Catching Up With Tina Lewis

“Room 4306,” I wrote and quickly slipped the phone into my back pocket. A short while later, there was a knock and Tina Lewis, in a nurse’s uniform, entered the room.

Lewis was our first and only visitor at Denver, Colorado’s Saint Joseph Hospital in July of 2015, there–because she worked there–to see my first born.

She was living in California when my second child came, and so we hadn’t talked in almost five years. And that’s too bad, because she likes to talk!

Tina Lewis in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. All photos courtesy of Tina Lewis.

Lewis jumps in at present day and I back her up to 2012, when she won the Leadville Trail 100 Mile. “I was 85 pounds. I looked like Sméagol,” she starts. She won that race, but says it was a challenging time. “I was trying to gain weight. I thought I had cancer or something. I ran like a 20th of what most ultrarunners ran. I ran three days a week because I couldn’t train and just didn’t want to lose more weight.”

She keeps going and I don’t interrupt as she gushes the sometimes-difficult memories with characteristic energy. “I was healthy. I ate a shit ton. I was still menstruating. I was just craving meat and eating it right off the bone,” she explained. She remembers a body-fat test before Leadville that registered 5%, and had two fuel tests to check for signs of overtraining syndrome, but everything was okay.

Looking back, Lewis knows that she was effectively done competitively after Leadville, but pressed on and won a 100k race in Beijing, China in 2013. Two weeks later she was second at the Great Wall Marathon, and things got harder. “I always have a bag of food beside me and eat nonstop. I eat like I’m racing 100 miles. But in China you’re on a schedule with three meals a day. I lost 10 pounds in China because I couldn’t eat all day.”

And then she broke her foot. “Everyone thought I was anorexic then because of my bone density and that I was so little,” she said while swearing off the notion. “Nothing was wrong, I was just a friggin’ machine.” She points to a near-decade of adventure racing at the highest levels, and how her body likely adapted to the days of long, slow racing as a potential cause for the weight issue.

Sleeping on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

The broken-foot period of forced rest put her on a bike for three to four months and she says came out of it the strongest she’d ever been in her life. And then once running again, she immediately started setting personal bests up local Boulder, Colorado peaks. Two weeks of very little running was enough to get her back to the start line at Leadville in August of 2013. “I love Leadville so much and the race meant so much to me, but it was a huge mistake. I started the race faster than ever, I guess because I was rested, but my feet started hurting because I hadn’t been running, and I thought I broke my foot again. Just before Twin Lakes at mile 40, I sat on a rock for 30 minutes and then quit at Twin Lakes. I went and got a margarita and got drunk,” she recalled.

Lewis took another break.

“I was kind of done with racing then to be honest, but I got an invite to race on the Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT) in 2014. It was bittersweet.” Needing to test her fitness ahead of what could’ve been a year of worldwide racing, Lewis eyed the March of 2014 Way Too Cool 50k. Something profound happened first though.

“I went to a dinner party with some Boulder witches,” she remembered. She said ‘witches’ and I’m confused, but don’t say anything. She picks up on it and clarified. “An astrologist, an acupuncturist.” The astrologist friend offered to read her astrology chart. She explains that it’s about the stars, your birthday, and what time you were born, among other things. “It’s like a horoscope, but way deeper. It tells you where your Uranus is.” I don’t ask this time and Google it later to understand that living with Uranus is to live authentically. Lewis wasn’t really into astrology then either, and so when the message came back that she absolutely shouldn’t race that weekend and that her stars weren’t aligned, she ignored it and went to Way Too Cool anyway.

Lewis lined up at the front of the starting corral, and went out at sub-six-minute mile pace. “And the same f’n thing happened,” she said. “I was short of breath, couldn’t keep up, and so three miles in I went to the side and let everyone pass.” She dropped out after four miles and forfeited the UTWT invite too.

Climbing in Cuba.

In 2016, an interest in functional medicine led to an opportunity in the Lake Tahoe area of California. When that clinic closed, she went to Los Angeles (LA), specifically West Hollywood. The entire time she was on a Mars line, she tells me, and Mars being the God of war, I understand. Professionally though, it was great and Lewis was providing health-optimization services for the stars while working in retail medicine at a super-trendy shopping center next to an Apple store. I know about cryotherapy, but she teaches me all about hormone pellet implants and intravenous therapies too.

She surprisingly loved the trail system in and around LA, and adapted to the commutes by living in a Mercedes Sprinter van. The van allowed for an escape, and one-way commutes. She could surf in Venice in the morning, go to work, and then park somewhere else that night. I ask where she’d park and she quickly answered. “Oh, dead ends, outside of Brad Pitt’s house…” I interject and she answers, but I’m still not sure if she was joking or not.

As exciting as the work was, Lewis said it was all about selling. She was pressured apply new nail polish between patients, and to get Botox in her lips and breast implants. She didn’t. “I wasn’t full-on dirtbagging it, it was a Mercedes [van],” she says. The minimalism “…made me a better person. It showed me what was important in my life.”

“I had no idea where life was taking me, but everything was telling me to leave (California).”

Climbing on the First Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado.

She did that in 2018, moving back to Colorado. She now lives in Boulder, sometimes in a van, and works in Denver at a psychiatric and wellness center, doing functional and environmental medicine.

Pressed if she’d like to race again, Lewis answers immediately with a loud and prolonged, “hell no.” She’s absolutely still adventuring though, most frequently with Buzz Burrell. In recent years, she’s gained a number of fastest known times, chased several peak projects, and pledges to take a big international trip every year. In 2019 it was Argentina, and in 2020 it was Chile. I’ve never been and for the nth time this interview, Lewis slows to explain something to me. This time it’s the weather differences between northern and southern Patagonia.

The current COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders have somewhat limited her, and stopped travel plans. She really wants to go to Sri Lanka. The stars say that she’ll meet the man of her dreams there.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

It’s time for Tina Lewis stories! Leave a comment to share a story of racing, adventuring, or traveling with her.

On the summit of California’s Mount Whitney.

Justin Mock

is a family man, finance man, and former competitive runner. He gave his 20s to running, and ran as fast as 2:29 for the marathon and finished as high as fourth at the Pikes Peak Marathon. His running is now most happy with his two dogs on the trails and peaks near his home west of Denver.