On October 25, Harvey Lewis was the last runner standing at the 2023 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, having covered 450 miles in 108 hours, surpassing the previous backyard world record along the way.
The race began at 7 a.m. local time on Saturday, October 21, in Tennessee. Runners take on a 4.166667-mile loop, called a “yard” in backyard ultrarunning, starting every hour. Athletes run two routes: a trail loop during the day and a road route at night. Runners are eliminated when they are unable to finish the loop within the time limit or they elect to stop. This continues until there is one runner left standing.
A couple of weeks later, we caught up with Harvey to hear how his recovery is going, what the experience was like from his perspective, and his thoughts on how much longer he could have kept running if needed.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your win! It’s a few weeks later now, how has your recovery been?
Harvey Lewis: Thank you so much. Honestly, I just feel my ribs are a little bruised, but other than that I feel really great and mentally I’m really excited about the possibilities that Big’s opened up in terms of pushing even further limits. So, I’m feeling very well.
iRunFar: That’s great to hear. Did you have a specific strategy in mind going into the race — and did you stick to it or did things evolve differently?
Lewis: Yeah, I wanted to be as relaxed as possible for as long as possible. It’s one of my mantras to continuously consume calories and I eat all vegan foods. I really believe it has a benefit because I rarely get sick, an upset stomach, and I can consume a lot of calories — eating all kinds of things from cookies and chips to soups and noodles, pad Thai, and muffins — all kinds of food.
Then there’s a really nice camaraderie between the runners. Even though it was a very competitive group, I mean just an incredible field, it was fun to connect with different people. I tried to be low key about things and laid back, but also enjoy chatting with people when the opportunity came up. Then also taking in the nice environment. Tennessee in late October is a beautiful fall. You have the changing leaves and the way that the sunlight enters the forest, you get a lot of golden color.
You have to be mindful of every step. Not as much on the road, for the 13 hours out and back — but in the trail portion — I’m generally very mindful of my surroundings and scanning in front of myself. Even if I’m chatting with someone, I do my very best to not take my mind and my eyes off of the trail, because then usually you’re on the ground.
There was a snake at some point. The Mexican runner in front of me jumped over the snake, and then I made this — I looked like a cat or something — goofy move because I didn’t know if it was a copperhead. The copperhead snake, they’re venomous and they blend into the leaves. I did see a nice lime green snake, it was friendly, it didn’t bother me. But there are some rattlesnakes around Laz’s [Lazarus Lake/Gary Cantrell’s] property, so you have to be a little careful where you’re stepping.
iRunFar: I’m sure that gets tricky when sleep deprivation kicks in.
iRunFar: Did you have a sleep strategy — or I suppose more of a napping strategy — and how well did that work?
Lewis: Yes. Actually, I went to this Runningman festival that was literally the Tuesday before the race. I’m really trying to hone my sleeping strategy, and I met Todd [Anderson], who owns a company, Dream Recovery. He gave me a mask and earplugs, and he suggested that I take two deep breaths and then exhale and do that 10 times to calm the nervous system.
So, I tried to lay down during the night loops. The first night, I was getting to lay down for maybe 10 minutes, but I really wasn’t falling asleep too much. I was just lying there with my eyes shut.
Actually, it wasn’t until the fourth night that I really got to the mode where I could fall asleep for a minute or two, because I was running 55-minute loops, so it wasn’t a lot of time to sleep. Then the fifth day as well, I was able to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take a one-minute nap,’ and then fall asleep.
iRunFar: The format of the race is hard because it’s easy, in a way. I’m sure the first few laps for everyone must feel easy, but was there a turning point where you started to feel the pinch?
Lewis: Yeah, it depends. You go through waves of it feeling more difficult. Honestly in this race this year, I was more tired in day one and day two than I was in 2021.
The night before the race this year, I had one of the three worst nights of sleep I’ve ever had before a race. I could only fall asleep for three hours, I was too wound up mentally. So that was not a great way to enter the race.
There were periods where I felt tired on the second evening, the fourth evening, and in day five. But I always had to work through those difficulties and establish the motivation and the energy to continue forward.
iRunFar: When you got to the last half day, how did that feel? There were different milestones, like getting past the prior world record, and then into the last three left standing and the last two.
Lewis: Yeah, I felt like a clock. I kept on moving along. I felt like, I’ll just keep on going, and eventually every lap or two, it was a mathematic equation that someone else would drop off.
It kept on going that way. But it was very interesting watching other runners and seeing how they reacted and then trying to hold the line.
I had a really good crew chief, Judd Poindexter, and he was really good at anticipating what I was going to want to have in terms of fuel.
Also, there was warm weather, I think the heat index was about 80 [degrees Fahrenheit]. I would purposely just come back and dump water over my head. I laid on ice. I’m really good with hot weather races, I had exposure running across the hottest places in the world with Badwater Ultramarathon 12 times, so I can anticipate how to cool my body, but I think everyone thought I was dead.
iRunFar: This is a tricky question, but how long more do you think you would have been willing and able to stay going if Ihor Verys had stayed going as well?
Lewis: It’s a wild thought. It’s really amazing. I seemed to get into some sort of frequency on the fourth night where I could just go forever, and it’s a really wild thing. I definitely think it was possible we could have gone through that whole night.
But then again, it’s hard to know because your brain gets into a certain mode. It’s different from the normal human mode. As soon as the race was over, an hour later my body had cooled down, and getting to the tent about 20 meters away was laborious. But when you’re into that mode of being, it draws in this special energy that’s deep within us. There are powers that exist to push us beyond what seems reasonable.
I think that it’s possible I could have kept on going all the way through that next night. I was moving very well, I didn’t have any injuries, I was continuously fueled by good vegan foods. Then it would’ve brought us back to the trail again. The question would’ve been — how would we have responded to the trail the next day? Was that possible? Then into the sixth day, what was going to happen?
iRunFar: Things could have got really interesting.
Lewis: Very much. There was a time where it was unfathomable that someone could make it four days on Big Dog’s Backyard. Of course, even the idea of finishing a third day was once thought impossible. Here there were 22 runners that made it to 300 miles. It’s a beautiful thing.
iRunFar: Yeah, it’s amazing. Then finally, what’s next for you? Have you got any other goals in mind?
Lewis: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, since I won Big’s, I can kind of get away with saying that whoever wins gets an automatic entry into the Barkley Marathons. That would definitely have to be the thing that’s going to keep me up some nights.
iRunFar: Of course. That would be so cool. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.
Lewis: Thank you.