Smith grew up on Hawkins Lane, just off of Jones Bridge Road in Chevy Chase, one of six children in a family living in a small enclave of African Americans where the adults were mainly service workers. With limited options after graduation, she became a typist for the federal government. Later, after marrying and giving birth to a daughter, she began to attend college at night while working full time. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in education, a master’s degree in business administration and public policy, and a doctorate in early and middle childhood education. She worked for 23 years as an independent training consultant for early and middle childhood programs for various government agencies and organizations before retiring 14 years ago.
Her interest in running began when she was in her late 20s and realized that she needed to take better care of herself. At the time, she weighed 200 pounds, smoked regularly and found she couldn’t keep up with her toddler daughter. After trying diet pills, she was inspired by a radio show featuring fitness expert Dr. Gabe Mirkin to instead change her lifestyle. In 1969, she began taking daily walks, and then started running. Eventually she was hooked.
“Running became the focus of my life,” says Smith, who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and now weighs 128 pounds. She also revamped her diet. Now a vegan, she eats mainly fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, and hasn’t eaten restaurant food or a dessert in more than 30 years. In 2019, she self-published Lifestyle by Nature, a book about her approach to fitness and nutrition. “I want foods that are closest to nature as possible,” she says. “Give me the apple, rather than the apple pie.”
When she runs, Smith wears shoes with thin soles, skipping socks unless it’s freezing outside. She credits the “ChiRunning” technique, which emphasizes a strong core and relaxed body form, with helping her run efficiently and stay healthy. Smith has been injured only once—during the 1980s she was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, which required an eight-month break from running. Her heart beats so slowly that she says her cardiologist has told her it’s as healthy as one belonging to a person in their 20s.
“To be running the amount of mileage at her age and to be competitive—in minimal running shoes and not get hurt—it’s amazing. She can run for days and not feel tired,” says Adam Spector of Bethesda, a podiatrist who works alongside Smith at the MCRRC running clinic. “She wants everybody to run with the same joy and effortless stride that she does. A lot of us run to feel good afterwards. Betty enjoys the journey.”
This fall, Smith hopes to run a 10-day ultramarathon. She says she has no plans to let up, but neither does she desire to live forever. “I just want to have a good quality of life for whatever time I have left,” she says.