Ultrarunner Lisa Smith-Batchen Talks About Her Amazing Journey Through America and Through Pain

In an extreme sport filled with athletes who keep redefining “extreme,” Lisa Smith-Batchen stands out as a superwoman whose accomplishments and setbacks chart a course as steep and painful as the ultras she won.

Lisa Smith-Batchen doing the 135-mile Badwater, which she's determined to run a 10th time this summer. (All photos courtesy Lisa Smith-Batchen and Dreamchasers)

Last year, she became the first person to run 50 miles in all 50 states in 62 days—numbers that took on extra significance for her because she turned 50, and 62 miles (100K) is her favorite distance to run. Dean Karnazes ran a marathon in each state in 50 days, but an ultra? No one had ever done that in such as short period of time. Lisa finished on June 19 in spite of a fracture and torn tendons in her foot, which happened after she rolled her ankle in a Texas pothole.

Before her 50-state odyssey dubbed Running Hope Through America, Lisa was known as a nine-time finisher and two-time winner of the 135-mile Badwater Ultra from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, and as the only American woman ever to win the grueling six-day Marathon des Sables across the Sahara. In 2004, she became the first ever to do the Grand Slam of four 100-milers (Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch) plus Badwater in the same summer.

Lisa at Ironman Canada

She has traveled around the country and globe to finish numerous Eco-Challenges and Ironman triathlons, as well as 90-plus marathons with a PR of 2:48.

But over the last decade, she also traveled to the edge of total despair and almost didn’t make it back. She suffers waves of severe depression that first washed over her ten years ago, when she went through unsuccessful infertility treatment, and again in 2005, sparked by a heartbreaking turn of events involving her first adopted child. Not long after that, Born to Run author Christopher McDougall chronicled her story of coming back from the brink in an article for Runner’s World.

I first made contact with Lisa a couple of months ago to ask about the remarkable summer training camps and other events that she and her husband Jay put on through Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventures. Then I became wrapped up in her story, unfolding on Facebook, about how she was trying to mend her foot. She also hooked me with inspirational quotes that she posts almost daily (e.g., “When we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present … we experience heaven on earth”).

Her status reports look like this:

Feb. 3: Hard cast for another 4 weeks … I can cry now but remain thankful …

Feb. 12: Guess what? I covered 2.5 miles on my crutches today! The sun on my face, the wind on my back, a wow moment for me …

Feb. 19: Hotel reservations are made for before and after the Badwater 135 in July. My crew is set. I sit and wait until I can put my running shoes back on and start walking again. I am in the worst shape of my life right now. Makes me smile and inspired for the work ahead …

And today, Mar. 3: Waiting in the lobby at hospital to get cast off. Tears … Big old black boot for 6 weeks! Start PT, can walk, deep water run and spin. I am a very happy, grateful, thankful, blessed woman.

Lisa's foot shortly after the March 3 cast removal.

The other day on the phone from her home near the Tetons in Driggs, Idaho, Lisa explained that she tore two tendons off the bone back in Texas, which was state No. 23, and fractured her left foot’s navicular—a small bone notoriously hard to heal. I know because I also broke my navicular from a fall and a bad ankle twist. But I didn’t go on to run 1350 more miles in 27 states right after it happened.

“People always say, ‘Why did you run on a broken foot?'” Lisa said, anticipating my question. “The thoughts going through me were, ‘If I can deal with this foot, I’ll keep going; tell me what I can do, not what I can’t.’ All these people were counting on me, and never even for five seconds did I even think I can’t keep going. This was an amazing journey, and I was almost halfway there.”

A friend and running companion, Sister Mary-Beth Lloyd, made her journey even more amazing. The 61-year-old nun, wearing her black wool habit, ran with Lisa to fulfill her own goal of 20 miles in each state. Sister Mary-Beth did it—she ran 1000 miles total—and together they raised more than a half-million dollars in donations for AIDS Orphans Rising. This is in addition to the more than $4 million that the Batchens’ Dreamchasers Foundation has amassed to help orphans around the globe.

Lisa Smith-Batchen and Sister Mary-Beth Lloyd. Sister Mary-Beth, 61, ran 20 miles in each of the 50 states in 62 days!

When Lisa finished the 50 miles in 50 states on Day 62, she collapsed—”I allowed myself to feel the pain of this foot”—and then started the process of healing.

Approaching the final finish line with one of her two adopted daughters ...

... and celebrating the accomplishment of the finish.

 

She didn’t get the Velcro removable kind of cast on her ankle, which she could have had, but a plaster one, which she requested for her own good. “I wanted a hard cast so I wasn’t able to take it off.”

In late December, the cast came off for the first time—and the news wasn’t good: “My foot completely collapsed.” The tendons had failed to reattach, and her doctor ultimately decided to remove the navicular bone and heal the area surgically. The surgery took place December 27, and she waited nine weeks until today to get the green light to start bearing weight and walking on it with a tall, removable orthopedic boot.

How did someone like her, for whom running and reaching goals is an antidote to debilitating depression, cope with nine months of inactivity? She didn’t have much choice. The love of her family—her husband and their two adopted daughters, ages 7 and 5—obviously sustained her, and she matter-of-factly said antidepressants helped her get through, too.

“I do suffer clinical depression, and I’m addicted to endorphins. Not being able to have a goal, not getting this release of endorphins that I’m used to, and being brought to a complete halt was literally torturous.”

But she made peace with the situation and eventually came to appreciate it. “This whole ‘sit down, be still’ has been one of the best things in my life,” she said. “It forced me to recover and forced me to rest. It’s been really good for me to sit still, be quiet, listen, and spend time with my family. … I don’t wake up anymore thinking, gotta train, gotta train.”

She does intend, however, to do Badwater in four months to be the first woman to complete it ten times, and she is committed to keep raising money for her foundation through running and coaching. But now she makes a distinction between running in an event and competitively racing it: “I don’t want to race anymore.” She’ll run, she says, but not race, which strikes me as a fuzzy distinction that’s challenging to maintain, but I wish her the best.

What’s next, beyond Badwater and perhaps fulfilling her wish to run in South Africa’s 56-mile Comrades Marathon? She is planning something big for 2012 but can’t reveal the details until plans and sponsors are set. She hinted, however, “I’m never going to get faster, that’s for sure, but I do believe I can go farther … I can have a goal again, and I believe I’m going to get to do what I love again. But I’ve also learned that there are other things I can draw on that don’t bring me an endorphin release, but do bring me joy.”

Lisa with her husband, Jay Batchen, whom she met when he was filming the 1999 Marathon des Sables race for the Discovery Channel, which she won.

I’ll spotlight Lisa and her husband Jay’s Dreamchasers camps, and some of her perspectives on family and relationships, in the next post.

Meanwhile, congratulations, Lisa, on getting through all you’ve been through, and don’t take that Velcro boot off too often or try running too soon!

Lisa on March 3 with her hard cast off and new boot ready to go on.

 

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4 Responses to Ultrarunner Lisa Smith-Batchen Talks About Her Amazing Journey Through America and Through Pain

  1. John Nguyen March 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    What an inspirational person Lisa is! I’ve heard about her and some of her big accomplishments, but this really sheds some light on Lisa as an amazing person (and not just an amazing ultra runner). I’ll have to add her to my growing list of cool people to meet and shake her hand! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Paul March 3, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

    A great read but sometimes this type of self harm approach to running kinda spins me out. I really do believe that a balance between what constitutes running achievements and “well being” is more important than pushing limits.

    No question about her athletic standing though!!

  3. Mark March 5, 2011 at 3:57 am #

    Wow. Didn’t realize she was injured when she was doing it. Truly incredible, thanks for sharing.

  4. Lisa March 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Paul..no self pain approuch for me! If you can deal with what you are doing when you are in it then it is worth it to me.
    I think most who run long and far have pain..this is my first injury in 50 years. If I had to do it over again, I would not change a thing.
    Bless you
    Lisa

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