DOWNTOWN — Natalie Lewis doesn’t recall many specific instances from her run, at 50 years old, from Santa Monica to New York City.
She slept in a tee-pee and cemeteries. She lost and found her envelope of money in Pennsylvania. People were beautiful and kind, she said.
“It was hot, then it was windy, then it was rainy, then it was cold,” Lewis says, of the entire United States of America.
This was in 1983, when Lewis was one of the first women to run coast to coast.
Even at 80, Lewis climbs the famous Santa Monica stairs at least 20 times every morning. Her life started on the move, but the running came later.
Born in Rhode Island, Lewis left home for Boston at 17. She got married in her early 20s and followed her now ex-husband’s jobs to Massachusetts, Florida and Indiana.
“I wasn’t doing anything but the LTD station wagon, washing dishes, hanging diapers,” she said. “It was very boring. At night when the kids were in bed the wild one went out.”
Lewis struggled with alcohol and drudgery for many years, even attempting suicide, before she found running
In Boston, when a police officer suggested she try it, she scoffed.
“Then get fat,” he responded.
“Next thing I knew I was huffing and puffing on the high school track,” Lewis said. “I put the kids in the center and I’m running around. I’ve been running ever since.”
Lewis quit drinking in 1971, around the time she started running.
“When I would first go out in the sunshine, my eyes would tear up,” she said. “It seems simple: I love the outdoors. That’s when I started to go crazy. There’s a whole world out here!”
The family moved to Santa Monica, where she took a jogging class at Santa Monica College. The teacher signed her up for a marathon, putting down his own money. She ran, begrudgingly, because he paid and ended up with a trophy.
“After that I became a marathon junkie,” she said. “I can’t give you a count. I was like an addict. I became a running addict.”
The sun and the outdoors brought her to life. She climbed mountains: the Alps, Pyrenees, Sierra Nevadas. She ran 100-mile races. Then across the country in 75 days, averaging more than 40 miles a day. For many years, she was the fastest woman to cross the states on foot.
One of her five sons, Robert Lewis, said that the outdoors is key for her.
“We’d always go camping with her at Big Sur,” he said. “Hiking, a lot of hiking. She was always the fastest on the hike so if we didn’t keep up we were in trouble because she was always a good 20 yards ahead of us.”
Topping Mt. Everest is the only challenge Lewis regrets not trying. (“Maybe you should write this in the article: If anyone will sponsor me, I’m off!”)
At around 70 years old she started to feel comfortable with her accomplishments. She’s mellowed.
“I reached the point where, I had certain things under my belt,” she said. “I felt first that what motivated me was that I never thought I measured up. There’s always somebody who’s better, faster, no matter what you’ve done. Now I’m 80, it’s OK. I’ll share this thing!”
She also thinks back to the life or death moments, she said. Like when she was freezing, overcome with altitude sickness, and starting to enjoy the euphoria of near death close to Mt. Whitney’s peak.
“I was hallucinating, thinking of my kids, and I got to get back to my kids, and I never forgot those moments there where I just stood there and said, ‘I can’t feel my hands. I can’t feel my feet,’” she said. “I almost felt euphoric. I wasn’t in pain. It was actually euphoric. I thought, what a way to go.”
She told her hiking partner to go on without her. She paused for a long time.
“But the sun was rising,” she said. “And at this point, I don’t know, I wish I could have put all that down on a piece of paper; all the thoughts that went through my head.”
Out of fear that she would freeze but survive — that she’d lose her hands and feet — she decided she had to walk on. In a moment of consciousness, she chose to preserve her ability to interact with the world — the hands that allow her to literally touch the world around her — over euphoria and death.
“So at that point, I could actually look down and see the little red tent on the base camp,” she said. “It was a little dot and I could see it.”
For many, the red dot would have served as a beacon: the easy route back to the rest of one’s life.
“But not Natalie,” she said, laughing. “She had to go to the top.”