The entire hillside washed onto the mountain road, making it impossible to head north. Torrential downpours created wrecks all over the winding mountain roads of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Trees were down.
Dense fog clung to the asphalt, and we were running out of time to meet ultrarunner Harvey Lewis at Unicoi Gap.
I’ll come back to this. First, some background:
When Harvey told me he was planning to break the world record for completing the AT in the fastest assisted time, I wasn’t surprised. Here’s a guy who won Badwater 135, which is a 135-mile foot race near Death Valley. He literally ran through the Valley of Death. And he won. He beat mother nature, and he outpaced his fellow ultrarunners. That’s some serious intensity.
Last month, Harvey ran the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, but missed his goal time of 2:45, finishing at 2:50. It was an unusually hot day, and he was wiped out crossing the finish line. Two medics held him up while he dumped water on his head to cool down. As he began to recover, he said two things:
1. “Hey, are you guys doing okay?” The film crew and I? Yeah, we’re fine Harvey. We’ve been standing around in the shade, waiting for you to finish running 26.2 miles in the hot sun. But thanks for asking.
2. And (I’m paraphrasing this one) “I didn’t accomplish my goal today, but if you set easy goals, you’ll never get stronger.”
This perfectly sums up who Harvey is.
In order to break the existing record, he’ll need to average about 50 miles per day for 45 days, stopping briefly to refuel on the freshly-prepared vegan meals whipped up by his 78-year-old father. When your body is working this hard, you need 8,000-9,000 calories per day to keep going. That’s a bucket of blueberry oatmeal, or roughly two Cinnabons.
My first experience with Harvey was shooting this commercial for ROAD iD last Fall, and I had no idea what to expect. In order to achieve some of the shots shown in the video, we had to lug in about 500 pounds of audio-video gear, including a giant drone...which Harvey carried himself when he wasn’t running up and down the rocky ridges of Red River Gorge in Kentucky. He made instant friends with strangers on the trail, always drawing some sort of connection with each person he shook hands with.
By the end of the day, we were total pals, hugging it out in the parking lot. I defy you to dislike this guy and his tidal wave of positivity and determination. One time, he told me he could tell I’d been working out, and I think I blushed (not a lot though).
Maybe that sums up who Harvey is.
Suffice to say that when he asked me to help document this adventure, I was all in. I was excited about the size and scope of his declaration: he would attempt to complete the Appalachian Trail in the fastest assisted time ever recorded.
I was excited about how many runners and hikers he would inspire. I was excited that it was the perfect story for ROAD iD to tell, because he was off on a dangerous adventure where anything could happen.
Most of all, I was excited that he was doing it with his dad at the helm of the follow vehicle. And herein lies the meaty, universal theme of this story. We all want our parents to be proud of us. As we age, we discover a newfound appreciation for them. We realize that the passage of time cannot be slowed, and the moments we create with them are fleeting. Special.
When I interviewed Harvey two weeks ago, I found he was coming to this realization.
For him, it’s not about getting into the record books. It’s about finding adventure with his dad, who’s also an avid outdoorsman. It’s about creating the moments that live forever as they’re shared across the campfire by grandkids and fellow runners. It’s about legacy.
By 8 AM on Memorial day, I was headed south, stuffed into a minivan with the Harris Media film crew as we followed Harvey and his dad in their modified F-250 work van. As we crossed into Tennessee, a tropical storm was forming along the Gulf Coast, and it would ultimately make its way north to meet us head-on near Springer Mountain, Georgia.
That evening, we checked into cabins at the Forrest Hills Resort, a popular starting point for Appalachian Trail hikers. Harvey would begin at 5:56 the next morning at the southern terminus of the trail. Naturally, he made friends with the resort owner (who also owns over twenty cats) and even talked him into leading us up Springer Mountain to the terminus.
As the weather reports filtered in over dinner, we quickly realized it would be too dangerous for Harvey to begin the next morning. We made the decision to delay the start by one day. This would also afford us time to investigate the trail head, and figure out how to get there, which seemed to be a mystery to everyone we spoke with.
The roads around Springer Mountain barely qualify as such; sharp drop-offs on one side, shoulderless, muddy pits on the other, and riddled with melon-sized rocks cropping up in the center. We took it on in a Toyota Sienna. I don’t recommend it.
We weren’t certain where the terminus was, so we wanted to find it a day early to avoid making a mistake in the darkness of the next morning. As everyone geared up for the hike to the terminus, the skies opened up. Ponchos were assigned to every human and every camera. The trail was a basically a rocky mountain stream, punctuated with shin-deep pools of flowing water.
Along the way, we noted the Dangerous Bear Area sign posted at a trail junction.
I hiked up alongside Harvey’s father (Harvey Jr.), chatting about his days as a mining engineer, and about how his son’s planning skills leave much to be desired. When we reached the terminus, we took a look at the famous log book and grabbed some photos.
As the Harris Media crew departed to capture more footage back in town, Harvey decided he wanted to test-run the first eight miles of the trail, and I saddled up in the crew van to navigate for his dad. With no cell service, persistent fog, and a labyrinth of side roads, getting lost is a pretty easy thing to do. So I was happy to lend a hand, allowing Harvey Jr. to concentrate on navigating the perilous roads to Hightower Gap and beyond.
We arrived with almost two hours to kill, and it was here that I was able to truly press pause on life for the first time in several months. Harvey Jr. set about making camp, methodically unfolding a portable table, and firing up a Coleman stove. Nothing could be heard but the chorus of leaves and songbirds up here. Occasionally, an Army Humvee would come trundling by, as they conduct ranger training in this area. But otherwise, silence.
On the way back to town, I sat in the passenger seat, hiding my amusement every time Harvey asked his dad to drive slower. “Slow down dad, we’re not in a hurry today. These roads are wet.”
This occurred roughly 12 times over the next hour.
That evening, we all sat together at dinner, and Harvey enjoyed his last meal at an establishment for the next seven weeks.
* * *
The noise was shrill and deafening, like a Kesha concert. It was the sound of a $5 hotel alarm clock flashing 3:30 AM. Time to get up.
The rain had returned, and we groggily packed up and left the cabins behind for good, shaking off wet ponchos from the day before.
Again, we rumbled and bounced up the mountain road, this time silence. Partly due to the hour, but mostly we were nervous for Harvey. Anything could go wrong, delaying his start time; daylight is everything on the trail, and you need all of it when your goal is 50 miles per day.
On the way up, we crossed paths with a full-grown copperhead snake. Not something you want to see at 4:30 AM in the pouring rain. My wife would have turned the van around instantly. Luckily, she wasn’t invited on this trip.
We arrived at the trailhead without incident and began pulling up hoods and covering equipment. The trail quickly dissolved into blackness, water flowing swiftly under our feet. Halfway up to the terminus, Harvey turned to me and said, “Mike, I’ve gotta speed up to get there on time, I’m gonna go fast.” And he took off.
As I hustled to keep up, I realized two things while sloshing over streams and steeply angled rock embankments: 1) I was glad I brought good hiking shoes, and 2) I didn’t have my own headlamp.
I guessed where to step in between the shadows, steadying myself on trees where available, focusing on the small patch of light 10 feet ahead. Harvey widened the gap. No way was I gonna ask him to wait up, so I finally gave in and watched him disappear up the hill and into the pre-dawn fog.
I was stuck until daylight. A headlamp-less moron, dead in the water.
The mountainside enveloped me in darkness, the howling wind and rattling rain on the canopy above keeping me company.
I felt my way to the nearest boulder and had a seat. Some ten minutes later, a faint, greenish light slowly illuminated the forest. It was unbelievably peaceful.
Over the course of the day we talked to several other hikers, and everyone was curious to meet Harvey, like Lauren, an AT backpacker who's son was also named...you guessed it. Harvey.
I spent the balance of the day riding shotgun with Harvey’s dad, navigating and mapping while he drove and cooked meals for his son. He remarked how energizing it was to be around “young people” again, and we ruminated on the differences between Minnesota and Kentucky. We even caught a glimpse of sunshine at one point.
We surprised Harvey a few times by intercepting him along the trail, where has glad to grab a snack and swap out his soggy shoes.
At one point while the cameras were off, I overheard Harvey asking his dad if he had a chance to take a nap, as we’d been going since 3:30 AM.
“No,” he said. “But that’s alright, maybe tomorrow.”
“If you wanna grab a nap, I could maybe just keep on running through and meet you at a later stop.”
Fifty miles a day, and he’s worried about his dad getting a nap in.
How can you not root for this guy?
The last stop of the day was Unicoi Gap, a nondescript gravel lot that would cap off a 52-mile day for Harvey. He would be tired, wet, and hungry.
Now we’ve arrived back at the beginning.
The road crew stopped us at the intersection of 75A and Georgia Route 17 North. There were police and construction lights everywhere.
Harvey Jr. rolled down the window and we were greeted by an orange-vested, shaggy-haired guy with a massive dip in his jowls.
“We’re headed up to Unicoi gap” I told him.
“Not today you ain’t. The whole hill’s washed out up there on both sides, nobody’s gettin’ through.”
His only advice was to make the 45 minute drive around the mountain ridge so we could try and get through the northern roadblock.
“I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to get through up there, but it’s the only other way in.” And so we turned around, the Harris Media crew van in tow.
The sun drifted low in the mountainous sky and as it disappeared behind the clouds, Harvey’s dad pressed harder on the gas pedal. I could see him fidgeting with his free hand every time I looked up from my map. He was worried.
Finally, I asked him to slow down as he was piloting up the snake-like road as if the work van were a sprint car.
We made it to the northern blockade, and the crew attempted to turn us away. We hopped out, approached the vehicle, and more or less told them they’d have to stop us if they didn’t want us getting through. I was prepared to run south on foot to ensure Harvey wasn’t left hanging after his grueling day on the trail.
Luckily, they hesitantly agreed and we slipped through the blockade, arriving at Unicoi gap well ahead of Harvey.
That night the film crew shot my favorite scene thus far: Harvey and his dad, sitting together along the opened side door of the van, chatting about the day as the daylight softened and dissolved into night.
When you’re telling a story, this is the stuff you live for.
Shortly after, we said our goodbyes and vowed to return soon.
There's something about the mountains that pulls you in. I don't know if it's beauty, freedom, danger, serenity, or the escape. Maybe it's all of the above. But when you leave, you somehow feel younger. Energized. And all you can think about is getting back out there.
Right about now, Harvey's running on a ridge somewhere in northeastern Tennessee with a smile on face.
1800 miles to go. We're all rooting for you pal.
Update: You can also read my blog about the end of the adventure here.
You can keep up with all things Harvey and follow his record-breaking journey at roadid.com/harvey.