Levis on Saturday completed a 5-mile run backward and exceeded his goal by raising more than $3,800 for three organizations helping to treat and support people impacted by COVID-19. The Nittany Lions junior finished the run in 57 minutes, 51 seconds, repeatedly circling the track at a high school in State College, Pennsylvania.
5 miles backwards run for @MakinLemonFund ... COMPLETE. Definitely one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. Won't be doing it again 😂. Thank you for the support! Check what it was all about if you haven't yet at https://t.co/XaIpeHusdq pic.twitter.com/YnLme9aZ6r— Will Levis (@will_levis) May 30, 2020
"I got a lot of weird looks from people," Levis told ESPN on Monday. "Once they heard what the cause was, they understood more."
In April, a friend told Levis about the Makin' Lemonade Fund, started by a group of college students and recent graduates who organize community-based fundraising projects. One idea was a fun run, usually a marathon or half-marathon where donors could make pledges. Proceeds go to COVID-19 response efforts from the CDC Foundation, The Direct Relief Fund and Feeding America.
The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Levis said he isn't much of a distance runner. His longest run had been only "about 5 miles forward."
"I wanted to think about something unique, a way I could make my campaign a little different than the others," Levis said. "Right now things can feel a little twisted and a little backward. That came to mind. This whole campaign process is to help fight against COVID-19 and this pandemic. So in the spirit of things feeling backwards in our lives right now, I figured why not do the run backward. That was a way to tie it together."
Levis began training by running backward on a treadmill. He first completed a mile, then 2, then 3, and thought about pushing his run to 5 miles. Although he didn't think the backward run was too risky, his mother encouraged him to check with Dwight Galt, who oversees strength and conditioning for Penn State football. Levis spent last season as Penn State's backup quarterback and appeared in seven games, recording 223 pass yards, 213 rush yards and five touchdowns (three rush, two pass).
"I was kind of worried he might want to shut it down, but he was all for it," Levis said. "He said, 'You can do it. It's going to be tough, and I'm curious to see how it's going to make you feel.'"
Levis did several practice runs at the high school track and pushed back his run a week for added preparation and to boost donations. He worked with Penn State's compliance department so he and some teammates could promote his fundraiser on social media.
His goal Saturday was to complete the 5 miles in less than an hour. He started the run listening to a Wall Street Journal podcast before switching to "some hype music."
"I knew I needed to have my fastest mile yet if I wanted to hit my goal," he said. "When I got around to the last half-mile or so, I really picked up the pace and it definitely was the hardest part of it all.
"It is exhausting. It's not really a respiratory exhaustion but more so your legs. By the end of it, they pretty much gave out on me."
Levis recorded his best time by several minutes, averaging 11:34 per mile. He's excited to have completed the run for all who had donated, but don't expect an encore.
"I'm never going to have to do that again," he said, "unless some other charity opportunity comes up, and I still might have to think about it."