Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Running for a Cause: Lisa Smith-Batchen's Journey Across America (Part 3)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. The flow of the cool water around her legs transported her away, far away, from Rockville, Maryland. The throbbing in her feet and calves gradually melted. She closed her eyes and she was home. Her husband and two daughters were standing in the hallway of their house in Idaho. Gabriella and Anabella ran to her with beaming faces as she knelt down and held out her arms to receive them. “I’ve missed you” she whispered. “We missed you, too, mommy,” they said as they buried their faces in her embrace. Jay came over and wrapped his arms around his family. She could have stayed this way forever. Right here. A perfect, happy moment.

When Lisa Smith-Batchen opened her eyes she was still standing in the creek. I have promises to keep. She stood still and listened to the sounds of the woods around her. There came the music of the gently babbling stream and, in the distance, the drawn-out, high-pitched call of a female Wood Duck. The wind stood still and Lisa listened to her own breathing. The day was now over, and it all came flooding back to her: you just ran another 50 miles. Suddenly, the pain returned full-throttle. “God,” she called out, and she plopped down listlessly. Miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

The water was filthy, but she didn't care. It was a sweltering afternoon – quite unbearable, really. Her shirt clung to her body as the heat radiated across her salt-caked skin. But that wasn’t really what was getting her down at the moment. She was lost. She had already run 600 miles, and although she was done for today, Lisa had somehow missed the trail head to get back to the RV camper. She heard one of her crew say that they must have gone off course by about two miles. Two extra miles seemed like an insurmountable distance at the moment.

Looking down, she could see the wavering outline of her blue Crocs in the yellow-brown water. People had asked her why she ran in Crocs. To be honest, they were just really comfortable. She put an insole in them, wore two or three pairs of socks for padding and she was good to go. Comfy, indeed. But, right now, she might as well have been running in high heels, her feet hurt so much. She closed her eyes again and sat perfectly still in the muddy creek.

“You okay?” Mike Evan’s voice fell muffled on her ears. Her loyal friend, affectionately called Spud by the rest of the crew, stood watching from the rocky bank. Lisa could hardly bring herself to answer. Am I okay? Probably not, Mike. It was hard to see the silver lining. Things just weren't clicking. She wasn't getting into the groove of it. On top of that, it seemed Marshall had been wrong.

Her good friend, Marshall Ulrich, the Endurance King himself, had said she would need to be patient, that the first ten states would be especially tough. On the eleventh day, he informed her, she would fall into the routine of the journey and things would start to get easier. He should know; in 2008, at age 57, he completed his 3,000 mile run across America in just 52.5 days, breaking two transcontinental speed records. Marshall knew that at some point the body learns to adapt to what you put it through. When you run 50 miles a day, everyday, like Lisa was doing, your body needs time to process the abuse you are subjecting it to. Eleven days. That was the magic number. What the hell was the problem then? She hung her head in despair.

Maybe the training wasn’t enough. Lisa had built her entire training regimen around the eleven-day principle. To prepare for the project, all Lisa did was walk around her hometown of Driggs. She threw in some weekly workouts to strengthen her core, but she hardly did any running. Knowing that her body would eventually get used to running such a high daily mileage, she did not want to get into endurance-level shape prior to the start of her journey, only to be overtrained midway through and suffer some kind of overuse injury. Better to start off in good shape, but not in great shape, and gradually get fitter as the run progressed. In theory, she should have been in top physical form by now.

Did I mess up by not training harder?
Lisa tossed that thought right out the window. She knew it wasn’t true. In reality, walking and core exercises were just the tip of the iceberg. Her whole life had been preparing her for this run. It honestly felt like she had spent her entire athletic career training for this. Thinking back to all the tears, all the sweat and blood of all her previous athletic endeavors, she realized a simple truth that filled her with a tremendous sense of courage: no matter what happened, she was and always would be Lisa Smith-Batchen. An obvious fact, sure. But there was profound comfort in it; in difficult situations, it helps to remind yourself who you are. Lisa knew what she was capable of. She was a person who loved deeply and was loved. Her power was within.

Yes, this was tough. And, yes, she was going to some dark places, emotionally. However, she had traveled across the barren landscape of dark human emotion before and she knew what to expect. Things would get better. Marshall was right. Patience is crucial. Persistence is key.

Yet, sometimes it is necessary to be flexible as well. Take the donuts for example. Starting off, Lisa had decided to keep true to her nutrition principles and eat only good, whole foods – things like avocados, tomatoes, and beans. She quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough. After adhering to her strict diet for a few states, Lisa realized she needed calorie-dense foods, high in fat and sugar, to fuel her body. At the sip of her first milkshake, she perked up immediately. When she bit into a glazed donut, it was like somebody was charging her up, like a car being filled with gas. People in each state would show up to run with Lisa, and when they saw her eating the sugary confections, word got around that she eats donuts and drinks milkshakes. Alert the press!

Soon people from all over, total strangers, were bringing her boxes and boxes of the fried goodies. Amusing as it was to be thought of by random people as some kind of donut junkie, the whole episode merely reinforced the flexibility principle: nothing is certain. Like life, running is not an exact science. The trick is to not let it throw you off. You have to take what's happening in stride, make the changes necessary, say positive, and keep going. Make lemons into lemonade, she told herself. The willingness to alter the way you are doing things, to modify your strategy when things aren’t going as planned, is such a key tenet for ultrarunners. Change is good. In fact, it's inevitable.

If things weren’t looking good right now, right at this moment, as Lisa sat in the Creek o’ Filth, she simply had to try and see things in a different light. The power was indeed within.

She thought of the children that she was running to raise money for. She thought of her family.

Get up.

She was done for the day. Another 50 miles down and she was closer now to her goal. Her dream of dreams was being actualized. Had she ever felt more alive than now?

Get up.

A joy filled her heart. Lisa couldn’t wait to get back to the RV camper and lay in her bed, down a milkshake, and get some rest. A donut sounded good. Two miles was nothing.

Get up.

She knew eventually would get up from the water and walk back to the RV. Her crew stood around, ready to tend to her needs. A few minutes passed. The sounds of nature floated all around her. She was at peace.

Slowly, quietly, Lisa rose to her feet.

This article is part of a series that will be published on a monthly basis. Stay tuned for more of Lisa's incredible story! Click here if you missed Part 1 and Part 2 of Lisa's story.

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