Age-Old Runners: Anita Ortiz

‘Age-Old Runners’ is an article series where we explore runners’ performance potential after the age of 45 by interviewing excellent middle-aged runners. Is there still potential to improve? What roles do motivation, mindset, and specific training and recovery techniques play in allowing runners in their mid-40s to mid-60s to continue to excel? To learn more about this series’ goals, check out its introductory article.

Anita Oritz is 55 years old. She ran in high school and recreationally throughout college, but she didn’t start racing on the trails until she was 36, after her children were born. She’s won the Pikes Peak Ascent four times and the Pikes Peak Marathon twice. That last marathon win was in 2014 when she was 50. Anita was the U.S. Mountain Running Champion in 2003 and 2004. She has raced on the U.S. Mountain Running Team five times and was named Masters World Mountain Running Champion in 2004. Anita won the Western States 100 in 2009, when she was 45 years old, in 18:24:17.

The following is a transcript of a phone interview with Anita. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Anita Ortiz on her way to finishing eighth at the 2018 Pikes Peak Marathon at 54 years old. All photos: Nancy Hobbs

When did you start calling yourself a runner?

Well, I really called myself a runner way back when I was nine or 10. Because I lived in a neighborhood where it was all boys, and I was the only girl, and no one would play with me. And I was also a little sister. So I just ran around the house and I considered myself a runner.

Then for field day in sixth grade, I trained for the 600-meter dash or whatever it was. I actually did a training routine–just because I had nothing else to do. That was back in the day when every moment of your life after school wasn’t organized. Then I really started racing in middle school, and I was pretty good. I had school records. In high school, our team went to state in cross country. But I hated pressure, so I didn’t take a college scholarship that I was offered.

I kept running every day, but I didn’t compete again until after my last kids were born… until I was 36 maybe.

Did you always incorporate trail running into your training?

No. People didn’t really run on trails back then. You ran on the road; it’s what you did. Nobody ran on the trails. I lived in Vail, Colorado, and I used to want to run on these hiking trails but they were hiking trails. So I would go out really early, so no one would see me. I didn’t want to get in trouble running the hiking trails up Vail Mountain. I mean, even Matt Carpenter would do a lot of his running on the road, or the road up the mountain, not on the trails. It’s crazy. Then trail running came into vogue when I was having my kids. That’s when I started running on trails more. And I pretty much only ran trails after that.

What kind of racing did you do after your children were born?

I started out as a mountain runner, not as an ultrarunner. I remember my husband saying, “There’s this race in Manitou Springs, and you go to the top of this mountain called Pikes Peak, and it’s all on trail, and I think you’d really like it.” I went and I ran that, and I won it. And it was like, boom! That was it; I was sold. [Author’s Note: Anita won the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. She won the marathon in 2009 and 2014.]

You ran your first ultramarathon, the White River 50 Mile, when you were 43. Why did you wait to start ultras?

You know, I ran White River and I was like, Why would you ever want to run that far? That’s so painful! That’s dumb! I’m never doing that ever again!

And besides I was still beating up on mountains. I was a multiple-time national champion, and had gone to worlds [the World Mountain Running Championships] lots of times. It’s really not good to train for both kinds of racing.

Have you always enjoyed racing?

I love racing; I hate the feeling that you get beforehand. When I’m actually out there, I love it. It’s like bloodsport.

I still love it. In fact, that’s why it’s hard for me now. I still want to do what I could do 10 years ago. And I still do pretty darn good, but I’m not like I was 10 years ago.

Are age-group records as exciting?

No. I just want to win. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s fun to win.

Does not winning or getting on the podium make you less inclined to train or race?

 No, I definitely know I can’t win everything. Do I want to win everything? Yeah. But can I? No. And I battle with that for sure. My coach, David Roche, is really trying to help me get it into my mind that you’re wonderful wherever you are–in that time, and in that moment, and in that place. Because I’m my own worst critic when I’m running and racing. But I’m getting a lot better.

What goes through your mind when a runner who is much younger passes you in a race?

Well, sometimes I’ll say to myself, Yeah, I’m giving you 20 years! But I still hold my own pretty well. I can still often get in the top three or top five.

Why do you think older runners stop racing?

I was talking to a friend of mine about this just the other day. I really think they leave because it’s hard to settle in your soul that you aren’t who you were. Nobody else expects you to run well, but you do. I often think, Where did they all go? It’s not that they’re not out running. It’s that it’s an internal struggle. I still try to get out there because, bottom line, I love running and racing more than I love winning.

Is it hard to wrap your mind around your body becoming a weak link in your racing?

Yeah. You’re training; you’re doing the work. And when you’re out there, if you get into your zone, you don’t even realize you’re going slower than you would have 10 years ago…. You feel like you’re going every bit as fast. I think that’s what’s really hard for people, to mesh those two things together and to say, “I’m alright with that.”

You can say, “I’m alright with being slower, and I’m still motivated to work as hard as my body can?”

Right. I’ve had to keep saying I like racing and running and that’s more important to me than the winning. But it’s taken me a while, you know.

What is your mileage like these days compared to what you were doing? 

Well, for the past 11 weeks, I’ve had a broken kneecap, so my mileage has been nothing. But prior to that, I would run 20 miles three days a week. So between 80 and 90 miles a week…. I used to do a little bit higher than that, but I never used to take a day off like I do now. And I feel like I’ve become better because I take a day off. I struggled with tons of injuries until I started taking a day off from running.

Do you think back-to-back long runs are helpful?

Yeah, I’m a believer in long back-to-backs. If anything, it’s good mental training. And if you love running, it doesn’t seem like a job or chore. I just love being out.

Does recovery take longer now? Do you feel those back-to-back runs more?

Yeah, I’m sure I must. I don’t really allow myself much time to feel that way though. I work full-time, and though I don’t have them at home anymore, I’ve got four kids. So I don’t have time to feel not recovered.

Do you do specific speedwork?

I do. I used to do it a lot more than I do now. When I was running mountains, I was very regimented. With ultras, it’s still important, but it’s not quite the same. I like to do a lot of uphill repeats. Also, rolling speed ladders—done on trail only. Also some longer intervals and/or long tempo. I think, as I get older, I mix it up more and am a little less regimented. I’m not doing 400’s on the track anymore.

Where does strength work, stretching, and rolling fit into your training?

I do a little bit of strength stuff, but not much. My favorite go-to thing is my stair machine. It’s really no impact. I have a full gym in my basement. I use the stair machine, elliptical, bike, and treadmill a lot. I have weights, but my husband uses them mostly.

I roll some. I’m not a big believer in stretching. I just don’t. I start running a little slower and it all stretches out eventually.

I do core work every day, plank, general core, push-ups. I’m not super regimented.

Anita in Colorado.

Tell me about your daily diet.

I eat pretty much everything, and I definitely have some things I eat a lot of. I eat a lot of Pop-Tarts. They’re my favorite thing. I go through Pop-Tarts like crazy. I go through avocados like crazy too. And I love steak. There’s nothing I don’t eat.

What do you attribute your longevity in this sport to?

I think it’s a couple of things. First of all, I took that long time off where I just trained, and I didn’t compete, so I was doing nothing but building a base and having fun. Basically, it was like starting fresh again after the kids were born. And having my kids really gave me a lot of motivation. Three of my kids are girls, and I wanted to be a good role model. Also, I needed some time to myself. I love my kids to death; my life is devoted to them, but I needed some mommy time.

I think I’m a really well-balanced person, but I’m type A, so anything I’m going to do, I’m going to do it 1,010%.

What training mistakes do you see younger runners making?

I sometimes think that starting off with ultras right away…. That’s a lot of impact on your body. I think you’re missing a lot of fun that you can have in shorter races. You know, I just hope they don’t destroy their bodies too young.

When you heal up, and there are races on the calendar again, what do you want to race?

I’ve taken a long time off from 100 milers, and I want to try another one because I’m not happy with where I left off on those. Will I ever run as fast as I did at Western States? No. But have I reached my 100-mile potential? Can I do one, enjoy it, keep a good pace, and come out of it solid? I’m not there yet. I have a lot of learning to do. I have more to say to that distance.

Is there anything in particular about the body aging that you find distressing?

Yeah, I don’t like saggy legs. They blindsided me. [Author’s Note: If there’s one common thread in these interviews so far, this is it! Anita and I spent some time with this one.]

How long do you intend to keep training and racing?

Until the day I die.

Training specifics

  • Weekly running volume: Eighty to 90 miles a week
  • Strength training: Core work daily
  • Off-season: Lower volume late fall through winter due to the weather
  • Sleep: Four on a good night
  • Race nutrition: Gels and Skratch
  • Recovery: Runs short and easy the day after a hard race, then takes two to three days off

Three factors Anita attributes her running performance to:

  1. Passion for running in nature
  2. Determination
  3. Family support

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you raced and run with Anita? Or have you followed her running career? Leave a comment to share a story!

Anita running in Iceland.

Liza Howard

is a longtime ultrarunner who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, coaches, directs the non-profit Band of Runners, and drives her kids around in a minivan.

There are 36 comments

  1. slc

    Anita is the reason I got into trail running. My husband came home with a magazine with her on the cover, covered in mud splatters. I read the article on her and I was sold. I had just had my son and was looking for something I could call mine. I’ve seen her a few times at races, once at the Sourdough Snowshoe race (pretty sure she won it) – and I’ve always wanted to introduce myself to her and say thank you for bringing trail running into my life – but I always chicken out, so I’ll just take this small little space to say from one saggy-leg 47 year old woman to another (who still looks like she can kick everyone’s arse around her) Thank You. You presented an option for the past ten years of seeing beautiful places and maintaining my sanity, and without that magazine cover I have no idea where I would be today…

  2. Jamie Hobbs

    As a 45 year old dad who is sometimes tempted to use age as an excuse, this motivates me to work harder and helps give me faith that it’s worth it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. John Trent

    Anita is a wonderful role model and champion. I remember back when she won Western States. I had to interview her on the phone a few days after her big win. She couldn’t have been more gracious. If memory serves, I think she was out in her backyard working on her flowers when we talked. The other thing that might be pertinent is that I believe she underwent a microfracture-like surgery on one of her knees a few years ago. When you get into your late 40s and early 50s, there are a lot of factors that work against you for making a full recovery and making a return to running after a procedure like that. There are no guarantees you are going to be the same runner after that you were before such a procedure. I know from experience from my own microfracture in ’07 that the road back can be frustrating and painful. Anita made a full recovery, and today, at age 55, is an incredible competitor and remains one of the best runners out there. It’s to her credit that she has always known running is important to her and that she has made every effort and has every intention to keep on keeping on. For those of us in our 50s, her example is the best kind of example. Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview and for this ongoing series. Really great stuff.

    1. Liza

      Thanks so much for your comment, John. I was so excited when Anita responded to my FB message about the interview. Like you said, her toughness and graciousness are so impressive.

  4. Roy Pirrung

    I always liked being at a race she was at, or other functions, and love her passion for not just running, but racing. She keeps the carrot out in front and does her best to catch it! Great interview, Liza!

  5. Christie Calin

    I love this article! Thank you! I am 56 and just started running trails about five years ago, and my first ultra was three years ago. I appreciate the input on aging and running.

  6. Dustin Canestorp

    Hell yeah! Steak and Pop Tarts all day long! Put that on an ultra shirt. You got to love it!

    Here I thought I was kicking ass when I get my mangy old body to 100% at times. LOL Nope, Anita is working on a whole different level 10 times up. She is putting out 1,010%, now that is a lethal mindset. Anita should of been in the Marine Corps and that is coming from a Marine. As a father of three daughters, it is really hard in this day and age to have positive female role models for them to look up to. Glad I found another one to reference.

    Thanks for sharing Anita and thanks for capturing Liza.

    Side note – I’ll take saggy legs all day long if it even gets me close to being as fast as Anita. Just saying… #SaggyLegsEqualsSpeed

    1. Liza

      Yeah, I think it’s helpful to see the work behind the performance and to see what’s still possible to do in training.

  7. R Nelson

    Thank you for this series of interviews! It has become my favorite column. Very inspiring stuff, especially for those of us that are past our prime but trying to keep the drive alive. I hope you plan to keep these going as long as possible. I can’t wait to see the next one!

  8. Natasha Sankovitch

    As a just turned 60-year-old trail runner, I could really relate to Anita’s observation that “when you’re out there, if you get into your zone, you don’t even realize you’re going slower than you would have 10 years ago…. You feel like you’re going every bit as fast.” So true, and I think that’s part of the reason I’m still running – I love it so much and it feels so good even when it hurts. Thanks, Anita, for being a hard core inspiration.

  9. Robin Oxnard Grossman

    Thank you so much for this series! I’m a 45 year old full-time working mom and wife who just started running ultras when I was 42. I’ve heard a number of close family and friends comment that their bodies started falling apart at 50. This series affirms that it doesn’t have to be that way and that I need to be grateful for what my body can do at any given time, not dwelling on the past body I had or prematurely anticipating the decline of my future body. Thanks!

  10. Beth

    Thanks Liza for doing these interviews, really inspiring! It would be great if in a future interview you could feature Nicky Spinks from the UK who at 50+ made a Barkley attempt in 2019 and has an impressive list of recent achievements.

  11. Carrie Stafford

    I first met Anita almost 20 years ago now at one of the Pikes Peak races. I was in awe then. Now, as I sit here waiting for my first baby to arrive, I am even more in awe of her. Her resume speaks for itself, but to have that resume and raise 4 (!!) kids and work full time?! Holy moly. And not just 4 kids…she’s got soon to be physicians and engineers in there. Bravo, mama!!

  12. Sara Johnson

    So many great gems with Anita, “I’m type A, so anything I’m going to do, I’m going to do it 1,010%. (regardless of age), poptarts, she is NOT going to stop, and ? sleeps ? 4 hours a day on a good day. Absolutely an amazing runner.

    I absolutely love the Age-Old Runners series !!

  13. Ron Ilgen

    As the RD, it is always a pleasure and an honor to have Anita compete in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Pikes Peak Marathon. She is truly an amazing athlete. And I can’t think of another person who could represents the sport any better than Anita.

  14. CMarrs

    Anita is a friend, and a fellow mountain town dweller 2 hours “down the road” from me. Anita is truly an inspiration, a competitor through and through, and a great example of age just being a number. While she’s usually ahead by a LOT, I love catching up at the beginning and end of Colorado and Utah races with her. I remember once during an early season trail marathon I came around the corner just a few miles in and she was sitting on a rock saying she was going to quit. She was sick and felt awful. I told her she was Anita F’ing Ortiz and should get back up and go. She did, fought all the way back up to the front through the pack and was on the podium by the end with much much younger runners. She is tough as nails. As another FT working mom, although my child is still young, who just turned 50, I love this article and love that Anita is still out there kicking a$&. Heal that knee and see you out on the trails again Anita.

  15. Tony Mollica

    Great article! Thank you Liz. I love to read about the older runners. Keep the articles coming.

    I’m a 62 year old mostly back of the packer who has come to grips with the fact that it’s both harder and slower. But it sure beats the heck out of not running.

  16. Michael Taricani

    Good interview. Anita is impressive and I like her attitude. It’s refreshing to see she has no strict training regiment or diet. As a 66 year old I was doing OK with long distance running until a knee injury and surgery last year. It took a while to accept the fact that things would not be the same. Once I accepted that, running became fun again.

  17. Spike

    Haha. 55 years old sounds so young. No excuses everyone (who’s “old”), just keep at it for whatever reason it is that has us out there.

  18. rms

    My favorite runner. I still have my 2009 PPM jacket that I was too shy to ask her and Carpenter to sign. Maybe some year

  19. Anita ortiz

    Hey ya’ll—thanks for all the nice comments and compliments.
    I believe that everyone out there is the same. We are each working as hard as everyone else…it’s one big, hard working, quirky family.
    Some people move through time and space faster and some less so. But we are all in it together and in the long run, how we treat each other is what’s important. So thanks to everyone that I’ve met along my journey! We all succeed together.
    :-)

    1. Karen Green

      Thank YOU Anita! And Liza for a great interview. I’m 59 and my friends think I’m crazy for bombing down trails running and mountain biking. They wish I’d act my age. Thank you for verifying that I am.

  20. n citriglia

    You are truly an inspiration. You have no idea how you have motivated me over the past 20 years. I loved reading this article because I feel like you were speaking to me!! I want to be an age- old runner!! Thank you!!

Post Your Thoughts