Lisa Bliss, 42, started running for fitness when she quit smoking in her early 20s. Since then she’s gone a lot further.
The petite North Side physician runs between five and 10 ultramarathons annually. In September, she placed third in the women’s division of the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run, one spot away from qualifying for the world championship race. And just a couple of months earlier she’d completed a feat for the record books.
In July, Bliss became the first woman and second person ever to cross Death Valley and ascend Mount Whitney completely self-supported. She ran, walked and willed herself over 146 miles from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the contiguous United States, to the highest point, ascending 14,494 feet.
For all but the final 11 miles, Bliss pushed or pulled an aluminum cart filled with the water, food and gear she’d need for the three-day journey. Fully loaded, it weighed about 240 pounds, more than double her 95-pound frame.
“I love that feeling of pushing through,” Bliss explained with a smile.
Bliss first experienced this feeling in the ’90s when she ran a marathon on a whim and discovered long-distance running made her feel empowered. After running multiple marathons, during her final year of medical school Bliss entered her first ultra, the Ice Age Trail 50 in Wisconsin. She nearly quit.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said. “When I hit 40 miles I was reduced to a slow walk. I was delirious. Every joint hurt.”
Then a passing runner told her that every runner makes it from that point. His encouragement gave her the boost she needed to finish the final 10 miles. “It wasn’t pretty, but I got that same empowered feeling. I owe the birth of my ultra running to that runner. I got hooked.”
Soon Bliss was running 100-mile ultras and round-the-clock races that lasted 24 or 48 hours. Beyond feeling empowered, the races were a chance to go to pretty places and meet cool people, she said. “The camaraderie is No. 1. It’s the coolest thing. The fastest people will encourage the slowest people.”
But one of the biggest joys of ultra running, she said, is “pushing to the next level to see how deep you can dig. You can get broken down to the core. … But the harder the ultra is, the more satisfaction I get. That lasts a long time.”
Last summer, the solo Death Valley crossing made her push harder and dig deeper. But Bliss had something to prove – to herself and to the teens at Crosswalk, a local emergency shelter and dropout prevention program. Through her run, Bliss raised $10,000 for Crosswalk’s GED fund.
“I’d told those kids I was going to do it,” she said. “I told them there was no failure in trying.”
Bliss had decided to try the grueling crossing after another ultra runner, Jeff Sauter, told her it was impossible for a woman.
“It was nearly impossible,” Bliss said, describing the first of three mountain climbs, the most challenging stretch both physically and mentally. With some of her water consumed, the cart was down to about 210 pounds. Bliss had strapped it to a harness so she could drag it uphill for 18 miles, ascending 5,000 feet. She thought of the kids at Crosswalk often.
“My heel was barely in front of my toe. I told myself, ‘Baby steps are OK.’ Many times I put my head down and cried. I told myself, ‘It’s OK to cry as long as I keep moving.’ ”
Then, about 200 yards from the top, the grade increased and gusting headwinds had Bliss at a standstill. “My maximum effort wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t go forward.”
For 20 minutes each time she lifted a foot the wind pushed her back. “Baby steps were failing me,” she said. In desperation Bliss yelled and heaved her cart, angling for the far side of the road. It worked and she tacked back and forth to the top, step by baby step.
“It was emotionally satisfying but that was only mile 60,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t get too happy about where I’d come from because I had so far to go.”
Over the rest of her journey Bliss kept this focus through many difficult moments, including the final Mount Whitney summit.
“Once I got to 135 miles and got rid of the cart, I felt great,” she recalled, describing how she donned every piece of stinky clothing she had for the ascent. “It was brutally windy and cold. I was borderline hypothermic.”
Once again Bliss pushed through and dug deep, reaching the summit about midnight. Against all odds, she’d succeeded. After spending the night in a stone survival hut she woke at sunrise and smoked a celebratory cigar.