Road to success starts in Death Valley

First woman to finish ultramarathon self-contained to share story at REI Spokane

Want to make sure local Spokane Dr. Lisa Bliss does something? Tell her she will not be able to succeed. That’s what Jeff Sauter found out when he emailed Bliss, telling her that no woman would be able to complete the Badwater Ultramarathon unaided and self-contained.

“Jeff was the one who originally put me to the challenge, or at least sparked the idea in me to attempt to be the first woman to make the crossing,” Bliss said.

According to the Badwater website (, the race is 135 miles, starting at Badwater, Death Valley in California, the lowest elevation in the United States. It ends at Mt. Whitney, “the highest point in the contiguous United States.” During the trip, runners take on three mountain ranges, gaining a total of 13,000 feet in ascent and dropping 4,700 feet in descent.

To complete the Badwater Ultramarathon is a feat, and Bliss has done so several times (with many other ultra- marathon finishes and first-place finishes on her list), but a self-contained, unaided march to the summit of Mt. Whitney is an entirely different story.

The only other person to have done so was Marshall Ulrich in 1999. The official race ends at the trailhead leading up to Mt. Whitney. Ulrich took on the extra 11 miles up to the summit for a total of 146 miles. Additionally, he did so without any outside help. Everything he used, he brought with him in a cart that he either pulled or pushed the whole way. Any sort of aid would have immediately disqualified him. Even the use of a rock to open a can would have brought an end to his attempt, Bliss said.

Bliss said that prior to her attempt, one other person had attempted to follow Ulrich’s footsteps, and that was Sauter. Upon his ascent to the summit he developed hypothermia and was disqualified for accepting a sleeping bag.

Sauter’s contention, in his email to Bliss, was that no woman would be able to push a cart up the first mountain summit; it was simply too steep. Just like that, Bliss accepted the challenge.

One of the first people she turned to was Glen Copus, owner of Elephant Bikes, to help design and build the cart that would contain everything she would possibly need (including gallons of water) to make her trip.

What made him agree to such a venture? “Foolish pride,” Copus said.

And so began Bliss’s intense training regime. She spent hours in the sauna, running in the heat, running while pulling a gigantic tire behind her, and pushing the cart all around North Spokane.

The aluminum-frame cart, covered in insulated panels, brought Bliss a great deal of attention while she was out training.

"I enjoyed meeting people on the street when I was training with the cart in Spokane for the run," Bliss said. "Many people stopped and asked what the heck I was pushing, what was in the cart, was I selling hot dogs?"

During her training, Bliss decided to use the undertaking to raise $10,000 for Crosswalk, a local school drop-out prevention program and shelter for Spokane teens.

On July 25, 2011, Bliss began her journey of 89 hours and 38 minutes. With her at the starting line was her boyfriend Tim Englund, friend Willy Holms, and Jeff Sauter, the man who started it all. Sauter stayed with them for the first 48 hours.

“They did ‘traffic control’ for three days, alerting traffic ahead that I was on the road, especially on the winding curves up and down the passes,” Bliss said.

Bliss’s support was limited in what they could do for her and Bliss said she believes they may have had a harder time than she did.

"They had to watch me struggle when the cart would fall over and they couldn’t help me," Bliss said.

When they reached the trailhead up to the summit of Mt. Whitney, they were joined by friend Danny Westergaard, who cut his trip to Hawaii short to join them on the ascent.

"Danny is a very kind and inspirational person and he, himself has run the Badwater race many times and has made the crossing six consecutive times supported,” Bliss said. “So, I knew I was in good karma company when he joined Tim, Willy and I to make the last part of the journey to the summit of the mountain.”

Step by step, they made it up to the top. Once hitting the summit and her goal, Bliss was able to accept any and all support to make her way back down the 11 miles to the trailhead.

“I never wanted to give up,” Bliss said. “It never crossed my mind. There were times, however, when I questioned whether I could physically do it — steep 18 mile climb, high head winds pushing me backward.”

That is when the people who supported her along the way, the teens at Crosswalk tracking her via the GPS she was carrying with her and all of the training she did to prepare pushed her through, making her the first female and second person ever to successfully complete the Badwater Crossing self-contained.

“I am so very fortunate to have believers in my life,” Bliss said. “Their support was the ultimate gift of my crossing.”

Bliss will be doing a free presentation of her journey at REI Spokane March 8 at 7 p.m. To secure a spot at the presentation one must register online, store manager Sally Lotado said.

Matt Cantrell, a member of Tri-Fusion, a local Triathlon club, recently saw Bliss speak.

“I was blown away with her story,” Cantrell said. “Ultramarathons are tough enough, but the fact that the cart weighed more than she did, she had to pull said cart up multiple climbs with a 10 percent grade, and she was in motion for 70 hours plus just blows my mind.”

Story by Nerissa Kresge Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of Tim Englund

Contact Nerissa Kresge at