Eagle’s Anita Ortiz runs her way onto the Teva U.S. National Mountain Running Team
Her and her husband Mike were motoring their way to the second national team qualifier June 16 in Pinkham Notch, N.H., when she asked Mike, running series coordinator for the Vail Recreation District, to stop.
“I saw a hill I wanted to run,” she explained. “So I did and he waited. He’s really supportive. He listens to me moan and groan. He puts up with a lot.”
Relaxation, to Ortiz, isn’t chamomile tea and soft music. It means running mountains – settling the old score of human vs. nature. Last Sunday, Ortiz won the first race in Vail’s Teva Trail running series by three minutes. She’s the kind of athlete that’s hard to classify – because there’s so few in her class.
A first time member of the national team, Ortiz is the type of athlete who picked up snowshoeing last season and walked away the U.S. national champion. She’s also the type of athlete (her high school cross country team won the state championship) that in her first race of the season, winning and earning a spot on the national team was not such a far stretch. During a recent visit to the doctor, a nurse observed her resting pulse to be 33 beats per minute –or half of the 60-80 beat average for most Americans.
“I would anticipate, based on Anita’s strength – you don’t want to put too much pressure on an athlete –but she will affect this team,” said Nancy Hobbs, manager of the U.S. mountain running team. “So far, she’s been humble about her accomplishments. But a lot of women are chasing her this year.”
It’s hard to call a woman who runs mountains “down to earth,” like Hobbs did, but at her core, Ortiz is the mother of four who’s dedicated to a sport. She spends four hours a day running trails or strength training. “Three and half if I’m lazy,” she says, embarrassed.
It’s that humility, the fact she knows these prizes aren’t just handed out, Hobbs said, that lands her on the podium. On June 8, Ortiz found herself in Anchorage staring at a steep and unpredictable 5.5 mile course. After a downhill first mile, it ascended 3,600 vertical feet to a finish line with meaning. The first U.S. mens and womens finisher would earn a spot on the national team.
“The newspaper affectionately called us “outsiders,’ but when I first got there, I thought “oh my gosh,'” she said. “There was an Olympic nordic skier and a woman who had been on the national team a few times.”
The 38-year-old Ortiz beat the field by five minutes. Having filled other criteria (like running a 38-minute 10K race), she only waited a day for the E-mail from Hobbs congratulating her.
“We’re a growing program,” said Hobbs, who managed the inaugural womens team in 1995. “We’ve gone from finishing 19th out of 22 teams (at the world championships) to the top 10 last year. We should finish, if we have the times I think we can have, in the top five this year.”
Ortiz’s timing couldn’t have been better. The national team picked up Teva as a main sponsor this year, allowing Hobbs and company to attract talent that might have been unable to make the required travel schedule.
For her accomplishment, Ortiz will receive running gear, official national team jerseys and room and board, as well as a paid flight to the world championships in Innsbruck, Austria Sept. 15. She’s never been there (she’d never been to Alaska either), and said while the kids will stay home, she and Mike will spend time in the new surroundings.
“This whole running thing is taking us to places we’ve never dreamed we’d get to,” she said. “Alaska’s not a place we might have picked for vacation, but we’re seeing the country.”
She means, literally, seeing new mountains to conquer. After Alaska, she hit the road again. Her schedule as a kindergarten teacher at Eagle Valley Elementary School allows her to travel more in the summer, and so the next weekend pointed to the East Coast. Representatives from England and Kenya deepened the international field, and the Czech Republic’s Anna Pichrtova beat Ortiz by 90 seconds. Still, Ortiz finished second, the best among U.S. women, solidifying her place on the national team and denying the other wannabe’s from getting the E-mail and red-white-and-blue jerseys.
Mountain qualifier comes home
Last year, many members of the national team were unable to compete in the world championship because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Not usually outspoken and patriotic, Ortiz said it will mean a little more to have the flag on her chest – especially when she’s running the last qualifying run for the national team in her back yard.
Vail hosts the Teva 24th annual Vail Hill Climb, a 7.5 mile jaunt up 2,200 feet, July 7. While Ortiz calls the home race one of the hardest of the season, upon completion, she’ll be the only female national team member to compete in all three qualifiers. If she wins, Hobbs will have to select the remaining three team members from past experience and performances.
Ortiz, two championships into the season, can relax, right?
“Every time I see a hill, I wonder what it’d be like to run it,” she said. “What would it be like? The process is largely mental. It doesn’t matter how good of shape you’re in, if you’re not strong on the mental side, the mountain will win every time.”