Blood Sport - Page 2
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.'"