost every person I’ve dated. I’ve had people I’ve dated or boyfriends train behind my back…
iRunFar: They train secretly to try and get better than you? [laughs]
Lewis: [laughs] Yeah! You know, I’ve adventure raced and was into backcountry skiing and I’ve found, even in running, guys–most guys, anyway–don’t like it if you’re faster. Maybe at first they think it’s fun, actually no–even then they don’t like it! I guess it makes them feel not as much a man… I don’t know.
When I was adventure racing in Ontario, there were a group of girls, pretty, outgoing, strong athletes. They were all single!
iRunFar: It’s their loss, I guess! You must have the opportunity to race some really cool races now, too, and to travel to some exciting places. Have you thought about what races you want to add have on your calendar for 2014?
Lewis: Well, I would have liked to race Kilian’s Classik! [laughs] [In Font Romeu, France, Tina was there but was injured during her visit.] I really want to race in Europe–my favorite trails are steep and technical and I know there is more of that in Europe. I want to try something new…
iRunFar: Any races in particular that take your fancy, Tina?
Lewis: Ummm, maybe Zegama, that would be cool. Transvulcania, too, and maybe UTMB one year. Cavalls del Vent sounds cool, too!