Why nobody spits on the streets of Pamplona

Fifteen years ago, Todd Lewis was having a rough week. The airport in Dallas had lost his luggage upon arrival and he was at the tail end of a Sales Summit that hadn’t exactly been enthralling. But for the final segment of the conference, one individual took the stage and forever changed his life. It was none other than University of Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, Lou Holtz.

Now, Coach Holtz isn’t recognized as being a particularly powerful speaker; his voice has been quieted some after so many years bellowing instructions to players from the sidelines. But what the Coach lacked in volume, he made up for with his message. Holtz recommended that everyone in attendance challenge themselves by creating a list of goals to accomplish in their own lives and to look at it every day, something that he himself had been doing for many years. For Lewis, who was feeling a little lost and unsatisfied in his life at that point, the speech struck a chord. On the flight back home, he feverishly sketched out thirty goals of his own, creating not so much a bucket list but instead a personal layout of objectives to complete. These weren’t dreams that he hoped to one day accomplish before kicking the bucket; these were measured and actionable items that he could achieve.

The list was fairly audacious for a 33-year-old who had self-admittedly never run more than 3 miles before in his life and had yet to even leave the country. It included tackling a marathon, hiking Machu Picchu, trekking in Nepal to the Everest Base Camp and taking his mother on a trip to Ireland. For many, it would have been easy to look at those aspirations as mere pipe dreams to be completed “someday”. But Lewis no longer subscribes to that. Instead, he has taken a measured approach to realizing all of those goals. For the first item on the list, the marathon, he began a training regiment that would allow him to slowly ramp up his mileage. He started out in small increments and made sure not to over-train. Before long, those miles started to add up and at this point Lewis is proud to have accomplished forty marathons before his fortieth birthday. That’s right, forty marathons in seven years.

Crossing the line for Marathon #40 and crossing it off the list
Crossing the line for Marathon #40 and crossing it off the list

Naturally, he often has to field questions on how can he afford all the traveling, the equipment, and most especially, the time. It’s easy to make the assumption that he must be wealthy, or that he doesn’t have to depend upon a salaried job to fund his adventures. The truth though, isn’t what people want to hear. Lewis isn’t the beneficiary of some inherited funds and he doesn’t have infinite time in his day to train. He’s employed as an Account Executive for global markets at a major communications provider, an occupation he loves because it challenges him daily. To finance his trips, he’s mastered the art of saving tactfully and cutting out anything extravagant. Additionally, for over 8 years, Lewis held a side job on the weekends at a local REI, using the outfitting store as a place to learn from experienced travelers and meet like-minded people. It’s this work ethic that allows him to live this lifestyle, travel the world and realize his dreams. Anybody can do it, he says, so long as they are willing to earn it.

Receiving blessing from renowned Lama Geshe at Everest Base Camp
Receiving blessings from renowned Lama Geshe at Everest Base Camp in 2005

Along the way, and especially in the beginning, Lewis has had to battle a lot of negativity. Sometimes, it seemed that it was easier for people to be skeptical of him rather than to be supportive. He recalls friends who he thought he knew really well, ones that he was certain would have his back, who turned out to be some of his biggest doubters. They said that he was past the age for doing these things, or that “he couldn’t possibly run a marathon a month”. They even tried to diminish his goals at times, going so far as to say they heard Mt. Kilimanjaro “isn’t that tough of a climb”. That it “isn’t even that steep”. Lewis resolved not to take these comments personally, reminding himself that they were only saying these things to protect themselves from what they didn’t understand. Instead, he remained determined to show them that if you set out goals, and work hard at them, anything is possible. The bull-running, mountain-summiting, marathon-crushing Lewis maintains that having doubters is unavoidable. You just have to use that negativity as fuel.

More than anything, this shift in the way he approaches each day has forever changed his perspective of the world. He has come to realize that what you often conceded to be so far out of reach, is actually much closer than you could have imagined. Two of his goals for instance, meeting Coach Holtz in person to thank him for the speech that changed his life, and reaching out to Mark Cuban simply to shake his hand, has led to ongoing correspondences (he writes letters back and forth to each) with two of the most inspirational men in America. He’s also come to have an enormous appreciation and respect for those who he’s relied upon to accomplish what’s on his list. Lewis is quick to credit his supportive family and friends, the other members of his climbing teams and all the unseen volunteers that allow for every marathon to happen. They are the ones who make it all possible, and sharing the experiences with these individuals is a humbling reward for all the work it took to make it this far.

Not unlike his willingness to go back for more marathons, Lewis has also run with the bulls in Pamplona’s festival of San Fermín an incredible four times now. Among other lessons it’s provided, Lewis credits the historic death-defying event for teaching him how to listen. “When I was younger, I talked more than I ever listened. But in Pamplona, I began to respect and understand the importance of listening. There are these rocket booms that sound off, for example, to tell you when the bulls are released and when they’re penned again. Your life depends upon those rockets, so you learn to focus intently upon them and drown everything else out.” It’s important to note that Lewis refuses to ever treat it lightly or become over-confident though, despite having gained so much experience. He always thinks back to a moment just before his first running, as he stood cramped alongside another participant while they anxiously awaited the release of that year’s rampaging bullhorns.

“Can you spit?” The man next to him asked.
“Sorry. Spit?” replied Lewis, before slowly realizing what the stranger had meant. He couldn’t. His mouth was too dry due to nervousness. He shook his head to the fellow runner.
“Good. If you can spit, you’re not taking this seriously enough.”

Lewis’ list has grown over time, just as he has, and its been expanded hugely from his original set of 30. He now has 134 goals on paper that he references every day. Along with the daily ritual of reviewing his progress on items to complete, he also loves to start most mornings reading inspirational literature. A personal favorite line of his is by the great late Charles Bukowski, and it is more than fitting. “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” For Lewis, that idea of living well and taking each day seriously says everything. He’ll continue to stand by that notion for his next goal, when he attempts to summit Washington’s Mt. Rainier in a few weeks.


One of only three to reach the summit on a stormy 2011 Mt. Hood expedition
Fighting hard to summit on this stormy 2011 Mt. Hood expedition

Not everyone’s will include such incredible physical feats to conquer and Wonders of the World landmarks to visit, but Lewis encourages that we all make a list regardless, just as his hero Coach Holtz once suggested to him. Everyone’s list will be different, of course, and that’s the point. For some, being the best dad you possibly can is akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Each person will include what is most important to them, and if you can truly take steps closer to the aspirations that define you, there is no telling how great the impact can be upon your life.

Todd Lewis’ story serves as a reminder to us all to be relentless in our ambitions. We’re far more capable than we even know.

You can follow Todd’s journey at irunwithbulls.com. Good luck not being inspired by one of the most positive individuals I’ve ever had the honor of speaking with.

Title Photo Credit: flickr