The third time was the charm for Ohio’s Harvey Lewis at the 2021 Big’s Backyard Ultra. After finishing as the assist in 2017 and 2020 (meaning, he is the second-to-last runner left in the race), the 45-year-old was finally the last runner standing in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. In total, Lewis ran 354.169 miles in 85 hours/laps, making him the undisputed backyard ultra world-record holder.
The backyard racing format has grown in popularity recently, with pop-up races happening all over the world. The rules, put simply, are: run a 4.167-mile loop at the top of every hour until one runner has done at least one more lap than the second-to-last runner. If both runners stop at the same time, then no winner is declared. At Big’s, runners complete a trail loop during the day, and a road loop at night.
The 2020 race was a virtual event, with runners in more than 20 countries competing simultaneously in standalone races. As a result, the 2021 race was anticipated to be one of the most stacked fields in race history. While some international runners were still unable to make the trip due to pandemic-related travel restrictions and concerns, several top runners made it to the start line. This included 2019 champion Maggie Guterl, 2020 champion Courtney Dauwalter, Big’s regular Dave Proctor, Michael Wardian, and Steve Slaby.
The race started at 6 a.m. ET on Saturday, October 16, and only three runners of 35 starters total dropped out within the first 24 hours (100 miles). But after that, runners seemed to drop almost every hour. Nine completed 48 hours, a large pack for reaching the third day of the race.
Lewis’s Big’s experience paid off as he and his crew chief Judd Poindexter troubleshooted any issues that arose. He fueled well and got five- to 10-minute naps when he could during the night, a big change from not sleeping at all in 2017.
Once the race hit the 72-hour mark, it headed into uncharted territory with just three runners still standing: Lewis, Missouri’s Chris Roberts, and Japan’s Treumuchi “Mori” Morishita. Only two known backyard races in the world have hit the fabled fourth day before. This was the first time it had ever happened at Big’s.
“We all wanted it so bad,” Lewis told Runner’s World. “We had lasted so long out there, which takes incredible willpower. It definitely helped. I wouldn’t have been out there without a reason to keep going, so I really enjoyed the challenge of running with them for so long together.”
The trio battled from lap 63 on, all quietly competing against one another. Each runner had their own style; Lewis and Morishita would sprint out of the corral at the start of some laps, which was a fan favorite.
“At the start and in certain areas, we just started sprinting,” Lewis said. “Morishita would sprint through the woods and yell, and then I would sprint through the woods and yell. It was a good move, so I hope Morishita didn’t mind I was doing it as well.”
Roberts struggled a lot before dawn, fighting off an injury that had him leaning sideways and coming in with few minutes to spare on laps. But as the sun rose, he recovered for a strong day.
Issues arose late in the game for Lewis and Morishita. Both runners fell on lap 81, which caused Morishita to miss the cutoff by 30 seconds, ending his day and leaving just Lewis and Roberts in the race. Lewis fell on the final hill and left him with an unknown (at the time) hand injury. Because his legs were okay, he ignored it and kept moving.
“As we got to the night, I thought for sure we’d be going to 400 [miles], so I mentally prepared myself for that,” Lewis said.
Many anticipated another complete night—that is, until lap 85, when Roberts surprisingly returned to camp soon after starting. Lewis, still on his loop, didn’t know this. Even though he didn’t see Roberts on the way back, he still wasn’t convinced he won until he got back to camp.
There, Lewis was greeted to roaring applause from the crowd that was still there. Lewis was finally a Big’s champion, capping off an incredible year of winning three major races: Badwater 135, Ohio’s Backyard Ultra, and now Big’s. He also earned the undisputed world record for most yards ever completed in a backyard race, taking the title from the U.K.’s John Stocker who ran 81 yards with his assist, Matt Blackburn at the Suffolk Backyard Ultra in June 2021.
“It was an incredible experience,” Lewis said. “It has been one of my dreams to win this race, and to have it come to fruition was pretty mind-blowing for sure. I was super psyched.”
Lewis was so overcome with joy and exhaustion that he spent little time enjoying his win, opting to head to his tent shortly after finishing.
“When I finished, whatever armor I developed in my mind that told me I wasn’t going to submit went away,” he said. “I was really tired. I didn’t care where I slept. There was a cot in my tent 40 meters away, and it felt like the Taj Mahal. I fell asleep with half a plate of rice and beans on me.”
The next day, Lewis got a ride back to Cincinnati. When he arrived around 11 p.m., he kept his run streak alive by getting a mile in with minutes to spare. Then, a friend instructed him to go get his hand checked out in the emergency room after midnight. Harvey was diagnosed with a clean break in the fourth metacarpal of his right hand, and he was told should heal in a few weeks with just a splint.
Lewis told Runner’s World that he got a few hours of sleep in the ER before going home briefly and run commuting to work—he’s a social studies teacher at School for Creative and Performing Arts. Lewis wasn’t supposed to work because he had taken the day off. However, because of a shortage of substitute teachers at the moment, he literally ran in teach anyways.
“A couple times a year, I’ll take off to recuperate,” he said. “As long as I’m not hurting myself, I do the commute with human power.”
Big’s is likely the last race of the year for Lewis, though he plans to run the Flying Pig Marathon easy on October 30. His next big adventure will be the Barkley Marathons in 2022, which he now has entry to because of his Big’s win.
“My biggest memory was turning to [Big’s and Barkley Marathons creator Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell] at the end and saying, ‘The winner gets an entry to Barkleys,’” Lewis said. “He couldn’t say no, so he went along with it. The next day, he told me that I’d be the sacrificial lamb.”
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