WeRunFar Profile: Lisa Smith-Batchen

An in-depth profile of Lisa Smith-Batchen.

By on August 20, 2014 | Comments

Beginning this past July 1, for 14 days and 584 miles, Lisa Smith-Batchen ran in Death Valley, California, a charity effort she dubbed the Badwater4Goodwater Quadruple. Six days after that, and for 24 hours and 43 minutes, she crewed second-place finisher, Grant Maughan, at the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon. Less than 48 hours from that finish, Lisa was praying in the Louisiana hospital room of her 82 year-old father after he had hip surgery.

Nearly a month after her journey began, I am able to talk with the resilient runner. I called on a Sunday afternoon with a list of questions that has grown exponentially as the summer sped by. After a day of unpacking from a trip that unfortunately extended longer than planned, Lisa was finally home in Driggs, Idaho. It was a trip that triggered more emotions than Lisa expected to experience this summer yet it was one she would never forget.

Lisa, age 53, completed the incredible feat of quadrupling the original Badwater Ultramarathon course. She repeated the route four times from Badwater to Whitney Portal, and added the ascent to the summit of Mount Whitney, making the total distance 146 miles per leg. It was a journey dedicated to raising money to provide clean, healthy water around the world, rather than running for a race or competition.

Lisa Smith-Batchen - 2014 Badwater Quad attempt

Crew member Kerri Kanuga paces Lisa during the 2014 Badwater Quadruple. All photos courtesy of Lisa Smith-Batchen unless otherwise noted.

Over time Lisa’s running career of racing and competing was being replaced with running for causes and fundraisers. “I was running races every weekend,” she said. “Winning, winning, winning, but never really satisfied.”

Sister Marybeth Lloyd, who works with the Missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini organization, asked her, “Why not turn racing into something?” For the last 27 years, Lisa has been helping children around the world receive food, clothing, and education, which is how she met Sister Lloyd.

“What was the real issue at stake?” she said she asked herself after years of providing substantial aid to towns, but continuing to see a high number of deaths occur. “And it hit me so hard; it was the tree of life, the real necessity of the world. Clean water.”

Lisa was then inspired to found the Badwater4Goodwater nonprofit where proceeds donated will be spent building wells in Ethiopia and India and will be given to Water Alliance, a global movement dedicated to water issues throughout the world.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 15, Lisa took her final steps of the quadruple. She distanced 40 to 45 miles a day in the desert, battled 120-degree temperatures, dusty winds, and a scorching sun. It was the last two miles though that Lisa describes as the most surreal moment of the entire journey. Alone with one water bottle, Lisa reflected on the last 13 days.

Lisa Smith-Batchen - 2014 Badwater Quad attempt crew

Lisa and her Badwater crew team at the start of the Quad.

“I was scared to finish. I was glad, yet didn’t want it to be over.” She crossed the finish line without a drop of water left and then it hit her. “During the journey I heard about the movie star who died out in the desert without water and I thought about him. If I didn’t have my crew then I too would die out here,” she said. “It hit me hard, that if my water was gone I wouldn’t have made it, just like those who don’t have access to clean water.” [Author’s Note: The actor who died was Dave Legeno, whose body was found on July 6 after hiking through Death Valley].

It was Army Major and president of Trail Toes LLC, Vincent Antunez, who recommended that Lisa should run the last two miles alone.

“I think it was the right decision and the emotion and elation she had crossing the finish line was palpable,” he said. “When she got down on the ground and raised her arms in triumph, there was absolute resignation that she did not do that alone and that we, others, and just maybe something a little more powerful, played a role in helping her achieve what others may have thought impossible.”

Lisa planned on completing the journey in 12 days, but stomach issues took her off the road for a day. She was expecting to have a week to fly home, recover, and make it back to California. However, with the extra two days in the desert she only had about four days to recover before going back into the desert to crew Maughan for the actual Badwater race, which started July 21. So, dreading the heat once more, Lisa got back into the car and drove back into the desert. “Going back to Death Valley was the hardest thing ever,” she confessed. “[Grant] gave me the option to go home and not pace, but I knew I had to honor that commitment.”

Grant Maughn - 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon second place

Lisa running in finisher, Grant Maughan, during the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon. Photo: AdventureCORPS, Inc.

Knowing Maughan would finish near 24 hours, Lisa said her exhausted state could not keep his pace. Instead Lisa drove, prepared food and water, slept when she could, and kept all her attention on the runner.

“I didn’t think about what I had done, until he was done,” she said.

However, even after Maughan crossed the finish line on July 22, Lisa would once again not be afforded the time to reflect on her own amazing accomplishment in the desert.

On July 24 Lisa made it home to Idaho after a 14-hour drive. She was home with her family less than 24 hours before the phone rang. Without unpacking, Lisa was on a plane to Monroe, Louisiana where her father was undergoing surgery for a broken hip. For the next week, Lisa and her family waited at the bedside of her father, whose kidneys began to fail and he was put on dialysis. The weakened heart of her father could not keep up, and on August 4 Lisa was standing by his side as he passed away.

“What I went through in the ICU was harder than anything, harder than the 500 miles,” she said. “I feel like I have done 1,000 miles. It was brutal, brutal, brutal.”

Lisa told me that her father was her biggest supporter for her endurance experiences, was part Indian, and could grow anything in the garden. He worked hard his entire life, she said, which then transferred to her own discipline in life.

“He told me, ‘Gotta’ be tough, gal,’ while in the ICU,” she said. “That’s where I get it from. Be tough and follow through in your commitments.”

Lisa Smith-Batchen hiking with her two daughters

Lisa hiking through the Grand Teton National Park with her two daughters in 2010.

Lisa has lived in Idaho for the last 14 years with her husband, Jay, who is also a runner and avid ice-hockey player. Her two daughters were adopted as infants, now 11 and eight, one an equestrian rider and the other an ice-hockey player. Lisa has several career titles including motivational speaker and co-race director of the Yellowstone-Teton Races as well as marathons in Wyoming and Arizona. She is a USA representative for the Marathon des Sables and has been an online coach for worldwide athletes for 15 years. She coaches, as well as provides opportunities for races, training runs, and camps through her and Jay’s company, Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventures.

Lisa Smith-Batchen and Jay Batchen

Lisa and husband, Jay.

She was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and moved to Deerfield, Illinois at the age of five.

Not making her cross-country and track teams in high school, Lisa claims she was not a natural-born athlete. She started running in college and began her running career with a win at a local turkey trot 5k.

Lisa spent the next few years “dabbling” in marathons, five Ironman triathlons, several EcoChallenge adventure races, and over 35 ultramarathons. Her first ultra was Badwater in 1995, when friend Marshall Ulrich urged her to sign up. Since then, she has not been able to keep away, completing the race nine times and crewing for athletes when possible.

“Going into the first Badwater I had no idea what I was getting into: the heat, the mountains, the distance,” she said, describing her experience in Death Valley. However, the conditions, extreme heat of the pavement and air, did not deter her from coming back to the Badwater race or the desert itself. “I wanted to experience the race in a different way,” she said. “I feel like I have lived out there in a past life. I fell in love with the spiritual energy and beauty of Death Valley.”

In 2001, Lisa helped crew Ulrich in his own journey of the quadruple to raise money for the Missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini organization.

“What Ulrich did was inconceivable to me,” Lisa said. “It was so way out there that it seemed impossible.”

Lisa Smith-Batchen and Marshall Ulrich

Lisa running alongside Marshall Ulrich in Death Valley in 2013.

Lisa Smith-Batchen and her father

Lisa hiking in Wisconsin with her father during her Ironman competition training.

Yet, as Lisa continued to run, her own 584 miles did not seem so incredible. “Over the years of running and growing as a person, I gained more wisdom. I was growing in a sport that I love so much. I feel like it has all come down to this. The learning, training, and other journeys were the steps in life taken to get to this.”

Sister Lloyd, a member of Lisa’s Badwater quad attempt crew and now longtime friend, said the quadruple has been on the runner’s mind for years.

“She has always felt that she could be the first woman to complete it,” Lloyd said, “She has had some bad runs at Badwater the past few years so my main concern was for her health.”

In last year’s attempt in the quad, in which she had to drop due to medical conditions, Lisa said there were so many red flags she ignored that led to her inability to finish. “I really wanted to do it last year, but I rushed,” she said. “Everything this year was perfect. The time was now and I felt like I had unfinished business.”

Now, mid-August, Lisa sits on the couch at home in Idaho, finally allowing herself to soak in the last seven weeks. She thinks again about all of the miles, each one helping a child receive fresh, clean water (a mind trick that Lisa used when she was out in the desert). She looks back over the photos as her friend Grant Maughan finishes his own Badwater adventure. And she reminisces on her time in the hospital with her father, thankful she was able to spend his last hours with him.

Lisa Smith-Batchen finishing her 2014 Badwater Quad

Lisa celebrating the finish of her 2014 Badwater4Goodwater Quadruple journey.

“I really can’t wait to just sit and reflect on this one,” she said. “Summer is almost over. I just want to spend time with my daughters and my husband.”

After a summer like that, who would dispute her? I still had to ask: “Will you ever go back to Badwater and Death Valley?”

Back to the race was a definite no according to the veteran, but back to the valley was a no brainer.

“I have no interest in going back to the race,” she said. “I would rather crew or pace, or do my own journeys.”

And instead of running up Mount Whitney, Lisa said hiking with her girls and letting them experience it would be the next reason to return to the desert.

“I love it, and I don’t think I have experienced everything from it,” she said. “So, no aspirations to do anything like the quad ever again. I am satisfied now.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Lisa Smith-Batchen has been a member of the trail and ultrarunning community longer than the vast majority of us. Many people have stories to tell about her. Do you have a Lisa story? If so, share it in the comments section below!


Jessica Campbell
Jessica Campbell began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.