Death Valley To Mt. Whitney. Solo.In 89 Hours And 38 Minutes. Is Lisa Bliss Crazy Or Just Crazy Good?

With freezing hands, Lisa Bliss battled to change the batteries in her headlamp. Sleep-deprived and grossly exhausted, she shivered in the dark on that July night in California and tried to finesse the tiny batteries into the proper orientation so she could see and continue onward. One of her partners for the final leg of the journey offered to shine his light in her direction so she could see better, and make the battery swap a little easier. But Lisa had to ask him to back away.

Even while the words left her teeth-chattering mouth, she felt a clap of fear when she considered how this single morsel of “assistance” might somehow upset everything she had worked so hard to achieve, and possibly derail the entire expedition. The rules for this solo, self-contained trip required her to forgo all assistance—no help with water or shelter or food or pacing or even something as benign as “light.” While she wasn’t 100 percent certain about the assistance gained via someone’s headlamp, she just couldn’t risk it. So she refused and ordered her companion to back off.

Lisa labored alone in the cold, windy darkness until her headlamp returned to life. She continued to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., following her recent trek across Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. Starting on July 25, 2011, she managed this entire journey, all 146 miles, on foot in 89 hours 38 minutes—making her the first woman, and only second person ever, to complete the journey solo, self-supported and self-contained.

The primary motivation and charity recipient for this endurance adventure was back home in Spokane. Crosswalk Youth Shelter—a Volunteers of America organization—is an emergency refuge, a school dropout prevention program, and a group of lifesaving and life-changing programs dedicated to breaking the cycle of youth homelessness. Run by a small professional staff, Crosswalk relies heavily on the generosity of churches, clubs, families and businesses that provide daily meals, as well as community volunteers who provide tutoring and enrichment activities.

Dr. Lisa Bliss—a Physiatrist, specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation—considered several charities; but she connected with Crosswalk in so many ways that, in the end, it was the most logical choice. She readily cites worthy institutions that she has raised money for in the past, such as Daybreak of Spokane, but the link with Crosswalk made a strong impression—and ultimately aided her training. It even influenced the name of her cart.

Prior to committing to the Badwater Basin to Mt. Whitney solo crossing, whenever Lisa reflected on her past during her training runs, she recalled pivotal moments and decisions that delivered her through school and college—as well as many of her first marathons. While she admits she doesn’t identify with being homeless, she does admit to occasional instances of hopelessness.

The weight of the world on an adolescent mind is an indefinable test of endurance, and Lisa recognized it. From that perspective, she could easily identify with the significance of the Crosswalk organization and its mission to create life-changing programs, and she knew her solo crossing could make a difference—a ten thousand dollar difference.

No stranger to endurance events and races, Lisa is an established ultramarathoner with numerous records and accolades. After serving as the head of the medical team for the Badwater Ultramarathon in 2003, Lisa entered the race the following year. She placed as the third woman and 15th overall finisher in her rookie debut, with an impressive time of 37 hours 41 minutes for 135 miles. Three years later, Lisa crushed the Badwater Ultramarathon course again—this time as the first female finisher and 16th overall in a time of 34 hours 33 minutes.

In a recent 24-hour race, Lisa ran 125.98 miles in 24 hours. Additionally, running the 153-mile Spartathlon race in Greece this year, Lisa finished as the third woman and first overall American in a time of 32 hours 23 minutes.

She routinely humbles some of the strongest distance runners on the planet, but she’s so kind and modest one would never know she runs further in four of her running races than a NASCAR driver does in one jet-fueled race.

Lisa does not model expensive performance clothing. She is stunning in her approachability and her genuine demeanor. She places a significant value on authenticity, but more importantly, she is never afraid to laugh at herself. She affirms uncommon endurance and a good sense of humor go hand in hand. A California blonde, she is built like a high school cheerleader but arguably leaner and tougher than a UFC cage fighter. She is whip-smart about anatomy and physical ailments, but openly jokes that most of her patients don’t know her specialties. She is sheepish about confessing how her achievements occurred after foot surgery or other injury rehabilitations. Most of her ultramarathon knowledge came through trial and error; however, she repeatedly professes that the best advice for endurance athletes isn’t avoiding excessive training—it’s avoiding excessive resting.

“This may have been a solo, unaided, self-contained crossing of Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney, but it was in no way unsupported. I am deeply appreciative,” she says.

Speaking about the logistics and planning and background support, Lisa is quick to rattle off many key people who made her journey possible. She did not receive assistance during the event, but she did have friends serve as witnesses and protection. Now that a few weeks have softened the event a little more, she can laugh when she says, “Tim [Englund] and Willy [Holmes] were awesome. Of course, they were there to witness and provide a little safety, but not help. A tough job for them like, for example, when the cart tipped over and all they could do was watch.”

When asked if she talked to the cart during the solo Badwater crossing, she looks perplexed and then tries to mask a smile. Similar to how some runners have a mantra, or some athletes talk to their racket or ball, she confesses that she indeed talked to her cart.

“Yeah, it sort of was like Wilson.” [The volleyball from Castaway—ed.] She laughs and continues, “I didn’t think I would talk to the cart, but sometimes it was just easier than cursing under my breath or at the wind. There were many emotional moments, and sometimes it was part of me and sometimes it was a friend.”

When she wasn’t running with the cart, like a baby jogger, in front of her during the flats or the downhill sections, she ran or hiked with the cart attached via bungee cords to a hipbelt that she purchased at Spokane’s REI store.

The cart proved to be a key component. But in order to appreciate the cart, it helps to understand the cart’s requirements. But in order to understand this, one must know a little about Marshall Ulrich—aka the King of Pain.

Marshall Ulrich made the first successful solo, unaided, self-contained Badwater/Whitney crossing in 1999. Marshall first tried the crossing in 1998 but failed to make it very far due to a couple complications, including his initial cart. He aborted that initial attempt and returned the next year for a successful completion, which he later dubbed “My Most Unforgettable Ultramarathon.”

In addition to that solo crossing, Marshall has gone on to win several ultramarathons and climb all of the Seven Summits—each on his first try. And he recently ran across America—3,063.2 miles in 52 days. No surprise, Marshall and Lisa are good friends—complete with tons of mutual respect.

Back in 1998, Marshall chronicled all the rules for his solo crossing, which in turn set the bar for all future Badwater/Whitney solo crossings. He adopted the Badwater Ultramarathon rules and added these additional stipulations:

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1) The attempts must take place in the July-to-August “window” to officially count.
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2) No aid of any kind from an outside source and/or person.
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3) No using any shelter other than nature’s shade (i.e., boulders, creosote bushes, trees, etc.).
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4) You must have everything from start to finish: food, clothing, equipment, and all necessary water. If a water source along the course is available, it cannot be used.
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5) Trailers or any other apparatus are allowed as long as that apparatus is pushed, pulled or carried. No motorized trailers. The trailer or apparatus can be disposed of only at the Lone Pine Junction (the intersection of Whitney Portal Road and Hwy. 395) or the Whitney trailhead.
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6) With the exception of water, nothing can be disposed of along the way, not even trash.
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7) Medical emergencies must be dealt with and/or administered by the individual only. No help or supplies can be used from an outside source.
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8) Only a.m. starts are valid.
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9) No leaving the course is allowed; you must remain on the course at all times.
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10) There must be at least one person monitoring the above compliances at all times.

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These rules not only set a high standard for the athlete, but they also set a very high standard for the cart. Right when Lisa was coordinating the benefit for Crosswalk, and in the thick of training, she was also in the thick of finding and preparing a suitable cart. In typical modest Lisa Bliss fashion, she composed an email titled, “Subject: How hard could it be? – Can you help?” And she sent it to Glen Copus of Elephant Bikes. She was sort of kidding but not really.

Glen chose to accept the mission, and went about creating a cart capable of holding 240 pounds of which 180 pounds was frozen water. He produced an initial cart that allowed Lisa to test it while running up and down Mount Spokane. The frame rested on three mountain bike wheels, and worked well when being pushed like a grocery cart or pulled like a wagon. In push mode, it had two brakes to control descent and steer. In pull mode, it had two bars with bungee straps that attached to a backpacking hipbelt.

Glen says, “I knew from the first time I met her that the only chance of failure would be equipment related. It was at this time that I should have taken my leave of the project.” He was sort of kidding but not really.

Marshall Ulrich himself testifies to Lisa’s fortitude, and referenced her accomplishment to winning the “Super Bowl of ultra running, only rarer.”
“A few other people have contacted me claiming that they were going to do it, but none followed through,” Marshall states, through an email interview. “I was tracking her along the way hoping she would be the first female to do it. I was very happy for her as I knew that she had worked hard to train for it.”

Marshall tracked Lisa’s progress the same way the kids and staff at Crosswalk tracked her. During her crossing, she wore a GPS tracker, and a website posted her mileage and location. The Crosswalk staff added her website details to a large-screen TV at their facility, and many people watched it as if it was a local college basketball game. From time to time, she stopped to eat or rest or get more water, and her progress would be frozen on the website for up to 20 minutes. But when the system refreshed, it might show her moving quickly again, and the viewers would all cheer.

Bridget Cannon, director of Youth Services at Crosswalk, swells with enthusiasm whenever she talks about Lisa Bliss. “In all honesty, I thought she was a little crazy,” she says, about her first meeting with Lisa. “But after talking to her about it, I marveled at her dedication and sincerity—doing this as an inspiration for these kids. Lisa’s feat helped them realize their inner strength and power, seeing what this tiny—in physical stature only—woman could do, was inspiring for our kids and all [the staff].”

Bridget also says, “It just seems impossible. I am amazed at what she accomplished. Upon her return, the kids in Crosswalk invited her to a barbeque to thank her. She spoke with them about what it was like—sleeping very little, eating sparingly, her self-doubts about completing it, and how she would think about the kids [to help] keep her motivated. She blew us away.”

Lisa nearly was blown away. The wind proved to be a ruthless foe in Death Valley, sometimes with brute force and sometimes like a furnace. Thankfully, Lisa knew what to expect due to her previous Badwater experiences, but that didn’t make it any easier. The human body is never prepared for temperatures reaching beyond 120 degrees.

Her biggest breaking point occurred on Townes Pass. This notorious stretch starts after 42 miles of effort, and climbs from sea level to 4.956 feet, with certain sections measuring eight percent grade. “It took Marshall 16 hours to make this climb,” she says. “It took me almost 21. It was incredibly difficult and yes, I thought many times that I couldn’t do it. I broke down mentally at the last stretch. I could see the top but I couldn’t pull up that grade with the fierce head wind.”

As she describes the agony of that situation, she invariably reenacts the moments when the bungee cords were no longer stretchy—they were tight and pulling her backwards. Several times she nearly cried, but she didn’t want to waste the effort or the hydration. Ultimately, she figured out how to tack back and forth up the road to avoid the steepest pitches.

When asked what unknown aspect proved to be the most daunting or hazardous, Lisa doesn’t hesitate. “Traffic,” she says. “Traffic was a bit scary. Tim and Willy worked nearly non-stop to make sure cars were alerted that I was on the road.”

In summary, Lisa says, “The first day was cool and overcast. I was lucky. I slept about a half hour the first night, a total of about one and half hours the second, and none the third. I had more than enough water, even dumped about 2.5 gallons.”

While the event looms large in her life right now, she knows too well that parts of the Badwater/Whitney solo crossing will soon fade. She isn’t brief at all, but she has compact answers for a lot of the generic questions that she has received so many times already. She redirects attention to Crosswalk, and reinforces the value of that institution. And she seamlessly remarks how much good $10,000 raised by her endeavor will do in the coming years. If, for example, that money sponsors or supplements 100 or 200 GEDs for homeless teens, then its value and worth will easily surpass $10,000.

But questions about the cart are somehow different. The cart bears the name “River Run,” named after a beautiful ranch in North Carolina. Lisa’s road from youth to school to career to her Badwater/Whitney solo crossing was not direct, nor succinct, nor paved. But the road did detour from “giving up or giving in” thanks to an uncle, the owner of River Run, and Lisa did graduate from Loyola University with Summa Cum Laude honors. She struggled to name the cart while she was training with it, but once she reviewed her path to that moment in her life, she knew the name had to be “River Run.” (To learn the whole story behind the name, visit Lisa’s blog at http://lisabliss.blogspot.com, and read the post for July 8, 2011.)

The ripples from this adventurous crossing reach much further than Lisa initially imagined. She knows she impacted the lives of the Crosswalk team, but she doesn’t yet know how much those lives will change others. While it isn’t quantifiable, it’s safe to assume the value exceeds ten grand. Greater still, Lisa has left her mark on many ultramarathons and raised the bar for endurance athletes, both male and female.

She has already fielded calls from other endurance athletes, both domestic and international, who wish to borrow or copy her cart design. Some of the attention is flattering, and some is plain silly. She hasn’t even decided what her own next big goal will be—not because she’s refraining from declaring it, but because she can’t start training for something else until she’s recovered from her most recent ultramarathon race.

To this day, Lisa still shrugs off praise about how tough she is. She doesn’t offer Zen answers about training or diet or visualization. She’s simply tenacious and strong. Glen Copus of Elephant Bikes thinks otherwise. “I think she took the easy way,” he says. “If she was really tough she would have used a wheelbarrow.”

For more information on the Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk Teen Shelter go to:
www.voaspokane.org/Crosswalk