Blood Sport - Page 4
The day I meet Ortiz for a run in Eagle, it is snowing. But that's fine. She is racing the Santa Barbara 50-miler in three days, so she just wants to get out for an hour after school. We meet at the Burger King down the road from her house and carpool to the trailhead. I'd heard about her propensity to chat on the trail— she and Mazzia, who was pacing her, missed a course marker at Western States because they were so involved in their conversation—and am hoping this will lead to some candid thoughts.
The trail network in Eagle is extensive. Singletracks and dirt roads spider out in every direction, peppered with steep bursts, tight corners and more than enough roots and rocks to demand your attention. Ortiz knows the local trails better than anyone, and today she has chosen a route that climbs to a plateau overlooking the valley. Come early summer, the entire landscape is blanketed by flowers, which are only in bloom for a brief time. "Once those flowers die, I don't come here anymore," she says. "I maybe run this trail twice all summer, but at least once a day in the winter. There are a few sections where everywhere you look, you see abundant flowers. And that's what it's all about for me. Just what I see and smell."
Ortiz's father, a family physician, started running specifically to spend time with Anita when she was growing up. He and her mother instilled in Anita and her two brothers a deep appreciation of the outdoors. So when we sidle up to a junction in the trail and Ortiz sees an orange peel on the ground, she doesn't hide her disapproval. "It just makes me so angry when people trash the land," she says. "Those things take forever to biodegrade."
As it turns out, Ortiz is kind of like the garbage fairy. "Anytime we see trash, we bring it down," she says. "One time, we were way up in the middle of God knows where, on this road called Firebox, and found one of those big plastic storage boxes. Well, we carried that thing down. It took us all summer, but we'd carry it a little ways, and then we'd leave it. And the next time we were up there, we'd carry it a little ways farther. Eventually we got it all the way down. I've carried a mattress down from up here."
Contrary to many of her peers, Ortiz almost never measures her mileage. Instead, she keeps track of time. Her goal each day is to get five hours of strenuous exercise, whether on the trail or her Stairmaster at home. The approach allows her to explore more than she would otherwise. "I love getting pleasantly lost," she says. "Where you're not really lost, because you know you'll eventually hit a road. That's how you find the new, cool trails. It's my favorite thing to do."
The one week she measures her miles is before Western States—which remains the only 100-mile race she's entered. She'll do a 35-mile day in her heaviest week (which used to be 138 miles but now is closer to 120), but, she explains, "I'll do back-to-back-to-back days of 25, 20, 20, because that's less wear and tear on my body and, for me, it's a better training effect. My legs are super tired by that last day."
We come upon a tiny patch of snow, and Ortiz points at it and grins. "There's my water," she says. As we run, I concentrate on Ortiz's steady but imperfect stride. Kami Semick, one of Ortiz's rivals, calls her "a scrappy runner, and I mean that as a compliment. It's not beautiful but she gets it done." Ortiz, who is sensitive to such remarks, doesn't disagree. "I'm not a stellar runner. I just work really hard, and I deal with pain well," she says. "I'm no better than anybody else. I'm not particularly strong or—I guess what I mean is, I don't have natural talent. That's what it is. I shouldn't have said I'm not a strong runner."
I watch Ortiz bound and dart over large rocks and around tricky bends in the trail like a rabbit. It's hard to believe she does not consider herself gifted, especially given her age and the punishment she inflicts on her muscles and joints. "Seriously, I feel like I'm 25," she says. "I just don't feel like I thought I'd feel when I was 46 [she turned 47 on June 9]. I thought I'd feel old and rickety and worn out and tired. And I don't. I never thought I'd be able to run like this."
During a switchbacking descent near the end of the loop, I ask Ortiz how important it is to be the best. She replies: "Not very important. Because I'm not, and I never can be." Then who is? "Oh, gosh. There's a whole handful of people who strive for that spot. I mean, Ellie Greenwood? Oh my gosh, nobody's going to stop her this year. You've got Kami Semick, good luck ever beating her. Darcy Africa ..." But you just beat Darcy in Fruita, I say. "I know, but it's a lucky day when I do. There are just so many young people coming in."
I ask Ortiz whether she's ever beaten Semick. "No. I came in about three minutes behind her in a 100K [Miwok, where she qualified for Western States] two years ago; that's the closest I've come. I led until the last five miles, and talk about hitting the wall. She went past me like I was sitting in a bathtub reading my book. She was really nice about it. She could see that I was suffering really badly. I was cramping, holding my legs, practically lifting my legs up this hill. And she had a pacer, and I didn't. She told her pacer to stay with me. She could see that I was in a bad spot. It was really nice. But I made her pacer go. I wanted to suffer by myself."