AUBURN, Calif. - Somewhere along the trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., during Saturday's Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, Eagle's Anita Ortiz just disappeared.
"I think everybody has different mind games," Ortiz said. "Some go from aid station to aid station. I just hope to disappear. I try to separate my mind from my body. I don't even know what I was thinking for those 18 hours. I know I'm moving, but I don't even feel my legs going. That's awesome."
Call it an athlete being in the zone or someone being in their happy place, Ortiz was there for 18 hours, 24 minutes and 17 seconds to win Western States 100 in her first attempt at a century running race, another stunning accomplishment in a storied running career.
She started at 5 a.m. Saturday and crossed the finish line at 11:24 p.m., holding the lead the entire way. Ortiz, 45, finished 1 hour and 2 minutes ahead of her next female competitor, 31-year-old Krissy Moehl.
Ortiz finished ninth among the men, and the were 445 runners registered for the event, according to Western States 100 Web site.
"She holds it all together," said Mark Muehlethaler, who was a part of Ortiz's crew with Katie Mazzia and Ortiz's husband, Mike. "Unless you know her, you'd think she's a freak, but she's not."
Ortiz conquered 18,090 feet of vertical ascent combined with 22,970 feet of descent during the course of 100.2 miles, not to mention blistering heat, and had an escort for the final 1.5 miles with the finish at the stadium of Placer High School.
"I had a huge feeling of accomplishment and thankfulness to everyone who helped," Ortiz said. "Mike, Katie and Mark ran the last 1.5 miles with me. It was really special running around the track of the stadium which had a crowd even though it was around midnight. It made me want to cry."
Eating on the run
The Western States 100 uses a segment of the Western States Trail, which 19th Century settlers used to migrate west. In 1955, horseback riders started the annual Western States Trail Ride. By the mid-1970s, a runner Gordy Ainsleigh decided to join the horse-riders on foot, and in 1977, the Western States 100 Endurance Run began.
The Western States 100 started the ultra-endurance running genre and draws an international field annually.
This year's field was particularly stiff, as last year's 100 was canceled because of forest fires. Anyone who made for the 2008 Western States 100 as well as 2009 qualifiers were in the pack.
Ortiz had said after winning last weekend's Summer Solstice 10K in Beaver Creek - a veritable jog by comparison - that she "did a 100K about a month ago. It took me nine hours, but that's only 63 miles."
To prepare for 100 miles, she would schedule 25- or 30-mile runs locally for three straight days "to get my legs to feel it."
She also worked with Mazzia, a runner and dietician, to calibrate the nutrition she needed to have during the race.
"It's so important, fueling, eating and drinking on the course," Ortiz said. "If you're not dialed in on that, you wouldn't survive. She told me exactly how much to eat this half-hour and that half-hour. She had me dialed in for 18-and-a-half hours. We had a game plan and we stuck to it."
While Ortiz said there are competitors in the race who stop to eat, she ate on the run, 38 PowerBar Gels, to be precise. Of those, 24 were caffinated. In fact, when interviewed on Sunday at 6:30 p.m., Ortiz still had not gotten to sleep after finishing the race.
"We're going to have some margaritas tonight. Hopefully that will help," Ortiz joked. "I'm actually feeling OK. My muscles are a little sore, but not too bad. I was walking around after race and I saw some racers hobbling. We were just down by a river and we were jumping in and climbing over rocks. If I sit too much, I get tight."
With the nutritional aspect accounted for, there was the physical and mental challenge of 100 miles. One would think in such a long race, the hard part, relatively speaking, would be toward the end as the miles and hours mount.
For Ortiz, it was the first five hours.
"I got better as I went. I don't know why," Ortiz said. "Those first five hours were hard, and after that, I got into that special place that time-warps you out of what you are doing. You just vanish into the trail."
It was probably a good thing that Ortiz was on auto-pilot. Saturday was a scorcher in the Sierras and the surrounding foothills. The mercury reached 104 degrees.
Once racers reach the 60-mile mark in the race, they can have pacers from their race crew run with them.
"I ran with her from 3 in the afternoon until about 7:30, and it was only at 7:30 that you could feel it cooling off," Muehlethaler said. "Those canyons and rocks you run through just hold the heat. It was really hot, maybe not as hot for her as it was for me."
An interesting note is that just after the Rucky Chucky station, about 78 miles into the race, Ortiz and Mazzia, now her pacer, got lost and ended up losing about 30 minutes of time finding the correct route.
The good news was that about the only thing that was going to stop Ortiz at that point was a detour to San Francisco. Despite struggling early, she had built a a nice cushion and seemed to cruise home at the end of a grueling 18-hour-plus, 100-mile day.
"It was great. I'm so happy for her," Mazzia said. "Everything went right. So many things can happen during 100 miles in 18 hours. She honestly did everything right. It was an awesome moment to see her accomplish her goal. The Western States 100 is one of the most prestigious 100-milers."
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or email@example.com.