It was mid-August, 2020 and Lisa Roberts found herself setting up camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, waiting to hear the news. With races being cancelled right and left due to the 2020 pandemic, there was still a chance that this one would be good to go. It was the Flagstaff Extreme Big Pine 54K, and it would be Roberts’ first ultra-distance race.
For several weeks, the Tucson, Arizona native waited as she acclimated to the nearly 7,000 feet of elevation. The wait would pay off, when the race was given an official date of September 5. The payoff would be more than just completing her first ultra-distance race, but winning the race outright in a new course record time of 4 hours 51 minutes and 11 seconds. “The race went pretty smoothly, especially for my first ultra,” she said.
One might look at this as a fluke or beginner’s luck, but Roberts is no beginner to the sport of running.
Not a Fluke
Roberts has been an athlete most of her life, with running being her first love. In fact, she was a track and cross country athlete at Southern Illinois University, specializing in the 1500 - and 3,000 meters. Several years passed, and she earned a Master’s Degree and began a career as a landscape architect. However, her yearning to compete never left her, and she began to feel the itch to get back out there and train — this time in the world of triathlon.
Her competitive running background proved to be extremely beneficial, as by 2009, she was able to earn the title as professional triathlete. “When I told my colleagues at work that I was going to transition to professional athlete, and do this full-time, they were all so supportive,” she said. “It has been a ride, but a great one!”
Getting the Ultra Bug
After the big win in Flagstaff, Roberts decided to keep the momentum going. Next on the list was the Javelina Jundred 100k, which takes runners 100 kilometers through the McDowell Mountain Regional Park near Fountain Hills, Arizona.
"I probably carried too much with me …"
This race was held the following month, and would nearly double the distance of her previous one. But that didn't stop Roberts from coming in first place female and second place overall. Not only that, but her performance on that October day would be merely eight minutes from a course record, putting her in the record books as the second best performance in Javelina Jundred jistory!
“I brought EVERY piece of running equipment and food I could think of,” Roberts wrote in a social media post. “I probably carried too much with me … I probably should've done many things differently, but that’s the process, right? You aim high, you try, you experience, you screw up, you learn … you get a buckle, you make memories and friends along the way."
"Then, even though you swear you’ll never do it again, you sign up for another!”
And she did. Just six weeks later on December 19, 2020, Roberts ran the Cave Creek Thriller 50K in Cave Creek, Arizona. Once again, she was first overall female, and came in second behind the first place male finisher. Her time of 4 hours 25 minutes, 45 seconds was good enough for a course record by 43 minutes!
In each of her ultra-distance races up until this point, Roberts finished well ahead of other male competitors, and said she knew it was in part due to fewer athletes competing during the pandemic. That being said, she said she looked forward to racing with other females to get the feel of what it was like to battle for position in an ultra distance event. That event would be the Black Canyon 100K that took place on February 13.
“Going into this race, I knew the field was deep,” Roberts said. “There were two Nike Trail Team runners who I knew were competitive, and from the beginning, showed that they were. For the first 40 miles of the race, I was in a back and forth with three other women, and it felt good to race with and see where I stacked up against them.”
And stack against them she did. At the 50K mark, Roberts came in 20 minutes under her fastest stand alone 50K. After catching her foot on a rock at mile 40 and experiencing a fall, she picked herself right back up, and pressed forward toward second place. She was able to hold on to that position through the final and very difficult 10 miles to not only secure her spot on the podium, but earn the coveted ticket to Western States.
What is Her Secret?
There must be a secret to success, if success is a continued result, right? Well, if you would ask Roberts, it comes down to a few simple things: aerobic base, mental toughness, staying smart, plugging away and having fun - and "the force."
“I have a really good aerobic base that I know has carried over, and I’ve learned the importance of mental toughness as an athlete,” she said. “Other than that, it comes down to being smart about your training and race plans, continuing to plug away when things get hard, and making sure to have fun!”
Part of that fun is carrying a plush 'Baby Yoda' on her pack each race. “I was doing a mountain run that was part of an adventure race in the forests in New Zealand,” she recalled. “When I was in the forest, it reminded me of the time in one of the ‘Star Wars’ movies when Luke Skywalker is doing Jedi training in the forest with Yoda on his back. It was then when I thought that I should get a Yoda and put it on my pack. I found a plush Baby Yoda, and carry it on my pack. It makes people smile, is a great conversation starter, and it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of ‘the force’ with you.”
Having secured a spot at Western States in June, Roberts says her training will be mostly geared toward that, with a few other tune up races in the mix to keep her in racing shape.
“Why not shoot for the stars?”
“Why not shoot for the stars?” she said. “Western states is the pinnacle of ultra-running, and I want to be there.”
Kogalla loves the determination and grit that permeates the ultrarunning community, and is excited to be supporting Roberts in her climb to the top.
To keep updated on her future races and achievements, Roberts can be found @run_jedi_run on Instagram.
Article author Arianne Brown is a mom of nine and a lifelong runner competing in anything from 5K to 50-mile races. She loves the written word, and using it to share stories the world needs to hear. For more of he writings, follow A Mother's Write on Facebook, and @ariannebrown on Instagram.