The first time Michael Ortiz ran 100 miles inside his 960-square-foot Brooklyn apartment was the hardest. He laid out a roughly rectangular 40-foot cardboard track around the rugs on his living room floor and ran 13,200 laps on it. To save his knees from so many turns, Ortiz stopped every mile and reversed direction. “It wasn’t really running,” he said. “It was more like fast shuffling.”
It took him nearly 60 hours.
Three days later, Ortiz ran another 100 miles in his apartment, this time on a new treadmill that he’d ordered. When he finished, he took a shower, ate, slept five hours, then stepped back onto the treadmill and ran a third 100 miles.
Friday, Ortiz began his seventh 100-mile confinement run in six weeks.
Many of us have slumped in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, tugging on generous pants and carbo-loading in front of the TV. Then there are the stalwart few, itching to exercise, who have made the most of cooped-up living. Some people have competed in virtual triathlons atop stationary bikes. A British man ran a marathon in his backyard.
And then there is Ortiz, a 36-year-old financial executive and recreational endurance athlete. Since late 2018, Ortiz has been on a quest to complete 100 runs of 100 miles in as many weeks, with at least one run in each state.
Ortiz was 68 weeks along, driving through Utah for his next race in Nevada, as other races announced cancellations because of the coronavirus pandemic. Though his race was still scheduled, Ortiz decided return to New York, worried about the possibility of having the virus while being asymptomatic and contributing to the virus’s spread.
Once home, Ortiz realized he needed to get creative if he wanted his quest to continue, so he came up with his “Indoor 100” series. By his fourth 100, Ortiz built in altitude, climbing 29,029 vertical feet — the equivalent of Mount Everest — on the treadmill. To keep cool, he arranged four fans around him, and switched on a dehumidifier and two air conditioning units, set at 60 degrees.
He runs ideas for his next runs past Laura Knoblach, a Boulder, Colo.-based endurance athlete he is dating. After his Everest treadmill climb, he tossed out the idea to run back down to sea level. Knoblach countered by suggesting he run to the deepest spot on Earth, the Mariana Trench, 36,201 feet below sea level. Knoblach is Ortiz’s enabler in feats of masochism: Last November she shattered the world record in the double deca ultra-triathlon, an event that is the equivalent of 20 full-length triathlon races, run consecutively: 48 miles of swimming, then 2,240 miles of cycling, then 524 miles of running.
Treadmills don’t normally tilt downward, so Ortiz propped the rear of the machine on several rolls of toilet paper until it reached a nearly 7 percent downhill grade. He said that the cardboard track run was his toughest, mentally, but the Mariana Trench replica was the hardest, physically.
“You’re constantly braking, using your braking muscles — your quads and your calves. When I finished it, honestly, it was hard to walk.” Afterward, he staggered to a bath of Epsom salts.
He gives himself these different challenges to avoid repetitive, overuse injuries caused by so much treadmill running, but also to keep in shape for the hill-and-dale of real-world runs — and to break up the monotony.
Ambitious ultrarunners might run one or two 100-mile runs in a year, at most, said James Varner, the founder of Rainshadow Running, which organizes trail races around the Pacific Northwest. What Ortiz is doing, running one every couple of days, including on a treadmill, “It’s completely out of the normal universe of what ultrarunners do,” Varner said. “It’s like going from Magellan to the astronauts.”
A person doesn’t run 100 miles through the mountains, or on a treadmill, without a certain single-mindedness, and Ortiz acknowledges that he is a hard-driving man. But that drive took on a different character in recent years. His brother, David, and running, changed everything.
Ortiz grew up in Manhattan public housing, in a close family made closer by having seven people shoehorned into one apartment — mother, grandparents, two mentally disabled aunts, and David, the older brother he worshiped.
As boys, the brothers kept their heads down, trying to avoid trouble. Michael only tried running as a senior at St. Agnes Boys High School to pad his college applications, when a teacher organized a cross-country team. It was not love at first lace-up. The team was awful and Ortiz struggled. He remembers the day the team ran eight miles — eight miles! — through Riverside Park. He thought he was going to die.
The runs were hard but what they gave the young Ortiz were intimations of a greater world out there, and how a strong drive could carry a person far into that world.
Michael poured himself into books and school, encouraged by his family and especially by David who had enrolled at the State University of New York at Binghamton. When Michael decided he would follow his brother there, David, knowing what Michael could do, pushed the younger brother to reach higher. “Don’t limit yourself.” So Ortiz spent his nights writing and rewriting essays, applying to all the Ivy League schools. He was accepted into Princeton, and made another discovery: You can place limits on yourself — or you can decide to push past them.
Ortiz graduated from Princeton and eventually went to Wall Street, making a quick rise to a vice presidency at Morgan Stanley where he put in 70-hour weeks and worked to get rich.
David took a different route. He worked as a clothing store manager, cared for their aunts, and eventually, he and his wife moved to San Diego where they trained for a marathon. That impressed Michael.
The brothers didn’t always understand each other. Michael told his older brother to travel less and to save more money. His brother chided him that he was limiting himself, again, and reminded Michael that the point of life isn’t to chase dollars. “You’ve got to enjoy life more. You’ve never even left the country.”
Then David was struck by a car and killed while biking to work in 2012. He was 29. As Michael absorbed the sudden loss, he also heard the echo of his brother’s grab-life-by-the-collar advice. At the wake, “The one thing that everyone had to say about him was that he lived his life,” Ortiz recalled. “And I thought, ‘Man, if I die tomorrow, what are people going to say about me? Here’s Mike. Pretty good guy. He worked all the time, even weekends.’”
In 2013, Ortiz began running on the weekends, short jaunts to get to know the neighborhood, letting traffic determine his route. The weekend runs became a ritual. He looked forward to them after long work weeks.
The runs got longer. In 2015 Ortiz ran the New York City Marathon, and soon his first ultramarathon, a race longer than 26.2 miles, at 37 miles. Then came a 50-miler. In August 2016 he ran his first 100-mile race. One 100-miler became two. Two became many.
By late 2018, Ortiz was on a quest to run a 100-miler — roughly the distance from New York to Philadelphia — for 100 consecutive weeks. He’d sometimes fly to a race on Friday night, log 100 miles, then grab a redeye to be back at his desk by Monday morning.
Ortiz, who also competes in decathlons, triathlons, stair-climbs and obstacle racing, considers himself a middle-of-the-pack runner, but has slowed his pace so he can recover faster for the next run. His personal best time in a 100-mile race is 22 hours, 42 minutes. He finishes many runs in his 100-week project in 30 to 36 hours.
He live-streams his runs “to show people we can adapt to a changing situation” and be creative in the face of adversity, he said. Ultra-athletes, family, friends and strangers have tuned in to watch him, and to cheer him, and to ask him questions.
The interactions keep him buoyed and engaged during the long hours. To accommodate the occasional rest, Ortiz has laid down an air mattress — thin as a cracker, uncomfortable enough to prevent too long a lull — beside the treadmill. He sometimes watches the Netflix drama “Ozark” or CNBC on a nearby TV.
Ortiz lost his job in a downsizing in his unit just before the pandemic. So sometimes, during a run, he slows the treadmill to a walk so he can do a job interview. An interviewer recently asked him to name his spirit animal. “A gazelle,” he replied.
“If I didn’t do this thing, I wouldn’t have the friendships I have now. I wouldn’t know the people that I know now. I wouldn’t have the outdoor experiences I’ve had,” Ortiz said. He would not have met Knoblach. “I think that was what my brother was trying to tell me.”