Blood SportFrom the mountain-running circuit in the early 2000s to ultrarunning the next decade, Anita Ortiz has dominated. But how does a school-teaching, 47-year-old mother of four do it against much younger athletes?
Ortiz takes a break from a muddy training run on the Third Gulch Trail, near Eagle, Colorado. Photo by David Clifford.
It was not just that Tim Twietmeyer did not expect Anita Ortiz to be leading the 2009 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. That would have been forgivable. It was that Twietmeyer had never even heard of Anita Ortiz until she broke away.
He will be the first to admit he does not follow the sport religiously, despite winning Western States five times and finishing it 25 times. But he is still heavily involved with the event, and knows the contenders every year. Somehow, Ortiz had eluded his radar.
Twietmeyer saw Ortiz in person three times during the race, and each time his awe—and bewilderment—grew. Finally, someone relayed a short bio on the tiny blonde with the intense stare: First-time 100-miler from the alpine desert of Eagle, Colorado. Forty-five years old. Ex-mountain runner.
Twietmeyer knows enough to expect surprises at Western States, but the 2009 women’s field was stacked, and included Krissy Moehl, who had run the race in 2005 as part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and paced it numerous times, three-time runner-up Bev Anderson-Abbs and defending champion, Nikki Kimball (three-time winner). Ortiz didn’t care. She dropped them all.
“She made it look, I don’t want to say easy, but she was pulling away from the field,” Twietmeyer recalls. “We were wondering if she could keep it up.”
Ortiz won by more than an hour, running the fifth-fastest women’s time ever: 18:24:17. And she did it despite getting lost twice in two hours with two different pacers, adding an estimated 25 to 30 minutes to her odyssey. Moehl finished second, Anderson-Abbs took third and, ending her reign at Western States, Kimball settled for fourth. A number of people called Ortiz’s win the top performance of 2009, including Kami Semick, who was named Runner of the Year by UltraRunning magazine that year. “You don’t expect a first-timer to just roll in and dominate,” says Twietmeyer.
Accordingly, Ortiz received a fair swirl of attention after the race. More people found out about her background: how she is a married mother of four and a full-time, elementary-school teacher; how she wakes up at 3 a.m. to run in frigid winter darkness; how she works out three times a day.
Feeding the hype, Ortiz kept winning races. She went into last year’s Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50K in the Rocky Mountain foothills outside of Denver, Colorado, in prime condition. But 12 miles into the race, while navigating a precarious rock outcropping, she swung one leg out to avoid the rocks. Her other ankle twisted, “and I yanked my meniscus clean off the bone,” she says. “I heard it.”
The injury was just shy of catastrophic. But Ortiz, who counts an extremely high pain tolerance among her defining traits, did not think to stop racing—even that day. “The pain was horrible,” she says, “but I’d never had an injury that bad. So I was thinking, what could it be? Probably just a pulled muscle. Really badly pulled. And I was, like, you don’t quit for a pulled muscle!”
Literally sweating from the pain, Ortiz still ran 18 more miles. “I was lying in riverbeds to cool it off and using sticks to support me,” she says of the ordeal. “Oh, my God, it was awful. Sometimes if I did not land completely straight over my heel, I would just collapse. And then I’d have to crawl back up to a standing position. The pain would just reverberate through my body, and I’d stand there for a minute until it subsided just a little bit. Then I’d be, like, OK, you can go.”
Not only did Ortiz still win the race, she set a course record, crossing the line four minutes ahead of Darcy Africa and 16 minutes ahead of defending champion Helen Cospolich.
Afterward, Ortiz had a knee-rebuilding surgery and sat out the rest of the 2010 season. When she finally started to run again this winter, she had to shorten her stride and straighten her posture to compensate for her compromised knee. She claims she will never be full again, that her “killer attitude” is gone. And yet, the darnedest thing: just like before the meniscus tear, Ortiz cannot stop winning races.
Before returning to Dirty Thirty in June, Ortiz had won four straight trail races against stout fields, including two 50-milers on back-to-back weekends in April. At the second of those, California’s Santa Barbara Endurance Race, Ortiz beat the men’s winner by more than an hour and finished in a double-take time of 6:47—an 8:08-per-mile pace on a course with 18,000 feet of climbing.
Improbably, in a sport with ever more young stars and science behind it, Ortiz appears to be getting faster despite tearing ligaments off of bones and nearing age 50. As this issue went to the printer, she was preparing for a return to Western States and a showdown with ultrarunning’s hottest star, 32-year-old Ellie Greenwood.
“I’m going back to get my butt kicked by Ellie Greenwood” is how Ortiz described her chances, and she seemed to believe that. But while her comeback, humility and super-mom lifestyle make for an inspiring tale, do not let it obscure the unvarnished rawness that defines Ortiz: a 5-foot-3, 105-pound pit bull who intimidates her opponents and has been known to berate inferior teammates in public; who is terrified by how much pain she can inflict on her body, but enamored with her ability to inflict it; who once ran a full season with a broken hip.
Contrary to what her tendencies lead you to believe, Ortiz is not consumed by winning. She is consumed by maximizing her potential, possessed by it almost. A social runner who trains every day with slower friends, she does not know what occurs on race day, only that something does. And she cannot always control her transformation. “It just happens,” she says.
“She flips a switch,” says her husband, Mike. “I’ve told her before: ‘You treat this like a blood sport.’”