“The idea of running 26.2 miles used to seem impossible to me, and running 100 miles sounded crazy,” said Michael Hewitt, MD. “But then you work up to these things and find out your body is capable of doing much more than you believe possible.”
Dr. Hewitt speaks from experience. The Denver-based sports medicine specialist recently earned a coveted spot in the Seven Continents Club, an elite group of runners who have completed a marathon or ultra marathon on all seven continents.
But pursuit of this athletic achievement was only part of what compelled Dr. Hewitt to travel the world and run for miles. The races provided the perfect opportunity to take his wife, Victoria, and their two young children—Sarah and Gavin—and learn about new places and cultures as a family.
An active upbringing
Dr. Hewitt’s appreciation for outdoor adventures began at an early age.
“I was born and raised in Colorado and am from a very outdoorsy family,” he said. “My dad is a mountain climber, so we climbed, and also hiked, skied, and ran. My fondest memories are of all the family trips we took; we would jump in the car and drive from Colorado to Canada.”
As an adult, Dr. Hewitt has made travel and outdoor activities priorities with his own family.
“When I was an orthopaedic resident, we didn’t have much money, but we took our daughter to Norway when Sarah was just 9 months old,” he remembered. “Flying directly there was expensive, so we flew to Paris, took a train to Germany, and a boat to Norway.”
The family still travels economically. “The goal is to see places,” he added. “I’ve never been in first-class in my life. We are always cramped in the back of the plane.”
The Hewitts also engage in lots of outdoor activities, including regular Sunday runs that have been a family tradition as long as Dr. Hewitt can remember.
Dr. Hewitt ran his first marathon in Maui in 2004, unwittingly putting himself on the path to becoming a member of the Seven Continents Club.
“My wife thought I was pretty crazy to want to run 26 miles, but agreed to go along with it if she could choose the marathon,” said Dr. Hewitt. “She chose Maui, and I absolutely loved it.”
Despite his incredibly sore legs, Dr. Hewitt was soon talking about running another marathon. Not long after, he learned about a colleague’s plans to travel with his family to all seven continents.
“I thought that was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “So much of life is just about being exposed to things and finding out about possibilities that exist.”
Dr. Hewitt soon found out about the Seven Continents Club and its requirements for membership.
“Joining the club seemed more like fantasy than something we could ever really do,” he said.
But, after years of careful preparation, the family embarked upon an ambitious plan to visit Asia, Africa, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia. Dr. Hewitt would run a marathon or ultra marathon during each trip—as well as an ultra marathon in his home state of Colorado, which would count as the North American race. His wife and children would cheer him on, act as a support crew, and participate in sponsored 5K or 10K races.
The adventure begins
In 2009, the family took a 16-hour plane ride to New Zealand, where Dr. Hewitt would run the Auckland Marathon.
“I took a wrong turn at the end of the race and had to retrace my steps,” remembered Dr. Hewitt. “But I had a magical time celebrating with my family afterward.”
Dr. Hewitt calls New Zealand his “favorite place to visit on the planet.” After the race, he and his family toured the south island and then returned to the north island for a couple of days on a quiet beach.
“We were amazed by the variation in the terrain—from mountains and glaciers at Mt. Cook, to Milford Sound, which is one of the wettest places on the planet, and all of the beaches and volcanoes in between,” he said.
Next came Europe—specifically, Italy—in August 2010.
“We enjoyed seeing Rome—including the Coliseum—as well as the beaches of Positano,” said Dr. Hewitt.
The family then traveled to Sicily, where Dr. Hewitt participated in a unique marathon commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of Pheidippides’ run after the Battle of Marathon, the inspiration for the modern marathon.
“Nobody spoke English, so we had some difficulty finding out where and when the race started,” said Dr. Hewitt. “Runners were not allowed to wear a timepiece of any kind, and the race was not marked for mileage.
“We started in the dark and ran until we saw the finish line 26.2 miles later—on the ocean at an archeological site. We received wreaths at the finish.”
Antarctica to Africa
In February 2011, the family travelled to Antarctica for what has thus far been Dr. Hewitt’s favorite race—the Antarctica Marathon.
“I grew up with an affinity for Antarctic adventure stories like Ernest Shackleton’s The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton and Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written by Lennard Bickel,” he said. “To actually set foot on the continent was surreal.”
Because the Hewitts were travelling as part of an organized tour, they had the benefit of lectures from biologists, meteorologists, and other scientists as the boat made its way to Antarctica.
“My kids, who were both younger than 10 years old then, learned about all the mammals in Antarctica and many other subjects,” said Dr. Hewitt. “On the boat, they were a captive audience. It was a great way for us to be together as a family.”
Next came Africa in March 2012.
“We traveled to Cape Town, South Africa,” said Dr. Hewitt. “It was very interesting to be there only 20 years after the fall of apartheid.”
The race Dr. Hewitt ran there—the Two Oceans Marathon—is actually an ultra marathon, which means it is 56 kilometers long, rather than the standard 42 kilometers. It gets its name because participants run along both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
In Cape Town, Dr. Hewitt and his family met the famous South African runner Zola Budd and visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.
“The people who lead the tours at Robben Island are former prisoners, which makes for a very powerful experience,” remembered Dr. Hewitt.
Another highlight of the trip was a 4-day safari in Kruger National Park.
“Because we had kids, they put us in our own truck with a guide,” remembered Dr. Hewitt. “Within 20 minutes, a huge adolescent male elephant began charging our car. Luckily, the guides knew how to keep us safe.”
Asia and the Americas
“Next was the Tokyo Marathon in Japan in February 2013,” said Dr. Hewitt. “That was probably my wife’s favorite trip; she loves sushi, the people, and the country.”
The family enjoyed touring Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, and the island of Okinawa.
“Riding the bullet train with Sumo wrestlers is a fun memory,” he said, “as is the class we took on how to make sushi.”
Back in Colorado, Dr. Hewitt tackled the “Leadville 100,” a 100-mile course across difficult mountain terrain.
“My family and friends were instrumental in helping me finish that race,” said Dr. Hewitt. “They were my crew, kept me going, and even ran with me for part of the way.”
Dr. Hewitt ran the last 13 miles with his brother, and the last mile with his children.
“Finishing the race with my kids by my side is a memory I will treasure forever,” he said.
To complete a 100-mile race, noted Dr. Hewitt, a runner must draw not just on physical strength, but also on mental strength.
“Before Leadville, I reread Mawson’s Will,” he remembered. “It really puts things in perspective about what we can do, above and beyond what we would ever think possible.”
Dr. Hewitt wrote the words “Mawson’s Will” on his forearm before the race.
“When it was midnight, and I had run 90 miles and still had 10 miles to go, I looked at my forearm and reminded myself of this explorer who overcame incredible hardship and literally walked out of Antarctica.”
The last continent on their list—South America—is the site of the Inca Trail Marathon, which Dr. Hewitt completed in June 2014.
“It’s billed as the most difficult marathon in the world,” said Dr. Hewitt. “The Inca Trail is almost 14,000 feet above sea level and was built more than 500 years ago. Runners come from all over the world. We met many wonderful people there.”
After the race, the family toured the Incan archaeological sites.
Reflecting on it all
“It was a fun ride for the whole family,” said Dr. Hewitt.
“Ten years ago,” he continued, “I hadn’t run a marathon and wasn’t sure I could. Now I run one during weekend training. It’s just a matter of exposure and slowly heading up the ladder—the kids have seen that. They have climbed 14,000-foot peaks with us and have run the 10K BolderBOULDER race.”
A decade ago, noted Dr. Hewitt, it would have taken him some time to list the names of all seven continents.
“Now I’ve got two young kids who have a really sincere interest if they hear there was a big earthquake in Christchurch in New Zealand, for instance, because they have been there,” he said.
Dr. Hewitt places a high value on the knowledge his children acquired through their travels to the seven continents.
“We landed in this beautiful airport in South Africa,” Dr. Hewitt said, remembering some important lessons learned. “But as we drove the 10 miles to Cape Town, we passed through shanty towns. The kids talked with the taxi
driver, who was there for the revolution in 1992. They seemed to soak everything up and learn from it.”
The family’s travels have led to many fond memories.
“We have what we call the ‘Hewitt Adventure Book,’ a ratty little book we bought in 2008,” he said. “After every trip, we all write a little bit about the trip’s high points. When the kids were really young, they might just write ‘Tiger!’ or something like that. Now they are older and more eloquent, so they write about the things that have touched them. Then we read it later and remember the family experience we had.”
Dr. Hewitt also finds that his athletic endeavors help him connect with his patients.
“Colorado is a pretty adventurous state, so a lot of my patients travel,” he said. “I’m able to talk about our adventures, and patients will tell me about somewhere they’re going. I’m also sympathetic to runners who want to recover from injuries in time to run a particular race, because I’ve been through that same experience.”
His patients—especially those with severe injuries—also inspire him in another way.
“Part of my motivation is seeing what people go through in really difficult situations,” he said. “I see how some patients fight through their difficulties, and that gives me a lot of incentive to realize that I’ve got a healthy body, and I need to take advantage of it.”
Continuing the family tradition
Although Dr. Hewitt is now an official member of the Seven Continents Club, he plans to keep on racing and travelling with his family.
“I’m training to run another 100-mile race in 6 weeks, and my wife and kids continue to be active,” he said.
“Knock on wood,” he added, “one day my kids will travel and do these kinds of things with their children, and the family tradition will go on.”
He encourages others to travel as much as possible.
“It’s not fair to tell everyone to go travel the world,” noted Dr. Hewitt. “But it’s great to just get in your car, for instance, and go see Yellowstone.”
Just as his parents did before him, Dr. Hewitt and his wife spend less money on material possessions to make it possible for them to travel.
“I bought a used car 10 years ago and drove that car—duct tape and all—to the embarrassment of my children,” said Dr. Hewitt. “Someone at our surgery center finally told me that I had to stop parking it out front.”
For Dr. Hewitt, it’s all about setting priorities.
“Orthopaedics is very rewarding, but there’s also a reasonable amount of stress involved in our profession,” he noted. “After we got back from Machu Picchu, I was chatting with a colleague who said that travelling there was on his bucket list. I encouraged him to go and see it.
“We are all better orthopaedists when we take time out to recharge our batteries,” added Dr. Hewitt. “Being exposed to different people and places makes us better physicians, because it helps us understand people a little bit better.”
Jennie McKee is a senior science writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org