Blood Sport - Page 4
Two weeks after our run, I arrive at Ortiz’s house to barking dogs and a kitchen full of teenagers doing homework. Anita and Mike are in the middle of their nightly game of musical parents, figuring out how their kids will get home from after-school sports the following day. It’s almost absurd that they are able to keep track of all four children in light of their own schedules. Not only does Mike, a surfer from California who played college basketball at Oklahoma State, run the rec district, he also works four overnight shifts a week as a hotel security guard. “We need every penny,” Anita says, an ode to sending their kids to the prestigious Vail Mountain School 30 minutes upvalley.
The Ortizes are strict with their kids, and it shows in the teenagers’ manners. Amelia, the oldest at 18, has just gotten into Williams. She is captain of the high-school track team and is baking cookies for their regional meet the next day which Mandy, 16, is also running. David, twin brother to Acacia, 14, is trying to buy some time following tomorrow’s soccer practice before he gets picked up. Anita sees through his ploy immediately and mouths to me in the living room: “He wants to hang out with his girlfriend.” But instead of calling his bluff, she plays along with a huge grin on her face until David is forced to either admit his intentions or concede and catch an earlier ride. He concedes. Victory: parents.
Before I’d arrived, Mike had told me on the phone that running is only what Anita does third best, after being a mother and wife. “We have four kids, three dogs, three cats, a bird—there’s so much going on at our house, and everyone’s really happy,” Mike said. “And that’s because of Anita. She’s the glue.”
When I ask Anita if she was a big partier at Florida State, she glances over to see if her kids are listening. All four heads are buried in books. “Yeah,” she whispers. Amelia, discretely eavesdropping, calls her out right away: “Moooommmm! It’s not like we don’t know!” Anita rolls her eyes and laughs, sheepishly proud of her daughter for demanding transparency. Then she realizes she’s forgotten to tend to the pasta. “Hey, will someone drain that spaghetti!” she shouts to the kitchen.
“We were already doing that!” Mandy and Amelia yell back.
“You’re so wonderful,” Anita coos.
She does almost all the cooking, but she doesn’t mind. The reward comes when the six of them gather at the dinner table every night. “I’m a stickler for family meals,” she says. “We talk about our days; it’s where we connect. So many families don’t do that.”
After the seven of us wolf down a feast of spaghetti, Caesar salad and garlic bread, Anita, Amelia and Mandy break into a conversation about strategy for regionals. Soon they’re rattling off splits and debating how much Mandy can realistically shave off her time in the mile. “See?” Mike says, chuckling. “This is what I mean when I say I live with running nerds.”
Truth be told, Mike is the biggest supporter of his family’s running habit and has been Anita’s most ardent fan since she returned to racing in the mid-’90s. Yet it wasn’t until just before the 2002 Mountain Running World Championships in Igls, Austria, that he fully comprehended his wife’s athletic will. “She’s sitting on the bed, shaking like a leaf,” he recalls, “so I’m, like, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.’ And she goes, ‘You dummy. I’m not worried about how I’m gonna do. I’m worried about how bad this is gonna hurt. Because if it doesn’t hurt, it means I haven’t run my best.’ And that really helped our marriage. It helped everything. Because then I understood her.”
However, not everyone understands Ortiz. Some of her competitors wonder why she makes self-deprecating statements before she dominates them. “It’s hard to hear that because everyone knows how fast she is,” said one female ultrarunner who asked not to be named. “But literally every race, she’ll line up and say, ‘Oh, I have this injury, I’m not feeling well, I don’t even know if I’ll finish.’ And then she goes out and sets a course record.”
Never mind her tiny stature or pretty face. “She intimidates people,” says Adam Chase, team captain of Salomon, which began sponsoring Ortiz three years ago. “I saw her at mile 80 of Western States, and she looked kind of like she always does, which is just tough. She has a ‘bring it’ look to her. She’s feisty. I’m glad I never have to race against her.”
Later that summer, Kami Semick witnessed a disturbing scene involving Ortiz. Coming off her Western States win, Ortiz was trying to repeat as women’s masters team champion at the Gore-Tex Trans-Rockies Run in Colorado, where she was paired with reigning 100K national champion Prudence L’Heureux. Despite having never met, the women took a commanding lead in their division. But L’Heureux had serious trouble breathing, which prevented them from opening an even larger deficit. Ortiz spent much of her days screaming at L’Heureux to move faster, Semick recalls. “Even when they were that far ahead, Anita couldn’t turn it off. She had her hands on her hips and was yelling, ‘Get your ass up the hill!’ And Prudence couldn’t breathe.”
“We’d cross the line after the first three stages, and she wouldn’t even look at me,” L’Heureux says. “She’d stomp off and go talk to her friends. She just treated me like a bad person. I’ve never had anyone treat me that way. She didn’t seem to have any compassion or human side. She didn’t care. And Anita was one of my idols.”
Unwilling to continue racing with Ortiz, L’Heureux flew home after three stages. Ortiz ran the final three days alone, crossing the line first each day despite having been disqualified from the team standings. In retrospect, Ortiz says, “I was probably too hard on her. But I could do that to Katie [Mazzia], and she’d go with it. The main thing was, we should have been more clear about what we both wanted out of the race.”
For Ortiz, it came down to the same thing it always does: satisfying “the need to do the absolute best that I can do.” That’s how she explained it in her kitchen the last time I saw her—as a need. But she was worried about how she’d be judged in light of the TransRockies episode showing up in public. She is a mother, wife and elementary-school teacher, after all, “an example for all women,” as Chase put it.
But she is also one of the world’s best runners. And when it comes to that, Ortiz’s philosophy is simple. “I think you have to have some fierceness in you.”
Devon O’Neil is a writer in Breckenridge, Colorado. His work can be viewed at www.devononeil.com.