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Boosting fitness, mental clarity and joy

Jonathan Levitt stood at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, exchanging high-fives and jovial swearing with his friend, Tony DiPasquale. Who would blame them? After all, completing the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim is a cause for celebration.

“It was pretty awesome,” Levitt recalls. “We were pretty hyped up, and then we got out. It was dark almost immediately and cold, and there was nobody in the parking lot. And so we were just like, ‘Oh now what?’”

Around the 13th hour of running and hiking the pair closed in on their goal.

“The feeling of climbing out of the South Rim for the second time was something that I'll remember forever,” Levitt says. “I was giddy. ‘Tony, we're doing it, we're doing it. Like we're there.’ It was just the coolest feeling — you can turn around and see how far we came from. And the North Rim was staring at us 20 plus miles away. And we had come from there. We did that on our feet and it was just so cool. It's so far, and it's so steep, and the views are so insanely gorgeous.”

The challenge for Levitt was not just the distance (his longest previous run was 31 miles) or the terrain. He is afraid of heights and doesn’t like running in the dark. The first 80 minutes of the journey were before the sun came up and brought the runners down 5,000 feet.

“There were some pretty steep drop-offs that I guess we couldn't see but they were there,” he says. “It was really interesting for me to get the part that I was looking forward to the least out of the way first. Normally you're expecting the third quarter of some event to be the worst part. That was my best part.”

The 42ish-mile run dwarfed Levitt’s previous long run of 31 miles. He has come a long way since he drew inspiration from the 2013 Boston Marathon.

From marathon onlooker to runner

Levitt watched that year’s race from Wellesley College, roughly the halfway point.

“I was looking at all these different people that were different shapes and sizes, and skills, and all that stuff,” he recalls. “I thought that if these people can run a marathon, so can I. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to run a marathon even though I had never run more than like eight miles at the time.”

Hours later, bombs would shatter lives and force the marathon to shut down. But they did not quell Levitt’s motivation.

“The next day I was motivated to go for a run, so I did,” he remembers. “I drove to Newton and ran into Boston and ran along the marathon course as far as I could before a SWAT team told me to turn around. So that was my first half marathon. I did it in exactly two hours, and I got exactly one stress fracture from it.”

He completed it in two hours — and one stress fracture. But it was a valuable lesson. “I learned that you can't go from zero to 60 that quickly. And I learned how cool it was to cover that kind of distance on foot.”

Now, Levitt runs to “explore boundaries and limits, and re-establish what is normal.” He has progressed from a runner topping out at 40-mile weeks to doing 65- to 70-mile weeks.

“That just would have been incomprehensible to me a couple of years ago,” says Levitt, who is coached by David Roche. “Same thing with running in the Grand Canyon or running an ultra marathon. I talked with David on my podcast about the commitment of doing rim-to-rim-to-rim. And when I committed to it, I wasn't sure that I could actually do it. And that excited me and that motivated me to train, and put in the work required to make it possible.”

A key player on Team SWAP

A common theme among Team SWAP — Roche’s Some Work, All Play – is that the coach relentlessly sees so much potential in all his athletes.

“Working with David has been fascinating because, from the start, he believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Levitt says. “And now I'm finally catching up to his belief. The biggest change with him was I'm running way more miles at a lower intensity.”

That’s not to say that Roche prescribes just easy runs. Tempo runs, specific speed workouts, and long runs are all part of his recipe for his athletes.

“It’s really a lot of easy miles and then some fast work on top of that, but not a lot,” Levitt says, noting that Mondays are rest days, defined as no running. “Often Mondays are the most stressful day from a life perspective. Definitely the case for me. My Mondays are full of meetings and back-to-back meetings and things like that. And so to remove running as a physical stress definitely helps on the mental stress side of things because it all adds up.”

Levitt’s fitness improvements and mental clarity jelled together earlier this year, resulting in a sub-3 hour marathon in Providence, R.I.

“I'm more confident at the end of races and it's shown in my races, particularly how the marathon worked out earlier this year where I pretty much hit the wall at mile 20 and then stared the wall down and said, ‘Nope, not today.’"

He picked up speed in the last 10K as opposed to slowing down as he had in previous marathons.

“A lot of that is training-related,” he reasoned. “I'm just running more, but I'm also more confident in my physical ability, which translates into stronger mental ability. And then I'm eating more and eating more has allowed me to just get better results and have more energy in life, and recover faster, and sustain 70 mile weeks on a consistent basis without getting injured. And so I think that this culmination of all of that stuff has led, this year's my best year ever from a running standpoint.”

Coping with grief

It’s quite a change for Levitt from last year when he dealt with the death of his beloved grandfather and a breakup of a long-term relationship within five months. He started going to a therapist in August 2018.

“A lot of people use running as therapy and I'd say there's nothing wrong with that, but therapy is therapy,” he says. “There's nothing that can replace therapy. Running can be therapeutic, but I don't think running can be therapy. People will definitely disagree with me on that, but I would challenge them. See a therapist. And I say that in jest, but I'm totally being serious too. It's been life changing and I acknowledge that that comes from a place of privilege where I am able to see a therapist and I can have the flexibility to see a therapist.”

The death of his grandfather was a long, difficult process, and it weighed on Levitt.

“I went to visit him in August in Florida, and had what I knew would be my last conversation with him and the last time I'd ever see him,” he recalls. “I had similar difficult conversations on the relationship front. And I went into those conversations in a way that is, would parallel a workout like this is going to be uncomfortable, bring it on.”

Still, the actual conversations were challenging. Levitt recalls shaking and crying beforehand.

“I knew I wasn't going to keel over and die, but sometimes you just have to have hard conversations,” he says. “My running at that time was the best it had ever been. I was demolishing workouts and running half marathons on Wednesday mornings and then feeling great. It was an interesting parallel between the best running I've ever experienced and the hardest life stuff I'd ever experienced. And it was like a perfect connection because life is hard. Running is hard.”

And the running community helped pull Levitt through the dark times. Among the athletes who reached out was Ladia Albertson-Junkans, a close friend of the late Gabrielle Grunewald, the courageous track star whose “Brave Like Gabe” legacy lives on.

“I leaned on friends and family more than I ever had in the past for anything,” Levitt says. “I got so close with a group of friends all across the country, different people who, some of them had coincidentally lost a grandfather or lost a good friend recently. They all had their own beautiful messages for how to prepare me for that conversation with my grandfather. And it was absolutely perfect.”

Redefining what is possible

Levitt loves the exploration that comes with running, pushing one’s limits and redefining what is possible.

“I love that exploration of finding what happens when you're consistent,” he says. “What happens when you work really hard, but also what happens when shit’s not going well and things hit the fan and you're 38 miles into a 45-mile run and you feel awful and you're going straight uphill.”

Ask him whether he prefers roads or trails more, and Levitt is split. And he divides up his running calendar into half a year focusing on one surface, and the other half on the other surface. So where does a Boston resident go to run trails?

“Tahoe,” he says, only half-joking. “Mostly, I go 30 minutes north or 30 minutes south of Boston. They're not great. They get the job done. When I need a longer run or more climbing, I'll go a bit further west. Maybe about an hour west. I did, in training for the Canyon, I did a marathon at Wachusett. So I got 5,000 feet of climbing in at the marathon distance and yeah, it's just a little bit higher up and the climbing is more consistent versus here you're running around reservoirs or ski mountains that are not as big as the ones certainly out west, but not as big as the ones in western Mass or central Mass.”

Improving on the inside

When Levitt is not training, racing or working on his “For the Long Run” podcast, he works for InsideTracker. The company provides personalized bloodwork analysis and recommendations for nutrition, supplementation and training for athletes.

A simple “blood test provides personalized guidance on all of that and helps you understand what your body needs in this moment based on who you are, how you train, how you supplement, how you eat and gives you that personalization,” Levitt explains. “Eat this food, take this supplement, etc. all backed by science. So it's all based on peer reviewed scientific research on healthy populations and improving blood biomarkers. So nutrient hormone levels in order to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve. So for me personally, it's helped with improving energy levels and improving recovery. And that's allowed me to train at the level I'm training at right now compared to where I was at three years ago, and it's helped quite a lot.”

For many athletes like Levitt and yours truly, Vitamin D emerged as a recommendation.

“We see 35 percent of our population being Vitamin D deficient,” he says. “It's linked to mood, recovery, sleep, power, testosterone, basically all the stuff that you want. My magnesium has always been low and I've finally been able to get it up.”

Other recommendations for Levitt have included eating more fish, nuts and oatmeal. It’s part of the entire circle for the ultra runner and marathoner — focused training, mental clarity, proper recovery and a healthful diet.

“All of these things have helped with muscle repair and just feeling fresher.”

Speed drill

Name: Jonathan Levitt

Hometown: Boston

Number of years running: 6

How many miles a week do you typically run: between 60 and 70

Point of pride: Completing Rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon and my first sub-3 marathon this year!

Favorite race distance: 5K

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: PickyBars and a GU Stroopwaffle

Favorite piece of gear: November Project grassroots gear – always good for a cheer

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Champion by Carrie Underwood

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Keep showing up. Make it hurt, more.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• and For The Long Run Podcast!

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