In a sense, Moscow runner Sam Lewis is sort of like a superhero.
She works an unassuming job as a barista at Cafe Artista in Moscow, teaches a kinesiology class at Washington State and serves as a volunteer distance coach for the Idaho track and field program.
Oh, and she also happens to be a world-class mountain and trail runner for Team USA.
When she’s not wearing one of her many hats on the Palouse, Lewis dons her red, white and blue “supersuit” and conquers the mountains of Mexico and Argentina.
A native of Boulder, Colo., and a 2017 Oregon State graduate, Lewis took an unusual path to representing her country in regional and world competitions.
“I probably had no reason to pursue post collegiate-running,” Lewis said Tuesday, barely a week after finishing 29th at the World Mountain Running Championships in Patagonia, Argentina.
“If people saw my (college) times, they’d probably say ‘Why did you bother?’ ”
Lewis never quite reached her expectations as a college athlete. A stress fracture in her back almost ended her running career when doctors told her she might never run again without pain.
“I’m in a DI Pac-12 program recruited to run and I couldn’t even walk,” Lewis said.
Luckily, the doctors were wrong and she was able to return to running — although she still has to manage her back pain to this day — but Lewis was left with a love-hate relationship with the sport she’d pursued since she was 7 years old.
After college, Lewis didn’t want to leave running, so she came to Idaho in 2017 to kickstart a potential coaching career with UI distance guru Travis Floeck, a former assistant for the Beavers.
“It was really spontaneous,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know anything about Moscow or the team, but I knew if Travis was involved, it was going to be phenomenal.”
Lewis became a volunteer assistant with the Vandals and also earned a master’s degree at UI. In the process, she rediscovered a love for the sport.
“My first year out of post-collegiate (running) when I moved here, I didn’t have a great relationship with running — I kind of wanted to quit,” Lewis said. “And there’s a reason (I didn’t). I watched them do a workout one day and when I was like, ‘OK, stop being silly. You still want to do this.’
“They’ve truly been my inspiration to pursue my own running.”
As a Colorado native, Lewis always was familiar with mountain and trail running, but she mostly competed on the track or in road races. Mountain running and its niche community was an afterthought.
That is until a friend convinced her to compete in the Moscow Mountain Madness half marathon in September 2018.
To her surprise, Lewis not only won the 13.1-mile race, but she set a course record in her first attempt at the distance with a time of 1:42:47.
“To be honest, I just had a ton of fun,” Lewis said. “For the first time in years, I felt like I was myself out there when I was running. I was enjoying it.”
With that, Lewis’ path was set — she was going to be a mountain runner. Lewis finally found something she truly was good at, but even she had no idea of the success she would see in the next 12 months.
Lewis’ results included a second-place finish at the USATF Trail Half Marathon Championships in September 2018 in Wisconsin, a fifth-place finish at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championships in December 2018 in Hawaii, a third-place finish at the Dion Snowshoes U.S. National Snowshoe Championships in March in Wisconsin, a win at the USATF Trail Half Marathon Championships in June in Pennsylvania and, finally, a fourth-place USATF Mountain Running Championships finish in September in New Hampshire, which qualified her for Worlds.
“I never expected it to go as well as it started,” Lewis said. “In the USATF race, I finished second to one of the best runners in the country, and I’m just learning this at the starting line. They’re listing off all her credentials, and I’m like ‘Oh my goodness.’
“I just didn’t know what to expect.”
All this was made possible thanks to her mom, whose job as an airline flight attendant helped pay for travel; her roommate, who helped cover her class at WSU; and a crew at Cafe Artista that was supportive of her running ventures.
“They’ve been dealing with me for the last two-and-a-half years,” Lewis said, laughing. “I am so incredibly grateful for them.”
Lewis’ biggest race by far was her fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, which qualified her for Worlds and a spot on Team USA.
The up-and-down race took place at a ski resort at Waterville Mountain Resort, and featured a tougher field than Lewis had faced.
Lewis strength is her uphill running, so she knew she’d need to build a cushion going into a long downhill portion toward the end of the race.
As she was barrelling down the mountain in fourth, she knew the pack was hot on her heels.
“I felt like the antelope running from the cheetah or the lion,” Lewis said. “I knew they were coming for me and I was just trying to haul as hard as I could.”
With about a kilometer to go, there was one final 100-meter stretch of uphill. That portion proved to be the saving grace for Lewis.
Her competitors later told Lewis her surge on the final hill is what kept her in front.
Lewis said receiving her Team USA kit in the mail was a moment she’ll never forget. The kits, provided by Nike, are the same for all Team USA runners, regardless of whether they’re mountain runners, or track-and-field athletes competing in jam-packed stadiums.
The kit included everything from Team USA rain gear, to podium gear, to racing singlets and more.
“It was like a dream come true,” Lewis said. “I’d watched all my idols in the running world get these (kits), and then I am getting one. It was like 'Please pinch me because I don’t believe that this is my reality.' ”
Lewis first wore the red, white and blue in October at the NACAC Mountain Running Championships in Tepatitlan, Mexico. Lewis took silver to teammate Dani Moreno, and Team USA took the gold.
On Nov. 15, she finished 29th at the world championships in Argentina.
Lewis landed back in Moscow on Monday. She’s back to coaching the Vandal distance runners, and making frappuccinos on Main Street — two activities she loves.
But don’t expect Lewis’ “supersuit” to stay in the wardrobe for long.
“It just fuels the fire for more,” Lewis said. “I have the opportunity to make Team USA next year and you know for damn sure I’m going to try my hardest to qualify again for Worlds.”
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @StephanSports.