Blood Sport - Page 2
Ortiz runs singletrack on the Wulfsohn Ranch Trail, Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Photo by David Clifford.
“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.’”
That has not been the case forever. Ortiz has run every day for most of her life, but she’s only been competing for a fraction of that time, less than a decade at the elite level. She grew up in Wheat Ridge, a Denver suburb, where she led her high-school cross-country team to a state championship. But she quit racing after that, opting to party at Florida State.
It wasn’t until her mid-30s that she got back into competition.
At the urging of Mike, who is the executive director of the Vail Recreation District and oversees most of the area’s trail races, Ortiz entered the Vail Half Marathon in the mid-1990s (she and Mike cannot recall the exact year) and took second after leading much of the race. She returned the next year and won.
In 2002, she decided to try and qualify for the U.S. Mountain Running Team. After learning she needed to win one of that year’s three selection races, Ortiz hedged her bets and entered all three. She turned heads when she swept them, clinching the first of three straight national titles and five appearances on the U.S. Team. “She’s very hard on herself,” says longtime team manager Nancy Hobbs. “But she also loves running more than anyone I’ve ever met.” Her mountain-running career peaked with an eighth-place finish at the 2003 world championships (with a fractured hip) and a masters world title in 2004.
Two years later, Ortiz suffered the first of two potentially career-ending injuries. She ruptured her plantar fascia less than a mile into the world-championship race and ran the rest of the way in searing pain, finishing 11th. The damage was severe enough that one doctor told her: “If you keep running, you’re going to end up deformed.”
Ortiz was so upset by those words that she bought a bike later that day, resigned to quit running and become a cyclist. But a second opinion discounted the first, allowing her to keep running. She lost some of her top-end speed due to the injury, which was crucial for the quick-burst, five-mile courses on the mountain circuit. For the first time, she began to consider longer races.
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One day in early 2007, Ortiz—then known primarily as a five- to 10-mile specialist and snowshoe national champion who could climb like a Sherpa (she won the Pikes Peak Ascent four times and the Marathon once)—came home and told Mike she was going to try an ultra. She figured she could sustain her speed over a greater distance, even if there wasn’t as much of it to begin with. After winning the Desert RATS 25-miler in Fruita, Colorado, she made her 50-mile debut at White River 50-Mile Endurance Run in Crystal Mountain, Washington—the USATF trail national championship—where only Kimball’s course record was faster than Ortiz’s debut (8:17).
It marked the start of an extraordinary stretch: Over the next four years, Ortiz entered 17 ultras and won 13 of them, finishing second in the other four. Yet very little has changed for her at home, aside from upping her mileage.
In particular, she still runs near her hometown of Eagle, Colorado, with the same group of local badasses, a tight-knit crew who have raced with or paced Ortiz at some of her biggest victories. Not only is it a fast group—most of them have finished in the top-20 percent of an ultra before—but they have also raised their kids and navigated life’s trials together. Ortiz is their unquestioned leader; she pushes the pace and picks the steepest courses. She also runs through migraines and, according to them, never shows a wink of exhaustion despite getting only four hours of sleep each night.
Apparently, she is also part camel. “We all get mad at her,” says Megan Morrissey, who runs with Ortiz five times a week. “‘Anita, you’re going to be out for 30 miles; you need some water.’ And she’ll be, like, ‘No, it’s OK; I drank some before I left.’”
Ortiz’s best friend, Katie Mazzia, happens to be a dietician. She plans Ortiz’s race-day nutrition and runs with her almost every day. “I try to get through to her,” says Mazzia. “I try to give her the science behind drinking water: ‘You’re really being mean to your muscles.’ If I’m going out with her, she’ll bring it. If I’m not, she won’t. But you know what? It probably makes her tougher.”
Ortiz, for her part, jokingly calls Mazzia “Cautious Katie.” When I ask why she doesn’t believe in hydrating, Ortiz says, “I do. I mean, I drink water. I just don’t think people need it as much and as often as they’re led to believe. I feel like you can train yourself to need less.”
And still keep your performance as high? “Well, if you’re in a really hard race, you have to be smart; you have to fuel. But training and stuff? It’s got to be four hours before I’m going to take water.”