Published in Running Times magazine, July/August 2007
It was about reaching a lifelong goal, about completing unfinished business on the course, about celebrating a new lease on life, and about helping others.
At 10am on July 24, 2006, veteran elite ultramarathoner Lisa Smith-Batchen stood at the start line of the Badwater endurance run, billed as the toughest foot race in the world. She’d been there before.
But on this day, 135 miles was far short of Lisa’s goal. Her plan was to finish the race, then continue past the line to summit Mount Whitney, at 14,491 feet the tallest peak in the US. After that, she would then retrace her steps back to the Badwater 135 start line.
Lisa called it the Badwater Double. 300 miles. Give or take a few.
A Killer Resume
Lisa, now 45 years old with a home in Idaho, is an elite ultra-distance athlete, a marathoner, an Ironman triathlete, and an EcoChallenge adventure racing veteran. In her 1995 Badwater debut, she finished as second woman overall in 41 hours and 24 minutes.
In 1997 and 1998 she won the women’s division of Badwater. And she also is the only American woman ever to win the women’s division of the grueling Marathon Des Sables. She’s done it all.
But that was a lifetime ago. Lisa’s success, while it made her one of the strongest and fittest athletes on the planet, was unable to prevent the increasing grasp of an invisible force.
In The Grip
You can run, but you can’t hide from depression. It catches you by surprise, then overtakes you. Lisa got to the point where hundreds of training hours and thousands of miles were not enough to outrun the battles inside. The mind and body that once completed 100-mile runs with ease was forced to surrender. Abruptly.
She courageously sought help, but she also disappeared from racing. “It wasn’t even that I couldn’t race,” Lisa said. “There were a couple of years where I didn’t do much of anything at all.” A champion, rendered effectively immobile, though temporarily.
With recovery came rejuvenation and a renewed interest in getting back to her full-time job and raising a family with two young children. Lisa put her running career aside for a while to deal with depression, and just did what was right for her, a step at a time.
Over time, those steps multiplied. Her love for long runs around her home near Jackson Hole Wyoming soon evolved to a new kind of competitive desire: to run for a charity she deeply believes in. And soon, as the fire returned, so did the increasingly strong desire to do something most people would consider completely impossible. The Badwater Double. Lisa’s comeback.
The Point of the Journey
“This is my Mount Everest”, Lisa explained shortly after setting her sights on the Double in early 2006. “When I’m old and gray, I want to feel like I did it all. This is it. ”
Lisa had attempted the Double this once before, but a crisis broke her spirit during the attempt. She longed to return and erase that memory. Now it was time. But things would be different.
Lisa’s approach to running had changed dramatically since depression entered the picture. “Now, it’s about seeing racing from a new perspective, being driven for the right reasons, the sights the sounds, the spirit of running. It’s not racing anymore . . . it’s about the experience.”
Inspired by her cousin Joe, who died of AIDS nearly to the day Lisa ran Badwater for the first time, Lisa would be running to raise money orphaned children who have AIDS. She started the Double with $140,000 in contributions expected at the end of her journey.
So she had several reasons for attempting the unimaginable. All she had to do now was start.
Smile: It’s 125 degrees in the Shade
Minutes before start at the 2006 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, the mood was upbeat among the small community of athletes. Runners posed for photos with each other and with their crews. Among those at the start were former winner Pam Reed, who had joined Lisa for training earlier in the year, and Dean Karnazes.
“I ran with Lisa at her first Badwater 135,” Dean reflected. “She’s obviously matured a lot, but has the same twinkle in her eye. Her speed may be decreasing, but her spirit is enduring. That’s the best word I can come up with: Enduring.” She was going to need it.
As the clock reached 10am, at 282 feet below sea-level one of the harshest weather climates in the world, optimistic runners began their journey toward Mount Whitney, 135 miles away. Each runner knew there would be good times and rough ones on the course. The trick would be knowing how to handle it. Before the race, Lisa already had her racing plan in mind:
“This year I know so much more about what I’m getting into. My goals are just to put one foot in front of the other and not worry about time or the miles I have covered. I will deal with it one step at a time, and I will deal with each obstacle as it comes.”
Lisa and the other runners, with their own plans to follow, started running on asphalt so hot it can melt your shoes. The journey had begun.
The first 41 miles of the race are relatively flat, in scorching heat that exceeded 125 degrees. Only ultramarathoners can truly comprehend the following statement: these 41 miles are the easy part of the course.
Before the race, Lisa laid out her early expectations. “Stovepipe Wells -- mile 41 -- is the first big landmark. I will not stop until getting there.” What sort of training had Lisa done to give her such confidence?
Ultramarathon Training for the Working Mom
The kind of training any working mother of two would do, when they are facing a multi-day endurance effort: whenever the time was available, hour after hour of running, walking, hill training, pulling a tire for resistance, and the like.
No time during the day? Start training at as early as 3am or as late as 10pm, which Lisa did every Friday night leading towards the Double. She would sometimes run/powerwalk 30 miles in those middle-of-the-night sessions.
What about quality time with the kids? Lisa happily incorporated her kids in two-hour hill training runs --pushing one child in a baby jogger, and pulling the other in a cart -- running through beautiful scenery in Idaho and Wyoming. The kids reportedly loved these outings, often asking her: are we going running soon?
Despite several months of training mainly when time and life allowed, Lisa had declared herself better prepared than before any other Badwater. So it was no surprise when she arrived in Stovepipe Wells Monday evening with a relaxed smile, looking as if she had simply walked around the block.
She took a seat as her crew offered nutrition, fluids, and began conducting an interview with a reporter. With a pitch-black evening fast approaching, Lisa changed clothes, donned a bright reflector vest, and headed toward her next major destination: Keeler, after mile 102 or so.
“I want to smash through Keeler,” Lisa confided before the race. Dean Karnazes explained why that mindset is important:
“When you reach Keeler, it can get very depressing. You’ve gone 100 miles and you’re destroyed already, then you see a very long 20 miles to Lone Pine in front of you. After that you know there’s another 13 to climb. If you’re not mentally prepared, all you can do is hunker down into survival mode, putting one foot in front of another, to keep going.”
Continuing forward in the dark, the miles ticked by through the evening and into early morning. Lisa reached an interim checkpoint at Townes Pass at mile 63, where the first major climb of the course commenced. In the past Townes Pass had been a place of grace for Lisa, one of spiritual renewal that helped spur her forward. This time, for some reason, she didn’t have that feeling. Something else was up. She trudged forward.
“I expect obstacles and pain,” Lisa said before the race. “And I’ll be ready for them.” Ready or not, they came hard and heavy at Lisa as she got deeper into the course. She began having gastrointestinal problems that seemingly could not be controlled. By mile 90, she was unable to hydrate or eat effectively. The gas was running low. Lisa was getting sicker and sicker. Just short of Keeler, in the middle of the night, she was in trouble.
News filtered back from the course, and it was not encouraging. “Latest reports from crew members have Lisa at Keeler on Tuesday, July 26th at 2:00am,” crew member Colleen Woods reported. “This is approximately seven miles since the last update at 7:00pm. The good news is that Lisa has got some shut-eye in that time, but the truth of the matter is that Lisa is suffering.”
The race doctor, Lisa Bliss, stopped by and found Lisa had a 101+ degree fever. Dr. Bliss suggested Lisa might have a 24-hour bug, but that knowledge was of little comfort with so far still to travel. How to get through the pain and suffering? “I closed my eyes and prayed for a new body,” Lisa said later. “I needed it, fast.”
One of the more remarkable experiences on a race course is the dramatic deliverance from the depths of discomfort to the rebirth of spirit, endurance and performance. There’s nothing like breaking through the pain barrier, and finding a better and stronger runner on the other side.
And that’s just what happened for Lisa. Waking from the nap in the back of the crew van, she greeted the dawn of a new day, figuratively and literally. Lisa, whose spirit was additionally boosted by the arrival of her endurance mentor Marshall Ulrich, awoke ready to do what she had planned all along: blast through Keeler. She stepped back onto the asphalt with a smile, eager to go.
The resurgence of strength and spirit helped Lisa drive forward toward the finish without reservation or concern. Across the long, lonely miles to Lone Pine, and on the ascent toward the finish on Mount Whitney. The energy and enthusiasm continued unabated.
Approaching the end in 2006 was significantly different than in past races where she was driven at all costs to finish as fast as possible. “I knew I was on 48 hour pace – the pace where you earn a buckle – but I knew I had much further to go,” said Lisa. “I paced myself to preserve my body for Mount Whitney and beyond.” Lisa’s crew surrounded her on the final picturesque steps toward the finish line, and then it was over.
After 49 hours, Lisa crossed the finish line at more than 8000 feet above sea level,135 miles into her Badwater Double journey.
165 miles to go. Now it Gets Interesting.
Hugs, smiles, tears, photographs and a medical check followed. The doctor who had visited Lisa at her sickest point on the course was stunned in her excellent condition at the finish. “I’ve never felt better at the end of Badwater,” Lisa recalled. “I was emotionally charged up, maybe a little overheated, but ready to go.” It was indeed as if Lisa had the new body she requested before Keeler.
And she would need it, because she still had 165 miles to go, beginning with the summit of Mount Whitney. The ‘easy’ part was over; the work was ready to begin.
Except for a small detail: you don’t just get to hop on a hiking trail to climb Whitney. You need a permit. And for all the details Lisa’s crew had under control for the entire journey, securing the right permit had slipped through the cracks. So while Lisa and team were ready to continue in daylight just a few hours after finishing Badwater, they would have to cool their heels and wait for the red tape to be sorted out.
Know the feeling after stopping a long distance race, and your legs and muscles just cramp up, especially as the hours go by? Now imagine that feeling, after covering 135 miles over the course of two days. That’s what Lisa had to deal with.
When the permit arrived late in the day, Lisa and Marshall changed into colder weather climbing gear and finally headed toward up Mount Whitney. Carrying the burden of endlessly stiff legs and sleep deprivation, they moved on. But, unfortunately, not all the way to the summit.
By the time Lisa reached 12,000 feet in the cold, dark night, she was shivering uncontrollably in sub-freezing air. The stunning midnight sky could not offset extreme cold, nausea and ringing ears she was experiencing. A veteran mountaineer who knew the signs, Ullrich insisted they abort the summit attempt. With severe disappointment, Lisa followed Marshall’s retreat to the base of the mountain.
“It’s over,” Lisa thought.
A car met Lisa and Marshall and drove them to nearby crew members Ben and Denise Jones’ home. This was not anticipated. Lisa expected to be on the mountain, not in a living room. Now everything was up for grabs.
Her mind scrambled for workable scenarios. She called her husband Jay with an idea: “Maybe I can create a different Double – return to the Badwater finish line, and run to the start, forgetting the summit. Would that be enough?”
Lisa’s mentor, Marshall, was not about to let her off the hook. “If you want a true Double,” he said, “you have to summit. But it’s your choice.” He knew that would fire Lisa’s competitive instincts. Another crew member put it more directly. “You don’t need to have the summit,” Bob Sitler counseled, “but you do need to have your dream.” And a true Double has been her dream for years.
It’s Not Over?
So, in short order, Lisa decided the team must return to try again. Lisa was ready to go at 9am Thursday morning, 71 hours into her journey. But first there was the pesky issue of acquiring a new daily permit to climb Whitney again. The hours again ticked by as Lisa and the team waited.
The permit arrived mid-day, and by 1:20pm Lisa and Marshall began the ascension again, feeling confident. But this time, heavy weather at the top threatened a summit visit. Climbers ahead of them had run into a rough storm and were retreating before reaching the top.
Marshall was sure that it would blow over, and his mountaineering instincts were correct. After some more patience, Lisa and Marshall reached the summit by early evening, the only ones to make it there all day.
They sat there alone on the summit for an exquisite sunset and moonrise. “Had we gone earlier, we wouldn’t have had that spectacular moment,” said Lisa. “Every obstacle before that led us to a perfect summit.”
Back on track, Lisa and Marshall had returned to the base of Mount Whitney by 3am. On that early Friday morning, after 89 hours of mostly continuous forward motion, with more than 165 miles under her belt, Lisa was feeling “perfect in every sense. I knew I was going to make it.”
Only 135 miles to go.
And The Stars Looked Down
Day became night. Then night became day, as Lisa continued her quest deep into Saturday, after more than 5 and a half days on course. Continuing to display unexpected power, she smashed through the invisible wall of Keeler yet again. Just 100 miles to go. Can you imagine what that feels like?
As Lisa and her crew pressed on into Townes Pass with 63 miles to go late Saturday night, the night sky was nothing short of stunning. Two comets appeared out of nowhere, crossing each other’s path. Sister Julie then pointed out the strikingly brilliant stars.
“Each one of those stars represents one of the children with AIDS you are helping to save with your Double,” she said. The tears poured out, and hugs were shared. It was indeed a key moment of the journey. And one that gave Lisa more faith then ever that she would see the finish line soon.
Breakdown, Dead Ahead
But early 24 hours later, a final obstacle presented itself: the limits of human endurance.
At 2am Monday morning, with only 17 miles to go, Lisa’s pace had slowed to the point of almost going backwards. She was staggering in the pitch black road, desperate for sleep.
“I was so so sleepy and so so emotional,” Lisa remembered later. Completely spent – as nearly seven days and 283 traversed miles can make you -- Lisa broke down. She simply sat down in the middle of the road, in the darkest dark of the desert night, and cried. They were tears of pain, tears of frustration, tears of missing her kids, tears that would not stop.
“It was so hard for me at that time, I felt really alone, really sad,” Lisa later recalled. So she just sat there.
It was the worst she had felt on the journey since the first approach to Keeler, days earlier. At that time she asked for and seemingly received a ‘new body.’ Or at least one that could run. She needed the same miracle again.
Everything was hurting: strained quads, bruised feet, and a deeply fatigued mind. Lisa slowly stood up, put both arms out, and exclaimed to the heavens: “Get me to the finish line, let me have what I need!”
There are times on the course when it just comes down to a final push. All you need at that point is to want it bad enough. All you need is the spirit to drive through the struggle. And once you decide to fight for the final steps to the finish, you have succeeded.
Standing there with arms outstretched, Lisa found that final push, she wanted it bad enough, and she became driven like never before. Lisa swears that suddenly she found the strength to run 6-minute miles and the nimbleness to do bounding drills on the road.
What she found in those final miles was dignity, grace and glory. The sun rose on her seventh morning of the journey with only 8 miles to go. Then 4. Then 1. Then . . .
There it was. The ‘282 Feet Below Sea Level’ sign. The place it all began nearly one week earlier was within walking distance. “In those final steps, I was thinking: thank you, thank you . . . look back at all of those obstacles, challenges, hoops . . . they were all meant for a greater purpose to get to where you want to be.”
And with that, she was done. 310 miles, actually, when you factor in the distance from the first Mount Whitney summit attempt.
The Badwater Double. Wow.
One Last Time: Why?
Lisa explained it best afterwards.
“I am in such a different place now. I was missing the ability to open myself to pain, suffering and find life at the other end. To break through it and deliver for everyone -- myself, my family, my devoted crew, and the AIDS orphans. I’m proud of myself, honestly. With every obstacle, we never failed.”
Then Lisa laid it on the line. “Why? Candidly, because I always knew I could. There are a handful of people who can do this, and I am one of them. And I’m proud that doing this helped so many others. That’s what I was put here to do.”