The Educator Effect: Teachers in Ultrarunning

A look at the high-achieving people who find themselves at the center of the worlds of endurance running and education.

By on May 22, 2024 | Comments

The teacher glides through the dark, through neighborhoods and past parked cars, along sleepy streets and under overpasses. He wears a backpack the size of a mini-fridge stocked with the day’s essentials: laptop, clothes, food. It bounces as he takes in the slowly awakening morning on foot.

Some days, not often, his route intersects with that of a public bus, and he notices a couple of his students among its passengers. Ok, he thinks, it’s on.

It is in those moments that if you happened to be driving on this same route near Cincinnati, Ohio, on a weekday morning, that you could watch Harvey Lewis — yes, that Harvey Lewis, the two-time winner of Badwater 135 Mile and the 2023 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, the man who last year ran 450 miles in 108 hours to set the latter competition’s course record — race a bus.

“That’s a great opportunity to show them the benefits of: I’m 47, and … I’m racing a bus?” Lewis said, laughing, during an interview in March of 2024, less than a week before he would attempt the 2024 Barkley Marathons. “What the hell is going on here?”

Harvey Lewis running to school

Running commuting to his school to teach has become a decade-long habit for ultrarunner Harvey Lewis. Photo courtesy of Harvey Lewis.

The Runner and Teacher Venn Diagram Overlap

Lewis, who plans to run his first Western States 100 in June of 2024, represents a unique, perhaps improbable, class of ultrarunners: elite athletes who are, or were, classroom teachers. They are a small crop of high-achieving, intensely focused folks who find themselves at the center of the seemingly disparate worlds of endurance sports and education.

“You’re giving so much of yourself to someone else at work, and then when you’re ultrarunning, you’re also giving a lot of yourself, but it’s also pouring back into yourself instead of pouring out into someone else,” said Cat Bradley, winner of the 2017 Western States 100 and a former teacher. “We’re used to giving everything, but in ultrarunning, instead of you giving it and it’s going out in the ether … instead it’s coming back and into yourself. It’s the one time that you can invest the same amount of energy and dedication to yourself as … you do at work and into these kids.”

Bradley taught kindergarten. Lewis teaches high school social studies. Anna Mae Flynn, two-time winner of the Speedgoat 50k and now a running coach, taught high school math. Colorado mountain running professional Stevie Kremer was a second-grade teacher before becoming a school counselor. And, of course, the most famous ultrarunner-teacher is also perhaps the most famous ultrarunner of the current generation, period: Courtney Dauwalter taught high school science before transitioning to full-time running.

All of them, at some point, pursued two full-time careers, sacrificing mostly everything else to run and teach young people. This, then, is their story: how some of the sport’s most successful runners were shaped, in equal parts, by the trails and the classroom.

Interchangeable Skills

For Dale Garland, the longtime race director of the Hardrock 100 who recently retired from 31 years as a high school social studies teacher, the intersection of these careers is a classic question of the chicken or the egg.

“Which came first?” he asked. “Was I a teacher who brought those skills to Hardrock, or did Hardrock develop those skills for me as a teacher?”

True to form as a race director and former teacher, Garland compiled a detailed list of the qualities that would be at the center of a Venn diagram of teaching and running: communication, organization, and flexibility.

“Probably I was able to take as much from the classroom as I was from ultrarunning,” Bradley said. “And I think they were kind of interchangeable skills.”

Hardrock 100 race director Dale Garland looks the role of a high school social studies teacher during a Hardrock awards, aka “graduation” ceremony. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Making the Time

It all starts with efficiency. All of these teacher-runners mastered what is simple in theory but more complicated when your obligations multiply: how to manage your time best and prioritize the things that matter. “Make time for what’s important to you,” is how Kremer put it succinctly.

What mattered to them, of course, was running and teaching. They had to find time to train at a high level in the midst of the maelstrom of life as an educator: lesson plans and meetings and fulfilling dozens of roles for dozens of different kids.

Bradley slept in her running clothes — down to her socks — to start her morning runs no later than 5 a.m. On other days, she’d have 90 minutes to get in a 90-minute run at lunch and naptime. On the way home, she’d often eat dinner in her car to still get eight hours of sleep.

“It taught me how to … not overthink it and just do it,” she said. “I think a lot of runners get into the trap of thinking too hard about their run, and it really eats into the time of doing it.”

“I oftentimes would have to drive after work and camp at the race start the night before, wake up in the morning, race, drive back, and prep for work,” said Flynn. “And [it] wasn’t the most ideal, but I think because you have a limited amount of time to do the running, it was like, ‘All right, I’m not going to dilly dally. I’m just going to go execute, be done with it, get back.'”

Dauwalter, whose travel schedule and commitments prevented her from commenting on this story, said in a 2008 interview with “Educated Edge Magazine” from the University of Mississippi, where she’d gone to college, that she’d run before school, at lunch, during her planning period. “The time is there if you want it to be,” she said.

Courtney Dauwalter - 2023 Hardrock 100 - Winning

Courtney Dauwalter, potentially the best-known face in ultrarunning, used to train during her planning periods and lunch breaks while she was a teacher. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Just Go

But there is perhaps no better illustration of this find-the-time mentality than Lewis’s daily commute to and from work through the streets of Ohio. What started as a pledge for a class project — he and his students each committed to doing something to help the environment at the granular level — has become a decade-long, non-negotiable daily practice: to and from school every day, on foot (or snowshoe or bike or even kayak).

“It’s like something that is automatic,” he said. “And I don’t even think about any questions of what I might experience or if it’s discomfort or anything like that. I just think about, ‘How?'”

He said the day before the interview for this story, Cincinnati was hit with an intense rainstorm. Instead of changing his plans or breaking the tradition, he did something radically simple: He wore a rain jacket.

“I just go,” he said, summarizing this teacher-runner training philosophy in just three words. “I don’t think about it.”

Patience and Problem Solving

Once he hits the classroom, though, there is no shortage of thinking. Teachers, like ultrarunners, have to make countless decisions and process mountains of information daily, often quickly and with little warning: Did I explain inertia well enough or should I take another day? Why did Erica struggle with citing text evidence on that test? Did I tell Cameron that he’s a bus rider today? They are forever budgeting their time and energy, choosing their battles, knowing when to push the pace and when to back off. Their experiences running through the mountains can help them navigate the unpredictable world of the classroom.

“It’s a constant exercise in patience and problem-solving,” Bradley said of teaching.

During her two years of teaching kindergarten, she dealt with, in her estimation, “at least 10 hysterical fits a day.” Instead of becoming cynical or exhausted by them, she understood: She was an ultrarunner.

“It brings you back down to being that age sometimes,” she said. “Like hysterical fits sometimes about nothing at mile 95.”

Nothing, of course, ever goes 100% according to plan. Maybe you missed your gel at the first aid station of a 50 miler. Maybe a third of your class is out with a stomach virus. Maybe your goal for the day simply becomes to avoid a hysterical fit.

“In a classroom,” Garland said, “you have to be able to pivot.”

Anna Mae Flynn - 2019 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile - Stamina-based workouts

As an ultrarunner and teacher, Anna Mae Flynn understands the importance of being efficient with her training. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Always Learning

One constant among this chaos, and perhaps the singular trait that sets apart these teacher-runners, is their desire to grow, improve, and achieve. They are all strivers, searching for their next adventure.

“This achievement piece is like, ‘I’m not giving up,'” Flynn said. “‘I’m going to pursue this until I’m a master at this. And even when I’m a master, there’s still more room to grow.'”

“The ultimate common denominator,” Lewis said, “is this desire to always improve ourselves.”

“You’re either growing,” Garland said, citing a famous quote, “or you’re dying.”

That attitude, that resolve, had to permeate their classrooms and influence their students’ ever-broadening perceptions of the world: You will never forget your high school social studies teacher racing your bus to school.

And that, more than anything, is likely why these teachers — why any teacher — flipped on their classroom lights every morning. They were there, first and most, for the young people in front of them.

“I think about my students daily,” Bradley said, who left teaching seven years ago. “They are freakin’ teenagers now.”

Being Role Models

Lewis runs up the stairs at his school and gives his students nutrition advice during a “Tuesday health tip.” He tells them about his adventures around the world that help to give life to normal social studies lesson plans. Kremer teaches hers about the importance of balance and doing what makes them happy. Garland loved to help his students cultivate their leadership skills.

“A sequoia,” Lewis calls each student, “with so much potential in front of you.”

And all of them, if only implicitly, showed their students the value of consistency and drive in a world that increasingly values quick fixes and short attention spans. They demonstrated, daily, the power of simply showing up. Of endurance.

“The results have always just been a natural consequence of my daily practice,” Flynn said. “And I think I’ve learned that through studies and also through teaching and telling my students that, ‘Hey, if you just continue to show up, the grades will follow.'”

Lewis said, “They just see that putting a lot of energy and intention and effort toward something, that you can really grow, and so you’re not limited by whatever might limit us in our lives.”

“When you’re a teacher, you’re not showing up for yourself, you know?” said Bradley. “And I think that’s why I loved teaching so much; it felt like I was part of something so important and so huge. And then I think that almost makes ultrarunning seem so silly.”

Cat Bradley - 2017 Western States 100 Finish

Cat Bradley still thinks about her students. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

The Importance of Showing Up

“Being an educator is a grind some days,” Garland said. “And there’s just some days, it’s like, ‘Ugh. I just don’t want to do it.’ And my dad, who is a retired social studies teacher, too, he goes, ‘You know, the one thing about teaching is … at 7:45 a.m. the curtain goes up, man, and you’ve got to be ready. Whether you’re ready or not, you’ve got kids.’ So that perseverance and that being able to deal with the uncomfortable or being able to deal with, ‘I’m just not ready for this, but I’ve got to do it.’ It doesn’t really matter, you know?’ I’ve got 30 kids who are waiting for me to lead them.”

And maybe, in those rare and special moments, one day, their students will reinvest that energy into them, and these two fields they’ve devoted their lives to — teaching and running — will find some greater harmony.

Before Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, Lewis’s students wrote notes for him on index cards — things like “Don’t break your leg!” and “Embrace Bigfoot.” But there was one, Lewis remembered, that went deeper: “You reaching so far, going as far as you may go,” one of his students wrote, “gives me hope that I can become an attorney.”

Flynn, while teaching in Olympic Valley, California, took her students snowshoeing near the escarpment of the Western States 100 course one day. “And they were like, ‘Ms. Flynn, you’re gonna’ be running this? Wait. What? You’re gonna’ run to the top and then you’re gonna keep going?’ They were really rooting me on.”

And so Bradley, the kindergarten teacher turned Western States 100 champion, has a simple piece of advice: “If there are any ultrarunners who are like, ‘What job should I do?’ Be a teacher.”

Harvey Lewis running with a pack

Harvey Lewis is no stranger to carrying a heavy load. Photo courtesy of Harvey Lewis.


Harvey Lewis finished his 108th loop at the 2023 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra on a Wednesday around 7 p.m. He had run 450 miles in 108 hours, breaking his own course record and again redefining the limits of human endurance. He slept in a tent, left around 3 p.m. the following day, and arrived back home in Ohio late that night.

The next day, Friday, was a school day. Less than 48 hours after running more than 400 miles, Lewis woke up early, strapped on his giant backpack, and glided anonymously through the quiet dark.

He had to go teach.

Call for Comments

  • What other ultrarunners are also teachers?
  • Do you find skills you learn from running transfer over into other areas of your life, and vice versa?
Robbie Harms

Robbie Harms is a writer, teacher, and runner. He has written about running, among other topics, for “The New York Times,” “The Boston Globe,” and several other publications.