Island Profiles

Island Profile: Shelter Island’s Kal Lewis is running his way to Iowa

A few years back, Kenneth (Kal) Lewis, a 17-year old senior and one of the best high school runners in New York State, bought a large foam die — as in dice — at a five and dime store. It seemed to bring good luck, so he started taking it along with him to every race. “It’s hard to pack, but it’s light, so I bring it wherever,” Kal said.

He’s certainly received some luck, but excellent coaching, and a steady, intellectual approach have had more to do with success in his chosen sport. 

Kal is the fastest man on the Shelter Island School team in the six years since Coaches Bryan Gallagher, Toby Green and Bryan Knipfing reestablished organized running. Still getting faster, next year Kal will attend the University of Iowa, with a sub 4-minute mile, and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team fueling his dreams.

He’s lived on Shelter Island his entire life, and although his parents split up when he was 8, and he has no siblings, he grew up with the love of his close family all around him; his mother, Kristina Lange, his maternal grandmother, Susie Lange, father, Ken Lewis, step-mother, Robin Lewis, and his father’s mother, Christine Lewis, all living on the Island, and never more than a 10-minute drive away. The Kal cheering section at any school running event is formidable.

Kal’s grandmother, Chris, was a long-serving member on the Town Council. “People would ask her, ‘Chris, is that your grandson who does all that running?’” Kal said. “And they’d ask me, ‘Kal is that your grandma who is on the Town Board?’ It was never embarrassing. I embraced it.” 

Kal loved sports, playing basketball, baseball, lacrosse and soccer before concentrating on cross country running when the school started to offer it. He was 12, and his days since then have been filled with extended training runs of anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.

In the classroom, Kal describes himself as “a numbers guy.” He recently asked one of his favorite teachers if accounting might be a good career for him. “My math teacher, Mr. Brigham, knows everybody’s skills. He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, that’s a job for you,’” Kal said.

Like math, running requires good coaching, and the same kind of mindset Kal finds necessary in a distance run. “Running is a patient sport. You don’t want to go out in a race sprinting and then finish slowly. You are in your own being. You stay within yourself. You are focused on what you have to do. You stay true to yourself, not to a team, which is what I like about it.”

He analyzes a race before he starts, thinking about the course, the distance, the competition and his strategy. “I can overthink. Sometimes it’s just, don’t think about anything, just run,” he said. “Halfway in, if I’m feeling pretty good, I can pick up the pace. I might hit mile one in a 5K and see a fast time and think that doesn’t feel out of my wheelhouse. If I did that once I can do it for another mile …”

Kal described his third cross-country state win last November as “the best race I’ve ever run.” 

Held on a freezing day in Plattsburgh, N.Y., before the race he was considered the underdog, afraid of one particular competitor. “This kid was having a great year, and I was not,” he remembered. “I didn’t want to lose to him.”

By the first mile of the 2.8-mile race, Kal was behind, but dug deep, catching up with little left for the final sprint. “I told myself, ‘There is no going back,’” he said. “I’m not losing this. I’ve already worked so hard to get up there, and so I outsprinted him and I won.” No one was more shocked at the win than Kal. “I said, ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’” 

Three times now, Kal’s time for the 1,600-meter event (about 1 mile) has been 4.15, and he ran the 3,200-meter in 9:34. “It’s an insane thing that I can run a 4:15 mile and still I think I can run faster.” For years, a sub four-minute mile was something only his heroes could reach for. “Now I’m actually one of those people,” he said. 

As much as Kal loved growing up in a small, close-knit community, by his junior year of high school he decided he was ready for something new. The small schools he visited seemed too much like Shelter Island. “I wanted to go to a big school and I wanted to go out of state,” he said. 

While visiting the University of Iowa, he found what he was looking for. “I called my Mom and I said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to lie. This place is really awesome.’” He intends to be a major part of the success of the Iowa running program. “I want to break some records there, to lead the team to a championship,” he said. “And I want to go to the Olympics.” 

Kal said his parents could not have been more supportive than they’ve been in the six years of his running career. “As for my coaches, they brought me in and showed me what my potential could be, and they are still showing me what my potential could be,” he said.

And if he does make it to the Olympics, he has a further goal. “As much as my ability will let me. If I somehow make it to the Olympics, I’d like to bring back some of my well-being to Shelter Island.” 

Lightning Round with Kal Lewis

What do you always have with you? I wear a chain with my uncle’s pendant, and a dog tag with my name and my grandpa’s name.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? Crescent Beach is nice for road running.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Sun Valley, Idaho.

When was the last time you were elated? When I won my most recent state championship.  

What exasperates you? The noise that a dog makes when it licks. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.  

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The first day of summer.

Favorite movie or book? ‘Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing,’ by Marcus Luttrell. 

Favorite food? Tacos at Lucharitos.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Steve Prefontaine.

Most respected elected official? My grandma.